When COVID-19 turns ‘dancing Gods’ of Malabar jobless, pushed to penury

He is the God incarnate. Wearing coconut-frond skirt and towering headgear, he used to give “darshan” to his devotees at temple grounds and countryside sacred groves at midnight.
Theyyam is a centuries-old ritualistic performance
Theyyam is a centuries-old ritualistic performance

Thiruvananthapuram

Even his mere touch or soothing words were believed to have the divine power to cure diseases and bring fortunes in life. But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly turned things upside down and changed Suresh Babu, the God incarnate,into a mere mortal,who is worried about job loss and financial constraints and pushed him into mental depression.
This is not just the story of Babu alone, but of a large number of Theyyam performers, the ritual dancers of Malabar (north Kerala), who are considered as God incarnates.
Theyyam is a centuries-old ritualistic performance, a melange of folk dance, drama, music and mime, held at temples and ‘kavus’ (sacred groves) attached to ancestral village homes in the Malabar region of the southern state during Novembermid May every year.
It is performed as an offering to appease Gods or ancestors.
While performing, the artist is considered and revered as the incarnate of God and believed to have divine powers.
For the first time in its known history, Malabar is passing through a time without Theyyam performance as the state government has imposed strict restrictions for the presentation of the ancient ritual art in the wake of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Considering this, temple managements and the performers have decided to do away with the Theyyam season this time.
As the pandemic spread and temple authorities decided to abandon the performance, hundreds of Theyyam performers lost their only source of income,many were pushed to depression and several others are thinking of going back to their traditional community jobs like mattress making, farming and so on.
For Suresh Babu, a well-known Theyyam performer hailing from Neeleswaram in northern-most Kasaragod district, life has suddenly come to a standstill after the COVID-19 spread. “It is something beyond my imagination. Even in my worst dreams I have not thought that there won’t be any Theyyam this season. There was no such period in my life so far,” a disheartened Babu said.
According to the government directive, a COVID-19 certificate is mandatory for the artist to perform Theyyam and prior permission from respective local bodies is inevitable.
Unnikrishnan, a Kannur based Theyyam performer said as there was no steady income or any welfare scheme to protect their lives, many youngsters were already not keen on taking the ritual dance as their profession.
Theyyam or Theyyattam means ‘dance of the Gods’ in local parlance. Over 400 varieties of Theyyam, representing major and minor Gods in Hindu mythology, are in practice in the Malabar region, which mainly comprise Kannur and Kasaragod districts.
Each Theyyam is the outcome of sincere dedication and days-long hard work of several people, especially the performer. The Theyyam artists of Malabar also requested the authorities to come out with a financial package to save their lives as the unexpected pandemic and lockdown has robbed them of their sole source of income and pushed them to penury.

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