Ethnography of Teyyam Performance – as practitioner – case study

Theyyam performance,

Abstract: This study attempts to analyse how long-term social transformation reflects on the life of a community in terms of their adherence to the Teyyam performance and their traditional social position as legitimate artists/workers of the Teyyam. The purpose of the study is to understand the predicament of marginal communities in the larger stratified society. Historically, marginalized/indigenous communities have been relegated to the conditions of existence of the most backward communities in the hierarchical social structure of India. This study intends to investigate social meanings, and aesthetic practices of cultural production in the contexts of Teyyam; a spirit medium ceremony performed by lower castes and Adivasi communities which can be say as a revenge against oppression by the dominant groups in the northern districts of Kerala State, India. The analysis will be an ethnographic and folkloristic discourse on behalf of the communities. This study will have an advantage of an “insider perspective”, as researchers himself is an active performer of the Teyyam and will be able to combine individual experiences with the social, cultural and economic aspects of the community.

Bio: Rajesh Komath is an artist and researcher. Rajesh did his Bachelor Degree in economics, Nirmalagiri College, Kuthuparambu, Kannur; completed his Post Graduation in Development Economics, Dr.John Matthai Centre, University of Calicut and travelled a long way to capital of Kerala—Trivandrum to do his MPhil and PhD at Centre for Development Studies, affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research is on Social Development of Teyyam Performing Community and change.”As I have been born into a community of Teyyam performers, traditionally belonging to North Malabar, this form has become, since childhood onwards, my life itself.”

Email: rkomathcds @, rajeshkumar @
Rajesh Komath’s Blog


Dear Friends,

It has been a great pleasure to read the posting of Sarai I-Fellows, not only because each research questions raised were distinct and cross-disciplinary, but the voices who raised those questions were equally vibrant. I am thankful to CSDS-Sarai, for giving me this opportunity to interact and share our views on a wider range of issues. Let me briefly introduce my-self and thereby my-work, on the first posting to Sarai.

I am Rajesh Komath, an indigenous\traditional performer of Teyyam, a ritualistic folk art linked to the rich traditions of ancient cult system, largely performed in the northern regions (Malabar) of south Indian state, Kerala. The word ‘Teyyam’, derived from the word ‘Daivam’, means God in Malayalam language. It is performed annually or on festive occasions as an expression of local people’s faith in the divine and also, as an artistic expression of their collective social consciousness. Though performed for different purposes, generally it is towards satisfying some social needs.

For instance, performance of fertility cult, in the paddy field for increasing agricultural productivity or the case of the Teyyam named ‘Vasurimala’ performed for warding off small pox from the village. Teyyam related rituals have a close connection with worship, life ceremonies, sorcery and belief in the daily life of the ordinary people of north Malabar. Its themes have originated from mythical and ritualistic imagination and the dancer give vent to the moods through his dances, movements and articulation. It is a colourful combination of dance, theatre and music. The dancer, who transforms into ‘Teyyam’, performs, admonishes, predicts the future, reads the past, and receives adulation and worship from villagers. Primarily, this art form is found in Kannur and Kasargod districts of Kerala, though such traditions do exist in southern Malabar region too and also in the border areas of south Kanara and Coorg districts of the neighboring state Karnataka, however the regional terminologies may differ.

By training I am an economist, holding an M Phil degree in Applied economics and currently pursuing doctoral research on the theme “Negotiating for Social Development: Experience of Teyyam Performing Communities of north Malabar” at Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum. But I also perform Teyyam, both in traditional shrines and modern theatre stages as the art form is presently commodified. Thus, I straddle between two worlds–of Teyyam dancer and a researcher. I have a plan to document 400 Teyyams that face extinction and record Thottam that is recited during performance. I am also interested in music and musical production of Teyyam performances.

Photographs of my performances are:


The present study, “Ethnography of Teyyam Performance as Practitioner”, attempts to analyze how long-term social transformation reflects on the life of a community in terms of their adherence to Teyyam performance and their traditional social position as legitimate artists/workers of the art form. The study intends to understand the predicament of marginal communities in the larger stratified society. Historically, marginalized/indigenous communities have been relegated to the conditions of the most backward communities in the hierarchical social structure of India. This study would investigate social and material conditions, social meanings, and aesthetic practices of the cultural production of Teyyam; performed by lower castes and Adivasi communities which can be considered as a resistance against, oppression of the dominant groups in the northern districts of Kerala. The analysis will be an ethnographic and folkloristic discourse on behalf of the community. This study will capture the “insider perspective”, as the researchers himself is an active performer of Teyyam and will be able to combine individual experiences with the social, cultural and economic aspects of the community.

