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‘Come here, you’re not different’: A theyyam artist’s comforting words to Muslim woman draw cheers

Theyyam is a ritualistic art and dance form that encompasses aspects of tribal and primitive religion through worship of gods, goddesses, warriors, local spirits, tribal deities and even Muslim characters from ancient fables.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: February 24, 2022 3:09:17 pm
Theyyam artist Sani Peruvannan comforting a Muslim woman at a household in north Kerala's Kasaragod district.

Circulating swiftly through WhatsApp and Facebook groups in Kerala over the past 48 hours is a certain video clip, two minutes and 51-seconds-long, that underscores how differences in faith and worship can be bridged through humanity and love.

At a time when tensions continue to simmer in neighbouring Karnataka over the wearing of hijab in educational institutions, the selfless act of a theyyam performer comforting a Muslim woman last week, is receiving love from all quarters.

In the video, captured on a cellphone at a household in north Kerala’s Kasaragod district on February 15, a Muthappan theyyam performer can be seen wiping away tears and assuaging the concerns of a Muslim woman who was possibly reluctant to approach him. He holds her hand, comforts her and promises to allay her suffering.

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For the uninitiated, theyyam is a ritualistic art and dance form that encompasses aspects of tribal and primitive religion through worship of gods, goddesses, warriors, local spirits, tribal deities and even Muslim characters from ancient fables. And among them, the Muthappan theyyam is an homage to the deity personified by both Vishnu and Shiva, in the form of Thiruvappan and Vellatom respectively. He is a hunter god who likes boiled gram and fish, and draws his faithful among the most common and poorest of people. And in contrast to most temples in Kerala, which prohibit the entry of non-Hindus, the doors of the Parassinikadavu Muthappan temple in Kannur are open to all.

And that’s precisely the message that Sani Peruvannan conveyed when he appeared as Muthappan in front of the unidentified Muslim woman wearing a hijab. “Come here, you’re not any different, are you? Did you feel that way? Did you feel that by your deeds, caste and religion, you’re different? In your life, you may feel that way, but in front of Muthappan, don’t say that. Did you see Muthappan? Are you happy? What do you want to say to Muthappan? Do you have any problems in life?” Sani assures the woman in a distinct Kannur dialect.

The woman confides in Muthappan that she faces hardships in life and proceeds to break down. “Don’t cry. You perform namaz five times a day. But you have come in front of me with the realisation that you have not attained long-lasting happiness in this life. You have not committed any mistakes or hurt anyone. You have always wanted everyone, even your enemies, to be happy,” Peruvannan, as Muthappan, tells her.

“For me, the mosque and the shrine are not different. I am also your master. Do you find any difference in your Nabi, the Mahadevan or the Muthappan? I will hold you tight,” he assures her.

The video, that concludes with Muthappan blessing the woman, has rightly amassed thousands of likes, shares and comments. A user said, “Beyond all faiths, the biggest prayer is holding onto those who are despondent.” Another wrote, “There is no caste or religion here. Only Muthappan who takes care of a human.”

In the last 48 hours, Sani’s phone has been flooded with calls and messages. “Honestly, I have not been able to put it down for a minute,” he says and smiles.

He belongs to the Vannan community of the Scheduled Caste (SC), which has traditional rights to perform the Muthappan theyyam. He worked as a graphic designer and a drawing teacher in school before switching to performing theyyam full-time. His father is also a theyyam artist.

Asked about his video making waves across Kerala, Sani, 37, said, “While I was speaking to the Muslim woman, I didn’t know someone was making a video or that it was being shared. I got busy in theyyam performances in subsequent days. Later, in a WhatsApp group, I saw the video being shared and that’s when I realised it was being watched by a lot of people. This is the first time in my life that a video involving me has gone viral. I am very happy. A lot of people have called me.”

Though he has interacted with Muslims in the past during his performances, he said Muslim women are not commonly seen approaching a theyyam.

“It’s a situation where (we) leave the human form and attain a divine form. I am in a different mental state at that time. It’s a state where they believe I am god. Maybe, that’s why I called her, spoke to her and she happened to cry,” said Sani.

He underlined that Muthappan is a deity that cuts across caste and religious barriers. “He is a symbol of religious harmony in a state that celebrates those values,” he added.

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