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COVID-19, Caste, Joblessness: What Ails The ‘Gods’ Of Malabar, The Theyyams?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

It is April, the peak time for Theyyam artists in Kerala to showcase their ritualistic performances, own the land of Northern Malabar with a godly aura, and give blessings to worshippers after a stellar, mystic and ecstatic dance. But, for Hari Panickker (53), a Theyyam artist from Kannur, performances have become a far-fetched dream due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the resultant nationwide lockdown.

At his home, he was keeping himself somehow busy on a lazy Sunday afternoon, cutting coconut sheaths, painting shells, and using wood to make his costumes. During a conversation, he proudly recalled how he has covered the vast expanse of India with his performances from Kashmir to the far east in Orissa. “Mene buss Assam perform nhi kia” (I just haven’t performed in Assam) he said, chuckling, recounting how he used to have 30-40 performances during the season.

When asked about what other jobs he does besides Theyyam, he denied, uttering in broken Hindi, “Mera Mann mei poora Theyyam hai, fir kya!”. (My mind is preoccupied with Theyyam, what more?)

Like Hari, there are hundreds of Theyyam practitioners from God’s Own Country who are waiting to don the stature of God (Theyyam) but have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak which has made the once popular Theyyam hubs, like Kannur and Kasargod, into virus hotspots with a record-breaking 64 and 156 cases respectively (as of April 10), the highest in entire Kerala. Adding to their woes is joblessness, health issues and financial insecurity.

Financial Insecurity And Mounting Debts

The lockdown period has come at a time when Theyyam performances are at its peak that is March- April. This has led to no shows.

These months constitute the major part of earnings for performers and they are going to suffer for the whole year due to losses during these months,” said Rajesh Komath, a Theyyam practitioner who is also a professor of social sciences at MG university.

He is a member of Uthara Kerala Theyyam Anustana Avakasa Samrakshana Samithi, an organisation of 1,500 Theyyam performers standing by the rights of its practitioners. He usually has 60 performances during the six-month Theyyam period.

The source of income for Theyyam practitioners is either the temple committee where they perform during the season time or the contribution by devotees. Both means are highly unstable to secure a living.

The income of Theyyam performers vary from ₹5,000- 25,000 for Theyyam season,” said Venugopala Panikkar, Advisory Committee Member at Samrakshana Samithi, who was also a teacher at Kendriya Vidyalaya, until he was made to leave the school in January following an incident of alleged caste atrocity. He is still fighting a suit to challenge the unruly behaviour of school authorities and is currently left with no means to support his 8-member family, in which his other two brothers are also Theyyam practitioners. All three breadwinners in the family have lost living since Theyyam performances were halted due to COVID-19 outbreak.

To make their jaw-dropping costumes and arrange for other embellishments like ornaments, Theyyam practitioners, who belong to Dalit communities, and from an economically disadvantaged background, have to borrow money from cooperative banks. “They borrow with an expectation that they’d be able to repay them after the Theyyam season ends, from the earnings they make through performances but as no shows happen this time due to virus outbreak so this has affected their earnings for the entire year,” said Komath.

Theyyam in Kannur

Joblessness: “Believers Can’t See Their Gods Ride An Autorickshaw

Most Theyyam artists don’t resort to any jobs as they are ardently devoted to this ritual, but, to support a living they have to. “In the past, they used to make traditional heirlooms. They made their living from making bamboo products, weaving mats, using folk tricks, and practising witchcraft. But today, there are no such jobs and they have to completely depend on Theyyam,” said Theyyam rights activist Satheesan Morazha, who is also a member of the Samrakshana Samithi.

Theyyam practitioners face the greatest paradox of their community when they engage with present-day odd jobs, like becoming toddy tappers, well-builders, auto-rickshaw drivers, bus conductors, lottery ticket-sellers in Kerala. “People who worship Theyyam can’t plainly accept that their Gods run an auto-rickshaw when Theyyam season ends. This denigrates their stature, for how can a Theyyam, who counsels his devotees and helps them recover from distress, not help himself?” said a disenchanted Panickker.

They earn roughly 49,500 to 62,500 per annum for these part-time jobs, as per a survey conducted by the Kerala Development Society in 2015.

