When ‘God’ comes to doorstep

ON A recent morning, the newly built, two-storey house of Sudhakaran Parammel, on the side of a busy road in Nileswaram in Kerala’s northernmost Kasaragod district, gradually starts filling up with friends and family members. A dark-blue shamiana is spread across the front porch with a few dozen plastic chairs set up under it. For Parammel, a wood polish contractor, it is a special day — his long-cherished dream of moving into a bigger home had finally come true.

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As a way to convey his gratitude to the gods, he has arranged for an elaborate act of ‘Muthappan Theyyam’ to be organised at his house. An intrinsic part of the socio-cultural life of people in these parts of Kerala, Theyyam is an ancient ritualistic art and dance form where a performer assumes the form of a god, goddess, warrior, spirit or local deity.

“When the first brick was laid for the construction of my house, I had prayed to Muthappan that I would welcome him to bless my house and my family. Today is that day,” says Parammel. “Vilichal vili kelkkunna daivam aanu (He’s the God who is always there when we need Him).”

Closer to noon, as the women and children settle themselves on the chairs and the men stand huddled at the back, the first beats of the chenda or the drum, a percussion instrument, announce the start of the Thottam pattu, a ballad sung before the start of Theyyam. It is sung primarily to ‘infuse’ the performer with the divine spirit. During the Thottam pattu, the performer dons minimal mukhathezhuthu (face-paint), jewellery and costumes.

The day’s performer is Sani Peruvannan, a former graphic designer and school drawing teacher, who took to performing Theyyam full-time 12 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father who was a well-known artist. The 37-year-old belongs to the Scheduled Caste (SC) Vannan community that holds the traditional right to perform the Muthappan Theyyam.

Peruvannan had shot into the headlines recently after a video of his, as Muthappan, went viral on social media platforms in Kerala. In the video, he was seen consoling a Muslim mother of three who had broken down while speaking about her hardships. The video shows him gently assuring her that the Allah she believed in and Muthappan were the same, and that despite belonging to a different faith, he would look after her. Coinciding with the tensions over the hijab in neighbouring Karnataka, the video had struck a chord with a large section of people.

There are nearly 400 forms of Theyyam worshipped across temples, shrines, sacred groves and households primarily in the districts of Kannur and Kasaragod. Among the most common deities, brought to life through the Theyyam, is Muthappan, a hunter-God believed to be a personification of Vishnu and Shiva.

There is another reason why the idea of Muthappan, among all the Theyyams, appeals to a wide demographic in Kerala. Unlike most Hindu temples in the state, which expressly prohibit the entry of non-Hindus, the shrines of Muthappan, including the most popular one at Parassinikadavu in Kannur district, are open to people of all faiths. In fact, the family that holds the traditional right to supply the prasadam at the Parassinikadavu shrine is Muslim. Also, unlike other Hindu temples, the principal offerings to Muthappan, viewed as a hunter-God, are liquor and dried fish. In return, the pilgrims are given boiled gram, slices of coconut and cups of steaming tea.

Back at the Nileswaram household, closer to 1 pm, Peruvannan, as Muthappan, finally emerges in his attire: bright red mundu (dhoti) with matching armbands and armlets, waistbands with mirror work, intricately painted face and upper body in yellow, white, black and red, and a headgear with layers of straw, tulsi leaves and thechi or ixora flowers. Being a hunter deity, he carries a bow and arrow. With the accompaniment of three chenda players, Muthappan launches himself into a dance with light-footed, nimble steps.

In line with the myth of Muthappan, during his act, Peruvannan takes generous swigs from a pitcher containing a mix of toddy and whisky. He, however, warns his faithful with a heady laugh, “I may drink, but it’s not the motivation for you to drink as well.”

Towards the end of the act, several people come to the Muthappan with their problems: a man who weeps inconsolably as his wife hasn’t been able to conceive a child in their long years of marriage; a student who is finding it hard to concentrate on his studies; a young man who is looking for a job; and many more. The Muthappan consoles each one of them, wipes their tears and assures them to hold on to hope. Sometimes, he also strikes a hard bargain. “What will you give Muthappan if he grants your wish?” he asks a man.

“I don’t look at the size of the currency note in your hand, the colour of your clothes or how high or low your caste is. I look at how big your heart is,” he tells a middle-aged man.

Theyyam is often called the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ as it is mainly performed by members of the lower-castes and communities such as Malayan, Velan, Vannan, Peruvannan, among others, who have historically suffered in pre-independent, feudal Kerala. But during Theyyam, the caste equations get reversed and the most marginalised get a chance to become ‘God’.

“We consider ourselves lucky that people see in us a fragment of God. People come and tell us their problems in life and the Muthappan responds,” says Peruvannan.

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