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Theyyam in Kerala: Meet Prabhakaran with 55+ years of making Theyyam Ornaments!

Sujith Narayanan March 13, 2019
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Theyyam in Kerala is one of the top cultural and ritualistic entity of the state. Tyndis Theyyam Photography Tours are celebrated by even the top photographers of India. All of them say that it is a visual treat!

What makes Theyyam in Kerala as visual treat?

Theyyam in Kerala looks so elegant because of its accessories. The shiny red costumes, headgear and ornaments worn by Theyyam make it look so elegant and ideal for Theyyam Photography Tours. These accessories worn by the Theyyam differ slightly by region. Theyyam in Kannur has more elegant costume compared to Theyyam in Kasaragod. 

Theyyam in kerala

Theyyam – the divine dance

Every year, adhering to the Theyyam Calendar, Theyyam in Kerala is performed in the temples and sacred groves. For each season of Theyyam in Kerala, makeup, costumes and ornaments of Theyyam are newly made or provided with necessary polishing works to keep the elegant look intact.

Who crafts the ornaments and headgears for Theyyam in Kerala?

Most of the headgear and ornaments used for the Theyyam dance are handmade by 70-year-old T.V. Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran better known as Prabhakarettan lives in his sweet home named “Prabha” in the beautiful village in Thalassery near the famous Andalur Kavu.

Andalur is an island village situated near the Dharmadam region in Thalassery. Often called as the ‘Thuruthu’, it as Small Island-like place that is covered by backwaters and mangrove growth. Andalur Kavu Temple doesn’t provide any reference to the date of creation of the temple. This ancient temple houses the deity of Lord Rama and there are many other sub-deities as well.

theyyam in kannur

Bali-Sugriva Battle enacted at Andalur Theyyam in Kannur

Theyyam festival at Andalur Kavu is one of the top avenues for Tyndis Theyyam Tour packages. It is one of the top festivals of Theyyam in Kannur. Theyyam festival in Andalur Kavu falls in the month of February according to Theyyam Calendar. 

The heritage village where 70-year-old Prabhakaran’s home is located is very dear to those who follow Theyyam in Kannur.

Theyyam Artists preparing for the dance

Theyyam Greenroom

Story of Theyyam in Kerala

Theyyam in Kerala is the dance of gods, a ritual art that is performed in the sacred temples of in the Northern Malabar regions. It bears roots mainly in the Kolathunadu region in the Kannur- Kasaragod area. The

Theyyam dance is performed in the premises of sacred groves or village shrines in the Kolathunadu. The ritual is practised and categorized according to the then existed Swaroopams. Theyyam in Kerala is performed during the Theyyam season every year, according to the Theyyam Calendar.

Theyyam is actually the assumed form of god by a man who performs the art. Theyyam in Kerala belong to the communities like Vannan, Malayan, Mavilan, Velan, Munnoottan, Anjunnoottan, Pulayar, Kopalar and others.

Theyyakkolams or the different types of Theyyam in Kerala have classified a set of appearance based on the painting or decoration of their face and the costumes.

Theyyam tour

Theyyam Artist

Each Swaroopams has its own regional differences in the take on Theyyam performances. Some major difference can be noted in the Headgears, Ornaments, and the Face Painting or the Mukhathezhuthu etc.

The folk dance of Malabar, Theyyam literally means ‘the dance of gods’. Rooted in the indigenous animistic religious beliefs, this performing art tradition relies on narratives that are elaborated through a combination of singing, chanting and dancing. Each character in the narrative is a representation of a deity; the costume and appearance of the character follow ritualistic prescriptions that have been followed for years.

Theyyam in Kerala is, in fact, a three-dimensional sculpture in motion, the entire costume shows the influence of the region’s sculptural art forms. Lightweight materials such as the wood from the areca nut palm and bamboo are used in the construction of the frame of the most significant accessory, the mudi, headgear, as well as for the lower garments.

Muriku, Iruli or Coconut tree wood and areca nut palm wood are used to make ornaments. Areca nut wood is also used for making Maarmula, the breastplates, for female performers and the masks, generally worn by those characters considered fierce.

Theyyam Ornaments

Theyyam Ornaments

The headgear is heavily ornamented, but lighter in weight, as it is made from the wood of areca nut palm and bamboo. Tools like the point chisels, flat chisels, knife, files, marking tool and compass are made use for the process.