A handful, like Rajesh Komath and Venu Panickker, have been able to foster a dignified living through professions like teaching, while others like Hari struggle with idling amidst the lockdown.

Godly Status Evades State-Run Tourism model Benefits

Kerala Tourism constitutes 10% of Kerala’s GDP and reportedly contributes around 23.5% to the total employment in the state as per a study conducted by Centre for Public Policy Research in 2018. Artists, and breathtakingly beautiful locations, form the backbone of the tourism industry. But, the irony is that Theyyams are not artists but considered to be Gods by ritual, hence they don’t adhere to the idea of commercialising a ‘ritual’ into a profit-making ‘artform’. This excludes their ritual art from falling under tight state tourism capsules aimed at employment generation.

Responsible Tourism Project (RTP) is one state apparatus, among many, which “aspires to provide an additional income and better livelihood to farmers, traditional artisans, and marginalised people in Kerala.” It’s state coordinator, K.Rupesh Kumar, mentioned that the platform has benefitted over 8,400 artists in the state who are registered, but since Theyyams are Koladhaarikal(representatives of Gods) so they don’t fall under state-sponsored tourism modules.

He mentioned how sales from RTP benefits other artists in earning revenue throughout the year “but in the case of Theyyams, performers get earnings only in limited 5-6 month festival season,” which has not been happening now as northern districts of Kasargod, Kannur, Kozhikode, and Wayanad have been witness to a high number of COVID-19 cases and all activities have been halted.

The RTP coordinator for Kasargod, could not be reached as he was said to be under quarantine after being suspected of being positive for COVID-19.

Health Issues: “We Are Born To Die For Theyyam”

Theyyam performers risk their lives. They suffer from lifestyle and occupational hazards. “Performing deadly fire stunts, wearing heavy layers of makeup leading to eye sickness, rigorous practise spanning 3-4 months, fasting for 21 days before a performance, carrying heavily adorned attires and tall headgear causing body ache and arthritis…. this all adds to our physical exertion and hyper-tension,” said Venu. 

He lamented how these chronic health issues are not covered by any insurance. “We get ₹1,000 pension from the state government, and some reserved category benefits, which are highly inadequate given the imminent threat to our lives.

Historical Oppression Due To Caste Dynamics 

Theyyam is a caste-based occupation, performed exclusively by those belonging to the so-called ‘lower castes’, like Vannan, Malayan, Pulaian, Velan, Nalgataka, and Mavilan. It is an expression to the counter-hegemonic forces of ‘Brahminism and ‘feudalism’ that dominated Kerala’s casteist fabric since centuries, as iterated by Satheesan. 

Dalits are old slaves of the Brahminical cultural occupation which in modern times wears the garb of Hindutva invasion.”

Elaborating on oppression by Brahminical hegemony, he stated, “The lower-caste people lived in the huts of the rich landlords. During festive time, they, donned as Theyyams, were worshipped as folk gods in the land of these feudal lords. Today, ownership of the Theyyam temples belongs to the upper castes which were in historical times the landlords and priests. They continue to subjugate the identity of Dalits by enslaving them economically and culturally.”

An Appeal To The Chief Minister And The Prime Minister

There are various Theyyam groups in Kerala with disparate vision and politics due to which their problems can’t coalesce for redressal.

North Malabar Theyyam Ritual Protection Committee has undertaken the task to unite these groups together and voice their concerns by appealing to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and now Prime Minister Modi.

In a written plea they request for the “waiver of loans availed by Theyyam artists; urges Centre to provide a financial package for performers and asks for urgent financial support to meet with present time emergency,” due to the lockdown imposed after the COVID-19 outbreak.

It also states the imminent threat of chronic health-related issues the performers face.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the Government of Kerala has come forward to help the Theyyam performers financially but since there are fewer Theyyam practitioners who are registered with the government’s official institutions -the Malabar Devaswom Board, the Department of Culture, and the Folk Arts Academy so all state-sponsored benefits are much less likely to reach ordinary people who are suffering.”

As a possible solution to bring down the plight of Theyyams, the Theyyam Ritual Protection Committee has put, before the Government of Kerala, a proposal to invite applications from Grama Panchayats to select eligible Theyyams. “It has proposed the creation of a welfare fund board exclusively for Theyyams which is expected to have a positive outcome,” said Satheesan.

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