The Subversion of Caste and Gender inherent in Theyyam

Myths and variant beliefs are important threads that have bound the fabric of Indian culture. Even though our country has stepped into the modern era, certain beliefs and art forms still persist with its singleness.

Of all Indian states, Kerala has a unique way of exhibiting its myths and heroes through classical and folk arts—Malabar bearing the crown of folk tradition. As we dive deep into this world of colors, the grandeur of Theyyam embraces us in all its glory. Rather than being a folk art, Theyyam can be seen as a blend of divinity, belief and sadhana of the human mind. The artist’s body that evokes the deity is placed on a higher pedestal irrespective of his position in the caste hierarchy. When artists adorn the magnificence of this art, they are elevated to a divine status despite their so-called ‘devalued’ stratum in society.

This subversion is not just confined to caste but the concept of gender stereotype is also reversed. Theyyam is an art form that is embellished by mythical heroines who are worshiped as ‘deities’ of the land. Kadangottu Maakkam, Muchilottu Bhagavati, Bhadrakali etc. being few among them who carry the variant emotions of  the female mind. The remarkable moment that seizes our attention is when the divinity of these mythical heroines, invoked by the male body, manifests itself. And this blurs the distinction of gender. Apart from the visual brilliance, Theyyam as an art of liberation, echoes an egalitarian culture that is deliberately left unheard.

The art form of a place talks a lot about the culture, history and the prevalent myths. Malabar has a unique way of exhibiting its local myths and culture—Theyyam being a text that explores the socio-cultural belief system. Art can be classified as classical, folk, pop etc. And when life of the common people unifies with art, we call it ‘folk art’.

Once upon a time, art reflected a class—allowing only the educated elite to decipher things. On the contrary, folk arts invited the liberal mind to evoke in them the feeling of liberty and equality, where things fall into every mind irrespective of caste, creed and gender they belong to. Mostly they talk about the emotions of human mind. Anxiety, anger, happiness and suppression form the core of these arts, which the common people identify with. The vibrating dance steps of Theyyam shows liberation of suppressed feelings.

Theyyam is a ritual art form of worship of North Malabar, especially in Kolathunadu consisting of Kannur and Kasargod districts. It exists as a living cult with rituals, customs and traditions that has stood the test of time dating back several thousand years. For the people of North Malabar, Theyyam is a quasi-divine figure and for the lovers of heritage and folk arts, it is undoubtedly the most enthralling blend of chamayakootu and ancient legends. Historians claim that Theyyam dates back to the Neolithic ages. It is accompanied by musical instruments like chenda, elathalam, veekkuchenda and kurumkuzhal. There are more than four hundred Theyyams with their own style, music and choreography.

Rather than being a folk art, Theyyam carries with it the very notion of belief, dedication and divinity. They are considered as the deities of the land. What makes Theyyam different from other art forms is its way of presentation; the artists who present it, the myth it holds and the message it bears.

They are performed in the open air where the performer interacts with the audience as deities. It is performed by people who are categorized as lower castes. Once they were considered as untouchables, but through folk arts like Theyyam, they got the privilege and respect, even if it was for only a day. Theyyam is mostly performed by Malaya and Vannan communities. And all the mythical heroes, they represent, showcase the plight of oppression, treachery and discrimination. As divine forms they spread the message of fraternity and equality.

Unlike classical art forms, folk art does not have a prescribed text or rule to follow. They are passed on visually and verbally from one generation to the next. And alterations and customary changes were done according to the up-gradation in society. Since they are not bound by any rules and goes beyond the structured patterns of art, Theyyam liberates itself from the shackles of conventions. Moreover, it is not constrained by spatial elements. Move beyond the structures is what it seems to suggest.

One of the major turns that Theyyam makes as an art form is that most of its rituals are controlled and carried out by Marxists who deny the existence of a world beyond the material. It is possible that just as Marxism believes in the liberation of the proletariat, Theyyam as an art form too serves this purpose.

The sense of altered caste and gender order is what makes Theyyam an art of liberation and subversion. And this subversion and liberation is explained in this paper through some of the Theyyam forms like Karanavar, Pottan Theyyam, Muchilot Bhagavathi and Kadangot Maakkam. Theyyam, in its own way, shows the blurring of caste and gender distinctions in a language that can be understood by common people.

Caste discrimination is still a burning issue in modern India. In such a scenario, art forms like Theyyam speaks for the suppressed mind. Here we can see people mingling with each other irrespective of the caste they belong to.

