With the practised strokes of an artist, he adds final touches to the mural. The mural is of a fiery-eyed, bloodthirsty demon.
‘The car is gone’, speaks a voice at his doorstep.
He turns around. It is his neighbour, an adolescent girl whose eyes are still that of a child. She peers at him, terrified of something she has witnessed.
‘When I see that man, I am terrified’, she says. There is the inexplicable fear of the unknown in her words. The abrupt exposure to a world that the child doesn’t understand, but that her instincts mark as ‘dangerous’.
Sadayam was a film that I was never comfortable watching. I was in school then, and I remember it as a rather disturbing film that left me feeling weak, turbulent and helpless-
The feeling of being stifled, when you actually wanted to scream.
I remember how that film was played once in the bus while we were travelling. I remember forcing myself not to look at the monitor. And yet, I couldn’t run away from the dialogues that sent a chill down my spine, and the background score that knocked louder at the doors of my mind.
That there were women out there, standing all alone, standing naked to the brutal forces of society, was a chilling revelation to my young mind. That I lived a life of dignity while there were women out there who surrendered their spirits to the sheer adversity of their circumstances, opened my eyes to the horrors of being a woman. It struck me that I was bound to them by the commonality we shared- I was a woman too. More fortunate, perhaps. But I couldn’t shed away the fears that crept into my mind when I confronted on screen the brutal experiences that my gender had to confront in life. These women on the screen were my own faces in a different context. This realization was the magic of writers like MT.
‘What is the color of fear? Is it blood red?’, asks the artist.
The young girl is perplexed by this question.
Those words lingered in my mind. MT’s signature script. Haunting.
‘Are you a communist?’, asked my mother.
That is always her question when I wear red. It always makes me conscious. I go and take a second look at myself in the mirror. And somewhere, I feel a little uncomfortable.
Perhaps red is the color of fear. Or of violence. It is the color of blood…of bloodshed.
There is always a certain discomfort I feel when I regard the color of buses in Kannur. They are painted in shades of red and orange and yellow. Like buses that have caught fire. They speed through the traffic, desperate and chaotic, with no regard for all other life.
Theyyams are indigenous to Malabar. They are colorful and vibrant. But in them is an uncomfortable portrayal of violence too. They embody the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, religious worship. The costume of the theyyam artists is blood red.
‘These artists go into trances and transform themselves into forest and ancestor spirits, mythical heroes and flamboyant toddy-consuming gods who leap through fire, roll on burning coal, and accept blood sacrifices of live chickens.‘, reads an article on this folk art:
It seemed as if the entire village around the Theyyam artist as he danced in a corridor of wild fire, screaming and kicking flames in every direction; he seized full control over the crowd around him, leading the villagers to scream in ecstasy into the dark night sky as he performed the ancient rituals. There were moments where the artist’s helpers thought he had lost control and would try to stop him from stepping into the fire, but he would violently push them away, throwing himself again and again into the eye of the fire, determined to complete his transformation and embody the God.
I have often seen a similarity in the violent expression of the theyyam artists in Kannur and in the political bloodshed here or the violent tones in which the labourers in these parts reciprocate to the more elite. A palpable insecurity governs the life of the common man in these parts- an insecurity that is skilfully utilized by politicians. There is a palpable suppression in Kannur, and that suppression is chronic. It is this suppression that the theyyam artist perhaps liberates in his violent expression. A suppression rooted in casteism. Kannur is populated by people belonging to the Thiyya community- a community lower in the caste hierarchy. This is contrary to the scenario in the more central and southern parts of Kerala where the upper castes are dominant.
The article sheds light on the violent expression of Theyyams:
Ironically, the Theyyam finds its origins not just in the worship of ancestors and forest spirits, but also in a polarised society which once allowed only higher castes to enter temples. This forced people of the lower castes to employ other means with which to engage with their gods. Since participating in a Theyyam is open to all, it created an egalitarian space for the oppressed. They discovered a powerful voice with which to narrate to their feudal persecutors stories of injustice and exploitation. This transformation from man to god that began during the post-paddy sowing month of Thulam (October) also initiated a dramatic status reversal within prevailing social hierarchies.
Somehow, the suppression has trickled through the generations and despite the fact that the caste system has dissolved, the insecurity generated by this suppression appears to have been rooted and passed on. Today, Kannur has become the land of red. Red that is violence for some, and fear for others…
Red, the color of blood that appeases the Gods in these parts.