Thirayaattam, a ritual dance-drama is performed as part of festival celebrations in Kaavus, temples of the Goddess, in Kozhikode and Malappuram Districts of Kerala.One can note a vast difference between Theyyam and Thira in their rituals, Kolams, costumes, make-up, performances etc. Thira is the chief sub division of Theyyam, and so the whole perfomance is also called Theyyam-Thira. It represents a legendary social figure and deplicts its heroic exploits. Thira is a whole in itself regarding its theme and is usually presented before the main event. The perfomers of Thira, through appropriate costumes,assume the roles of the divinities they hold in veneration. The dance, to the accompaniment of indigenous instruments, takes place only at night,illuminated by torchers made of clusters of dried coconut fronds.
The word Thiram means “radiance” or ‘lustre’, and the Thirayaattam is said to cast radiance or lustre by virtue of his gorgeous array, made all the more dazzling by the blaze of the torches.
When a Thirayaattam dancer puts on the intended garb, he becomes a kolam. Kolams of Siva or his manifestations like Kariyattan,Ghantakarna, Bhairava, Karivilli, and Karumakan, or of Kaali as Bhagavathi, Bhadrakaali, Bhairavi, Otakaali, Naagakaali, and Rakteswari are of primary importance. Apart from these,there are some minor characters, including a few in animal form; a minkey usually accompanies the Kolam of Bhairava and a house is the mount of Vatiman.
In Thirayaattam, make-up, perhaps better described as the painting of designs on the face and body, is a very elaborate process and almost a ritual in itself. The most outstanding element of the make-up is the mashi, a blacking for the eyes, prepared with great reverence, In no other theatre art of Kerala is the pigment for the eyes given such importance. The colours used for painting are white, black, red and yellow. Before submitting himself to the make-up artists, the performer ceremonially ties a piece of cloth round his head. In the dressing-room he then lies down, fully stretched. One expert attends to his face while two others, one on either side, see to the painting of the body, primarily to the chest. The artist doing the face has some freedom to innovate, but designs for the body must not differ in the slightest from the set delineation. The painting is not a solid colour but has designs wrought with fine brushes made from palm leaves. Crowns, where used, are of wood, perked up with coloured paper, peacock feathers and silk. Masks, though few, are mads of palm leaves and the bark of the arecanut tree; in each case. When a mark is used, it is of no consequence after the performance, and is merely thrown away.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Every ocassion for a Thirayaattam entails long-drawn-out rituals and ceremonies that precede the event. As soon as a temple decides to conduct its annual Thirayaattam, the keepers handover paddy for the making of the rice-flour, and oil for the preparing the mashi, to the Mootha Peruvannaan, leader of the Thirayaattam party. He passes on the oil to his wife, Mootha peruvannaathi, who, in turn, choses an auspicious day for commencing the work. She takes a purificatory bath in the morning and , wearing clothes that are freshly washed but not quite dry, lights the nilavilakku, the tall brass lamp kept in the central room of the house. Care is taken to place the lamp which is fed with a mixture of gingili and coconut oils. A well-scrubbed brass pot filler with water is kept suspended over the flame so that soot accumulates on its under surface. When the water gets quite hot the pot is removed and the soot scraped off. The pot is refilled with water and the process is repeated several times. The soot thus collected is put on a clean, dry plantain leaf and kept in safe custody.
In making the mashi, the Mootha peruvannathi exercises utmost care and piety. The belief survives that should the woman who makes the mashi be unchaste in mind or body, the soot will not adhere to the pot, and this is regarded as a very bad omen.
On the day of the Thirayaattam, the husband and wife offer prayers to the oil lamp placed in the quadrangle of the house before proceeding to the temple. The wife, the Mootha peruvannathi, carries with her the mashi neatly packed in a piece of black cloth and, on reaching the temple delivers it to her husband. He, as the Mootha peruvannan, receives this and at once hands it over to his nephew. The significance of this act is that should anything untoward happen to the peruvannan that may interfere with his conduct of the Thirayaattam, his nephew, who in the prevalent family system is his successor, is authorised to conduct the proceedings.
On the day of the event at about 10 A.M., the dancers and musicians accompanied by local dignitaries arrive at the Kaavu simultaneously, another ceremony, that of bringing of the Kalasam, pot of sacred water is attended to by others. The Kalasam is brought in procession by the senior of the temple accompanied by drummers and pipers. On reaching the Kaavu, the chief priest receives the kalasam and sprinkles some of the water on the idol, as a token of having bathed the deity.
