This blog contains the text from an interview between Tyndis and Indu Chinta – renowned writer and Theyyam Photographer. This interview discusses Indu Chinta’s book – Theyyam: Merging with the Divine, her experiences of Theyyam in Kannur through her Theyyam photography tours, and lot more.
On our journey to make Tyndis rich in all aspects that connect with the Heritage, Culture and Traditions of Malabar, we travelled the length and breadth of North Kerala. Our team did all the research we could about the folklores and enchanting stories of this beautiful land. In this course, we had also followed various writers and active contributors who have played a major role in portraying the culture and heritage of North Kerala in front of the world – for people to come and experience!
Theyyam was the significant point of our research and it was during this phase we came across Indu Chinta – an emerging writer who has spent a good time experiencing Theyyam in Kannur and elsewhere in Malabar to research and write about Theyyam.
Indu Chinta is a writer-photographer and environmentalist who hails from Hyderabad. She is an alumna of the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. Indu is the author of the book named “Theyyam – Merging with the Divine”. The book available on Notion Press discusses various Theyyam in Kannur and other parts of North Kerala and the author’s memories of the time she spent on researching and experiencing the divine dance – all through enchanting Theyyam photographs that has life in it!
Read below the major parts of an informal interview that Tyndis Team had with Indu Chinta at Thalassery. The discussion covers the life, experience and memories that Indu carries along her journey as an author, a travel enthusiast and a heritage preserver.
Q. A young girl travelling all the way from Hyderabad to the nook and corners of North Kerala – exploring about Theyyam in Kannur and elsewhere and finally writing a book about the same! It all sounds quite exciting. How did it all happen? Was the journey as exciting as it is to speak about it?
Indeed, the journey was, or to be frank, is far more exciting than it could be expressed in words!
It was not that I packed my bags one day and directly arrived at Malabar. It was a gradual persuasion of a long-cherished dream. During those days, I was working on a project for IIT Madras related to environmental science.
Though involved in the academic side of life, I was always attracted to the rich heritage and history of our country – especially, the south! One fine day, I quit my job at the IIT and took some time to travel and document the lesser-known stories of art and culture in South India.
It was not that I didn’t love my work as an environmentalist. But it never quenched my thirst to explore art and culture and document it through writing and photographs. So, that’s how it all started. I packed my bags and started my way down from Tamil Nadu and travelling on and on, I reached Kannur!
Q. It seems so simple to hear it from you. But was it as simple as it seems? How safe was it to travel solo into the remote places of South India?
It is never simple to travel when you have this problem of digging deeper into the history and heritage of each and every story you get to hear. But yes, the journey served its purpose and travel have proved to be the best way one can explore what he/she wants.
Travelling solo isn’t as risky as it seems. For me, the journey was pretty safe and remarkable as it has helped me transform into a better person. As you know I am from Hyderabad, but I travelled to some of the remote places of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, where people do not know English or Telugu for that matter and neither did I comprehend their mother tongue. Still, I could easily connect with what they were speaking to me regarding the culture and traditions. To add to that, I also use my camera to document what I see and experience – photographs don’t have languages!
Q. What was your travel itinerary – did you have any? Please mention the places you’ve covered along this heritage trail before you landed at Kannur. And the quick decision to research on Theyyam and finally publish a book out of it?
Right after quitting my job in Chennai, I decided to first explore the heartlands of Tamil Nadu. I travelled through Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and Rameshwaram etc. before finally entering Karnataka. In Karnataka, I covered Halebid, Sringeri, Karkala, Udupi, Shravanabelagola, Belur, Mangalore and other places. I didn’t have a particular itinerary. But yes, I did have places in my checklist to visit. The places I visited were rich in art and history… They had culture minutely linked with their way of life.
From Karnataka, my next stop was at Kannur – where I came across Theyyam and there it was a miracle… It was love at first sight! It was December 2017 then. With the deep impact that Theyyam had, I cancelled my return tickets and further plans and spent remaining 5 months till May in Kannur until the Theyyam season finished for the year according to the Theyyam Calendar. I wanted to understand the ritual art of Theyyam beyond the normal perspective and see how I could contribute to it. The one method I know is to document what I see and experience. Art forms like Theyyam in Kannur are rich in oral folklore that stand the risk of being lost. But Writing alone wouldn’t have done justice to the vibrancy of Theyyam. So I used to go on Theyyam photography tours as well.
