Photo ©Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved.
I’ve just returned from Kerala, India where I was leading a 2 weeks photo-expedition to this area whose tourism slogan is “God’s Own Country”. Geographically, the region is called the Malabar Coast, and it includes most of Kerala state and the coastal region of Karnataka state. This is extremely diverse area, with ancient ties to maritime trading routes with the Arabian Gulf and much beyond.
The highlight of the expedition was the unique Theyyam rituals and performances, which are indigenous to a small rural area in north Kerala. This opportunity provided a window into a world of remarkable and ancient traditions, seldom seen (nor appreciated) by mainstream tourists.
The term Theyyam is the corruption of the Malayalam word Daivam or deity. It’s essentially a cult predominant in farming and rural areas, combining several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs, irrespective of castes and classes of the Hindu religion. Its adherents consider the Theyyams as incarnations of various deities, and seek their blessings and counsel.
There are nearly 400 Theyyams representing various local deities, as well as legendary and mythological characters. Only members of a Hindu specific sub caste can become Theyyams, and this privilege is passed on from generation to generation.
A fundamental component in the Theyyam performances is its intricate face-painting and body decorations. This lends itself beautifully to all sorts of photographic styles, from environmental portraiture to photojournalistic narrative imagery.
The Theyyam performers wear traditional costumes, complex headdress and other body decorations which are prepared by artists, members of the same caste. Some of these costumes are made of coconut leaves, while headdresses and masks are made of more solid materials, while bracelets and anklets are heirlooms, passed on from father to son.
Similar to psychic mediums, Theyyam performers start by meditating, an important state of mind that prepares their bodies for the deities. The accompanying cacophonous music and its furious drumbeats assist the Theyyams to deepen their trance. At the appropriate time, awestruck devotees eager for advice and counsel approach the Theyyams, now with eyes bulging and rolling back into their heads. The advice is doled out in a hoarse voice, sometimes in lengthy tirades, depending on the complexity of the questions. I was told that the questions include from money matters, health, social issues and the like. In these parts, many disputes involving land and water rights are resolved by the Theyyams instead of the courts.
There’s no question that the stage-practice (and it is stagecraft to a large degree) of Theyyams and its intriguing rituals make it one of the most fascinating religious performance.