Next posting, based on the personal narrative of researcher, as a ‘performer’ will illustrate Teyyam performer’s social life, to communicate their dilemma in the changing social hierarchy of north Malabar society, where Communists ideology interfaces with the traditional ritual of Teyyam performance.

With warm regards.

Rajesh Komath.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Rajesh Komath’s Second Posting to CSDS/Sarai

Straddling Two Worlds–That of God and lower caste.

By Rajesh Komath, Ph.D Scholar at CDS,

Independent-Fellow of CSDS/Sarai

New Delhi

As I have been born into a community of Teyyam performers, traditionally belonging to North Malabar, this ritual art form has become, since childhood onwards, my life itself and sad predicaments. The childhood in fact is teeming with myriad remembrances of myself accompanying father and mother going from house to house singing and playing the thudi and coming back driving off evil spirits from their hosts. Though the ritual practice of gurusi, the rite of making different colors out of water and as part of rite of sacrificing a cock, was a very ritual colorful event, our real life remained colorless and drab, the realization of which has made me withdrawing myself away from the pomp and show of customs and shibboleth but, as though the custom of dancing in a wild frenzy in Kaves (Shrines) as the deity (Teyyam) was a continuation of a ritual imposed and dictated by the higher caste of a feudal hierarchy. I was forced to perform it every year as it was for the welfare and well being of a village and villagers inclusive of the janmi Taravadu and I was vested with the temporary privilege of blessing them all, in a state bordering on a trance.

The first Kolam I had performed was that of Chamundi, now as Vishnu Murthi. It was the poignant story of Kannan, a Tiyya (Intermediate lower caste) boy who was grazing the cattle of a Kurup, the poor boy when trembling with starvation and hunger climbed up a mango tree, belonged to the Kurup’s (an upper caste) family began eating the mangoes. As the boy found the niece of the Kurup passing that way, in panic of being found in the act of stealing, a mango got dropped off from his hands and fell on her. This was an act of defying the caste/custom and Kannan had to run away from his native village to escape the sharp edge of victimization. But, after many years, anticipating that the village must have forgotten everything in course of time Kannan returned. And as he was taking bath in a pond in neck-deep water, with fire flaming up his eyes, the Kurup and his accompanying Nairs, rushed into the scene. Shouting “Have you returned you….dog from exile for violating the practices” and soon they severed his head from the trunk with the long sword (Urumi). It was this Kannan, the scapegoat foolish caste taboos that got reincarnated through me as Chamundi. It was my debut as Teyyam performer, belonging to the community of Teyyam artists traditionally. It had to discharge a social obligation and to undergo an artistic identification by becoming a victim of cruel moral and social injustice, elated to the status of a local god.

As the temp of the Chanda (the percussion instrument with high suggestive power and it is an Asura Vadyem) was rising to a crescendo, I danced as if possessed and even girls, my own classmates came with tears with eye bowing and kneeling before me for blessing, my mind was entertaining a fear that they might detect my caste identity. As I returned to the class, they had already known that it was I who enacted the God. They began to keep me at bay and maintained a distance from me. I found them whispering mutually among themselves that “He is a Malayan”.

In my birthplace, the entire society is divided into many castes in the order of Namboothiri, Nambiar, Kurup, Nair, Vaniyan, Maniyani, Tiyyas, Chaliar, Asari, Kollan, Malayan, Vannan, Munhoottan, Pulayar, Mavilar, Kurichiar, Chingathan, Kopallar etc, Among these people the sense of caste had got solidified through several myths and division of labour, deference and discrimination. It has become deep rooted in the mind of each and every member of the society, consciously or unconsciously. It is the castes of mind that permeates. When the Teyyam is enacted in the Kavus (shrine), and in the precincts of the Taravadu, there were separate places earmarked for each caste according to the hierarchy. In this particular caste distinction, which is based on caste superiority and inferiority, each caste has its own special functions to be observed in connection with the Teyyam performance.

Let me narrate an incident when I had to perform a Teyyam at Koorara at Mandamullathil Kavu in Tellichery, Kannur. After the main rituals, it is the custom of the enactor of the Teyyam to call each caste title according to its place and order in the hierarchy and the members of the Taravadu are addressed as Kazhakakkars, and the Nambiars are addressed Kaikkomars and Tiyyas as Ettillam Karimanamars. The performer has to desirable the good qualities of each caste. In the course of doing so, I had forgotten to address Ettillam Karimanamars (Tiyyas), for which omission the Tiyyas drenched me calling all kinds of names. They also did not forget in warning me never to repeat the omission again. Later I came to know that there was also a local committee member of the CPI (M) in this group. It is quite clear that today all politics and political parties stand for perpetuating the caste hierarchy and the power of each caste gets, in tact. Or it is clear that whatever be your political ideology, what works within us is caste based dispositions, which is embedded in your mind and body, which comes out in every spot and places.

