Case Studies > Unnikrishnan Peruvannan

Theyyam - Unnikrishnan Peruvannan

Theyyam or Theyyattam is a popular ritualistic folk dance form of North Malabar supported by a vast literature and folk songs. Theyyam or theyyattam means 'dance of the gods' (deyvam=god, attam=dance) and it invokes the presence of the deity in the body of the dancer. It is a native cult of spirit and hero worship that has survived and coexisted with more recent Aryan/Brahminical rituals. The Bhagavathy or the Goddess cult is an ancient tradition in this region and practically every village has a Bhagavathy shrine or kavu. Each such shrine along with shrines devoted to a variety of major and minor deities has its own theyyams which are conducted as annual festivals in which the entire community of the village participates. Velan, Malayan and Vannan are the predominant communities that have traditionally performed theyyams. There are also other tribes that perform theyyams as part of spirit or ancestor worship.

The theyyam involves colourful costumes and elaborate headgear. The performer wears a skirt/waist dress made of bamboo splices or coconut fronds covered with red cloth. The face and body is carefully painted with natural dyes and colorful pastes. The body is painted in patterns specific to each deity that is being invoked. The head dress or muti is also different for each theyyam, some of them are a towering 50-60 feet high. These are made of arecanut tree/drumstick tree wood or bamboo splices and decorated elaborately with coloured cloth, coconut leaves, flowers, etc. Other ornaments like wristlets, anklets, necklaces are also used and in some cases, masks are also part of the outfit.

The performance itself can be of the thandava (masculine) or lasya (feminine) style according to the character of the deity. The performance takes place in the kavu or temple or tharavadu and can last for about three days or more. The performer invokes the deity and dances to the accompaniment of drums. The singer/artiste also recites the thottam (narration of a story, poem in praise of the deity, etc.) relevant to that deity. The performance ends with the artiste distributing adayaalam or kuri (usually rice with turmeric) to the assembled devotees and pronouncing blessings on them. The devotees in turn offer money to the shrine.

Practitioner & Background

Mr Unnikrishnan belongs to a family who traditionally perform theyyams. Theyyam performers usually belong to the vannaan community and the right to perform a theyyam in a particular territory is given to a person by the local chieftain (naaduvaazhi). When the person is awarded the 'vala' by the chieftain, the person is called Peruvannaan.

Mr Unnikrishnan has been performing theyyams since 20 years. He has performed and is performing a whole range of theyyams like Muchilottu Bhagavathy, Bali, Vettakkorumakan and several others. The roles are varied as for example, Muchilottu Bhagavathy is a visually pleasant theyyam in lasya bhava, while Puthiya Bhagavathy entails walking through hot coal several times till the head of the family signals enough, which is very risky. At times this also involves accepting and ingesting blood from live animal sacrifices such as chickens and goats as during his performance of the theyyam of the Thottunkara Bhagavathy.

Theyyams are performed in two contexts – the clan houses (tharavadu) and temples where it is a community initiative. About 1% of theyyams are in tharavadu temples, while the major part occurs in temples with community participation. A process of rituals and formal permissions are necessary for performing theyyams – some theyyams like muchilottu, vettakkorumakan and thiruvappana need aachaaram (formal initiation); if requested to perform in a different territory other than the one the person belongs to, he needs formal permission (adayaalam consisting of betel leaf, arecanut) from both the local chieftain/temple and the person who usually performs the theyyam in that territory (avakaashi).

According to Mr Unnikrishnan, performers of theyyam are fully engaged during the theyyam season, which falls during November-May each year. There are seven castes that perform theyyams of which the most prominent one is the vannaan.