All the Theyyam forms that are performed in sacred places were once places people from lower castes were not allowed to step into; but once they don the attire of these divine forms, they are respected, irrespective of the caste they belong to. And the subverted caste ideology and the irrelevance of caste in a society can be seen through this. Peripherally, we see the invocation of divine power by a human body but actually it connotes the idea that every human body is equally enriched with a divinity called humanity. It teaches the lesson to respect each other as humans.

The myth of Pottan Theyyam and Karanavar substantiate this concept. The word Karanavar represents the senior most member of a family. And it invokes the deceased ancestors of a family. The mightiness of these ancestors is sung through thottam paattu and it is performed by Malaya community. When they wear the attire of Karanavar, they are seated in the courtyard of the house, where once their touch was seen as a kind of pollution.

The myth of Pottan Theyyam explains the irrelevance in following the caste order. The notion of ‘integrity creates divinity’ is better explained by this folk art. The myth of Pottan Theyyam is associated with Sree Shankaracharya. On his way to climb Sarvajna Peetam, Lord Shiva comes to Shankara as Pulaya Pottan. Seeing an untouchable on his way, Shankara asks Lord Shiva to move out of his way as he believed that even the sight of a lower caste pollutes his divine journey. Hearing Shankara’s words, Lord Shiva asks Shankara how they were different when it is red-colored blood that oozes out of their bodies if it is cut. And Lord Shiva tells Shankara that education is complete only if a person can hold the notion of equality and compassion for his fellow beings irrespective of the caste and gender he/she belongs to.

Later, this myth of Pulaya Pottan was adapted as a Theyyam form in an urge to spread the message of irrelevance of caste order in society. In between the performance of Pottan Theyyam, the performer chants all the teachings and arguments in the form of Thottam Pattu.

Oppression and dominance were not limited to caste and community. Double standards of society towards the female gender was another issue. Theyyam in a way is a platform where depressed and oppressed female minds are liberated through a male body. The patriarchy that oppressed them-the male body- invoked these mythical heroines who were the victims of their oppression. The Theyya Kolams of Kadangot Maakkam and Muchilot Bhagavathi are considered as mythical tragic heroines who got incarnated into Bhagavathi Kolam.

Muchilot Bhagavathi is mainly the goddess of Vaniya community. She was originally a Brahmin woman who was intelligent and talented. Since during her days it was generally believed that women did not have the capability of being intelligent, she faced many oppositions and hurdles from various quarters. People of her community did not allow her to nurture her wisdom and she was expelled from the community through foul play. Disheartened, she asked a person from the Vaniya community to bring her oil and pouring the oil into the pyre she committed suicide and turned into a divine figure.

The plight of Kadangot Maakkam is also no less tragic. Being the only sister of her twelve brothers, she was spited by her sisters-in-law. Through false means they made their husbands believe that she had committed adultery with a person from a lower caste, and without looking for any explanation she and her children were brutally killed. The bards say that her family became the victims of her divine wrath.

All female characters in Theyyam reflect the liberation of their emotions which were once restricted. The female mannerisms are adorned in a male body which in real are often seen as derogatory. Here we see a subversion of gender identity where a male invokes the feminine.

There exist many critical commentaries on Theyyam that it is an art form where the physical presence of women is absent—Devakooth being the only Theyyam form done by females which in effect is a blend of classical dance which appropriates the constructed mannerisms of women. But when we think deeply on this issue, instead of blindly criticizing Theyyam as a patriarchal representation, we should see it as a form which justifies the existence of man in woman and woman in man.

‘Othering’ is a common tendency in society. The thoughts of humans are also programmed according to the socially constructed gender identity; shifting away from it makes him/her the other. Even the walk, gestures, expression and postures are categorized as feminine and masculine and people are expected to conform to either of these attributes. Theyyam rules out the existence of such conditions where the invoked divinity becomes feminine. Here the socially constructed notion of gender ceases to exist and uplifts the identity of ‘being human’.

Great stories of Kerala are often told through art. It is here that our legends come to light. The lives of those who were oppressed and mercilessly expelled from society are perceived in a new way through Theyyam and their divinity is now worshiped and respected. The unheard cries and voice of these subjugated folks found a place among the higher pedestal of Gods and Goddesses and we worship them when they come alive through Theyyam and we listen to what they say with awe and respect. Their legends are spread throughout the land that once condemned them and their suppressed voices are now heard by millions of people through the magnificent art form of Theyyam.






Aiswarya Madhu


Sreedevi R


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