Swathed in crimson red, the performer on stage, looking like a silk effigy, transforms himself into a deity. His persona had come down on him conceivably after tapping his traditional roots and the dance is fused with martial arts and rituals. He seems in a trance as he sways slowly before flaring-up in front of the spell-bound audience. The artist, Sreeraj Vazhayil, 33, a machine operator in Kufuma upholstery company in Subhan, is performing 'theyyam' (a ritual art form in south Indian state Kerala) and arguably he is the only Indian in Kuwait trying to enliven this folk art form not to make it counted among the 'forgotten art of the bygone era'. He performs as if it were his duty and he does it between his work schedules and his cultural identities.
Theyyam, from the caste-system era of India, was performed under various trees and later in the Hindu temple premises by the lower castes in the days following the harvests. The poor and lower caste artists symbolizing epic characters and legendary figures usually took pride in becoming who they are not in real life. The performances, arranged by upper caste people were often part of ritual and many communities have made scores of facets of this art. Mixing devotion and fear, beauty and beast, this transcending art now has crossed over continents.
Sreeraj, born into a lower caste family of traditional art performers, has been witnessing the art form dying slowly in the economic upsurge of developing India. Many art performers left the village in search of 'more income assured professions'. Sreeraj, in tune with the Diaspora, was no different except that he rekindled his art in Kuwait. His first performance was last summer at American International School, Maidan Hawally when his native expat association (Friends of Kannur) celebrated its cultural fest. Many took notice. Some found it gruesome. Some, awesome. Many came to him, thanked him and said they saw such kind of dance for the first time. Many spectators video graphed the entire 20-minute show and the last man with a video said, 'something to keep for my children’.
Last week, Sreeraj was at Da'yya auditorium giving another life to the traditional art. This time, he said, many of his friends and their friends offered help: to bring the requirements from his hometown in north Kerala; to arrange costumes, ornaments and other bits and pieces and to help with the make-up. "Back home we used to make our own make-up," he said. Charcoal for eyeliner, rice powder, turmeric and lime for mascara and tender coconut leaves for apparel over silk attire. "That was a time," he said, "Our bangles and anklets were made of wood and then we would paint them gold. My people back home are so happy that I perform here. So they send me everything I require for the performance except the coconut leaves, since we have plenty of palm trees around".
The 20-minute dance is a delight to watch. Accompanied by traditional percussion drum, Sreeraj steps like a swan, then like peacock followed by cuckoo and elephant style steps. Gradually the rhythm becomes swift and the steps turn to jigs and bounds, the 'hysteric' dancer shaking his red-draped body frantically. He is embodying Hindu lord Shiva, particularly his fuming and fiery demeanour over the evils of the world. "If I were symbolizing a woman figure I wouldn't jump like this," he said, suggesting the graceful postures in the dance.
"I make myself available for a performance like this," Sreeraj said. "Preparations start with a one month diet control, for the body and mind. Now this ritual dance has become a stage art and a showpiece. But I'm happy that at least the art is still living and I feel at home. That feeling is an improvisation for an artist, to perform better".
"So what would be the improvisation for the next performance?" I asked him.
"Next time I want to have fire poles around my waist".
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