Theyyam: Ancient South Indian Tradition with Dr. Anil Antony

Theyyam: Ancient South Indian Tradition with Dr. Anil Antony


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Theyyam is a religious tradition unique to the north Malabar region of the Indian state of Kerala. Once a year, local deities possess chosen individuals among socially marginalized groups, turning the class system on its head as they are worshiped wearing towering, colorful costumes and performing wildly athletic fire dances. Learn about this fascinating ancient tradition richly alive in the midst of India’s most diverse and educated state, in the company of two expert presenters.

Theyyam, although considered a Hindu practice today, grows out of an ancient local tradition of folk religion in which nature, village, and ancestor spirits are venerated in small, makeshift shrines. These shrines are often outdoors, and the spirits are represented by common items like plates and seashells. Once a year, the spirits of these shrines possess members of the local community and come to visit. The dress is so elaborate and the athletics so dynamic that in recent years Theyyam has attracted more and more attention from Western tourists. But the tourists miss the most important part: the spirits have come for a social visit. After the athletics, they answer questions and give advice in an almost Shakespearean form of the local language. Theyyam performances are a remarkable mix of the ancient and modern, as ancient spirits speak openly with a modern and well-educated local populace that comes to record the event with iPhones and DSLR cameras.

Led by Dr. Anil Noronha “Noro” Antony, who grew up next to one of these shrines and went on to earn a Ph.D. in biology in the US, this interactive seminar will bring a local, expert perspective to a practice that has been attracting more and more international attention. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away with an increased understanding of a truly ancient religious and cultural tradition and its place in a fully modern world. Dr. Antony is assisted in this seminar by John Bright, who has visited Kerala with him to observe Theyyam. John has worked on religious history and interfaith dialogue programs associated with the State Department, the American Jewish Committee, and some of the most historic churches in the US.

Dr. Anil “Noro” Noronha Antony is an assistant director of the American Association for Cancer Research, the world’s oldest and largest private cancer research organization. He holds a Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental biology and a lifelong interest in the history and culture of south India. Born in the Muslim-majority United Arab Emirates to an Anglo-Indian Catholic family and trained by a Hindu tantric in Kerala, he has direct experience of all three major Keralite religious traditions.

This conversation is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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