The Theyyams of Kerala – A Photo Essay – By Ashwin Rao

The Theyyams of Kerala – A Photo Essay

By Ashwin Rao

Ashwins FlickrAshwins Blog

Hi, my friends. It’s Ashwin, here with another article with a bit of a different spin. Many of my articles have centered on travel, and painted pictures of countries in broad sweeps. In the recent months, we have all seen what Steve’s been able to observe and capture at Seal’s wonderful concerts along the European and South American legs of his tour, and what’s he’s captured are stories of each concert, told intimately through the images captured behind the scenes, during the show, featuring the musician himself and the crowd reacting to Seal’s art. In essence, Steve’s been able to tell stories of each of these concerts, and now tell short vignettes of each of the cities he’s seeing along the way…little vignettes, told through images, so to speak. In his most recent tour stop, Steve decided to tell his story through a series of black and white images, and the result is a cohesive, unique, compelling take on concert. All of this got me to thinking about telling stories, and how I might be able to tell one, and in effect, how you all may be able to tell your own stories…

And so it begins…


Observing the Onlooker

First Steps as a God…

There are so many ways to imagine and capture a story. In my frequent re-visits to photos captured on my trip to India, one particular early morning adventure kept calling to me to tell it’s story. The events that I aim to discuss took place in mid January, shortly after my travels took me to the coastal southwest of India, to the state of Kerala. Kerala is well known for it’s beautiful people, placid beaches, and strong religious presence. Here in Kerala, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism co-exist in thrive. If you ever get a chance to go to India, please put Kerala high on the list of “must-sees”…it’s far away from the hustle and bustle of the large northern cities. It’s a quieter, peaceful place of tranquil beauty.

The Finer Details

The Calm Before…

Applying the Headpiece

One of the most famous ceremonies that is unique to Kerala is the Theyyam, essentially a Hindu “possession” ceremony. In this performance/ritual, an individual becomes possessed and assumes the personality of a revered deity. Some Theyyams are large gatherings featuring “major deities”, full of lavishly dressed figures performing elaborate dances. Other Theyyams are far more intimate affairs, occurring in roadside churches, which only are meant to be seen by local townspeople. In both cases, these ceremonies allow its attendees to have a closer bond to the gods that they worship, to seek advice, have questions answered, and dilemmas solved. The Theyyam tradition dates back several thousand years, and to this day, many Hindus seek blessings from these ceremonies.

The Ceremony Begins


Assuming a Pose

The actual performance of the Theyyam is very much similar to an elaborate dance. The anointed figures are painted elaborately, often for hours prior to the ceremony’s formal beginning. There is typically no stage, nor curtain to separate the audience from the performance. In essence, the Theyyam takes place in the open space of the temple. Performances, once begun, may take several hours to carry through completion. Drumming and music often accompanies the dance and ritual songs, and many myths and legends are told as part of the performance. Throughout Kerala, there are approximately 400 different types of Theyyam, in essence 400 different ceremonies. While I travelled to the region, I had the privilege of seeing one such ceremony, which I share with you through these images and words.

Fully Adorned

The Possession Dance Follows

Our group left our home-stay around 4 AM to attend the ceremony. Theyyam preparation is often elaborate, and worth watching. Thus, bleary eyed and all, I hauled out my Leica M9, 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH FLE and 50 Summilux Asph, both must-haves for early morning, low light shooting. I dialed up my ISO to 800, and in some cases, 1250, in order to capture images in the low light fluorescent-lit temples and early dawn light….

The Theyyam that I attended was a smaller, more intimate affair. Other than I am my group of 5, there were approximately 10-15 local attendees who attended the ceremony, in addition to 5 or so attendants who actively participated in the ceremony.

Seeking Advice

Wish Granted

As for telling the rest of the story, I employed a strategy of processing my images consistently to attempt to achieve consistent tonality to my images. I also only employed 2 lenses to capture all of the action. Both the 35 mm and 50 mm aspherical Summilux lenses possess that critically sharp, nearly 3D Leica “aspherical” look….let’s call it the “Peter Karbe” look in honor of Leica’s genius lens designer….Images were all uploaded to Lightroom 3, processed using Kodachrome pre-sets, with adjustments made to insure a consistent look of slight underexposure. I did this to achieve the darkened mood and look of actually attending the ceremony.

