DxO One Grant
Exploring The World
The Oracles of Malabar
Sugato Mukherjee - West Bengal, India
This is a project on Theyyam - an ancient cult of Malabar, in the northern region of Kerala, India. An incredibly vibrant tradition that has been in practice for the last 1500 years, Theyyam is a deep rooted folk religion, where the Theyyam practitioner or the Oracle, in a state of exalted trance, becomes the physical manifestation of a deity. With the DXO imaging system, I intend to build up an intense and intimate visual narrative of this cult.
Theyyam is the corruption of the word ‘Daivam’ that means God in Malayalam, Kerala’s state language. An incredibly vibrant tradition that has been in practice for the last 1500 years, Theyyam is a deep rooted folk religion of Malabar, the northern region of Kerala. Where the Theyyam practitioner or the Oracle, in a state of exalted trance, becomes the physical manifestation of a deity. An entire hierarchy of Gods, Goddesses, ancient heroes, demons, spirits and other mythical beings is personified in Theyyam performances that occur in temples and Kaavus (small places of worship) from October to May.
The Oracle, in his state of transcendental trance, is believed to be possessed with divine powers to heal, foretell the future and confer blessings on devotees. A Theyyam practitioner traditionally hails from scheduled castes, who are socially disadvantaged communities in Kerala where caste divisions are still very strong. But interestingly, during Theyyam, the oracle is worshipped as a living deity by all classes of people, even by the Brahmins, who are at the helm of the social system. In their daily lives, the oracles are mostly employed in mundane, routine jobs to which they return after their brief sojourn in the metaphysical world, which is commonly referred as ‘spirit possession’. The phenomenon of spirit possession exists in many cultural traditions and in this unique Malabari variant, the possession is almost always benevolent, though the outward appearance is often wrathful.
A visually rich cult with explosive colours of face and body painting of the practitioner, Theyyam is also a religious art with its dense layers of imagery and symbolism, where ancient chants are employed in conjunction with the ritual use of music, richly coloured fabrics and dance to visualize and invoke the deity.
I have covered this exclusive and exotic cult of Malabar a couple of times but so far the assignments have been coverage of the rituals. With the help of the DXO One Grant and the groundbreaking DXO One system, it will be an exciting opportunity to move up close with the Oracles and visually bring out the phases of transition that they undergo from their own perspective. Since they often remain in a vulnerable state of mind when they mentally transform themselves, I have previously felt that the traditional camera might not be the ideal tool to capture this mystical cult the way I would want to. Additionally, it would be an equally exciting opportunity to explore the possibilities of DXO One system in low-light situations and in fast-moving sequences.
Goals and Utilisation of the Grant: The grant would facilitate the travel and accommodation expenses for the project. It would also be helpful in preparing a small video to highlight the flexibility of the DXO One system and how this effective and unobtrusive camera system can be a travel and work companion. I also have a plan to curate the output in the form of a visual narrative, both online and print.
About Me : I am a photographer and writer based in Calcutta and have contributed to publications including The Globe and Mail, National Geographic Traveller, Al Jazeera, Roads & Kingdoms,New York and Jet Wings International. My coffee table book ‘An Antique Land : A Visual Memoir of Ladakh’ has been published in 2013 and received critical acclaim. My work on the sulphur miners of Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia has been awarded by UNESCO. I have received the Explore Armenia Grant of Luminous Endowments in the previous session and about to embark on the project in early October, 2017.