Q. How did you get introduced to Theyyam? It is interesting to hear the “Love at first sight” reference. Why do you think a Theyyam Tour could create an impact that huge on you that other places you’d visited and activities you’d experienced did not?
I first arrived at Kannur and then got introduced to Theyyam –. I had this experience of Theechamundi where the performer, after days of dedicated penance, enacts the divine dance and does the ‘Agnipravesham’ throwing himself into the pier. This performance cast a spell over me – I was overwhelmed with emotion and had a deep sense of spirituality in what I could experience. That’s why I mentioned it to be the “love at first sight”.
Theyyam is an artistic expression of religious worship, and it is hard not to be fascinated or spellbound by it. I felt the power when I watched my very first Theyyam performance. I was deeply moved by what I saw and I was in a trance myself. The image of the artist throwing himself on the fire mountain lingered on in my mind and had created a different impact for Theyyam which no other place or activities that I had experienced elsewhere.
Also, the folklore that relates with each Theyyam also adds to the spiritual connections – but this comes in the second part. It is the visual connection that one shall receive with Theyyam on the first hand. Once I saw Theyyam, I knew I wanted to capture at least some of the magic with my lens because an art form like it warrants visual documentation. I also knew I wanted to be instrumental in spreading the aura of Theyyam to an even wider audience, national and international.
Q. You had launched the book ‘Theyyam: Merging with the Divine’ in Hyderabad last year. What was the initial response? How did people react you endeavour in documenting the art of Theyyam?
I launched the book at Phoenix Arena in Hyderabad. A photography exhibition showcasing the Theyyams of Malabar was also conducted in association with the book launch.
As you must be knowing, Theyyam is less known outside Kerala. For that matter, even the people in Southern parts of Kerala aren’t much aware of the details of Theyyam. It is to provide a better visual experience for my audience that I planned to organize the Photography exhibition named ‘Theyyams of Malabar’. It was the time of post-flood in Kerala and we also tried to raise funds from the exhibition which we could eventually contribute to the flood relief.
Theyyam photography exhibition showcased the folklores and behind-the-scenes footage of Theyyam art form that I had captured on the days experiencing and understanding Theyyam.
The initial response at the launch itself was very fulfilling. I was happy to hear the outlook that people had towards the culture and traditions of our country. I had travelled all this distance just to give shape to the cause of preserving cultural heritage which is much too close to my heart.
At the exhibition and afterwards, I was overjoyed to see that the younger generation is keen to pursue the culture and traditions of the region. It so happened that I came across kids, just eight or nine years old learning steps of Theyyam through YouTube videos and want to perform as they grow up.
Q. How did you manage to source the necessary and relevant information for the documentation purpose?
The first thing I did was to literally visit and experience all the Theyyam Festivals that was available in the region at the time. I connected with the people and authorities there and learnt the basic stories behind Theyyam.
Once I was really into converting the stories into a manuscript, I connected with people like Prof. Sachi Madhavan, Theyyam performers like Shri Balakrishnan and Santhosh Panikker etc. and with their support, I managed to do a deep dive into the vastness of Theyyam and finally place everything I came up with into the book. As the name suggests, it was an experience of Merging with the magic of Theyyam for me. The book discusses 21 Theyyams, viewed and experienced through my lens and my words.
In the book, in fact, I had tried to briefly delineate the difference between Kathakali and Theyyam and what it entails for the artists. The book is divided into sub-categories that involve performances narrating stories of different gods, goddesses and ancestors.
Q. How was the whole idea of placing Theyyam into a coffee-table book that doesn’t provide much scope for writing – a much-needed tool to explain what people see?
It was actually a planned move to publish the book with more images and fewer words. I could have published the book with lots of stories and references regarding Theyyam and history of the art form. But I felt that Theyyam is something to be seen by the eyes and felt by the heart.
With the book published now, I wish that it reach people from all over the world and convince them to witness and experience the same dynamism of Theyyam. Wrapped with folktales and legends, the book is a photographic treat and tribute to the artists who pour life and soul into their every performance.
Q. What memories do you have to share with us about the days you spent working on the book in Kannur?
Well, the people of Kannur and of Malabar, in general, are very generous and warm-hearted. The kind of love and care they have given was so pure –it really touched my heart. There were situations when during my Theyyam tour when I had to spend hours or even days together at a particular temple to cover the Theyyams with my Canon DSLR Camera and jot down the necessary points related to it.
