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The Chained Gods of India

Kerala, India

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  • Personally, I've always been a fan of travelling to colder and more northern parts of Asia, but ever since I decided to follow my dreams and pursue a life of a photographer, I’ve constantly been asked the same question over and over again - “So… when are you going to India?”

    Honestly, for a very long time, despite India's reputation as a breathtaking country with undisputed potential for amazing images, I wasn't really interested in going there. I guess the idea of going to a place almost every photographer I knew travelled to, wasn't very appealing for me, but all that changed when I stumbled upon a ritual called Theyyam, and after doing a bit of research I knew I had to go and see it with my own eyes.

    Theyyam artists, or dancers, as they are often called by locals, perform a series of ancient rituals involving anything from chanting and dancing to sacrificing a variety of offerings. After completing their ceremonies the Theyyam artists are able to achieve a temporary embodiment of a powerful divine being as well as total control over its powers. Amazingly enough the beings that the Theyyam artists embody are no less than the gods themselves.

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    Although some ceremonies can be less exciting than others, the mostly red painted artists live up to their intriguing appearance. After teaming up with our local guide, we were privileged enough to be invited to a Theyyam ceremony in the more rural parts of the area and it was definitely a night to remember. It seemed as if the entire village gathered around the Theyyam artist as he danced in a corridor of wild fire, screaming and kicking flames in every direction; he seized full control over the crowd around him, leading the villagers to scream in ecstasy into the dark night sky as he performed the ancient rituals. There were moments where the artist's helpers thought he had lost control and would try to stop him from stepping into the fire, but he would violently push them away, throwing himself again and again into the eye of the fire, determined to complete his transformation and embody the God.  

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    Following that night I decided to meet the same Theyyam artist, hoping he would be able to share with me a more personal view of the Theyyam world. This is how I met Vino -I told him about my interest in his traditions and my desire to learn more about them and Vino agreed to introduce me to the world of the Theyyam dancers.

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    I learned that even the path to becoming a Theyyam artist is enveloped in mystery and myths, as only a selected few are allowed to take this lifelong journey. Vino told me that ever since he was a kid, his dreams had been filled with the vigorous red characters of the Theyyam ceremonies but, unlike the other kids, Vino wasn't afraid of the red gods - he was fascinated by them. Only kids like Vino, who are madly interested in the Theyyam art, can hope to be accepted as apprentices to a Master Theyyam artist. The reason is that, it is believed that these particular children are actually being spiritually guided into the Theyyam arts by one of the Gods themselves.

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    Vino belongs to one of only four chosen castes that have the exclusive right to perform the Theyyam arts. Interestingly enough, these castes are some of the lowest ranking in the once strict caste system. Their social ranking is so low that, in the old times, they were not even allowed into the homes of others, but all this would temporarily change once they managed to complete their Theyyam ceremony and transform into Gods, then all would come and bow to them, from the lowest to the highest ranking castes in the community, begging for their blessings.

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    I was exceptionally lucky to learn about the Theyyam arts from Vino since he was no ordinary artist - he was a Master. Masters like Vino are differentiated from other artists by a shiny golden bangle on their wrist, one that can only be earned after years of performing and being recognized as an exceptional artist by the village's community. But as Vino told me about what it took in order to receive this golden bangle, my perception of the Theyyam art changed completely.

    You see, despite being able to control the power of the Gods, a Theyyam dancer’s ability to perform depends entirely on the community around him. Golden bangle or not, it has always been up to the villagers to choose, summon and allow a dancer to perform for them. Therefore, in their attempts to win the favour of the villagers and receive their golden bangle, Theyyam dancers devote a huge portion of their lives into perfecting the mastery of the art, constantly fixing or remaking parts of their costumes and learning more rituals as they try to expand the reservoir of Gods they can embody if need be.

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    A Theyyam dancer's life is full of hard work and sacrifice. For example, Vino's extreme dedication to the art prevents him from maintaining a regular job and since, traditionally, he receives very little pay for his performances, Vino's only option to provide for his family is by borrowing his brother's rickshaw and driving it around a nearby town whenever he gets the chance. 

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    As most Theyyam dancers like Vino spend the majority of their lives serving the higher castes of their community, one can almost claim that their lifestyle and art are forever confined and controlled by the 'cultural chains' of the society around them - the same chains that also gives them their powers.

    It might just be the kid in me or the shiny golden bangle on Vino's wrist, but the Theyyam artist's lifestyle reminded me Disney's character of the genie in the lamp (from the movie "Aladdin"). As I see it, the fictional character of the all-powerful genie was hauntingly comparable to the Theyyam artist for one reason; despite their powers, both the Genie and the Theyyam dancers are forever chained into serving those who summon them.

    For me, that evoked one main dilemma, a question that I wish to leave to you as I finish this photo blog: What Theyyam artists seem to experience through their rituals and embodiments truly sound like an amazing, second to none, experience. But if you were offered their powers; to be able to embody a God or an all-powerful Genie and control its powers - would you be willing to pay the price of their golden chains?

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    • Sharon grischenko

      Sharon grischenko

      Comment Link Wednesday, 03 August 2016 15:28

      You are not just a great photographer, you are a master storyteller!! Love the images! Love your images!!!

    • Janice Christman

      Janice Christman

      Comment Link Saturday, 02 July 2016 17:00

      I have been following your work for a couple of years and this series is fantastic. I grew up in SE Asia, in sumatra, Indonesia and have been to 22 countries, and this is reliving for me. I love all of the colors and interesting stories you tell with the camera and with your dialogue. You are a story teller with you photos!! Thank you for sharing this wonderful world of Gods and ceremony with us! the world is an exciting and wonderful place and basically people are good and want to share their culture with others....we can gain so much insight, just by asking them to explain to us! Thank you!

    • Edmond Hui

      Edmond Hui

      Comment Link Saturday, 25 June 2016 16:41

      Dear Asher
      I can honestly say that I am delighted to be on your mailing list. Your coverage of little known Asian cultures is respectful, astonishing, and true. Thank you.

    • Nomin


      Comment Link Friday, 24 June 2016 15:17

      Amazing stuff - Definitely a must-watch! It's clear you go above and beyond for good quality stories! Best of luck!

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