I have been conducting ethnographic research of the Theyyam festival in the village of Keezhara, Kerala, India for the past 7 years. Theyyam, is a folkloric ritualistic Hindu Festival of Godly embodiment that is indigenous to the Northern Malabar region of Kerala. My research consists of collecting archival documentation of the festival through Audio Recording, Analog Photography, Digital Photography, and some Digital Film, Collecting Interviews with members of the community, and developing artistic exhibitions of the festival with my collaborator, that utilize archival materials and which are mounted in the community. A longer term goal with this research is to develop an archive of the audio recordings and photographs of the festival and its oral traditions that includes documentation of the artistic exhibitions developed with archival documentation and responded to by the community.
I became acquainted with the village of Keezhara in particular through a former colleague and friend, visual artist Dhanaraj Keezhara. Dhanaraj and I had worked together in Bangalore in 2007/2008, and Keezhara is where he is from. During a visit in 2010 we discussed the Festival, and his interest in drawing and painting the tangibility and humanness of the festival that is otherwise so focused on Godly embodiment. Dhanaraj invited me to attend the Theyyam Festival that year, and I have been attending ever since.
Initially Dhanaraj and I were interested in developing an exhibition that spoke to the issue of Caste marginalization within the Theyyam Performance Artist community in Keezhara. We were interested in combining an ongoing body of visual work Dhanaraj had been working on with a soundscape I would create from archival recordings I made during my visits to the festival. We did mount this exhibition in the nearby city of Kannur, Kerala in 2014 and called it Everyday Life: A Repertoire of Ritual and Performance. We invited Theyyam performance artists, members of the village, other folklore arts community members, the public, the press, and government officials.
We continued to explore Theyyam the next few years but shifted our orientation to that of creating artistic exhibitions concurrently with the festival. This would mean that our target audience, members of the village of Keezhara, would be easier to reach, and the themes of caste marginalization and the humanness of Theyyam Performance Artists would be easier to introduce to the community.
In 2016 Dhanaraj and I created Theyyam Nilathezhuthu, a pop-up installation at his mother’s home in Keezhara. The exhibition was a huge mural painting on a mud floor that had been laid in the traditional fashion a few months’ earlier in preparation. Dhanaraj and I used graffiti art to explore key storylines of Theyyam through drawing, color, and impermanence. We painted non-stop during the first few day’s of the festival and then invited the community to the house to experience the mural. The mural served as a launching off point, a counterpoint if you will to the festival that was going on at the Temple a 4-minute walk through the woods. The Floor painting merged old, the traditional mud floors used in the village, with the new, bright graffiti painting of modern representations of an ancient festival. This lead to discussions about the purpose of the exhibit, the meaning of the work, the reason for our collaboration and so on. These exhibitions increasingly provided opportunities for discussion and engagement around key themes of the festival with members of the community.
In 2017 we again wanted to explore the notion of the Pop-up Installation, and planned the development of an exhibition, that would take place at his mother’s home during the Keezhara Theyyam Festival. This exhibition was entitled Theyyam Ritual, Nature, and People. Dhanaraj and I painted 40 meters of white material over the course of 4 days, and then installed the paintings as a maze for visitors to visit. The continuous visual wall measured 40 meters wide by 1.25 meters tall. We designed a waking maze in a bullseye fashion in the yard, hired men to clear the space and dig holes for 12 foot high bamboo poles to be installed. We then ran chord across the top and the bottom of the poles to mark out the maze and eventually installed the paintings onto the chord both back and front to create the walking maze. At the center of the maze we installed a mirror. The intention was for visitors to walk through the circular visual wall, and experience the drawings of Theyyam, and the community representations, and as they reached the half way point at the center of the maze, be confronted with a mirror reflecting their own image in the foreground, with the visual community images of Theyyam behind them.