In India’s Kerala, villager-artists have sustained an artform for centuries.
It was the most important performance of the night, the Kalan Kollam. The artists performed in tandem with each other in the open ground of Kadammanitta Devi Temple. But soon, a sudden downpour of rain forced the crowds to seek shelter under trees and temple’s roof.
The artists, however, continued without pause. In fact, the rain complemented their theatre as the movements of the dancers became faster, the Chenda beat louder, and the singer’s song in Malayalam became more urgent. But then, it all came to a screeching halt. The dancer collapsed onto the crowds and was quickly carried away by other artists backstage. The song and the music ceased just as suddenly.
A four hour drive from Kochi, Kadammanitta Devi Temple is the site of this open theatre of Padayani. The Kalan Kollam is a retelling of the story of sage Markandey from Hindu mythology. He was destined to die at the tender age of 16 but upon praying to Lord Shiva, he was able to escape his pre-ordained death.
The villager-artists of Kadammanitta perform the act as a prayer to the Devi in order to be protected against premature deaths themselves. This makes the performance a deeply personal and spiritual one for a Padayani artist. The dancer seeks to surrender his consciousness to the divine and the crescendo of the song and the music helps him do just that. It is when he is completely spent that he collapses and the act is officially understood to be over.
The harvest festival of Padayani is celebrated in the month of April every year. It lasts for a week and includes daily performances at night. But it is on the eight and the final day that the facemask cum headgear Kollams are brought out in full force.
These Kollams are made by the artists themselves a day before they are to be used in a performance. They are painted with five colours, all of which are derived naturally. “Four trees are used in making of Kollams; palm, coconut, mango and turmeric”, says Renjith Kumar, 34, an artist. The black colour is obtained from burnt mango leaves, yellow comes from turmeric, and the areca palm tree leaf sheaths give the green and the white colours. The red, however, comes from the crushing the redstone.
Kumar has been witnessing the spectacle of Padayani since he was ten and says that the festival reinforces the need to protect these four trees. Once the Kollams have been used in a performance, they are laid down by the temple to decompose naturally.
Locals says that until decades ago, it was only the Ganaga community that worked on making the Kollams. Later, however, people across communities were mobilized as it was increasingly felt that the art form was dying. Even then, the centuries-old tradition of Padayani continues to survive despite no historical records or documentation regarding the training and practise of the art. All knowledge has been passed down from generations orally by Asans, or gurus, and the senior most teacher in Kadammanitta now is Aravindakshan Asan, 66.
The training for the dance, music, and singing takes place in the Gothra Kala Kalari, the training centre. It takes an year to learn a skill and every student is taught all three. Midhun, a 23-year-old artist, who started in 2012, feels the training requires a lot more concentration and is more powerful compared to school-based learning.
But what are the art and the devotion behind Padayani all about?
“It is the culture of people of Pamba river,” says Vasudevan Pillai, the retired mathematics teacher and a Padayani artist himself. Pillai is the sole academic expert on Padayani, having studied 28 Kalaris related to the festival across the central Travancore region.
“When people first started to live by the river, they kept five trees untouched. Together, those trees formed what is known as Kavu, or sacred grove, in Kerala,” Pillai says. “It contains the five elements of water, air, earth, fire and sky. Of these, fire is the only element, which cannot be polluted. That fire is the Devi, the goddess.”
The chief of Padayani, Prasanna Kumar, adds, “Kali is the fire that helps clear the cloud of anger, lust, and ego in our hearts and we perform Padayani to rekindle the Kali in our hearts.”
Fire is indeed an important element of the festival. On the eight night, when the Kollams are brought into the temple from the workshop, it is preceded by burning of bundles of straw.
The mythology of Padayani is derived from the story of the demon king, Darika. He had prayed to Lord Shiva for boons and after having received those, he ended up wreaking havoc upon hell, earth, and heaven. Tsunamis raged, children died of inexplicable illnesses, and people were oppressed by fear and anger. To put an end to his reign of terror, Lord Shiva sent Kali to destroy him. But even after having vanquished the demon, the fiery goddess found herself enraged still and could not calm down. It was only after Padayani that she was appeased at last.
“There are elements of reality as well,” says Prasanna Kumar. “We believe that in the society, there are people with destructive and exploitative tendencies. On the other hand, some have creative tendencies. Through Padayani, we transform the destructive forces into creative ones.”
Kollams represent forces of disease, evil, and witchcraft. These include Pisasch kollam, Yekshi kollam, Marutha kollam, Ganpathy kollam, Pakshi kollam, Kuthira kollam, Kalan kollam and finally, Bhairavi kollam.
The Bhairavi Kollam is the biggest of all and performed at the very last until the day breaks in the morning. It is the heaviest Kollam of all and because of that, artists take turns in hoisting it.
According to Mr. Prasanna, the temple was built about 900 years ago and the Padayani as an art form took birth more than five hundred years ago under Cheraman Perumal, one of the last kings of Kerala. While until two decades ago he was worried if Padayani would survive in future, his experience has been to the contrary now. “Students are very eager to learn even in this age of technology,” he says.
While the UNDP has already provided assistance worth Rs. 5 lakhs to the temple’s committee, the state and central governments too have pledged around Rs. 7 crores to set up Padayani Gram. The foundation stone has already been laid for the structure that will, in future, include a museum and a guesthouse for tourists. Mr. Haridas, the president of the committee, is optimistic that the Gram will be completed soon.
This reported story is from April, 2018, and is now featured on Medium’s Art, Travel, and World pages. Photographs © Garima Garg.