TEYYAM of Gods, Heroes and Ancestors, Patrick Morell, USA/India, 2021
By: Claus Mueller, Senior Editor
Patrick Morell presents a superbly photographed one hour documentation of the Teyyam rituals. These rituals have been performed for thousands of years, in hundreds of locations, in India’s Northern Kerala. Through Teyyam rituals, devotees’ bond with their gods, goddesses, heroes, and ancestors. Teyyam rituals have re-established a direct personalized relationship between the believers and their gods, a connection disrupted by Western organized religion. As the philosopher Martin Buber stated long ago, our religions have placed a mask on God, a condition opposite to the essence of Teyyam. Grounded in pre-Hindu religious formations with shamanist roots transmitted through oral tales and the local customs of villagers, Teyyams retain the history of Kerala. They sustain a powerful connection to the living past. Morell makes this transparent to outsiders through his detailed cinematography and recording of traditional music. His superb and exhaustive introduction to Teyyam is enabled by the documentary’s mastery of a complex subject, elucidating statements by Teyyam actors and devotees, as well as clarifying comments by some experts. Equally important are Morell’s detailed documentation of several enacted rituals like GULIKAN The God of Death or MAKKAM which reincarnates a beautiful woman murdered long ago by jealous relatives as a Goddess.
Teyyam worships are held over two months each year in a distant Kerala region far from the foreign tourist trade. Essential for their persistence and impact is that active ritual participants come from lower untouchable castes and that their performances are embedded in the spirituality of the Gods and Goddesses. Once a year, the Untouchables may become Gods. The social class and standing of participants in the rituals are irrelevant. The essential skill of the ritual performers is based on their long years of training, having learned to give up their individual personalities. These ritual performers have gained the ability to relate their community based audiences through the eyes of devotees rather than their own personal perspectives. The complete surrender of the self is essential for the Theyyam actors because otherwise they cannot assume the roles of the Gods they reincarnate during the rituals or engage in brief personal transactions with their devoted followers. The rituals often start at midnight, can last several days, and have become part of the life of the community where they are based. Long songs elaborating the legend of the deity in the ritual, ritualistic dancing, finely detailed facial paintings and makeup, and the elaborate and colorful costumes symbolizing the story told create the powerful ensemble of Teyyam. It results in a climax of trance-like conditions with actors seemingly transforming into Gods. They are accepted as divinities by the devotees who pray to them and transcend the realities of their time and space. Theyyam participants articulate that their bonding with the Gods and direct communication help in finding solutions to issues they face.
Patrick Morell’s TEYYAM documentary is an extraordinary achievement. TEYYAM explores complex themes without compromise and stimulates reflections for a western audience estranged from spirituality. TEYYAM is also available in a longer version presented in 2020 and 2021 at the Cannes festival market.