The images walk you through the early, middle and later portions of the ceremony. In the first images, the deities of this ceremony are prepared and begin their transformation through painted form and color. Slowly, but surely, through a series of actions, they assume the identities, becoming possessed. Here, we witness the motions and gyrations that take these individuals from human to god-form, through their possession. Finally, once fully assuming the role and completing the ceremony, each deity is freed to answer the questions of the townspeople, who line up, in time honored fashion, and ask many questions…

The Line Up…

I will let the images tell the rest of the story. Hopefully, the images transport you to a place, standing next to me, where you feel that you are a small part of the action. I hope that this story, told through history, images, and recollections, inspires you to seek your own stories, in lands close to home and far away.

Thanks, as usual for reading, and I hope to see you down the road!



Ashwins Flickr – Ashwins Blog


  1. I have to agree with Princess Leica, you`ve not drawn me in emotionally,and these mostly underexposed, mostly out of focus images are driving me nuts. This forum is not occupied by professional photojournalists and is not the environment for you to get constructive criticism, its all too cosy. Please, and I dont mean this disingenuously, consider taking your pictures to a forum where you will get some genuine feedback, may I suggest one of the Flickr hardcores, or you wont improve.

    • As I told Princess Leica, you are more than entitled to your opinion, and I welcome all opinions. Please refrain from summarily judging my body of work, and do a bit of a search for my photos and comments before rendering criticism so bluntly…I am on plenty of Leica forums and do get feedback regularly, and not all of it is nice. Most if it is positive, and shows that my photography is in fact headed in the right direction.

      Neither this work, no any of my photography, is necessarily intended for everyone’s tast, and thus my goal is to share. You are correct that Steve’s site is a comfortable place for me to share, as I have written articles for him for 2 years. I do appreciate your comments on focus and exposure, as I can do something about that…the fact of the matter was that the lighting in this setting was “undercooked” and “underexposed”, as roadside Indian Temples tend to be at 4-6 in the morning. If you click on the images, you’ll see that the compression presented above does cause some OOF artifacts, and the expanded images are sharper. While the images aren’t in perfect focus even when expanded, focus isn’t everything…..

      Good luck with your own photography….

  2. Hey Ashwin, just wanted to thank you for sharing this experience with us. Whilst the lighting was obviously a challenge I think you have captured the reverence and the sense of solemnity in the occasion. Good luck with the exhibition.

    • Thanks, Darrell…The exhibition went very well. Over 100 people were in attendance. The feedback and support from our Local Leica Rep and Glazer’s Camera was overwhelming, as was the outpouring and turnout of friends, family, and local photographers alike! Hope to meet you soon.

  3. Hello Ashwin,

    I wanted to thank you for taking the time to put this piece together along with the photos (I’ve previously let you know that I enjoyed viewing the images, but I’ll say/write it again!).

    Keep shooting, my friend,


    • Thanks, Peter. It’s been great that this mutual sharing and discussion of images has lasted so long, through the forums here and at DPreview. You are a maestro of a photographer, and that new 60 mm hexanon is magic in your hands. Congrats on owning that gem that fits your style so well….

      Likewise, keep shooting, and sharing. It’s so great to have you back in the Leica fold…

  4. Hi Ashwin,

    I really enjoyed browsing through the photographs on your website. The one thing that impressed me was your composition, which I felt wasn’t as strong in your above images. The white balance/color also seemed off in some photographs. Perhaps you should stick to the Canon for more dynamic situations in low light, such as the Theyyam, and use your Lieca for street and still life work.

    Look forward to more submissions from you.


    • Thanks for the feedback, Arjun. I intentionally altered WB, which is difficult in such poorly lit circumstnaces, and images were quite similar, albeit slightly pumped up, as what I saw while there, in poor early dawn daylight and fluorescent lights…

      As for Canon, it’s long gone. I’m a Leica guy, and Pentax is my back up…. But the K5 (and Canons) are not very good for AF in low light, so MF becomes helpful, though by no means perfect here…

      Thanks for your feedback!

      • Actually I have had similar issues while photographing subjects in India, where it is not unusual to find different lighting sources (tungsten, sodium, ambient) illuminating one scene. I get around it by shooting fast black and white films, such as Ilford delta 3200 — not an ideal solution, I agree, but the lesser of evils. Plus, it gives me some nice grain which adds a texture and mood in the right situation.

