Thayyam, when men turn into gods
Thayyam, when men turn into gods
"There's a ceremony starting tomorrow in a temple about 10 km from here", my host said, when i told him i had come to Kannur to see and photograph a Theyyam performance: a combination of dance, music and religious rites. The next morning, i reached Vilapattanam, where that temple happened to be, and found a group of men actively preparing for the rites that were about to take place for the five days and nights to come.

The Theyyam season runs from October to April in the Kannur and Kasargod districts of Nothren Kerala. A time when the performers leave work and daily responsabilities to dedicate themselves entirely to their art. But what makes Theyyam special is that it is only performed by lower caste communities, in a region of Kerala where 'untouchability' is still part of today's reality. Yet, the Theyyams do not merely play the roles of deities and mythological characters. They actually become the deities and, quite surprisingly, are seen and worshipped as gods and goddesses by the local people who come to receive their blessings and give them offerings.
The extremely elaborate and colourful facial paintings and costumes are unique in India and only made by the community members. Depending on which deity he will incarnate, the preparation of a Theyyam can take several hours. It's a crucial aspect of the ritual, when man is gradually tranformed into god.

Although it can be traced back some 2000 years and remains essentially a tribal practice, it is still a very popular art form among the Hindus of that region. I soon realized that those men, bank clerks for some, civil servants for others, were not a bunch of backward villagers cut off from the modern world; and, once again, I became aware of how ancient traditions still prevail in contemporary Indian society.

Valapattanam, Kerala, India. 2013

Face painting session before the rituals begin. A long and delicate preparation during which the Theyyam enters a meditative state.