Pottan Theyyam: Indian Art and Cultural Documentation


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Theyyam – the ritualistic performance , which can be described as the most visible, the dance of the living god, is a form of worship spectacular art form of northern part of Kerala, associated with myths and legends.

Pottan Theyyam wears vivid, colorful costumes and make-up. Pottan is believed to have originated from Lord Shiva. Pottan is a symbol of goodness that can wipe out social evils.

The historic context behind Pottan theyyam

Pottan Theyyam is known as the “manthra murthi” or the God of people. Pottan Theyyam starts with “thottam pattu” which is the ballad song sung before the night “Pottan Theyyam” is enacted. This particular theyyam re-enacts those personalities who laid their life for a social cause. this topic raises questions about caste discrimination .

The Thottam paattu of Pottan theyyam is considered to be the first lyrical form in Malayalam that talks aloud against the caste discrimination that prevailed in Kerala.

Few lines of the Thottam Pattu are like this:

“Vazhi thetty vazhy thetty po pulapotta..
Enthina chovvare vazhi thettunnathu?
Ningale kothiyaalum chora onnalle…
Ningal pale perum mannathu koodumbol..
Naangal pale perum kaavil kuudunnu..
Nhangale kuppayile poovanu chovvare..
Ningale deevane poojikkunnathu chovvare…”

Pottan theyyam has a myth related to Sree Sankaracharya. It is believed that Lord Shiva appeared to Sree Sankarachaarya along with Parvathy Devi as dalits who were considered to be the untouchables at that time. Sankaracharya asked the “pulapottan” (Lord Shiva) and “pulachamundi” (Parvathy Devi) to move away from his sight as he did not want himself to get polluted by them. The Dalits resisted to move out of his way. Lord Shiva engaged him in a set of arguments in which the former exposes the insignificance of caste system which divides the humanity and civilizations into ridiculous bits. The Dalit (Lord Shiva) asks Sree Sankaracharya that if there is a cut on the body, blood will come out and the colour of the blood gushing out would be the same for all humans. So, where does the difference lie. After immersing Shankaracharya into a set of questions Shankaracharya then realizes that it was Lord shiva who was testing him and so he realizes that all humans are the same and have to live in unity.
This teaching was the main message that Shiva offered to Shankaracharya. Even now during the performance of this theyyam. The performer chants all this events in a ballad form just to spread the messageof humanity. The ballad song is considered to be the first lyrical form in Malayalam that talks about caste discrimination that prevailed in Kerala. When compared to other forms of theyyam, Pottan theyyam is different in the way of storytelling .

The performance of the “Pottan Theyyam” can be seen as the only art form which eliminates the suppression of the lower caste when compared to other art forms. This elimination of the suppression is proved when the people from the upper caste receive blessings from the performer and asks the performer who is then considered to be a deity to solve the conflicts among the families. Also, the suppression is eliminated when the people from the upper caste arrange a platform for theyyam performance to take place.
Pottan theyyam is performed only by the lower castes of society. This
theyyam came into being when the lower caste people were too tired of the suppression they faced. And came out with the true fact that all human beings are equal. There is no difference among human beings, all are the same. The narration of this theyyam focusses on the questions raised by the Dalits to Sree Sankaracharya

The Pottan Theyyam is mainly performed by people belonging to the Malayar and Pulayar communities. Communities like Mavilan, Munnoottan, Panan and others have thier own Pottan Theyyams .

When the Pottan theyyam enters for a performance, crowds gathered are in a state of breathless anxiety. In Pottan Theyyam performance, a part is enacted on fire. When the theyyam starts to perform, he is believed to be strengthened by the spiritual power of God and starts to perform by lying and dancing on the fire.

Pottan theyyam artist arrives in a grass skirt made out of coconut leaves, heavy metal ankle and arm bracelets, and a mask. When the moment arrives, he is led to the burning coals by the temple attendants, one on each arm. After a bit of positioning, he lies down, crosses his legs, and makes himself comfortable.  Each of the other two deities approach, bend down and have a few words with him.  Then, suddenly he jumps up, changes direction, and lies back down.  This is repeated in all four directions.  he is paying his devotion to God and struggling to laugh that is the expression of the might of God towards the whole world .

This traditional art form is an awesome performance and the devotees believe that God is destined to bless his people through Pottan Theyyam. When compared to other forms of Theyyam, Pottan theyyam is outstanding because of the versatile way of storytelling 


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