        With regards to the Pentax and Canons, if you shoot in the continuous focus mode you can pretty much negate the poor AF issues because the probability of capturing a correctly focused frame increases. Not elegant, but effective unless it is a high contrast scene. My two cents for what they are worth– best of luck on your future shoots– and the next time you go to India, try to make a trip to the Ladakh region in the North and Bodhgaya in Bihar, IMO, they are both good alternatives to the over photographed Rajasthan and Varanasi..also, every June, Guwahati in Assam is home to the biggest Tantric mystic congregation called the Ambubachi Mela (, a lesser known yet better photo op compared to the Kumbh Mela.

      • On a different note.. you should have gotten your Leica blessed by the Theyyams, that would have been a million $$$ pic 😉

        • well, I did donate about $20 USD during the Theyyam, and they blessed me; not my camera however LOL…

    • Leica or Canon. It is not a question of the equipement. The light situation was very poor. Almost as dark as in a coal mine. In a theater or in a concert hall you have extra light and persons who are working with this light in order to emphesise the actors. Some photos here were taken against the daylight outside while the theyyams are acting in a half dark room. Extremley difficult. Ashwin and his Leica did the best under these circumstances.

      • Thanks, Carolus…absolutely correct. Thanks for taking such a detailed look at my images and commenting with such care. It’s appreciated…at another point, it may be fun to write an article about the difficulties in capturing images when lighting, backlighting, indoor-vs-outdoor, get in the way of visualizing what one sees with one’s own eyes….

        Thanks again!

      • Hey Carlous,

        No point getting into a Leica Vs Canon war here– personally, I am tired of such discussions– but lets call an apple an apple. I have shot with a Canon 5D MkII, in fact I am working with Nat Geo on a documentary film where we use it extensively for rig shots, time lapses and in low light situations similar to the one above. Since Nat Geo only accepts high quality HD footage we have to ensure that the images meet their standards. Given this, we have used the 5D in twilight and dusk with multiple, varied, direct light sources at about ISO4000-5000 with acceptable results and light casts are removed by using filters on the lens or in post production.

        I have a lot of respect for Leica equipment, but I am not sure it could match the performance of the 5d or even APS-C DSLRS like the Pentax K5/Nikon D3000 in similar conditions. If this is an incorrect assumption then please post some comparisons to refute the same.


    • Thanks, Mohan. Now an Indian ceremony would be a great next step. I’d prefer to see one in India…here are some shots from a set taken in the U.S…a couple of years back, with Canon gear…









      • Wow! Wonderful. I like the duotone images. The tone seems to flatter both the highlights as well as the shadows.


        • You are right, Mohan. My photographic skills and post processing have evolved somewhat since I shot this wedding, plus I have long felt that Leica lenses capture reality in a more 3 dimensional way then the Canon gear that I used….The Canon L lenses are technically very proficient, and maybe when mounted on a body/sensor with no AA filter, the lenses may shine more, and likely, had I shot these images within the past year, I would have seen the images differently…

          But you are spot on…the rendering is flatter than my more-recent work…

  5. Ashwin
    Loved the article and your pictures..Like the way you told the story and the way you captured the experience…Thanks for sharing –Hope to meet you saturday night !!
    Dave Berry

  6. This article doesn’t deliver on its promise, which is to reflect on the nature of visual storytelling. These pictures, while lovely, are neither photojournalistic nor emotionally expressive. The author uses “storytelling” loosely. The sharpness i am looking for is in his words and intentions, not merely in the pixels.

    • Sorry to disappoint. Photography is equal parts photographer and observer. One thing I have learned is that my images can’t please everyone. Your feedback is welcomed, and thanks for participating in the dialogue.

      • Is a story is a bunch of travel pictures and captions? A story in the classic sense is character, plot, and reflections on how the events witnessed had an impact on the storyteller. A story has a build and an emotional takeaway.I think most photographers use the word story in an jnflated way. Photos and photo essays would be so much better if visual people paid respect to the elements of storytelling. IMHO.

        • We’ll have to agree to disagree here, Princess Leica. There are many ways to tell a story, IMHO, and while you describe one way very eloquently, there are others, and my attempt, which clearly you don’t see, is one of those attempts, with emphasis on attempt. I do not claim to be a master story teller, but not all stories told are homogenous and cut in the mold that you have described. Clearly, you feel that I have failed, but if you read the comments of others above and below your own, they can gather the story from my images.

