She has documented facets about the art form through photographs
“Theyyam discovered me or I discovered it….” That’s how Indu Chinta remembers the moment she watched a Theyyam performance for the first time in her life at a ‘kaavu’ in Kannur last year. Eventually she set out on a journey to document the history, heritage and the diversity of this ritualistic art form. As she is all set to showcase her photographs on Theyyams at the Soorya festival, the writer-photographer talks about what drew her to a tradition that is woven into the warp and weft of a society where every Theyyam has pride of place as a living god.
It was in 2017 that this Hyderabad-native with a masters in environmental engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign quit her job to “focus on preserving culture”. By then she had worked with various environmental organisations at the government and non-governmental level and was working on a project for IIT Madras. “Even as I enjoyed being an environmentalist, I wanted to understand and document our tradition and heritage. In order to pursue that dream, I chose to travel,” she says.
Kotilangattu Bhagavathi Theyyam
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Covering the length and breadth of South India she eventually reached north Kerala. “I was in search of a heritage or cultural tradition that I can preserve for posterity. Kerala has been synonymous with backwaters and Kathakali for those living outside the state. In fact, not many people are aware of what a Theyyam stands for and the beliefs, myths and legends associated with different forms of Theyyams. So I decided to explore north Malabar to understand more about this phenomenon,” she says.
Her first tryst was with the Theechamundi Theyyam. “I was completely bowled over by the spectacle. I was seated in the front. The ambience, the performer, the burning embers, costume, music….all awe-inspiring. I immediately knew that this is what I should pursue,” says Indu.
Edalapurathu Chamundi Theyyam
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She ended up staying in Kannur for five months, watching performances, capturing the moments on her camera, meeting artistes, and interacting with the audience. “I travelled across Kannur and parts of Kasaragod. This art form is rooted in the native. It is not a stage show or a performance. Being traditional, it is presented in kaavu or ancestral homes,” she explains.
Element of fear
Indu admits that there was an element of fear when she began working on Theyyams. “Some Theyyams are intense with fire as an important component. There would be burning coal and embers all around. There were days, or nights rather, where I would go back to my room covered in soot!” Indu tells us.
Any memorable moment? “There is a tradition where devotees take blessings from the Theyyam at the end of the performance. Once, in Neeliyar Kottam, I went to take blessings from Neeliyar Bhagavathi. She held my hand, looked at me affectionately, and said, “I can see that you do not know the language and you do not belong here… You came here from a faraway land like a bird and I promise you that as a mother, I will protect you, whether you continue here or go elsewhere…. I will protect your wings no matter where you are.” I was touched!” she shares with us.
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She stayed in places that were totally cut off from the outside world, with no cellphone or Internet connection. “But I met a lot of warm-hearted people who did not treat me as an outsider. I was allowed to spend time in the green room. The artistes helped me to understand the art form and some of them took me to their homes where I interacted with their family members as well,” Indu remembers.
Last year she brought her debut book, Theyyam: Merging with the Divine, which covers 21 Theyyams, in Hyderabad, where she also exhibited her photographs on Theyyams for the first time.
So far she has documented about over 70 Theyyams through her lens, covering various forms and behind-the-scene moments. Recently she exhibited works focussing on goddesses in Theyyam at the Indian Photo Festival in Hyderabad. At the Soorya fete she will showcase 35 photographs on various types of Theyyams. Talking about her love for photography, Indu admits that she is “self-taught” and not a pro in the field. “I loved travelling and have explored a lot of interesting places with my family. I believe that there is a photographer in everyone who enjoys to travel. I took my camera wherever I went and used to write journals as well. I am more of a preservationist and I use photography and writing as tools to document,” she avers.
She plans to cover 100 Theyyams in all and will travel to Kannur during the Theyyam season. “After that I want to take up other traditional art forms, such as Padayani,” she says.
Currently living in Vaikom where her husband is posted in the police department, Indu says that the state has become her home. “And Kannur has my heart,” she says.
Indu Chinta’s photographs will be exhibited at Ganesham art gallery, Thycaud, from November 11 to 20. Time: 4 pm onwards.
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