|Photo © Barbara Colbert - All Rights Reserved|
The 800-year old celebration has roots in the age-old Dravidian culture of South India, and is a combines dance, drama, music and mime. More than 1200 temples in the Malabar region of Kerala host these religious dances during the first three or four months of each year.
The lower parts of the costumes in Theyyam are made of coconut leaves, while the upper part of the body remains bare and painted, although I have also seen some performers wearing two halves of a coconut shell as a bra. Usually, a paste of rice and turmeric is smeared on the upper bodies of the performers.
The Theyyam headdresses, made of bamboo, wood, peacock feathers, leaves and flowers, are the heaviest and most elaborate part of the costume. In some cases, the headdresses rise to 50 feet, requiring a lot of training and balance from the performers.
For his book Nine Lives, historian William Dalrymple visited Malabar and asked a Theyyam performer to explain his experience. The oracle answered,
“You become the deity. You lose all fear. Even your voice changes. The god comes alive and takes over. You are just the vehicle, the medium."Barbara Colbert's Theyyam photo essay describes her experience photographing a Theyyam dance ceremony in Kannur. She arrived at 4:30 in the morning at the courtyard of a small temple where the preparations had been going on all through the night.