          The best to you, and I am happy to agreeably disagree with you here….signing out…Ashwin

        • What is a story and why is your idea of a story the right one? Photography is not cinema nor is it a book so to expect of all things a plot is a stretch. The emotional payoff is within the image if it affects you in that way. Regardless a photo essay is a different medium on to itself and your lofty expectations do not reflect it’s ideology. Sure there are different levels of quality but I challenge you to meet your own expectations and see where that leads you.

    • I disagree. I feel like that he captured the events unfolding in a elegant and colorful manner in what were probably less then ideal conditions. I’m not sure what you think you could have added to the story that he didn’t. The subjects seem to take the ceremony pretty seriously so any lack of emotion is not the fault Mr. Rao, he simply conveyed the message that was being given.

      • I have to agree with you John, I read the story from start to finish and feel Ashwin has done a great job. I do have to say I have visited India a few times and have spent time in roadside and much bigger temples, so I have real life experience and atmosphere to back up his tale.
        Great story Ashwin, India and the Hindu and yogic cultures I find fascinating and your words and pictures conveyed the religious devotion of the people. I also know how badly those temples are lit with their nasty fluorescent tubes 😉

      • I agree. I enjoyed the story of preparation. These photos are lovely and show a tradition and how meticulously focused can be an art in itself. These series of shots show the art in the making. wonderful. So much love and care goes into it. Thanks, Ashwin for sharing these. I love your stories! I don’t travel much, and this gives me a taste of the local culture.

  7. Also noticed that clicking on the images reveals improved sharpness, but still my comments above still hold…take a look by expanding the images via clicking on them.

  8. Hi guys,
    Thanks for the nice comments, Amr, Terence, Robert, Michael, and Carolus.

    Carolus, I’d like to hear more abouy why you feel the way that you do. Keep in mind that the story is not in the single image, though each image has a story. In this case, I tried to tell the story through a series of images.

    Michael. Thanks for the constructive criticism. You are absolutely right. I had to compromise on some sharpness, due to the very LOW light. I tend to keep ISO’s at 1250 or below with the M9, typically 800 or below, and thus, any motion on my part or the part of the subject could add enough motion blur to reduce the sharpness. Not the lenses fault, just my own limitation and the limitations of shooting in a very dark setting…Still, I hope that the images are cohesive and convey a certain emotion…

    Your gues thoughts are greatly appreciated, and Terence, how cool was it to meet Steve out on the streets of eastern Europe recently. Awesome story.

    Best to you all,

    • According:
      “Michael. Thanks for the constructive criticism. You are absolutely right. I had to compromise on some sharpness, due to the very LOW light. I tend to keep ISO’s at 1250 or below with the M9, typically 800 or below, and thus, any motion on my part or the part of the subject could add enough motion blur to reduce the sharpness. Not the lenses fault, just my own limitation and the limitations of shooting in a very dark setting…Still, I hope that the images are cohesive and convey a certain emotion…”.

      You are 100% right – me too I am looking to not push the M9 over iso1250 to get good IQ…and as written already before – it does nor should limit the expression, feelings the story told raises in the reader.
      I always love reading your story and I am “jealous” you can travel that much around the world.

      • Thanks, Michael….I am a lucky guy to be able to travel a bit…One big trip per year is what I allow myself, but there are many smaller trips and trips around home that are pretty good too. Thnaks for your comments….I am happy to share and glad that you want to read the words…


    • May be the picture “The Possession Dance Follows”. What do you want to say? I guess the dynamic of the dancers. But are you satisfied with the result? In my opinion it is a diffucult picture (Center, light, colours, structure, frame).

      I think you are a very polite guy. And therefore the distances in the pictures are sometimes to big.

      Under my pillow lies the book “The nature of Photographs” written by Stephen Shore. A great book. Reading this book is a great benefit.

      • I’ll look into the book. My style is pulled away, not as close as some photographers would get, but it’s a stylistic choice…Politeness is certainly part of it, as I don’t want to interfere with a ceremony taking place…however, maybe Steven Shore has some tips that would allow me to get around this…thanks for the tip.

  9. Hi Ashwin!

    Great story and how you told/wrote it – really gives an insight look in that part of India. Due to the lightning conditions my eyes have been searching the “sharpness” point in some of the photos provided, so the feeling I did have looking at this article the very first time.

    That’s just the emotions I had during looking on them…should not express the (high) amount of respect I do have (and always had) of your work shown here via Steve’s blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.