Every autumn, thousands of theyyam dancers come together in the villages of the Malabar region in northern Kerala to create performances that are unique for their numbers, as for their nature. A few years ago, a young student from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, made the trip to one such town, Kasaragod, and it was like nothing she had seen before. “Theyyam is a Dalit dance and each legendary story is grim. A righteous person from the lower-castes stands up for his rights, is killed for his insolence, and comes alive every time his or her theyyam is performed,” says Ranjitha Rajeevan, 28. For her diploma production, she created an animation film titled Keli, which draws attention to theyyamas well as to gender and caste discrimination. The seven-minute-long film, which won the Best Animator award at Mumbai International Film Festival 2014, will now be screened at IAWRT film festival in Delhi.
Theyyam means demi-god — informs a caption before the film starts. What the film doesn’t spell out is that keli, a Malayalam word that has no straight English translation, could stand for “fame” or “a new beginning”. It is the latter sense with which Rajeevan tells the story of a little girl, Ponnu, who visits a performance of Pottan Theyyam, a rebel who stood up for equality. Pottan, meaning “fool”, had once told the Shankaracharya, “If you and I are cut, won’t we both bleed?” The Shankaracharya saw the truth in these words, but his followers did not. Pottan was burnt alive and, as the flames engulfed him, he laughed loudly at the foolish world. Little Ponnu is transfixed by Pottan Theyyam’s fierce mask and the vigorous movements of the dancer in a trance, and announces to her mother that she will be a theyyam dancer — not knowing that women do not perform this dance. “Woman walked a thousand miles, yet she walked nothing at all,” says Rajeevan, quoting from an old Malayalam saying.
“Pottan Theyyam performances start in the darkness of the evening and continue till daybreak. The pyre on which wood has been burnt until it is red hot charcoal provides the only light. Pottan Theyyam keeps on collapsing into this fire and has to be pulled out,” says Rajeevan. The fire is among the few colours in the film. Rajeevan painted each frame by hand; there are 24 frames per second.The opening visuals are of idyllic Kerala with rolling hills, palm trees and a path that creates an instant connect with anybody who has ever painted landscapes in high school.
The first colour is the glow from the torch of a man who asks Ponnu’s mother, “May I pass?” They stand aside and he rushes off. “Even until recently, nobody wanted Dalits to touch them,” says Rajeevan. The next stroke of colour comes in the aalta with which the theyyam decorates himself and the gold of his ornaments, but the colours are bleached of their sparkle. “The mood is dark because the film is about a rebellious art born out of oppression,” she says.
Her realistic sketches of Ponnu and her mother mix with the impressionistic depictions of the theyyam dancer and the faceless bird-like figures of society. “These are long-nosed, claw-edged people who always talk behind you, and never come into the light,” says the artist-filmmaker. The beats were recorded during theyyam performances on Rajeevan’s Kasaragod trip, but it is Pottam Theyyam’s dying words that form the musical leitmotif.