Sustainability Issues/Constraints

Mr Unnikrishnan says that though there is a revival of and interest in theyyams, sustainability is a concern for the following reasons:
  • It is not always possible to continue the family tradition for personal reasons ie. discontinuity in lineage.
  • The earnings from the theyyam season are insufficient to sustain him and his family through the off-season period of upto 6 months. In earlier times, such performers were sustained by the community or by feudal clans through a portion (cash or kind) being kept aside from harvests, temple income, marriage ceremonies and such events for their use; such patronage from the chieftain or community is not existent any more. The artiste is dependent entirely on performances during the season.
  • There have been very few welfare measures for theyyam artistes and most are recent ones; so once retired or disabled due to age or disease, their families did not receive any help.
  • The demands on the artiste are very high – he has to be trained in several skills like singing, material making, playing the drums, effective presentation; he has to have presence of mind and ability to take ex tempore decisions, and also effectively communicate such decisions in order to help settle disputes that are brought before the theyyam; he has to be diplomatic in handling representatives from different communities and positions; he has to gain knowledge about the families and people around so that he can handle problems arising out of their interactions. All these put a huge strain on the performer and youngsters are not keen on taking up such a huge responsibility.
  • Lack of regular earnings through the year, lack of welfare measures either from the community or the government, and such other problems effectively prevent the younger members of the community from taking up this as a profession. It is not considered a sustainable livelihood at all.
  • Strict ritualistic authenticity is required more in the region north of Kannur, while in other places it is just a performance. Some of the rituals are also taxing. For instance, Thottam chollal is a part of some theyyams. In the case of Maakkam, it is a narration of the story of Maakkam which lasts almost 8-10 hours continuously. In some cases, thottam chollal is the recitation of vimsahati (21 verses praising the goddess) which requires faultless and clear pronunciation and the style of recitation varies for each theyyam.
  • Strict ritualistic authenticity is required more in the region north of Kannur, while in other places it is just a performance. Some of the rituals are also taxing. For instance, Thottam chollal is a part of some theyyams. In the case of Maakkam, it is a narration of the story of Maakkam which lasts almost 8-10 hours continuously. In some cases, thottam chollal is the recitation of vimsahati (21 verses praising the goddess) which requires faultless and clear pronunciation and the style of recitation varies for each theyyam.
  • A major occupational hazard is the deterioration of health of the artiste. A theyyam can last more than 12 or even 24 hours during which he may not be able to take food or drink water, putting a strain on his body. During the season, he works continuously day and night for weeks together leading to a lot of pressure on him. Hypertension is a common phenomenon in theyyam artistes. The eye make up affects the eyes of the performer. Many artistes take to drinking to overcome the strain which again has a detrimental effect on his health. Blood circulation gets affected due to the theyyam frame being tied to different parts of the body. Arthritis is another common illness found in performers. All these take a toll on the artistes' health and they often burn out at an early age.
  • While there are many practitioners of theyyam, only a few experts are solicited by the public, government and other agencies; many of the lesser known artistes do not get enough opportunities. There has been no attempt to regulate this.
  • Some of the specialists who work back end – singers, those who play drums, those who are expert at preparing the framework and making the theyyam – are usually not recognized and rewarded well. Due to this and the seasonal nature of the work, very few people take up these jobs now.
  • Theyyams are strictly performed at specific periods/days only; so the scope of taking it out of the temple/tharavadu is quite small.
  • Earlier, the community had other occupations to tide them over the lean period, like mattress making, indigenous healing practices, laundry by the women for specific situations like the taboo periods of death, birth and menstruation. Such alternate occupations are not being practiced any more.
  • Often the artiste's own community does not value them – it is very difficult to find a girl to marry an artiste due to the nature of the work. This also acts as a deterrent.

Ecosystem linkages

Most of the materials used for theyyams are locally available ones. A few examples are given below:
  • Red colour drawings on the face - Chayillam – clay or stone
  • Orange – manayola, kanmashi (home made kaajal) for black
  • Other materials used for drawings - rice powder, turmeric, chunnambu for other colours
  • Frame – murikku (drumstick tree) wood
  • Waist dress - cotton cloth
  • Decorations – kuruthola (coconut flowers); aluminium foil (earlier silver foil was used); red woolen thread (instead of wild geranium or chethi poo, which has to come from Dindigal in TN and a large quantity is required which is not feasible any more); kaitha fibre or goat skin (earlier macaque skin) for moustache and beard; plastic fibre for the hair like appendage behind (as fibre is not feasible any more and plastic can be reused)
  • Gum – beeswax and dried jack fruit gum melted together is used for pasting the decorations on the framework; this can be removed by melting after use
Innovative Response/Practice
  • Trains people of his own caste who have no tradition of theyyam but who are willing. They act as helpers (a theyyam artiste needs about 15 helpers during a performance) and take up on their own once fully trained.
  • During the non seasonal period, makes the materials required for theyyam and repairs them – this does not pay very well, yields only about Rs. 100 per day. More headdresses and materials are being made these days as there is a revival of theyyam; so there is good demand for this service.
  • Measures undertaken by the Tourism department towards making Theyyam sustainable are sometimes insensitive and inappropriate to the spirit of this sacred tradition. For example, live theyyam performances are sometimes offered at hotels in settings that are completely out of the traditional context.
Future Sustainability
  • Temples can set aside a specific amount of money for a welfare fund, to which the artistes can also contribute after each performance. This can be used to help artistes when they are forced to retire due to ill health or old age.
  • A welfare fund or insurance scheme from the government side can help many artistes take care of health and old age issues.
  • The art form needs to be protected in its original form and context – tourism department has taken theyyam out of its context while initiatives like Greenix village have performances that violate the authenticity of the rituals and costumes.

Interview of Mr Unnikrishnan Peruvannan at CEE Kannur Field Office on December 21, 2011
Article – Cult of Theyyam

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