Theyyam: Critique on Patronage and Appropriation by Prof M Dasan

Theyyam: Patronage, Appropriation, Interpolation by M Dasan (Kannur: Kannur University, 2012).  Cover image suggestive of bondage and hegemony.
Theyyam: Patronage, Appropriation, Interpolation by M Dasan (Kannur: Kannur University, 2012). Cover image suggestive of bondage and hegemony.

Theyyam the ancient ritual and popular art form of Malabar is a cultural expression of the dalits and other contested sections of the stratified society.  The subaltern classes used it as a strategic aesthetic and spiritual act and articulation against caste oppression and barbaric violence unleashed by the caste lords and feudal patriarchy.

A Vellattam at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod. 2010
A Vellattam (a pro or pre Theyyam) at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod. 2010

But over the ages, feudalism, Brahmanical values and Savarna patriarchy had appropriated it and Hinduized it through its elitist patronage.  It is now being used as a site of interpolation and cultural subordination, says Prof M Dasan in his latest critical study Theyyam: Patronage, Apropriation, Interpolation.

Vishnu Murti at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod, 2010.  Vishnu Murti was originally Palantayi Kannan a Tiya boy murdered by a Kurup the caste lord.  Likewise the Pottan Theyyam originally a Paraya man became an incarnation of Siva in the elite appropriation later.
Vishnu Murti at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod, 2010. Vishnu Murti was originally Palantayi Kannan a Tiya boy murdered by a Kurup the caste lord. Likewise the Pottan Theyyam originally a Paraya man who challenged caste elitism and untouchability became an incarnation of Siva in the elite appropriation later.

The dynamic performance of Theyyam and its spectacle have always fascinated me as I spent my whole childhood from infancy to standard six in Kannur the heartland of Theyyam and Thira. My parents who taught in Government Schools in Malabar were no longer at ease with my Theyyam-craze.   As a young lad I used to scoot to Kaliyattams in the eve from my home defying the parents.  I spent a lot of sleepless nights by the Kolams and Kavus.  So this work by Prof Dasan is personally special to me as an ardent and committed Theyyam goer and a fan of its visual culture and music.

Theyyam performance at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod, 2010.  A unique shrine on the northern bank of river Chandragiri.  Took it while working in Govt College, Kasaragod.
Theyyam performance at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod, 2010. A unique sacred grove and shrine on the northern bank of river Chandragiri near the estuary. Took it while working in Govt College, Kasaragod druing 2010-11.

The Theyyam now called Vishnu Moorti was originally called Palantayi Kannan. Kannan was a Tiya boy brutally killed by a feudal lord Kurup and he was hailed as a local hero and martyr through the ritual.  But now the very subaltern or Avarna hero has been described and declared as an incarnation of Vishnu the central God of Hindu Brahmanism.

Likewise Pottan Theyyam an expression of the caste critique by a Chandala/Avarna is categorized as an incarnation of Siva himself.  The caste critique and the blunder of Sankara all vanish into thin air, argues Prof Dasan.  This is the power of overnight appropriation by the Hindu hegemonic discourse, something Sahodaran Ayyappan in early 20th century described as the equivocal power of Brahmanism to demonize god and render the demon god instead.  The tyranny and fascism of the narrative power and the omnipotent textuality of internal imperialism are exposed in these brilliant and historically informed critical elaborations.

Ali Theyyam at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod, 2010.  One of the rare Muslim Theyyams in Malabar.
Ali Theyyam at Pulikunnu Kavu, Kasaragod, 2010. One of the rare Muslim Theyyams in Malabar.  The Thotam (chant) goes like; “Pallyilanenkilum Pallyarayilanenkilum…”  Pally is mosque and Pallyara is the Theyyam shrine.  Both originally connote to the Pali and Chamana past of Buddhism in Kerala.

The book is published by Kannur University (Kannur: 2012). It is prized Rs 300 and available with the Kannur University. It includes theoretical and empirical analyses of the subject  in a multi-disciplinary accent.  The book is a joy to read and to admire the well printed images, the hybrid cultural contexts of the ritual and its appropriation by hegemonic discourses.  It includes numerous color photos and illustrations that captivate the common reader and even children.  The book is well conceived and designed to suit global reading public and researchers in the field of culture, society and politics.  It is also a critique of ritual performance in Kerala and a theoretical work on ritual and hegemony in Malabar in particular.

