Arjun Vengara's Theyyam installation: A tribute to Kerala's warrior women

TNIE speaks to artist Arjun Vengara about his sculptures, paintings and fascination with Theyyam.
Theyyam figures.
Theyyam figures.

KOCHI: Enter the space at the centre of Bharat Bhavan, the capital’s cultural hub, a semblance of a Theyyam figure welcomes us.

Decked in the wildest face paint, red colour, elaborate ornaments, and costumes, the figure seems to scream out old tales buried in the folds of time. It transports us to a trance where the world around us seems a mirage.

The effect is accentuated by the rays peaking in from the roof, which plays hide and seek and naturally illuminates the entire installation. The Theyyam then lights up in a fiery splendour, playing an apt homage to the stoic and fabulous women of Kerala who battled for social change like true warriors.

“I don’t know why, but Theyyam never fails to amaze me,” says Arjun Vengara, the installation’s maker. “I have had a long journey creating art across the world. But making artwork related to Theyyam is always special and personal to me,” he says.

The love and admiration for Theyyam came naturally to Arjun, who grew up in a small village in Kannur where such rituals are a way of life. And he began searching for the reason and art in them. The thirst to discover form in formlessness egged Arjun on. He wanted his art to transcend time and place, bridge cultures and speak directly to the soul.

His passion for drawing since he was a child came in handy. He wound his way into the cine field through a cousin and pitched a tent there for 15 years. The work was relentless and now, his artistic legacy extends across India, his sculptures adorning revered sites such as Kannur’s Mangattuparambu, where he crafted the towering 18-feet-tall Muchilottu Bhagavathy, the majestic eight-feet-tall Mutthappan, and the 12-feet-tall Thiruvappan, all meticulously created from fibre.

His craftsmanship finds reverence at the Cherukunnu Annapurneswari Temple and graces historical palaces, villas, and hotels nationwide. Arjun’s other sculptures include iconic figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, EMS, AKG, and others. His sculptures are also there at Mumbai’s Shivaparvati temple and Guruvayoor, as well as at the Mutthappan temple in Virar and Gujarat.

“I’ve been fortunate to blend my passion for art with my love for temples and ritual art forms,” he says.

His skills are not limited to painting or sculpting but have made their presence felt in acting too. He acted in the play ‘Pulijanmam,’ which earned the prestigious Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy award. This was later adapted into a film by Priyanandan. In cinema, Arjun’s versatility shone through as he contributed as an assistant in art direction for films like ‘Praja’, ‘Soothradharan’, ‘Chakram’, ‘Thenkasi Pattanam’, ‘Kasthuriman’, and ‘Oru Mambazhakalam’. He made sculptures, some towering 40 feet, for the movies too. 

But his obsession was always for the Theyyam, a subject he researched extensively for six years. There are 101 different Theyyam traditions of north Malabar. This information is new to many because most people are only aware of six or seven Theyyams.

During the research, Arjun found that there are in fact nearly 400 different Theyyams. “However, some Theyyams are known by six or seven different names. In reality, there are only around 140 unique Theyyams.”

He also recalls the phase when he learnt the art of Mukhathezhuth (face painting) directly from the communities (Kulam) associated with each of the Theyyams. Each community know only four or five specific Mukhathezhuth styles, but his expanse of research made Arjun learn 101 styles.

The Theyyam, to Arjun, is a celebration of mythical strength, exemplified by the Mukhathezhuth, ornaments, attire, rhythms, performances, and the Thottampaattu (songs). This ritualistic art form is deeply linked to nature and creates artistic parallels between worlds.

Arjun Vengara
Arjun Vengara

Hence, his installation at Bharat Bhavan metaphorically depicts a handful of water from the ocean. The work is termed ‘Amma Theyyam’ as conceptualised by the institution’s member secretary Pramod Payyannur.

It symbolises the spirit of Kerala’s women, who fearlessly fought for social change.

A popular face of such a ritual is the Muchilottu Bhagavathi Theyyam, which bears a history that remains highly relevant in today’s society.

“Muchilottu Bhagavathi is a revered deity in north Malabar. She was once a knowledgeable Brahmin maiden who spoke out against Brahminical dominance and was unfairly ostracised and slandered for the same reason. In her humiliation, she set herself on fire at Karivellur to prove her purity, transforming into a goddess with the blessings of Karivellurappan and Dayaramangalam Bhagavathi. Though worshipped as the family deity by the Vaniya community, she is seen as a universal mother for all. Her Theyyam form is calm and graceful, adorned like a bride, and is celebrated every 12 years in the grand ‘Perumkaliyattam’ ritual,” he says.

The sensitivity and passion of the idea of Muchilottu Bhagavathy made Arjun specifically alert while working on the Theyyam. “The medium I used is fibre, a departure from the commonly used cement or brass. Fibre lasts for nearly 1,000 years due to its lightweight yet dense composition. While brass may outlast it, the cost is very high. For painting, I used acrylics for their ease of use.”

There are also other six Theyyam faces, complementing the Amma Theyyam at Bharat Bhavan such as the fiery Kuttichathan, Valiyathamburatti, signifying serenity with a chilling presence, and  Vishnumoorthi, communicating another expression.

He now waits to share these sculptures with the world. “The plan is to conduct a 10-day exhibition in Thiruvananthapuram.” He is also aiming for the Guinness World Record for the sculptures of 101 Theyyam.

Amidst all these, Arjun got an unexpected chance to work at the BAPS Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi. “This experience has inspired me to expand my artistic endeavours into Gulf countries, where I am exploring their art culture and traditions.

With the launch of the Craft Gallery in Abu Dhabi, I aim for a new creative direction, merging Gulf influences with my vision. Additionally, I plan to establish a local branch here to introduce our community to Gulf cultures,” he says, reiterating his idea to bridge gaps and forge camaraderie using art.  

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