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Worshipping Bhoota: the Deccani Ritualistic Dances of India

Indian primitive traditions (that can usually, on an average, be traced back to hundreds, if not, thousands of years) are, from the most ancient of times, often considered to have been a syzygy blend of animism, mysticism and ritualistic spiritualism, if the ‘Adi-vasi’ theology, as propagated by the various regional scriptural clairvoyants, talked not simply about gods and demigods but were equally aware of every supernatural force that could be channelled into a spirit or even had one within, back then.
The most primeval form of such animism (a definitive interpretation of which, in the opinions of scholar Pegi Eyers, would be “the way humanity has been deeply connected to the land and its seasonal cycles for millennia, in rapport and conversation with the animals, plants, elements, ancestors and earth spirits”) as a discernible framework of worship would be best seen in the Indus Valley culture, one of the earliest civilisations on the face of this earth, that rose to its zenith in the mature Harappan phase, usually delineated somewhere in the timeline ranging from 2600 to 1700 BCE.
The story of the Deccani regions (or what the colonial settlers, starting with Robert Caldwell, collectively referred to as ‘Dravida’-varta) is a lot dissimilar however. North India has shown how open and flexible it has always been in terms of intermingling with and adapting to various cultural additions and modifications, whether that be the influence of the Persian court costumes on the Kathak classical dance or the, to some extent, blasphemous (in the sense that it did not commit itself to the architectural standards of a single religion, Islamic styles in Kashmir and Malwa, not even possessing the minarets and overly rounded arches that were symbolic of the Arcuade style of monument building) Indo-Saracenic architectural pattern.
Talking about Theyyattam, a popular ritual worship dance from the Deccan, the cultural pattern of which dates back to almost, in the opinions of scholars Raymond Alchin and Bridget in their work ‘The Birth of Indian Civilization’, “the earliest periods of Neolithic, Chalcolithic settlement and expression” and Carnatic music, one which had evolved from the ancient Hindu traditions and had successfully ‘restrained’ itself from intermingling with the Islamic traditions in the medieval era (unlike that of the Hindustani classical music in the north), are interestingly seen to be somewhat rigid in nature, preserving in their utmost abilities, the very primary cultural traits and attributes till this day, without any apparent defection or extraneous influence on its beliefs and practices, the corollary being their consideration as more ‘homogeneous’ and more ‘intellectual’ when compared to their ‘secular’ counterpart.
Unlike the other major dances of the south like Bharatnatyam and Chakyarkoothu, ritualistic worship dances in the likes of Theyyam and Aali Attam (demon dance from the state of Kerala and Tamil Nadu) neither have an ornamental backdrop nor a green staged background that corresponds to the theme being danced upon. Rather, these are performed in open air theatres with the performance of the practices that usually depict, as noted down by historian KKN Kurup, ‘spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease and the worship of the Gramadevata (deity of the village)’. Besides the dance, face painting, that sets the characterisation for the Theyyam peformers, is in itself a very essential depiction of the Keralite folk culture. Performed mostly by the erstwhile lower caste males (Devakoothu being the only exception performed by females at the Thekkumbad Kulom temple) in the societal hierarchy, the dancers seek blessings from Theyyam since it is their belief that Theyyam serves to be their only channel to the Lord Almighty. Out of the 456 Theyyakkolams that purportedly exist, certain popular ones include the Vishnumoorthi (Vaishnavite), the Madayil Chamundi (Shakti), Kathivanur Veeran (hero worship) and the Muthappan Theyyam (partly Vaishnavaite and partly Shaivite, given that both gods of the Hindu trinity make an appearance). On Theyattam being often considered to be a synthesis of the beliefs that pervaded through the Deccani society, acclaimed horror author and screenwriter K. Hari Kumar opines that, “From the days of spirit (bhuta) worshiping, it has went on to include the religious beliefs that were embraced by the indigenous people over the course of time. So, it is right to say that Theyyam has evolved with time but if it is looked at carefully, the dance is more of a cathartic form of storytelling.”