A Kutty Chathan (little Sastha or boddhisatva) Theyyam being performed in National Theatre Fest 2011 at Calicut.
A Kutty Chathan (little Sastha or boddhisatva) Theyyam being performed in National Theatre Fest 2011 at Calicut.  A beacon into the Buddhist connection .

Prof Dasan traces the history of the proto types of the Theyyam from the Sangam age onwards.  He connects it with the engravings and rock art in Edakal caves in Wayanad.  His critique and cultural historiography are deeply engaging and insightful.  The cover that illuminatingly suggests the elitist patronage and bondage using the paraphernalia of Theyyam done by Dr Sreejith Krishnan is powerful and suggestive.  The book includes a detailed bibliography, index and glossary of Malayalam key words and pronunciation.

theyyam,manjeswar 137

The first chapter traces the origin and transformation of Theyyam in south India during the pre-Sangham age.  The socio cultural contexts of the ritual art are discussed in the second chapter.  The third one explores the Savarna feudal patronage extended to the cultural expression.  The fourth chapter analyzes the appropriation of Theyyam and its legends by the dominant elite culture through gradual coercion and epistemic violence.  The fifth one discusses the mis-interpretation of Theyyam and its myths by the elitist forces and upper strata of the caste society.

Green Room of Theyyam
Green Room of Theyyam

The book is a valuable contribution to the field of Theyyam studies, folklore, popular culture studies and dalit studies in the context of Malabar.  It is both an extension and critique of the early works by Dilip Menon and T V Chandran regarding the Sanskritization, Brahmanization and Hinduization of local shrines called Kavu, that is intensifying in Kerala, especially in Malabar.  In this sense it is a counter hegemonic and much needed work of resistance and a significant subversive act in the politics of culture.

Biking Kerala: Riding Kasaragod to Kottayam

My five year old Kawasaki on top of Posadigumpe hill, Kasaragod, April 2011

On 24 May 2011 I embarked on a long 450km ride from Kasaragod to Kottayam on my five year old Kawasaki Avenger.  It took two days to reach Kottayam as I stopped and visited plenty of places and people in between.  Because of the contemporary and  historical relevance of the places, people and routes I think I must record and write about it in text at least as there was no camera with me on this long and interesting land cruise from extreme north Malabar to south Travancore.

Malik Dinar Pally, Thalangara, Kasaragod. C. 8th century AD

I was shifting my bike that has successfully completed its fifth year of sensational service to Kottayam and the railway parcel people at Kasaragod expressed some ambiguity regarding the loading and unloading of the bike and its possible delayed arrival at destination, so I thought of riding it the whole way down to south on my own. It is one of the longest bike tours that I have ever undertaken at a stretch connecting Tulunadu and Travancore.

A summer rainbow over Chandragiri fort: From Chandragiri rail bridge, Kasaragod Feb 2011

I remember my early long rides above 500km on my dearest Kawasaki to Kanyakumari from Kottayam through Punalur-Tenmala-Kutalam-Tirunelveli route and return through Trivandrum-Kollam( in 2008); Kodaikanal from Kalady through Munnar-Bodimett-Theni and return through Pollachy-Palakad-Thrissur (2007); To Valparai from Kalady through Athirapally-Malakaparai route and return through Pollachy-Palakad-Thrissur (2008) and Rameswaram and Dhanushkoti from Rajakumari through Bodimett-Theni-Madurai-Ramnad(2009).

Five year old Kawasaki Avenger in our home (Akhila) in Gandhinagar, Kottayam. May 28, 2011

I started at 8.30am from Kasaragod from Thalangara the site of the ancient 8th century Malik Dinar Pally or Mosque and passing through NH17 connecting Kanjangad, Payyannur, Kannur and Thalasery reached the seashore near Thalasery bay around 12.30pm.  Took lunch from a sea side restaurant, rested a while and visited the fort and churches belonging to the early 17th century European colonialists, mainly Dutch, Portuguese and British.

River Chandragiri at Pulikunnu, Kasaragod separating Tulunad and Kolathunad. Jan 2011

Then through the relics of French settlements at Mahi, Vadakara and Koilandy reached Kozhikode and enjoyed tea near Ramanatukara well past the traffic of the city towards south east.  Again rode south on the NH17 and reached Kottakal and Valanchery and ended the day’s ride at Kutipuram at around 7pm.  The beautiful KTDC Aram motel on the highway above the western arm of Kutipuram brdige on river Bharathapuzha is a cool place to stay overnight.

