Going beyond Kantara

CE speaks to veterans and researchers on the recent debate over taking Theyyam out of the ritualistic realm 

Published: 27th March 2023 12:56 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th March 2023 12:56 PM   |  A+A-

Kantara Theyyam

Kandanar Kelan Theyyam,picture Courtesy: Jayan Mangad

Express News Service

BENGALURU: Over the last week, there have been several online discussions on Theyyam — the ancient ritual dance act in which mere mortals go into a trance, and transform into gods and goddesses. What triggered debates were posts on “Kantara Theyyam” being performed as part of the Attukal Pongala festival in Thiruvananthapuram.

It was, indeed, a spectacular visual treat. And people thronged the Devi temple premises to see a group of artistes from Kozhikode showcase versions of Panchuruli, Pottan, and Rakthachamundi Theyyams.  

However, many netizens pointed out that the ‘performance’ at Attukal was not the authentic Panchuruli Theyyam, which was popularised by the superhit film Kantara. “Please understand that whatever was arranged at Attukal Pongala was not Theyyam at all in the first place,” wrote one on Twitter. “The entire event was a mockery of the rituals.”   

Vishnumoorthy Theyyam

The same sentiment was echoed by many cultural enthusiasts, especially from the Malabar region. They also came down heavily on the trend of holding ‘Theyyam performances’ at social events, including campus get-togethers. 

Theyyams are venerated, and many have familial bonds with them. Believers and veterans do not usually take kindly to commercialising or misrepresenting them. Last year, for instance, there was a furore with the Vaniya Samudaya Samithi censuring the use of Muchilot Bhagavathy’s Theyyam kolam for promoting the CPM’s 23rd party congress in Kannur. 

Veteran Theyyam performer or ‘koladhari’ Narayanan Peruvannan, 67, says irreverence to the sacred ritual art hurts him. “I felt sad after watching the video of the so-called Kantara-style Panchuruli Theyyam at Attukal Temple. It was not genuine; it was a mockery of Theyyam by calling it Panchuruli,” he adds. “There was not even a speck of authenticity.”

Narayanan, who guided the Theyyam segments in the Suresh Gopi film Kaliyattam, stresses that Theyyam is not a mere art form, and should not be performed for entertainment or monetary gains. “There was a time when we received just five paise for a Theyyam ritual,” he recalls. “In the past, political parties and cultural organisations have offered me big money for dressing up as Theyyam and participating in events. But I always declined such offers, bearing in my mind the teachings of my forefathers.” 

He goes on to allege that there are “some frauds” who don Theyyam costumes and perform at events “after watching a few videos”. “This can mislead people who are not aware of Theyyams, especially outside north Kerala,” adds Narayanan, who retired as a driver from Vellayani Agriculture College.

Kantara effect

Writer and independent filmmaker Jayan Mangad, who has curated a documentary series on over 100 Theyyams of the state, is of the opinion that the ritual art forms should be given more venues and not be restricted to worship. He highlights plans for Theyyam performances at the launch of the current edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale as a positive example. The event, however, was cancelled.

“The film Kantara, which showcased Tulu Theyyam, has helped boost the popularity of the ritual art,” says Jayan, who hails from Kasaragod. “Theyyam was taken outside the territory of rituals and customs for the first time when it was presented at the launch of the Asian Games in the 1980s. Since then, there have been uproars over taking Theyyam out of the ritual space. I, however, believe it has to be taken to other venues, maintaining the purity and original structure.”

Jayan adds that taking Theyyam beyond the ritual form would provide better income to artists from the SC/ST communities, who are the custodians of the tradition.

Researcher and former Theyyam artist YV Kannan, of Kannur, agrees. “I am against the use of Theyyam or its imagery for decorative purposes at political or cultural events,” he says. “But there are Theyyams like Muthappan, Kathivanoor Veeran, Vishnumoorthi, etc., that are performed on paddy fields or at ancestral houses. So, why not perform at other venues with customary arrangements?”

Narayanan, too, welcomes the growing popularity of Theyyam. “But it should not be at the cost of diluting tradition,” he says. “Films like Kantara have helped popularise the ritual. But, the tendency to use Theyyam for entertainment, political or tourism purposes is worrisome. That will be an injustice to our ancestors.”  

Eroding tradition 

Taliparamba-based Theyyam artist Preman Premajan, 53, also raises concerns over Theyyam losing its soul essence. “Only 10 per cent of the present generation of ‘koladharis’ are determined to take the pains and master Theyyam in its entirety — from face painting to the percussion,” he says. 

“They focus just on the vibrant appearance. They are ready to perform in any manner if there is monetary gain. This pains seniors like us.”  Preman cites the case of thottampaattu, the hymns associated with Theyyam. “We learnt it from our elders, with a disciplined practice of three to four hours a day. There should be a holistic approach; it is vital while transforming into a Theyyam. Not many young koladharikals are interested in learning thottampaattu by heart.”

A KSRTC bus conductor and Theyyam artist Rajan Panicker of Neeleshwaram says one becomes a true Theyyam performer after succeeding in the acharapeduthal or ‘grilling’ custom. “Life and nature-related questions are asked. It used to be a yardstick to measure if one is qualified to become a ‘talking God’, and pacify and motivate devotees,” he says.

“The current generation lacks knowledge. In the next five years, I think we will have recorded thottampattu tracks. Theyyam is a mode to give positive energy to those in angst, and also to unify and guide people. I hope it does not end up as something for entertainment and money-making.”

The Panchuruli tales

Writer and filmmaker Jayan Mangad says the Panchuruli Theyyam portrayed in the film Kantara is of Tulu origin and performed by a specific tribal community. “These tribals, who dwelled in the forest, were scared of boars which destroyed their crops and fodders. So, they started to pray for some means to end their suffering. Later, this was entrenched in local folklore,” he adds.

Researcher and former Theyyam artist YV Kannan, of Kannur, shares a divine story of Panchuruli, considered a form of Goddess Kali. “In Tulu, it is Panchi Uru Kali. Later, it became Panchuruli. Panch in Tulu means pig. According to legend, it was Goddess Varahi who came to save the people from a demon. Many communities in Kerala and Karnataka perform Panchuruli Theyyam,” he says.

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