Theyyam: Trance dances in the Indian countryside

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Watching the two whirling dancers’ straw skirts aflame as they kept their balance under elaborate, 4-meter-high headdresses while circumambulating the central shrine of the village to the beat of drummers amid a buzzing throng, I did not expect a nudge from the local standing next to me as he said, “Watch … now it becomes interesting.”

A large number of women carrying earthenware jars with flaming wicks then joined the smoky procession of the theyyam dancers as the drumming grew more feverish, the crowds got even noisier, and attendants partially doused the flaming skirts with water to prevent immolation — but not going overboard.

The dancers began gyrating more spectacularly, entering another trance zone, summoning strength from their sinewy bodies as they boogied and spun under some 40 kg of costume, sweat pouring down their flame-licked bodies.

They busted some awesome moves, egging each other on, headdresses bobbing, drummers shimmying along followed by the ladies bedecked in their colorful saris, jars held aloft as they circled the shrine and its flickering camphor-oil lamps on wrought-iron racks.

As dawn faded away and the day grew brighter and hotter, it all wound down rather quickly as a few men from the village, well into their toddy, offered refreshments to the dancers — who reciprocated as befitting the saintly gods they were — easing them from the trance and safely away from sobriety.

This was the most bedazzling of the trance dances I saw, one witnessed without benefit of a guide to clue me into what I was watching and the symbolic importance of this and that. It was beguiling nonetheless to watch as ordinary young men became gods and danced ethereally, doing the spirits proud while cheering on the villagers.

Finding a theyyam is not that hard, they are performed all over between December and March, but it does help to have a local source with connections in the area to call around, find out times and arrange transportation to remote villages.

We set off at 4 a.m. in the pre-dawn darkness, our headlights illuminating the road as it twisted through fields and plantations, and flashing fleetingly on innumerable silhouettes of Che Guevara painted on walls and street poles in this bastion of communism that is Kerala state in southwest India.

As we approached our destination, apparently in the run-up to elections, clusters of posters and flags indicated local party headquarters. We parked just down the road and entered the village compound where the theyyam would be held. There were no tourists in sight, and from the locals’ reactions it seem that few if any had been to this remote village for quite some time.

I wandered over to a tent where the dancers were being prepped and painted. They were sprawled out on tarps and pillows while assistants began the arduous process of transforming these mortals into gods, taking their heads into their laps and painstakingly applying paints and makeup; dabbing here, brushing there, frowning as they concentrated on the task, while the gods-to-be extended hand mirrors to watch the progress.

At another site, a 22-year-old dancer told me through a helpful English-speaker that his father had trained him since he was about 10 years old and this was a family tradition handed down over several generations. He explained that his troupe of dancers and drummers and attendants, perhaps a dozen or so, had regular “customers” as villages continued to hire the same troupes generation after generation as they rotated through their territory for nearly four months from December through March.

This particular god in the making said he was normally a manual laborer, but during the theyyam season he devoted himself full-time to the business of being a deity. Indelicately, I inquired how much they are paid for their performance — apparently about Rs 3,500 (¥6,000) split between everyone, but he added that the fees varied according to the size and affluence of the village.

Apparently this was a good gig and he seemed very relaxed, smiling at some of the young beauties who ventured closer while we chatted, looking more Lothario than god. As the daubing continued, though, his demeanor changed.

I asked what it felt like to be in a trance and to become a god, but he only managed to explain that once he fell into a trance he forgot everything until he awoke, totally drained. He said he recalled none of the dancing nor what it was like to achieve divinity. His body was merely a vessel for the spirits, he explained.

I watched in silence as he became his part, and then was ushered out of the makeshift tent as he prepared to go into his other realm and donned his mask and bangles, body slathered in oil. When he emerged he stood on a box as attendants helped him with the headdress and arranged his grass skirt over its wooden hoop from which torches protruded. For his dance he also donned a breastplate that made him into Badrakali, a goddess.

The crowds wait patiently as various rituals are performed with holy men throwing glittering dust, chanting and thrusting talismans about, sometimes in grand gestures, their impressive bellies glistening and adorned only by a string. Naked from the waist up, and with golden powder on their faces and chests, at one village they wore red conical hats and garlands of flowers, gold chains and medallions hanging from their necks.

