Theyyam through the lens of Bakhtinian thought

“Fear is the extreme expression of narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter…. Complete liberty is possible only in the completely fearless world.”– Mikhail Bakhtin

This statement creates the basis for the carnival-esque world of the comic, the grotesque and the rebel.

Creating a context for Theyyam’s connection with Rabelais’s world

Theyyam is a popular ritualistic dance and music performance of North Kerala. As an all encompassing tradition that is centuries old, it involves people from all levels of the social hierarchy and this is the first feature that connects it with the popular cultural rituals of the carnival. The term Theyyam is a corrupt form of daivam or God. It functions as a celebration of popular folk religion and tribal cult deities. Since Theyyam is not a ‘classical form’ blessed by the brahmanical religious order, it becomes the ‘alternative,’ and is then associated with the performance sphere of savage society. Several elements of the Theyyam performance are linked with totemic traditions and pre-date organized religion. As a result it has become misplaced and misunderstood by high culture society as well as ‘formalist’ intellectuals. Much like the long-standing tradition of the grotesque, it is either repudiated or exoticized.

While the holy rituals and classical performances took place within the temple sphere; during the earliest years of Theyyam – the performance space was the forest, estuary, grove or by the Kadamba tree. An intrinsic connection with nature worship existed then – tree-worship, ancestor-worship and worship of the mother goddess have shaped performance codes. Under Aryan influence, brahminical gods made an entry as ‘characters’ in the performance and Theyyam became increasingly linked with the local shrine and community spaces.

The charged performance space resembles the carnival and public sphere that Bakhtin refers to. Amidst dust, sweat and grime – entire villages stand enraptured watching the frenzied drummer, the entranced dancers and the yelping animal sacrificed to the chief deity. It is here that social barriers break down. People boxed into categories as per profession, caste, race and economic status are suddenly filling a common space, literally being pushed together under the guise of ‘popular tradition’ so they are compelled to interact, share and connect.

The performer – the entertainer, the fool, the comic, the grotesque…

Theyyam is often considered the ‘art of depressed castes’ – since it is ‘traditionally’ performed by indigenous communities like Panan, Velan and Vannan. Since the Theyyam tradition involves intense training of the body as well as the mind, it is passed on as a sort of sacred transferral of wisdom from father to son or uncle to nephew. Hence, the practice has continued as an uninterrupted cycle for centuries – often trapping individuals who wish to break out of the performance tradition.

The irony lies in the fact that though the performer is treated as an ‘untouchable’ because of his low caste status under everyday circumstances; at the time of the Theyyam – once he has become possessed by the deity, there are huge queues of people who wish to seek advice or take blessings from him. The rituals that take place before the main performance are extremely interesting and beneficial in locating the anthropology of this cultural phenomenon. All dancers move to the rhythm of the Chenda and Tuti as they begin to sharpen their kadthala (sword), which functions as a continuation of the cult of weapons; followed by circumambulation of the shrine.

The relevance of the fertility cult is portrayed by the placing of an earthen vessel containing Areca flowers and toddy on the shrine square before a performance – which represents the womb of the mother goddess. Cereals and cock-blood are also offered in front of the kalasam – shrine square, for good health and prosperity of the community. These gestures appear to replace the linearity of historical time with cyclical time – symbolising constant renewal and fertility (pregnant death).

The Feast – the cultural rituals surrounding wining and dining…

Bakhtin constantly refers to the centrality of the feast as a site for communal bonding – The ‘Feast of fools’ and the ‘Feast of the ass’. The Theyyam festival also involves a huge feast in honour of the mother goddess and other deities. A sense of communion prevails as sharing of food in an agrarian society becomes a gesture of gratitude and a prayer for well-being and good fortune of society.

Parish feasts were usually marked by fairs and varied open-air amusements, with the participation of giants, dwarfs, monsters, and trained animals. These ‘odd looking’ characters stood on the borderline between life and art, in a peculiar midzone as it were – they were neither eccentrics nor dolts, neither were they comic actors. Much like the Theyyam performer who occupies an ambivalent position in society – he is manipulated and used for his ‘services,’ often forced to perform for small amount of money . He is in an insecure position as he is constantly snubbed and relegated to the margins of society. Communal feasts refuse to abide by ‘externally prescribed etiquette;’ they have their own internal dynamics based on traditional wisdom.

(Paper Excerpt)


– Rabelais and His World – Mikhail Bakhtin

– Archived footage of Theyyam performances.

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