Monday, March 11, 2013

Trying to find oneself through Dance, Masks and Theyyam- Stranger in my own country







Among st all the states in the Southern India, Kerala as always fascinated me..in different ways and in different directions. I was in Kerala in the early 90 s..did most of the touristy things..went back again in early 2000 and then again about 2 years back. 

On one of these trips I witnessed the 'Theyyam'..perhaps one of the most well preserved dances in these regions. The energy at such a dance recital is to be seen to be believed. The dancer is a strange combination of masks, garish costumes, armor, flowers, masks and paints. There is a kind of sacred frenzy about the dancer. One has the feeling of theater, play and dance all being rolled into one.

There is meticulous make up, the process where the dancer slowly becomes the character and manifests himself into a particular form. Most of the masks are different and as elaborate. The dance gains momentum once the dancer is on stage and watching the dance one feels his transformation from the ordinary mortal to God, to the character he plays. 

As I sat watching, it was night, the evening slowly enfolding itself. People begin to fill in a makeshift stage. There is the heady fragrance of Jasmine, sometimes a bit too heady for me. Men in starched white dhotis surround me. As if after great thought, suddenly they smile and one is in raptures. Often I am considered French, why, I have no understanding. Everyone seems to settle down at their own pace and they seem to understand that things will settle in its own time..here there is no time..everything is fluid. Little children try and clamber up on the stage, mothers laugh and pull them down, men fan their dhotis, there is a general bonhomie. I am the stranger, only if I chose to be one.

I remember wondering if this was dance or a reminder of rhythmic movements. It is something that one has a feel has been untouched by time and its changes. There is terrifying melancholy in those painted eyes, even anger sometimes in expression. The dance is supposed to bring alive myths and some of the most hallowed traditions from ancient scripture..I wonder which ones..but after a while actually it really does not matter which..one is so taken up by the energy of it all and one reaches a space where you believe what the dancer wants you to believe.

The fluidity of the dance seems to overtake the fluidity of the changes. In the mask, the dancer becomes someone who he is not and also who he is trying to find..the present becomes ancient..the drum beats, the mask, the motions, all seem small parts of a magnificent whole. I sometimes recognize the roles, he plays, sometimes the myths, the ancient stories portrayed. Somewhere down the line, the dancer overcomes the dance..and one is left with the overwhelming beat of the drums and then the peace of resounding silence, where the dancer looks through you and seems to see your inner thoughts, in that moment time stands still.

- Image courtesy Dhanaraj Keezhara

5 comments:

Maliny, said...

Maybe its because of your complexion that they mistake you for french :) Here in kerala,people in general have a weathered complexion owing to the climate. Glad to read an account on Theyyam, an indigenous art that we are proud of :)

umashankar said...

That was a brooding post on Theyyam, short but expressive as the dancer. That was fluid writing too!

PS: All that is left of my French is 'Je ne sais pas fran├žais!'

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury said...

Thanks Umashankar & Maliny, glad you liked it!

Arnab Maity said...

Lovely account of Kerala's indigenous art form,Theyyam.

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