Festivity, Photo stories
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Dance of god

Theyyam is a traditional art form of Kerala which incorporates dance, music and enshrines the fundamentals of ancient tribal cultures which attached great importance to the worship of heroes and the spirits of ancestors.  The staging area of Theyyam is known as Kaavu. Theyyam is also performed at home (Tharavadu) and fields.

Theyyam’ performers belong to one of the Hindu communities (Malayan, Vannan, Velan etc.). Each individual caste has the right to perform certain deities and all performers must poses a wide range of extraordinary skills. They must know the ritual and character of every deity. They have the inherited right to perform, know-how to sing, dance with the drum, do the complicated make-up, costume style and character of each heroes and deities.

Through these series of photographs I am trying to say the story of “Kandanar Kelan Theyyam”. Legend is that Kandanar Kelan is a yesteryear warrior. While he was out hunting, the forest caught fire. He climbed a tree, which was the home of two snakes. Fire consumed the tree, snakes and Kandanar Kelan. Vayanattu Kulavan, the warrior god was passing by the burnt forest, saw  Kandanar Kelan in the ashes and gave back his life with his bow.  The theyyam is an embodiment of the Kandanar Kelan and how he shows his anger towards the fire for burning him up. The theyyam also has two snakes drawn on his chest that depict the snakes that perished with him in the fire.

I begin the series of photos with the Makeup of the Kandanar Kelan Theyyam performer.

The makeup regionally known as “Theyyam Kettal” is a long and painstaking affair. Make-ups are different for the body and face. Natural colours from sandalwood, camphor, turmeric, red sandalwood, lime, rice and rice flour are used to prepare the make-up.

The mid-stem of the blade of coconut leaf is used to brush the colours and it takes about three to four hours to complete the make up.

The first stage of the performance is known as ”Vellattam” which is a toned down version of the main theyyam…even the makeup will be simpler

The main highlight of the Kandanar Kelan Theyyam is “Agni Pravesham “, where the performer jumps over the burning fire, dancing and moving here and there rhythmically more than 15 times.

Fire is made by burning tamarind tree wood, dry coconut leaves are spread over it. The performer has all the anger and vigor while doing this role.  The performer is seen as god with intensive power and will be in a trance from devotion. There will be two people accompanying him while he does the performance.

This was the first time I captured a Theyyam performance. It was magnificent to say the least.  The performance starts at night around 7 pm and goes up to early morning. The “Agni Pravesham” or jumping above the fire of Kandanar Kelan Theyyam happens around 3 am… I was dumbstruck when I first saw the fire jumping, at first I forgot to press shutter of my camera as I was just lost in the moment and performance for a few seconds. Later wanted to make the best out of the performance by trying to capture the real essence within the constraints.

The low light is a major challenge that one faces while photographing Theyyam at night. All I bother was moment and henceforth for the “Agni Pravesham”  and dance of God, kept the camera settings with an ISO range from 250 to 500. I always photograph in manual mode and was using  my Canon 24-105mm f4L IS USM lense at the time of “Agni Pravesham”.
My Tamron 10-24mm Di II  and  Canon EF 40mm f2.8 STM lenses helped me to photograph  the makeup session of Kandanar Kelan Theyyam.

Last 15 minutes of Kandanar Kelan Theyyam (Agni Pravesham time) was full of drama, emotion and spiritual. The loud noise by the devotee, the rhythmic music and dance all together lead me in a new level of experience and I felt the warmth of god.

Yes! I have seen the dance of God.

Kannur, Kerala, India


  1. Brilliant shots Syam….every single one!
    I am from Mangalore, so I am familiar with the tradition that in South Kanara is known as Bhoota Kola. It is still performed in my childhood home, although we rarely attend. Would love to witness a Theyyam someday.

    • Syam
      Syam says

      Thank you so much Madhu. This is the first time I am hearing about Bhoota Kola and yes, its very much similar to Theyyam. Theyyam happends in Kannur, Kasargod districts of Kerala between October- June every year.

  2. This is an impressive series of photos of Theyyam, Syam. Probably among the best I’ve ever stumbled upon, anywhere. I’ve only watched Kathakali, and it was one of the highlights of my trip to Kerala. Mutiyettu, Kootiyattam, and of course Theyyam are some of Keralan traditional dances and art performances I will make sure not to miss should I return one day. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Syam
      Syam says

      Thank you so much Bama. And yes try to watch Theyyam once especially with Agni pravesha (fire dance). Its worth the trouble.

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