In Aali Attam (demon dance), which is a subsidiary of the more widely known Mayilattam (peacock dance in veneration of Lord Subrahmanya) and performed in the Kolathunadu region as Theyyam, people (usually young girls in case of Mayilattam) are dressed up with opulent headgears and furs that make them look like the character they represent and when that is done, they’re sent out to dance, in a pattern that likens one with a demon, the more popular term for which would be an ‘asura’. The performances (Aali Attam, Mayilattam, Pampu Attam and Karadi Attam) are usually organised on the occasion of the Aaraattu or the bathing of the divine idols by the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, for which surprisingly, the Trivandrum airport halts its operation to let the procession pass through the runway to its final destination, the Shankumugham Beach.
A somewhat similar dancing pattern is observed in the Bhoota Aradhane (devil worship), one very popular ritualistic dance form from the coastal districts of Karnataka. Once the idols resembling bhootas are kept on the temple pedestal or plinth, dancers who have roles that deal with imitation of the devil being (theologically possible either by becoming a god oneself or by getting possessed by one), dance frantically amid the ‘beating of drums and bursting of firecrackers’. The dancer is then worshipped by the local community as he is believed to have been sent as a representative of the Lord himself, the purpose of which he fulfils by providing people with answers to their questions and solutions to eradicate the root causes of their ‘dukkha’. Interestingly however, ‘bhoota’, in the rural parts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts where the dance is organised, does not denote ‘ghost’ as is more widely believed in the north. Rather, it literally denotes ‘god’ or a benevolent spirit who is called in to show people the way to end their suffering or problems and is hence, feared and respected throughout the region. Some of such popular bhutas deified and worshipped during the dance include Pilipoota, Kalkuda, Kalburti and so on. As per the Karnataka Tourism, Bhoota Aradhane is also “said to have some influence from Yakshagana (Yaksha meaning natural spirit from the cosmos), a more popular and widely performed folk dance in coastal Karnataka. Some of the Bhootada Kola rituals also involve walking on a bed of hot coal.”
Bhuta Kola, another ritualistic dance that has been influenced by the Yakshagana folk theatre and is indirectly related to the Theyattam performance, has distinct characteristics in that it is performed in worship of the bhuta cult by the non Brahmin Tuluva (Tulu is a Dravidian language spoken by the Tuluvas) people belonging to the region of Tulu Nadu. In his work entitled “Text Variability and Authenticity in the Siri Cult. In Flags of Fame” edited by Heidrun Brücker, researcher Peter J. Claus tells us about matriarchal Paddanas written in Old Tulu which are used as historic recitations, in association with music, dance, elaborate costumes and festivities!
The speciality in organising a Bhuta Kola is that the celebrations are usually taken care of by a former ruling family or a well to do household which is inclined towards the worship of the Lord and hence takes the responsibility of organising the performance, forms of which include but are not limited to Kola, Bandi, Nema and Agelu-tambila. On the Bhuta Kola, K. Hari Kumar, someone who belongs to the region himself, adds, “So, the spirits or bhutas as we like to call them, are closely associated with the particular region or area where people had settled in ancient times. In the light of the limited scientific knowledge of those times, they associated every force of nature with a bhuta. So, there are bhutas that will tell you the truth while others that can cause robbery in your house if not pleased. When these beliefs are strongly rooted in a person’s mind, they can lead one to worship the spirit in the form ofa ritual dance and give rise to a ritualistic environment, with all the fumes and everything. For those pious men who believe, it becomes divine. I am sure the late Narendra Dhabolkar (social activist and rational thinker from Maharashtra) would disagree strongly. Nevertheless, it is a folk dance form and a part of our culture that should be well preserved and respected.”
To bring about a conclusive peroration to what the devil worship actually deals with, even though most of these dance forms have, for time immemorial, often criticised for having been too much of an animistic ritualism and away from the practical nature of life, it would be best befitting to quote author Sabina Magliocco who aptly says, “Understanding the physiological and neurological features of spiritual experiences should not be interpreted as an attempt to discredit their reality or explain them away. Rather, it demonstrates their physical existence as a fundamental, shared part of human nature.”
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in