I often had to interview performers and artists from the Theyyam community to gather information as well. All this meant that I had to spend my time outside my comfort zone – may be in the scorching heat or late night in the wintertime. Local people at the temples always invited me to have a meal or stay at their house. They were so hospitable. Initially, I was intimidated by this as it is not something we see very often in the cities…
I was totally in a different world for those five months that I spent in Kannur from 2018 January to May, visiting the sacred groves and interacting with people there who still followed the ritual. Theyyam performers also helped me understand the intricacies of the ritual, which I tried showcasing through my book.
Q. There are around 430+ Theyyam Forms (Kolams) in North Kerala. Which Theyyam is your favourite of all the ones you’ve experienced? Can you share your interactions with Theyyam artists?
In fact, this is a tricky question. It is like someone asking a mother which of her children does she like the most. As I said, it is the idea and the depth behind each Theyyam that attract me. Every single Theyyam has something unique that I connect with or get attracted to… So, every Theyyam I have witnessed is close to my heart.
But yes, there have been certain incidents were in some Theyyams have shown gestures that have touched my heart. Some of the Theyyams I experienced were fiery, like those that jumped into fire/burning embers, and there were others that were calm, playful and joyous.
During those days, I happened to visit a temple continuously for 2 days. There was the Kaliyattam going on for the third day as well. Due to some engagements, I could only reach the temple a little late. I entered the temple premises and started covering the atmosphere.
While I was clicking, I could see one of the Theyyam walking towards me. I moved the camera from my eyes and looked at the Theyyam. The divine figure came near me and asked in the Kannur accent of Malayalam, “Why are you late today?” – This was something to my amazement. They were, in fact, noticing me running around, clicking photographs and interviewing people.
Some of the deities also shower immense blessings by holding a hand and speaking good words that are meant to bring prosperity and well-being to you. Once it even happened that a native at a temple in Kannur asked me “Which country I was from?” as he thought that I was a foreigner. I still remember how much that made me laugh.
Q. What would be the tips you would give to someone outside Kerala or India coming to experience Theyyam in Malabar?
Travelling always depends on the priorities and the purpose of Travel. If somebody is visiting Malabar to experience its culture and traditions – like Theyyam, then I feel there is a spirit in the air that takes you along the route and connects you with the right people at the right time.
Still, as a matter of having the right travelling tips, I would suggest the travellers have initial research about Theyyam. As I mentioned, there are fierce and aggressive Theyyams as well as calm, playful and joyous Theyyams. I happened to witness the Theechamundi at the very first time.
Theechamundi is a really fierce Theyyam and the whole ambience with lit torches in the night and the music produced from the Chenda (Drums) and the horns add to it. Not everyone would like it and it could be an intimidating experience for them.
Tourists and viewers coming from other states or nations must be warned about what they are going to witness. Let them chose whether to see it or not. Also, not every place may be ideal for tourists to visit. Always make sure you visit places that are safe and accessible.
Q. You had left Kannur the previous year after the completion of the documentation works. Now, you are again in Thalassery. It is the Theyyam season again. Are you working on any other books? What are the future plans? – Readers would like to know!
Well, yes! I’m back in Thalassery now. In fact, I really missed my time here. I had initially covered 21 Theyyams in the first book. Now, in this Theyyakkalam (Theyyam Season), I’m on a mission to complete research about further Theyyams and begin the work for the sequel to the first book.
I also intend to use my time here in Thalassery during this Theyyam Season to cover more Theyyam according to the Theyyam Calendar and also to involve and associate with people like you from Tyndis – who would help me in learning more about the deep-rooted culture and traditions of North Kerala other than Theyyam.
To Read Sample and Purchase Indu’s Book – Click here “Theyyam: Merging with the Divine”
Image Credits – Indu Chinta and City Air News Hyderabad
If you would like to explore Theyyam in Kannur like Indu Chinta, Tyndis Tours arranges for specially curated Theyyam Tour Packages. Photographers or Vloggers can make use of our Theyyam Photography Tours.
Check-out this link about our Theyyam Photography Tours for more detail. Get in Touch for more details on Theyyam Tour Packages.