Divine reflections

In God’s Mirror: The Theyyams of Malabar, photographer-writer Pepita Seth gives a peek into the divine world of theyyam, which is facing threat in a rapidly urbanising world
Divine reflections

KOCHI: Elaborate costumes, vibrant makeup, and towering headgear… the sacred ritual practice of theyyam whirls and twirls, their energy embodies deities, ancestral spirits, and heroes from folklore. Onlookers are transported into an almost ethereal experience — one that simultaneously invokes fascination and reverence.

“The effect of my first theyyam experience was profound. I wondered about the theyyam artist’s consciousness when their external presence was so remarkable,” says British-born writer, photographer, and filmmaker Pepita Seth, who, with her latest work, In God’s Mirror: The Theyyams of Malabar (Scala Arts Publishers; `5,485), offers an intimate and insightful exploration of the nearly 2,000-year-old practice.

Drawing upon her decades of personal experience and deep fascination with the practice, Pepita takes readers on a journey through the world of theyyam, showcasing the intricate rituals, vibrant costumes, and deep-rooted beliefs that make the tradition so unique.

Theyyam, which translates to ‘God’ or ‘incarnations of God,’ involves rituals where deities are believed to possess the bodies of designated individuals, known as theyyam artists. These theyyam artist undergo a transformative process, adorned with elaborate costumes and intricate makeup, becoming vessels for the divine.

“My introduction to theyyam came from an article I read in a now-defunct magazine which had a handful of photographs. Intrigued, I cut them out and used them to press people for further details,” says Seth.

She adds, “While the word theyyam is a corruption of daivam, meaning ‘God,’ it refers to both a deified individual and a particular style of worship in which a formless deity is said to be called down from heaven. The concept is that this deity occupies the body of a designated individual, a man from a particular family who has undergone a preparatory process enabling the deity to act with and see his or her devotees.”

Pepita Seth
Pepita Seth

With a photo on nearly every page of the book, Pepita captures the essence of theyyam through personal anecdotes and insightful observations, shedding light on the dedication, skill, and faith that underpin this ancient tradition.

“In effect, the artist must possess a whole host of skills, including knowledge of kalaripayattu (martial arts) and the ability to sing, act, and dance,” she says, adding, “He must be an expert at exorcising and giving blessings, playing various drums, making costumes, doing face painting, and above all, knowing the songs associated with individual deities, some of which can last for 15 hours.”

In God’s Mirror, Pepita delves into the challenges faced by theyyam in a rapidly modernising world.

“When people first encounter a theyyam, they often ask how many exist. The default answer is that there used to be around 450 theyyams, of which roughly 250 are still honoured. However, when I decided to list every theyyam I heard about, I finally stopped at 897. While convention dictates that the divine cannot be counted, some theyyams are known by different names in different places. Recently, someone suggested that when not enough people know how to make the costumes, the tradition might end. This suggests a darker reality: just like face painting, everything must be done properly, or it simply isn’t the deity,” she says.

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The New Indian Express