Art as Devotion: Theyyam Dancers: Background information when reading Nine Lives

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Nine Lives

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple X
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2010, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2011, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Beyond the Book:
Art as Devotion: Theyyam Dancers

Print Review

The subjects of Dalrymple's Nine Lives seek transcendence and divine communion in different ways. Some embrace aceticsm, while for others like the wandering Baul minstrel, the reciter of holy epics, or the maker of bronze deities, "art and religion are one."

The most vivid practitioner of art as devotion is Hari Das, the dalit  (untouchable) theyyam dancer. In an article for the London Times, Dalrymple explains, "Theyyam dance is a spectacular form of possession dance from northern Kerala, in the southwest of India, remarkable for its vibrant music and its astonishingly powerful and elaborate makeup and masks. The word theyyam derives from daivam, the Sanskrit for god. During the season, the theyyam dancers bring stories of the gods to life, and overturn the caste barriers in Hindu society."

Here is Hari Das as the transformation from man to god begins:

"He pauses as the makeup boy continues applying face paint from the pigment he is mixing on the strip of banana leaf in his left hand. Hari Das opens his mouth, and the makeup boy carefully applies some rouge to his lips,

'It's like a blinding light,' he says eventually, 'When the drums are playing and your makeup is finished, they hand you a mirror and you look at your face, transformed into that of a god. Then it comes. It's as if there is a sudden explosion of light. A vista of complete brilliance opens up—it blinds the senses...'"

  • Watch the makeup being applied and costume being assumed (also in video below)
  • A theyyam dancer at an event hosted by Dalrymple for the British Council
  • A dancer in northern Kerala
  • A photo of Hari Das (scroll to the bottom of the page)
  • An interview with William Dalrymple on NPR

Article by Jo Perry

This article was originally published in July 2010, and has been updated for the June 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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