'Believe strongly and anything is possible'

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The Independent Culture
It's 4 am. I'm at an all-night temple festival somewhere in north Kerala in southern India - not so much in the middle of nowhere as its outskirts. There's wild chenda drumming and a terrifying apparition of a man who has gone into a trance - they say the goddess Babrakali has possessed him - is charging right at me. His costume is on fire and he's just bitten the head off a live cockerel, the remains of which dangle from his mouth. To my relief, he stops just in front of me and shoves a few bird feathers into my camera's flash unit. "It's a good sign," says the guy standing next to me, "your camera is now blessed."

I'd arrived the previous day at the nearest town, Cannanore, to find the whole place on strike. There was no transport and I was wandering through the streets looking for a place to stay. It's so far off the tourist trail that two Austrians accosted me, amazed to see another Westerner there. While I was talking to them, a figure appeared on a motorbike, asked me my name and told me to jump on the back ("Wow, just like a movie," said one Austrian) and I was whisked off to see the mysterious Dr Nambiar, who has made the study of the Theyam his life's work.

Arriving at Nambiar's rural hideaway, I learnt about the Theyam over a cup of milky coffee. Because the South wasn't so affected by the series of invasions that convulsed the North, many south Indian cultural forms go back relatively unchanged for centuries. Elements of the Theyam ritual can be traced to neolithic times, although the modern (14th century) version is a synthesis of indigenous Dravidian and Brahminical culture.

It takes about 10 years to train as a Theyam performer and each of them will know hundreds of songs. Preparing for the ritual is intense - each performer will fast for days and the make-up takes about four hours to apply. The costumes can weigh 60 pounds and measure up to 15ft. After the introductory songs by a kind of MC called the Tottam, and several hours into the ceremony, the Theyam goes into trance - the Goddess descends - and the performer as deity is deemed to have supernatural powers. The Theyam works as an oracle - the village elders ask questions about everything from the rice harvest to village disputes. Theyam are also believed to have healing powers - in the old days they were said to be particularly effective against smallpox. As Dr Nambiar put it, "The mind is enormously powerful, and if someone believes strongly enough, all kinds of things are possible." Certainly, the atmosphere in these rituals is highly charged and Nambiar believes that the performers reach an acutely developed intuitive state under trance.

The endless drumming, the flickering fire, the flash of the costumes tend to induce a meditative state - with the performers occasionally charging at you keep you awake - not unlike avant-garde theatre groups such as the Catalonian Fura Dels Baus who have a habit of throwing flour or water at their audience to keep them alert.

Theyam performances are scheduled as part of the Festival of India's South. They have not been seen before in this country, and have only once before been performed in Europe, at the Avignon Festival. The fire and animal sacrifice elements have to be edited out and the time of performances cut to reflect European sensibilities.

The chenda drumming, which provides the musical accompaniment to Theyam and Kathakali - the better known Keralan drama form - is an ancient art form itself. The two-headed chenda drums are made from the hardwood of the jackfruit tree. Drummers form an ensemble of 10 or more to perform Theyambaka. The way they learn is to vocalise the rhythms and then play them with very heavy sticks to promote muscle development. Each rhythm is doubled and trebled in speed until the quadrupled speed in the hands of an expert is "hard to hear, let alone play" as one Indian music pundit put it. Mattanur Sankaran Marar, one of the acknowledged masters of the genre, is appearing with his ensemble of drummers at the festival.

After my experience of Theyam, I got an all-night train south to Varkala, feeling extremely disorientated, with the rhythms in my head compounded by the antique train shuffle and the food vendors' repetitive chants of "caffecaffecaffecaffe".

After three nights without sleep I treated myself to a night at the Taj hotel in Varkala, where sitar music was playing. This was the Indian music I was more used to - introspective, elegant, quiet. PC

n Theyam at the Riverside Studios, 28 May. Kathakali at the Riverside Studios, 28 May to 2 June (Booking: 0181-741 2255). Mattanur Sankaran Marar at The Spitz, 30 May