Athirapally waterfall

Rooms (only two ) and food are good and homely.  They also gave me fresh bed cloths, bath towel and soaps all for Rs 450.  The location and views are excellent especially at night and in the morning.  The windows open to the river-scape beneath.  Only the water level is low in the river in this advanced drought season.  Its bare sandy beds are exposed in summer.

Valiyaparamba backwater, Trikaripur, Kasaragod Sept 2010

On the morning of 26 May 2011, the next day I restarted the journey at 7am again riding NH 17 through Ponnani.  Near Chamravattam I could witness the new road barrage that is being constructed across the river that is going to cut the distance by more than 40km between Kochi and Kozhikode.  I also enjoyed the sight of ancient temples and laterite cap-stones on the banks of Perar or Nila a river basin that housed early stone age civilizations in Kerala.  This river valley and Palakad pass linked the Chera west coast with the Chola and Pandya empires in the east in the ancient Tamil country.

A beach near Uppala in Kasaragod Oct 2010

At Ponnani I visited ancient mosques Thotumkal Pally, Pally Kadavu and Jumath Pally, ancient Muslim Pallys near the mouth of the river on the southern bank of the estuary.  This ancient port town was also the head quarters of the legendary Kunjali Marakars the supreme commanders of all naval forces in Malabar coast for many centuries.   Unfortunately the Purathoor estuary and its mudflats and sand banks amidst the vast placid waters of the Ponnani estuary are gone in the dredging construction for the new harbor and fish landing.

Indo-Japanese Buddhist bike on its fifth birthday in our little boddhi garden in Kottayam. May 2011

The migratory birds may not come here next season.  I remember visiting the location earlier and even enumerating the birds here as part of Asian Waterfowl Count with birding friends Dr Dileep K G, Manoj, Jijo, Vishnu, Sandeep, Jinu and others plenty of times in late winter in 2007 and 2009.  But all of that is gone.  My friend artist Anirudharaman who is currently teaching art in a Kutipuram Govt School has informed me that plenty of gulls flocked so inland as far as Kutipuram this season because of the habitat damage caused by the dredging and construction near the river mouth at Ponnani.

Me and my bike in our little boddhi garden, Gandhinagar, Kottayam. May 2011

After visiting the ancient Pallys so cherished by foreign travelers, Tipu Sultan and a range of Sufi sages from the north west I visited Biyam Kayal near Ponnani near Ezhavathuruthy and enjoyed breakfast there on the banks of this unique wetland and backwater at around 9am and resumed my southward journey through the the coastal highway NH 17.

Koi Carps and Gold Fishes: Arun's Koi pond in its prime in 2009 in our home garden in Kottayam

Passing Chetuwa, Chavakad, Vadanapally and Kaipamangalam I reached Mathilakam the ancient Trikanamathilakam or Kunavailkottam north of Kodungallur where Ilango Adikal the younger brother of Cheran Chengutuvan the Chera emperor of Kerala during the early Sangham age wrote his ancient classical Tamil epic Silapatikaram. I missed my camera all the while.

My Kawasaki near the Koi-waterlily pond made by Arun in our boddhi garden, Gandhinagar, Kottayam. May 2011

The Tirukunavayil Kottam or Mathilakam was an ancient Jain and Buddhist center and the Siva temple is a relic of the ancient Sramana heritage converted after the 10th century by Brahmanism and its most virile and violent Sudra henchmen.

Pink waterlily and its close companion at Kumarakom

The late P K Gopalakrishnan the radical local historian and writer who has extensively written about the place and its Sramana antiquity was from Panangad just south of Mathilakam.  I felt like reading PKG once again as I crossed these ancient  regions on my Kawasaki motorcycle that enjoys a love-hate relationship with many friends for its Japanese Buddhist design and looks.

Motorcycle and the art of enlightenment: My Kawasaki well into the sixth year of service

Passing Panangad I reached Kodungallur shrine and rested a while underneath the huge Banyans named after several households from Malabar and Travancore.  I remembered the struggles by Sahodaran Ayyappan to ban the animal sacrifice at Kodungallur Bharani during the early 20th century.

