Think of Theyyam and a vast landscape dotted by wild vegetation, unearthly figures in strong hues and adornments, the pulsating beat of the percussion instrument –chenda – and wakeful nights unfold before you.
For a connoisseur, there is a subconscious awareness of the low caste identities of these men who temporarily slip into the personae of the overarching deities; invariably spinning sordid tales of deprivation, social and gender inequality, and cruelty, for the audience.
There is an unmistakable umbilical link that exists between the ritualistic dance of Theyyam, with its organic accoutrements drawn from nature, and the biodiversity-rich wilderness of the sacred groves (Kaavus) home to Malabar’s pantheistic deities. It is a symbiotic relationship with the Theyyam deities – Goddesses in most part and hereditarily embodied by designated men from the subaltern castes – towering over a feudal society with undivided land holdings nurturing the groves and the myths that wind around the lives of their people. Small doubt then that the Kaavus owed their existence to this sanguine faith in the subaltern God(dess) that presided over the region. The sacredness attached to the deity, and by extension to the grove it inhabited, thus gave it its protective cover.
Ironically, progressive land reforms and the disintegration of the joint family system that has come in in its wake, has slowly began to efface the divinity attached to the Kaavus, which until now had been untouched; its ‘Nature Deities’ ensconced in a boulder or a tree bark. Coupled with that is the scramble for precious real estate and a thirst for plunder that sees the deities gradually trans-locate to concrete structures, as skewed ideas of development and ecological sustainability prevail over antiquated notions of the sacred.
A government report published in 1956 had identified some 10,000 Kaavus in various parts of Kerala. Fifty years hence, in 2015, just about 1,200 of them survived. Development has ushered most Theyyams out of what remained of the groves to built structures with open spaces engirdled by high compound walls.
This is an effort, and part of a long-term mission, to document the surviving Kaavus with their integral Theyyam deities. I have attempted to explore the strong underpinning of ecofeminism that remains embedded in Theyyam, with its subaltern ecological identity that is at war with its own opportunistic transformation. Such an eco-cultural chronicling is meant to sensitise people to the life-sustaining value of the Kaavus and their undeniable role in fighting climate change.
Thulasi Kakkat spent his childhood in a small village of north Kerala, the land of Theyyam. He has been working as a photojournalist for The Hindu newspaper for the past ten years.
He had worked in the field of advertising and still photography for films that won national honours, before joining The Hindu. He currently lives and works in Kochi.