Everyday Life: A Repertoire of Ritual & Performance

A Collaborative Exhibition with visual artist Dhanaraj Keezhara that explores Caste Marginalization and Theyyam, December 2014

In December 2014 my artistic collaborator, Dhanaraj Keezhara and I mounted the first of three exhibitions to date, exploring the Folkloric Hindu Festival of Theyyam. The exhibit entitled Everyday Life: A Repertoire of Ritual and Performance, in Kannur, Kerala, at the Indian Medical Association Hall, commonly referred to as IMA Hall. Many of the community members from Keezhara made their way to the exhibition throughout the week, including several of the Theyyam artists. The focus of my contribution to the exhibition was to create a soundscape that deepened the work that Dhanaraj had created. His focus on the marginalization of the lower caste members of his community, the role Theyyam holds within Keezhara, and the role Theyyam families play in this festival, were the motivations behind much of his work. Theyyam is a bright, colorful festival that is often highlighted on the front of travel guides to Southern India, and Dhanaraj’s focus was to bring attention to the real people behind the masques, who live their lives in service to this religious festival. My focus and intention was to create a soundscape that helped to draw attention to the themes of Dhanaraj’s work by communicating our ideas and concerns about caste marginalization through sound.

“Teyyam” is perhaps a corruption of the Sanskritic word “Deivam,” meaning a deity. In the Teyyam, [or Theyyam] ritual, specialists wearing elaborate costumes seek to portray the deity, which can be a god or the spirit of a famous personage long deceased. The specialist is believed to have invoked the spirit of that deity or ancestor into himself through some specific ritual acts and then virtually becomes the embodiment of the deity or spirit. In this altered state, he is a god and is considered as such, and he is believed to bear immense power to prophesy, bless and heal. There are numerous Teyyams – of gods, goddesses, ancestors or famous personages both male and female. (Gabriel, 2013, p. 4).

According to the legends portrayed at the festival, Theyyam has a rich history of folklore that chronicles the stories of those first settlers of the land, their conflict with the animals and nature, and their relationships with one another and the Hindu gods to whom they prayed to make peace with the land. The traditions of the festival include storytelling, dances, music, sacrifices to the deity, spirit possession, and costuming. Theyyam artists have maintained and passed the traditions of the festival along to younger generations over time, andare the only people within a community who are allowed to perform the traditions of the festival, as they are believed to be able to participate in spirit possession.

The most defining characteristic of the Theyyam Festival is that it assumes of the performers and the villagers an agreement and understanding that during the festival, the human performers are embodied by gods. Therefore all worship of the performers is worship of a godly embodiment. It is likely that this unique element of the festival has been at the heart of Theyyam from the onset: “In ancient times the people of Kerala preferred to worship Gods through human representations rather than as images, or idols” (Gabriel, 2013, p. 17).

There are many types of Theyyam, including Theyyam of male and female deities, as well as of ancestors. Within the festival there are numerous Theyyam characters represented, which differ by community as the Theyyam artists have different stories that are passed down within their families based on the experiences of their ancestors, their caste, and the land from where they descend. It is said that there were once over 400 different Theyyam characters, and in present day only half of those are still performed.Theyyam is one of the cultic and ritualistic arts of Kerala, a place with a long history of performing arts. The relationship between Theyyam artists and dominant culture has been entwined with issues of caste marginalization and the complicated expression of caste status reversal. “Every Theyyam draws into its fold pantheistic practices, along with casteist affirmations that helped the marginalized classes claim a space for themselves, and assert their social links with the land of their dwelling” (Trikaripur, 2014, p. 17).

Our hope was that the exhibition would challenge audiences to look beyond their own assumptions of the festival and even of the exhibition and artwork itself, to see the deeper connection of self with other. This theme permeates Dhanaraj’s paintings, drawings, and photographs, and through our collaboration we developed an approach to communicate these same ideas aurally in my soundscape. The following was the description of the exhibition that we provided The following was the description of the exhibition that we provided to media outfits and placed on the wall of the exhibition hall. This Exhibit is a visual and sonic exploration of the people who perform Theyyam. The artists are interested in exploring the margins, the gaps, the spaces, and the places where the people exist. They want to consider the relationship between humans and Gods as it is laid out for us in the Theyyam festival. There is no conversation of the intermediary, the place and space between the human, the Theyyam performer and the ‘character’ they are embodying, or the Gods: This exhibition will explore that space. Gods are unreachable or not touchable by human beings in the sense that they are godly, and unavailable to the common person. This exhibit brings focus to the things that are touchable and that are touching, these are the human moments.

There is an intended play on words here by focusing on the touchable, those things touched by humans, while recognizing that the theme driving this art work is an exploration of marginalization, specifically aimed to bring attention to the untouchables of the community. The aim was for the audience was to feel something in their chest, to take notice of particular sounds of Theyyam through my accentuating or augmenting aspects of the recorded sound. These sounds of touching, or interactivity between humans and the world around us may become searing or shocking to the listener. These sounds of humans touching things bring a hyper focus to the tactile and human elements of the Theyyam festival, while intentionally sidestepping the intrigue of the performative characterizations and costumes.

Exhibition Photos

The Album

This Collaborative Exhibition with co-artist Dhanaraj Keezhara is a visual and sonic exploration of the people and everyday-ness of the Hindu Festival Theyyam. Listening to these recordings with headphones will allow for the most nuanced experience, as these recordings are mixed down from 4-channel to stereo.