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Lens View Week – 18

“Gods Own Country – Vishnu Moorty Theyyam”

Location : Remote village near Kannur,Kerala
Exif : f/7.1, ISO:800, 1/1000s

October brings to northern Kerala the start of the auspicious Theyyam season when households, sacred groves and temples gear up to host the state’s centuries-old ritual worship. ‘Theyyam’ can be broken down to mean ‘dance of God’, and etymologically speaking, it could come from ‘daivam’, meaning ‘god’ in Malayalam, and ‘attam‘ meaning ‘dance’. Though the exact antecedents of the art form have not been documented, Theyyam encompasses various aspects of tribal and primitive religion, bringing them under a wide canvas of folk practice. Chiefly among the worshipped are the Mother Goddess (Bhagavathi), who has different forms, along with ghosts and spirits. There are nearly 400 forms of Theyyam, though many of them have faded into memory over decades. A tradition handed down through family lines, the dancers begin preparing for their divine roles at a young age, often in their early teens. Years are spent learning the skills required for every part of the tradition, from how to make costumes from coconut husks to the delicate art of face painting.

Vishnumoorthy is the most popular of the Vaishnava (of Lord Vishnu) Theyyams. The Vishnumoorthy Theyyam performance includes some complicated rites and rituals. The drum-beats are loud and peculiar. They can be heard up to a distance of 2 kilometers from the Kavu where the performance takes place. This Theyyam tells the story of the Narasimha Avatar of Vishnu. The body movements of the performer are very interesting and keep the devotees enthralled. The god’s face paint is equally as ornate: wide eyes are sunken in black pits, while the rest of the face is a vivid orange. Red designs spider across the face, so delicate they’re almost invisible. The overall effect is distinctly supernatural.

Theyyam is seen as a cultural warcry against firmly rooted notions of caste hierarchies. In its purest fashion, it continues to raise pertinent questions through the equations between lower and higher castes in Kerala that may have undergone a massive transformation over the years. The dance form was getting lost, as many of India’s traditions have, but there has been a renewed interest of late. Though performances happen at all times of day, be sure to catch one or two in the late night or early morning. That’s when the fire comes out!

It is a Treat for Photographers. Vibrant colors, diverse cultures, happy people, fun-packed action, unbeatable excitement! Doesn’t it sound like a photographer’s paradise. 

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