The Communists agreed that the Teyyam is only an art form and it is a means of livelihood of Malayans and Vannans (Practitioners of Teyyam). It is also a ritual deceptive enough to keep the lower castes under the control of the higher castes, which the followers of Sree Narayanaguru were of opinion that either the Kavu, or temple are not the slaughter houses, and either toddy or arrack are not required by the Gods, but as they were spreading these arguments they were not prepared to keep themselves away from this caste based ritual art and the conducting of it annually. They were keen on getting the social capital coming from their supervisory role of conducting the Teyyam to increase their locus standi; as well as keeping rewards coming from owing the folkloric knowledge obtained from Teyyam communities for the advancement of their socio-cultural and economic capital. With this motto at the back of their minds these power groups had to accept the significance of the Teyyam both directly and indirectly.

The Teyyam performance at the Koorara Kunnummal Raktachamundeswari shrine has been suspended for a few years. Later as part of the process of revival of shrines, it started to conduct festival. Continuously my father directed me to enact the Kolam of Kuttichattan and thereby restart the ritual. This Kavu was formerly the Taravadu (ancestral) property of the Nambiars (upper caste) but it is the B.J.P supporters and activists who wanted reestablish the Teyyam. But, entire locality was under the stronghold of the Communists, controversies and debated took place and after a few rounds of conflicts of trials and strength the governance of this shrine came on the Communists. Anticipating that the political angst of these parties involved might turn up against me who was to perform, I asked my father why I should, I become the cause for their quarrel and “ Will those people beat up Kutichattan”? Then father coolly pleaded, “This technique performance is something we have had to do ourselves which is part of our tradition. After all, we get some rice, coconut, chilly and the chicken dedicated to the gods”. It is our privilege to receive at least such small things, which could alleviate our poverty temporarily. So I had to done the role Kittichattan and dance in a frenzy. Thereafter, my father had to go the court as a continuation of the debate between my father and the Kavu Committee led by the members of the Communists party. The court decree was in favour of the Communists and they got the right to govern the Kavu, through the Kavu Committee. Once the Kolathiri Raja used to honour the Teyyam artiste who dances the solo Kolams with silk cloths and bangles and give honourary titles. This time it is the Kavu committee under the Communists who gave my father bangles for having helped them get the right to govern the Kavu from the Nambiars. Father took it as the blessings of Chammundi Teyyam and remained fully satisfied.

Last Karkitakam month, father asked my help to perform the Vedanpattau, a ritual that has to go from house to house and remove the curse (Cheshta) from the people. Karkitaka month is the time when there is starvation and hunger everywhere, owing to scarcity of basic necessities. It is well known for general penury and distress. As part of this ritual we will get some rice, salt, coconut, some vegetables such as (Vellari). To bring all this things to our house was the duty assigned to me. After debating much on this, I agreed, as there was no go about. Since I was a progressive minded educated youth I was afraid whether the Communists will find me out and so I had to hide myself behind the Vedan enacted in my father.

As the Vedan was returning after performing from a house, a lady belonging to the Tiyya caste was hewed shouting at the Vedan, stopping him on the way. When I listened keenly I discovered why she raises her complaint. “Why did you go to Kallus’s house before coming to my own? I am not keen on your visiting my house, come whenever you like, I don’t bother”, she shouted, and went away to her house. I, who was a research scholar at the Center for Development Studies, stood behind my father holding the bag containing, rice, chilly and salt with a sense of helplessness and in a state awkwardness.

Though when the caste-society as a whole comes before the Teyyam and prostrates before him as the performer dances in a violent frenzy, seeking the deity’s blessings as soon as the performer removes costumes and wipes of the facial make up etc., he very easily transform himself to his isolated Dalit state of being, who commands not an atom of consideration. This is the condition of all the performing Teyyam artists in our society. So when the low caste Malayan when he encounters either a Nambiar or a Kurup, has to take up the towel on his left shoulder and hold it down, low his head and stand at a particular distance with due respect to the Kurup. This is one picture. On the other hand there is another in which the Nambiars and Kurups are approaching the Malayan in his Teyyam costumes and make up and they touch his feet in great respect. A local Muslim gentleman, who has witnessed both this contradictory contexts, so dramatically, broke out with a familiar folkloric saying still in common prevalence that the life of Teyyam artist is one that has witnessed two worlds that a man and as the God himself.