Tyndis Theyyam Tour Packages team had met Prabhakaran during our travel to explore the cultural heritage of Andalur. We met artists who were involved in the Theyyam Performance known as the ‘Koladhari’. There were people who do the daily rituals called the ‘Anthithiriyan’. The priests who do the Festival Rituals are called the ‘Karmikar’. Then the Chendakkar – the people who perform the musical backing for the Theyyam in Kerala. There are many other groups that are directly and indirectly linked with the performance of Theyyam in a temple.

Prabhakaran is the son of Late Bappu Peruvannan who was the Koladhari or the Theyyam artist at the Andalur Kavu. Bappu Peruvannan, a major icon among the Theyyam community was destined to enact the main deity of Andalur Kavu known as the Daivathaar for many years.

 Prabhakaran at his workshop


Prabhakaran at his workshop

Prabhakaran started his career in Theyyam right from his childhood. He joined his father’s group at the age of five. He was the assistant for various Koladhari, helping the deity in distributing the ‘prasadam’ which is a powder made of rice flour and turmeric to the devotees. Slowly, Prabhakaran learnt the basics of Theyyam performance from his ancestors and became a Theyyam Performer or the Koladhari.

But Prabhakaran had the inborn talent towards art – especially, wood carving. He slowly learnt the art of crafting the Theyyam artefacts including the headgears, ornaments and costumes. He has worked for the past 55 years in producing the artefacts and costumes for Theyyam artists and is a pioneer in the field. There are only very few people in the entire world who are good at making the Theyyam artefacts and costumes. Travellers can purchase Theyyam souvenirs from Prabhakaran during Tyndis Theyyam Tours. Learn more about him in Tyndis Theyyam Tour packages. 

Theyyam in Kerala is a socio-religious, ceremonious performance and form of ritual worship practised for several centuries in Northern Kerala to propitiate the gods, ancestral spirits and heroes. Theyyam is said to have more than 400 forms, each with a unique name and story to tell. Performers wear over-sized headgear, masks, breastplates, skirts and arm ornaments, and spend hours preparing themselves for the ritual.

kannur muthappan parassini

Theyyam Artist wearing accessories crafted by Prabhakaran

The exquisite Theyyam headdress is a unique find in North Kerala. Made of wood, it features intricately carved figures, including Goddess Lakshmi and her attendants. The intricate headgear, bracelets and other ornaments worn by the Theyyam artistes are beautifully crafted at his home by Prabhakaran and his family – his wife and daughter.

When Gods and Goddesses from popular mythologies are brought to life by artists, it is while wearing the headgear and ornaments made by Prabhakaran and family.

The costumes, ornaments and the artefacts are collectively called as the “Theyyakkoppukal” – meaning the Theyyam Artefacts. For art forms like Theyyam, it is an interesting stream inseparable from the art itself. It is pure carpentry with high art at a very minute level. The craftsmen carefully put the mix of the Art, Artistry, Artisanship and Aesthetics to work out the best possible artefacts for the completion of the divine touch.

“Unfortunately, there’s hardly anyone making such intricate headgears and ornaments from wood these days, though there are one or two carpenters who are crafting a small number of headgears on-demand,” Prabhakaran explained us about the declining phase of art.

The ornaments and the artefacts are specially made by hand from lightweight wood like the ‘Iruli’ or the ‘Murikku’ trees. This craft can be perfectly made only using such softwood as it is lightweight and allows the craftsmen to carve as if it’s butter. A full headgear would weigh less than 450 grams if made using such lightweight.” he says.
“Many skillsets associated with this craft are disappearing, unfortunately. We have only very fewer people in this profession now. “– he reminisces.

Theyyam Headgear

Traditional Theyyam Headgear

“Fortunately, my wife and daughter are keen to continue this tradition and work with me. We are also trying to have students who could intern with us so as to preserve this art. But, how can you expect someone to spend years doing this when, these days, they don’t earn much visibility, earnings or recognition for what they do?” he asks.

When asked whether he can make a living off this craft, he responded: “We make just enough for us to live out of this. The raw material cost and labour cost are high, and it takes almost a month for me to complete a headgear on wood. Even if the demand increases, we just don’t have enough skilled craftsmen to take up the work.”

“Instead of being part of living heritage, I hope we do not soon see them only as museum pieces,” sighs Prabhakaran. “If there are students who want to learn the craft, we are happy to train them. Maybe they might be able to come out with more utilitarian product designs out of this knowledge.”

For more details about Theyyam in Kerala, like Theyyam Season, Theyyam Calendar, Theyyam Tour Packages, and more – Get in Touch with Tyndis Theyyam Tour Team. Photographers can book for our special Theyyam Photography Tours.

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