Lesser Whistling Teals resting in Thrissur Vadakechira, Dec 2010

In the temple premise I tried to locate the exact Banyan beneath which there was an attempt on Sahodaran’s  life while speaking against bloody and violent cults; so sensitively narrated by Adv K A Subramanyam and Prof M K Sanu in their respective biographies.  And then proceeded to Cheraman mosque the earliest mosque outside West Asia and the first one in India founded by Malik Bin Dinar in 629 AD.

A view of Malabar coast at sunrise from Arabian sea. Sept 2010 taken during the first pelagic survey

It is also important to remember that an ordinary Muslim tradesman saved the life of Sahodaran as he was beaten up and chased by upper caste henchmen to end his life near this ancient Pally that is just a few hundred meters from the temple.

White lotus in Kanjangad: So dear to the enlightened ones

It is also interesting to note that Kodungallur Kunjikuttan Thampuran has even gone to the extend of describing this Pally as an ancient Buddhist Pally in the early centuries of the Christian era. According to biographers Sahodaran was given asylum inside his shop by the Muslim tradesman and he defiantly guarded and chased away the henchmen and hooligans of Brahmanism with an unleashed dagger drawn from his belt.

Inspiring Wings of mobility: White-bellied Sea Eagle of Malabar coast

The officials allowed me to enter into the old 7th century central chamber and I saw the ancient wood carvings, the pulpit and hanging bronze lamp with ancient Vatezhuthu (old Malayam-Tamil script)  inscriptions used in the olden days. The museum of the Pally is also valuable in many ways.

A machine can take you to people, places, pasts, nature, cultures... especially a soulful one like my Kawasaki... it is a vehicle of imagination and freedom of expression in terms of space and time...

Then by crossing the Kottapuram Kayal reached Muthakunnam, Maliyankara and Pattanam – all resonant with the pasts of Kerala and its historical linkages with the world and radical reformers who shaped our society and cultures.  Crossing the Vadakekara bridge I reached North Paravur and straight away visited the Jew street and ancient synagogue that is being renovated now by Kerala Tourism Department.

River Meenachil at Thazhathangady. May 2011

Site engineer Radhakrishnan from Iritty showed me around this marvelous monument in laterite and wood.  The oldest and biggest synagogue in Kerala would be welcoming the cultural enthusiasts and researchers in a few months.  Only a few Jew Pallys are left in Kerala that include the ones at Paravur, Chennamangalam, Mala and Mattanchery.

8th c. Thazhathangady Jumath Pally, Kottayam

Then I visited my friend Kannan of Prakruti Graphics, Paravur and after taking lunch resumed my journey to Idapally through Cheriyapally and Varapuzha. In between I also visited Varapuzha Pally breifly but could not get inside the ancient structure.  After resting a few hours in a book shop inside the  Oberon mall, Idapally I resumed my journey to Kottayam.  Though plenty of books on Gandhi and Chanakya are abundant in this hi-fi bookshop I was wooed by some books on birds and a German author who wrote about India and Asia.

Artist Vinod Francis drawing waterlilies at Thazhathangady on river Meenachil. 29 May 2011

Accidentally I read Jesus Lived in India by Holger Kersten and was deeply engaged with the narrative on the enlightened Jesus who is also called a Boddhisatva in Gandhara Buddhism and in Kashmiri and Kabuli Sufi tradition.  I resumed my ride to Kottayam through Vytila, Thripunithura, Vaikom and Thalayolaparambu, the homeland of Basheer and reached home in Gandhinagar at 7.30pm.

The Time Machine: Motorcycling is mobility, freedom and education on culture and nature

Fortunately the summer showers in Ernakulam and Kottayam districts that keep the regions cooler and greener than the other parts of Kerala this summer spared me and my long ride on the Kawasaki that still lures the children and the young in mind with its Japanese Buddhist design elements, fun looks and flowing curves and cool contours.

Beauty of black buddha: 9th c. granite Buddha recovered at Mavelikara

After reaching home I found out that my bike’s fifth birthday is over; it was on 12th May 2011.  I think even machines have spirit and soul and they could enlighten us humans in various respects.  The sights and sounds of sea coasts, rivers, high mountains, wetlands, people and the ancient Pallys at Thalangara, Ponnani, Kodungallur and the one in Thazhathangady are unforgettable and exciting in many ways.

Kovalam. May 2011