It is only after these preliminiaries that the actual preparations for the Thirayaattam presentation commence. The temple authorities provide the material for the painting of the dancers; the Mootha peruvannan, is given a bundle of betel leaves, one areca-nut and one measure of rice. According to the custom, he randomly draws a few leaves from the bundle and casually places the nut on these. The number of leaves taken and the specific location of the nut on them is said to give a clue to the success or otherwise of the perfomance.
The next ritual, which takes place in the dressing room is equally important. A kalam, an artistic image of the Goddess, is made with rice-flour and coloured powders in the section of the room believed to be presided over by virgo. The perfomers offer rice and flowers and prostrate themselves before the kalam. In another ceremony, a kalam is prepared at the base of a tree situated on the southern side of the temple. The principal dancer offers worship to this kalam. soon he gets transformed into a velicchapaadu, an oracle, believed to be possessed by Bhagavathi. In a frenzy he sprints to the eight quarters of the temple to pay obeisance to the eight gods housed in them. Returning to the kalam, he drives an iron nail into the tree, takes a length of rope, makes 21 knots on it, and tightly wraps it around the tree: thus , by being secured to the tree, all the unclean spirits and negative influences are rendered ineffective.
Perfmomance of Thirayaattam
The perfomance of Thira begins with the rendering of a song called Thottam which tells the story of origin of the particular Theyyam about to be enacted, its history and accomplishment. It is sung by a group of people led by the chief perfomer. The song is sung standing infront of the chamber of the deity called Kottam or Palliyara. The song is accompanied by two types of drums, cymbals and horns.
Then comes the preamble to the Thirayaattam perfomance, known as vellaattam. It comprises various dancers and physical feats done by the perfomer. For this ceremony,conducted during the day, the perfomer merely ties a pleated white cloth round the waist,and over this another that is either red or black. A design is painted on the face, and the body is smeared with turmeric paste.A head gear and some ornaments complete the outfit. Thus readied, he executes a few sketchy dance movements, and with this his participation ends. After Vellaattam, the main ritual Thirayaattam begins.
Thirayaattam is supposed to recall the youthful aspect of the deity. The perfomer goes to the green room for costume change. After coming to the perfomance area,the perfomer wears the curious headgear and certain ornaments.This act sets the ritual rolling and it begins with the rendering of Thottam. The very entry of the kolam or the perfomer in full guise, is characterised by high spirits. The lively demeanour, the flaming torches and the strident music all contribute to make the spectacle mysteriously enchanting. With dance steps the kolam circumambulates the Kaavu three times. By now he begins to betray signs of possession. To the devout, he personifies Bhagavathi. The excitement mounts till, finally, the torchbearers too get- infected and begin to sway and stamp in rhythm.
The next stage is the climax of the ritual called urayal. This is a spectacular event with frenzied shaking and shivering of the Theyyam. At this time the deity is believed to possess the Theyyam and after this starts Thirayaattam that include energetic dances with variations in pace. The slow dance is called Pathinjaattam and the fast dance is called Elakiyaattam.
After Elakiyaattam, the Theyyam becomes a medium for the deity to hear the grievances of devotees and offers them oracle like utterances. This is called Uriyaattu Kelpikkuka or kuri kodukkuka.There is also a practice among devotees to offer money to the Theyyam at the concluding session of the act.
The winding up of the entire event takes place the following morning, in a ceremony called the Chanthaattam.The head gear and ornaments of the Thirayaattam dancer are removed and he is made to sit down wearing a single cloth. He takes a liquid preparation known as chanthu and with his bare hands applies this to his face and body. The paint gets dissolved and is wiped off. With this, the Thirayaattam ritual is over, and the pefomer reverts to his normal self.
Traditionally Thirayaattam is the hereditary profession of only one community, the Vannaan, and each Vannaan family enjoys the right to perform the Thirayaattam annually in a specific Kaavu.
1. Mallika Sarabhai (cd) Performing Arts of Kerala, Mapin Publishing Pvt Ltd, Ahemedabad.
2. Festivals of Kerala, Tourist Desk, Cochin, 1993.
3. Bhargavan Pillai, G.Nattarangu, State Institute of Languages, Thiruvananthapuram - 2000.