[It gives me pleasure to thank P.K.Michael Tharakan, J.Devika, Rakhee Timothy, Dilip Menon, Baskara Prasad and Arun]

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rajesh Komath’s Third Posting to Sarai

Teyyam and its Alienation:

Rajesh Komath,

I Fellow-Sarai/CSDS

The Theyyam festival events typically begin with a set of preliminary rites focussed on transferring divine power from a ritual object placed in the deity’s shrine into the dancer’s body. Accompanying these stages (puja; tuttanal; tottam; vellattam) are the pre-composed songs (tottam pattu) that describe the character, history, places, and events of a deity or the ancestor’s life, in order to establish a historical context for devotees, and thereby to prepare the dancer mentally for the transformation he has to undergo. A climactic phase follows in which the singing stops and rigorous dancing begins, which is enhanced by the accompaniment of drums (cenda), cymbals (ilathalam), and double-reed instruments (kuzhal) which enable the deity or ancestral spirit to become fully incarnated in an elaborately costumed, colourfully adorned dancer. The dance has the speciality of slowly mounting to a higher tempo with a power of riveting the attention of the spectators to it, who get involved in the performance. There is perfect spectator-artist rapport, otherwise called Empathy. The vibrant notes of the percussion instruments give the dancer a mesmeric touch and his agility of the body and sense of the subtle nuances of the percussion’s rhythm render a hypnotic effect on the spectators.

It is an authentic theatrical performance that has a beginning; middle and an end or artistic consummation aspired by all great arts the Theyyam is like a Greek play in miniature. It is ending in a catharsis, or purgation of the human emotions, which is the goal of all genuine theatrical art. The fact that it is traditionally performed by the members of lower-castes doesn’t take way its grandeur. It is the annual purging process of a whole village of which the dance is the destined representative.

As to the variety of rhythms to which the dancer dances, there is only one parallel, that is, the fast rhythmic tempo in the ‘Ashtakalasam’ in Kathakalai. In fact the very acme of the Theyyam and the crescendo to which it rises towards the end, makes the Theyyam a very rare and unique form of dance known to mankind. No ordinary classical dance can cope with the demands of the indigenous percussion instrumentation of the Theyyam, in which there are quick steps, twirls and twists of the dancer, which are orchestrated, in perfect harmony with the instruments. Though the headdress and the entire Aharya of the dancer are heavy, in moments of ectastic stage, he dances without inhibitions and the movements have an awe-inspiring dimension, characterised by the artistic conception of the Theyyam. Foreigners who have stood breathless towards the grand finale of the Theyyam performance have felt the characteristic grandeur of the form.

The stress and strain of the performance are so exerting that it leaves the artist fall down in complete exhaustion, all passion spent (Poet John Miltton’s phrase on witnessing a tragic play). The so-called elite connoisseurs of art, whose number is so small in the state, conveniently forget this subliminal aspect of the Theyyam. That the Theyyam is a serious work among the performing arts of Kerala has been poignantly neglected. As a Theyyam performer, I have the rare experience of passing the normal levels of consciousness when dancing as if possessed and such a state of elevated or indescribable state of consciousness may be called TUREEYAM. (According to the metaphysical literature there are three stages of human consciousness. The gagrat (wakefulness), the Sushupti (sleep) and Swapnavasta (state of dreaming) all of which are transcended by a man who reaches another stage entirely different called the Tureeyam, which is a state of mind, difficult to be explained but could only be experienced) with which the sages of the past are conversant. It is a spiritually and aesthetically edifying experience to undergo such a blissful transformation. The legitimacy of this experience may not be belittled and even such a universally acknowledged and acclaimed dance form like the Kathakali, never offers any such opportunity for the performer to reach the above stage, in which there is perfect and harmonious merging of the deity (Daivam = God) and the enactor (dancer). This is no exaggerated claim of a dance form and I can vouch for the singular experience I have felt on all occasions when I have performed. It is during this final phase that devotees make offerings and vows in exchange of divine blessings through interaction with the dancer medium.

There is a marked absence of elucidation of the salient artistic aspects and spiritual significance of the art of Theyyam to the wider public, as well as to those in charge of looking into the affairs of art and culture in the State and the Central Governments.

