Images and article by Tania Chatterjee




Theyyam is an ancient folk art form of North Malabar region of Kerala, India. In short it can be stated as the dance of the God. It is a rich living culture of Kerala which can be traced back to several thousand years. Being an ancient tradition one can find trees and animals are also worshiped besides gods and goddesses. Over the years there has evolved various cults but the main traditional element has existed.  In many senses Theyyam is often a form of historical documentation of the society. It is elaborate combination of dance, music, mime and passionate devotion.

Theyyam is not just a single dance performance, there are over 400 different types Theyyams and each has its own music, costume, make up, dance style and story. The most popular forms of Theyyam are Pottan, Vishnumurthy, Kari Chamundi, Raktha Chamundi, Veerali, Gulikan, Nagakanni,  Bhagavati, and Mutiappan.


It is believed that while performing Theyyam, the artist becomes an illustration of the local God. Theyyam artists spend years to learn the dance skills and other delicate parts of the tradition. It is very important that the dancers understands the character and the importance of the costume and face painting. The dancers need to be aware about the delicate art of face painting as they need to help each other. Theyyam dancers are male and the skill is passed down from generation after generation. In few cases the Theyyam artist need to lie down for hours while his make-up is being done.

The life of a Theyyam dance is highly disciplined. In the weeks leading up to a ritual, the dancers live a life of purity. The dancers are not supposed to consume any non-vegetarian food. He is not permitted to lie or speak bad words to others. When the Theyyam artist puts on the head-dress it is believed that the divine lord has descended upon the artist.  The devotees seek blessing from these Theyyam artists. However, once the Theyyam performance season (October till May every year) is over, he will return to his regular job and life. Theyyam artist have a high recognition in the community.

Each artist represents a personality with great charisma. The Theyyam dancers wear heavy make-up with colourful costumes. The ornaments and the head-gear is the most significant part of the dress. The personal charisma along with the traditional music fills one with awe and wonder.

The headgear is the most significant part of the elaborate costume. The headgear is made up of coconut leaves and bamboo splices covered with cloths and coconut leaves and flowers. Apart from headgear the dancers also wear arm bands, bangles and large garlands.


Theyyam artists belong from “so-called” lower caste community. The social strata in Kerala are divided between several castes. Socially, Theyyam plays an important role, because it is a low caste celebration. The performances never take place in a temple, which is typically run by orthodox upper class Brahmins. Theyyam performances can be found in family shrines, home courtyard or open air venue.

Theyyam is mostly performed in an open clearance in front of family deity. There is no special arrangement for stage and curtain, although one can find a green room where the artists do their make-up. Other dancers and specialist make-up artists usually do the make-up. There are many supporting specialist who help the dancers all through the show. The drummers are an important element; they not only help the artist to create a rhythm but also tell the legend of the specific deity.


Theyyam performers wear heavy make-up, jewellery and very colorful costumes. The head-gears, face painting, ornaments, dresses are truly majestic and create a larger than life impact on viewers. The make-up session is lengthy and it can go typically for 3 to 4 hours, followed by wearing of layers of costume and headgear sessions. Local people consider Theyyam artists as God and seek blessings from them after the performance. After the make-up and dressing; the Theyyam artist sits on a stool and admires himself in a mirror. He not only checks the make up but also gets into the role of the  character. The spirit of God descends on his soul when he sees his new avatar in the mirror. 


Once the ritual and dance performance starts, it can go on for hours, depending on how long it takes for the artist to enter a trance as he dances and spins to the drums. Theyyam is a powerful display of dance rhythms and intense expressions. Dancers break coconuts with their head, jump on fire or walk on red hot coal and do other larger than life moves. The most fascinating Theyyam are fire Theyyams . It begins at late night and continues till dawn. After the super-energetic performance, all the devotees treat them as God and seek blessings.



The energy of Theyyam performance that the spectators feel at the height of the event, is definitely mesmerising and once in a lifetime experience.


If you are interested, to join my Theyyam Photography Workshops, visit FOTORBIT WORKSHOPS for updates.


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