They presided over a ritual involving coconuts, palm fronds, bananas, rice and water. According to one informant, there is a passing of the baton, so to speak, as the local priest from the Brahmin caste relinquishes spiritual powers to these holy counterparts, keepers of local traditions.

William Dalrymple, in his exquisite book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” (2010), focuses on people practicing traditional religions and customs in modern India. According to the acclaimed Scottish-born writer, the theyyam dancers are from the dalit caste, otherwise known as untouchables. The theyyam suddenly transforms these lowly men into gods and goddesses, revered by those who are ordinarily above them in station. Even the holy Brahmin pay homage to them when they go into a trance and become deities.

This turning of the social order upside down, at least for a limited period during a specified season, can be seen as a social pressure valve. Or perhaps it is only ritual. But when I inquired about this to a young IT engineer who was sponsoring the festival in his village, he grew visibly irritated — asking me if, after what I watched, I could really think of the dance as mere ritual.

But realizing I only wanted him to help me understand, he explained that it is not true that the dancers are all dalits. He said that various castes perform different theyyam dances — although he did acknowledge they were always from lower castes. He did not go into the reversing of the social hierarchy. As for Brahmin ceding spiritual primacy, he suggested (perhaps because he was from a Brahmin family) that that might be overstating the situation.

He explained that he himself, as a Brahmin working in the modern world, felt an emptiness that was somewhat salved by returning to his village and affirming community and carrying on timeless traditions that made him feel connected to a reassuring taproot of identity. He said that many young professionals like him felt similarly; succeeding in a material sense but still with a sense of emptiness and a yearning for more.

Some observers suggest that traditional India has a limitless capacity to embarrass modern India, but this young man believes that modern India needs its traditions precisely because continuities help people adjust to the tumult of social convulsions and the maelstrom of economic transformations.

In the audiences I saw in the small villages of northern Kerala where theyyam are performed, it was virtually all local people, suggesting that the farming communities are maintaining this vibrant tradition. It is not just a matter of yuppies looking for their roots, but rather people close to the land, subject to the vagaries of weather and pests, propitiating the gods.

After the performances, women would line up patiently waiting to touch the god-dancers and tell them of their problems, receive advice and get reassurance that all would be well.

I asked a woman why hardly any men lined up, and she told me that was because it’s women who have to worry about the important problems facing their families. The women would bow before the dancer and touch hands and the dancer would anoint their foreheads with tumeric while giving advice — apparently no longer in a trance, but still thought to have some lingering spiritual power. But even in seeking advice from gods, people can discriminate, so there were longer lines in front of some and shorter ones in front of others.

It was striking to see villages surrounded by hammer-and-sickle flags hanging from wires intermixed with woven traditional straw amulets. One schoolhouse entrance was flanked by murals of Marx on the right and Ghandi on the left. A sign explained somewhat cryptically: “We respect those who respect traffic jams.”

Given the strength of caste in Kerala, the entrenched political power of the Communist Party is all the more interesting. Kerala, I am told, has fewer disparities than most other provinces of India, higher wages and literacy rates and a strong cooperative movement.

Theyyam trance dances are a captivating spectacle that brings tourists as close as they are ever going to get to authentic local traditions.

Usually in India, visitors are treated to packaged versions of traditional arts, often involving shortened performances held at convenient times. This is exactly what the protagonist laments in Arundathi Roy’s “God of Small Things.” She contrasts the stylized, truncated versions of kathakali dance performed at hotels or classical arts venues with the real exemplars of the art form that dancers perform at temples in all-night events that attract village communities. While even the stylized versions are enthralling, I always wondered what it would be like to see the real thing.

Theyyam is the real thing, and thankfully nobody has created a tourist-friendly version. Every small village holds an annual theyyam festival in order to bring good fortune and peace of mind. You can see it on YouTube to get an idea of what it is like, but there is nothing like being there.

For a base in the Kannur district in northern Kerala where theyyam abound, you won’t do better than Ayisha Manzil, a lovely colonial-era bungalow set on a bluff overlooking the Arabian Sea. I had no idea when booking that that was where Dalrymple stayed while conducting his research, but it was plain to see why he chose it and lingered. The food is superb, the service excellent, and the host Moosa is a font of knowledge about theyyam and everything else. He leads morning market excursions while his wife offers cooking lessons. The bungalow is atmospheric and well preserved, while dining there al fresco in a peerless setting with sweeping views over the sea is incomparable.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies, Temple University Japan.