The case of the performing community of Kerala is one of constant neglect and of total marginalisation. It is quite relevant to highlight the fact that art of the Theyyam is also being subjected to neglect. The artistic excellence of it has not been recognized and approved by the citadels of culture and it is relegated to the status of a mere folk dance with an indigenous cult. The Theyyam stands behind to none in its total conception, theatrical presentation, and artistic involvement and its place is unique in the cultural tradition of the people of Kerala, viewed in its totality, in an age of knowledge and information.

So it has been felt very keenly, that the Artistes of Theyyam, the performers and the accompanists deserve immediate rehabilitation and protection from total destruction, especially in the context of globalisation of art and culture, much to disadvantages of the native traditions. When cultural middlemen try to market this folk dance internationally, the intellectual and artistic property rights of the Theyyam artists have to be protected. The benefits should certainly go to the artists who deserve them. It is the duty of the authorities concerned including the Departments of culture of the state and central Governments to protect the rights of the Theyyam artists and save them from all kinds of cultural piracy and the exploitation of the middlemen, the media, (Video) especially. The Government may appoint a responsible body to go into the question of the grievances of the Theyyam performing community and try to take necessary measures, such as, establishing a Welfare Fund for the economic liberation of these socially and economically disadvantaged castes/artists, as a special case.

The usual practice of dumping the Theyyam performing communities into the general category of the scheduled castes for neglect may be discontinued, and considering their centuries old devotion and dedication to the cult of the Theyyam, and its rare excellence as an art of acute artistic involvement combining culture and religious faith. This unique merger of the body and soul in the performance is realized at the personal level of individual artists. It is the moral duty of any society that claims to be egalitarian and democratic not to alienate the genuine cry of the Theyyam artists, whose continued spirit of social service should be identified, acknowledge and recognized as noble and legitimate. The aged artists and females and unemployed youths need immediate attention and rehabilitation. In order to achieve this goal, it would be desirable to form an Academy for Theyyam to preserve the culture and folklore aspect of the Theyyam and give it a new life and sustained strength and popularity in the country and abroad.

It is also desirable to organize the performing artists of the Theyyam, not on communal lines but from the singers of Thottam and accompanying artists such as the instrumentalists, the artists behind the Aharya, those in charge of the ritual aspects, and various other artists associated with the preservation of the Art to the those who represent the various Theyyam Kolams without discrimination, who lie scattered all over North Malabar without being organized. Their voice should not fall into deaf ears of those concerned and it should be a “lone Voice”. The derelicts of the Theyyam performing communities are desperately looking forward to the noble encouraging gestures of the cultural and political leaders of Kerala and India. Their lots have to be improved, and redeemed. The present scenario is a compelling one, of begging the question and this is an identity crisis of a village people and folk artists, which may be solved by the state and central governments. It is high time and it is worthwhile that these artists are given a proper hearing and recognition, which is a Chapter in the annals of the people, who fought for Human Rights and cultural preservation, from the dawn of culture to this new century of genetic engineering, and knowledge-based progress in all walks of life.


Rajesh Komath.


Dear Friends,

Ooruvilakku or Banishment:

Ooruvilakku means denying a performer to perform in shrines. For example, a performer named Padmanabhan Panicker, Kotakad, has revealed that he was denied the right to performance because a ‘crime’ has imposed upon him. It was alleged that he took more money from devotees without giving any share of it to the shrine-authority. The charge against his brother was that, as a performer he had behaved badly towards the shrine authority. Next year, the shrine authority bargained with a performer and conducted a performance. The misdemand charged against on the performer may not be true, but it become evenful bane for enacting of his shrine authority to bargain for the reduction of reward for the performance.
Because of competition within the community of Theyyam, they could easily exploit the performers according to their will. And, in the case of many performers in the Village of both Karivallur and Chirakal, they had the same problem.They agreed to perform at the invitation of the Asia Games help in Delhi in 1984 as these performers were going to perform outside the shrine where they could perform freely without the element of casteism and on such an occasion they receive an identity (pride) of being artists. Moreover, they could get reasonable remuneration too. But, most of the performances outside the shrine, mediated by intermediaries and take lion’s share. The performers could receive only a small share.

Intermediaries are people who made contact with national and international Programme co-ordinators. This is what is the new folk- art lovers are doing by exploiting these artists while they arrange programmes on spaces different from the traditional. This also resulted in the Ooruvilakku to those who went to perform outside. Because of fear of Oruvillaku, many good performers are now not at all willing to perform outside the shrine even if they get good opportunity to perform. So, social mobility of the performer faces many hurdles, and they experience these disadvantages from the society as well as the community due to the psychological, cultural and traditional attachment to the rituals.

[Sorry for late posting]