The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ 2019

Photography Workshop in Kerala, India, April 2019

Theyyam Photogrphy Expedition - Advanced photography workshop in Kerala, India. Portrait of a Theyyam performer by Dariusz Klemens
Photography Expeditions in India - The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ - Photo Expedition India - Theyyam Performance, Kerala, India. Photo: © Dariusz Klemens
Photography Expeditions in India - The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ - Photography Workshop Kerala - Photo Expedition India - Portrait of a Theyyam performer, Kerala, India. Photo: © Dariusz Klemens

Face to Face with the Living Gods of Malabar

‘Theyyam’, a ritualistic art form combining dance and music, indigenous to the Malabar region of northern Kerala, in South India, forms the subject of this advanced photography workshop. A living cult governed by centuries-old traditions, rituals and customs, Theyyam presents unique photographic challenges and opportunities.


The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ takes us to the sacred groves of Kerala’s northernmost region of Malabar to photograph the amazing spectacle that is Theyyam, an ancient ritual in which immortal spirits are believed to enter the mortal bodies of performers to enact a ritual dance of divine revelation.

One of the most enigmatic rituals performed on the subcontinent, Theyyam traces its origins to the Stone Age. Deriving its name from the Sanskrit word ‘Deivam’, meaning ‘God’, Theyyam is one of the oldest ritual art forms in India.


An intense, advanced photography workshop, the Theyyam Photography Expedition™ presents superb opportunities for documentary photography and environmental portraiture.


The Living Gods of Malabar

During a Theyyam ‘performance’, ancient deities including ancestral spirits and warrior heroes, as well as ghosts and deified animals, manifest themselves in the bodies of ‘empowered men’, who appear to their devotees as living gods.

Among the many unique aspects of Theyyam is that its deities not only appear to their devotees as divine personae but also interact with them. In every ceremony, after the Theyyams have completed their sacred dance but remain in a trance, devotees approach them to seek their blessing and ask them questions.

Devotees believe that the blessing and the answers that they receive from the Theyyams are from the God, or Goddess, in person.

Staged in temples and sacred groves – ‘kavu’ in the local Malayalam language – of traditional households of Malabar, Theyyam performances usually last three days or more, and often incorporate dazzling displays of martial arts.

Fire walking as well as fire jumping is also part of the ritual and in some ceremonies performers wear rings of burning wicks around their waist, which ignite as they dance deliriously to the mounting tempo of drums and cymbals. On rare occasions, ceremonies involve blood sacrifices, usually of a cockerel.

Music, which Hindus believe to be of divine origin, is an integral part of Theyyam. Every performance is accompanied by the playing of folk musical instruments including conchs, cymbals and, most prominently, drums. Drumming opens a performance and sets its rhythm and character.

As is the case for the make-up, costume, and dance, the music that accompanies a Theyyam is specific to the deity being propitiated – of the more than 400 Theyyams in existance, each has its own music, style, and choreography.

This is only one of the reasons why each and every Theyyam ceremony is entirely unique – during each ceremony, every Theyyam artist ‘interprets’ the character of the deity that they embody, and accentuates aspects of the myth that they are enacting, in their own, particular manner.

As Theyyams perform in a state of trance, what such manner will be is something that no one, not even the Gods-in-waiting themselves, can predict.

This changeability adds to every performance a considerable element of unpredictability so that, even as it unfolds within rigorously observed traditions, each ceremony is characterised by its own tempo, mood, and atmosphere.

Dramatic, mesmeric, at times, hypnotically intense, Theyyam is as complex and captivating a subject as a photographer can wish to observe, not least on account of the sheer range of opportunities that it presents – ceremonies are divided into distinct phases, each of which offers a wealth of possibilities for visual exploration.

The metamorphosis from earthly being to divine entity that every Theyyam artist undergoes during a performance, is a multifaceted process, which the workshop is designed to offer participants the opportunity to explore in detail.


The process of becoming a deity during a Theyyam performance requires intense physical and mental training. Prior to every ceremony, performers undergo various purifying rituals, which may include fasting and abstinence, to discipline their bodies to the task of enacting the divine with confidence – of becoming Theyyams, or Gods.

Just before the start of a ceremony, a Theyyam’s transformation from mortal being to deity begins with the application of elaborate make-up on the face and body. This is known as ‘face-writing’ and ‘body-writing’, respectively, and is the initial step in the exterior transformation that heralds a performer’s inner transformation into a supernatural being.

Costuming is the second step by which a Theyyam artist begins to edge into what one scholar aptly calls the ‘extraordinary otherness’ that becomes fully realised during a performance.

In contrast to the ceremony itself, make-up and costuming form a quiet, intimate phase of the ritual and take place in a secluded area to the side of the temple, or the kavu, where the performance is to take place.

The physical appearance of every deity is believed to have originated in the dream, or a vision, of an esteemed guru, and all Theyyam artists must know how to apply the make-up and make the costumes of every deity performed by their community.

Yet it is only when the make-up and costuming are completed and the artist beholds himself (or, on rare occasions, herself) in a mirror in his new guise that the transition into the divine state of ‘Theyyam’ is completed.

This moment, known as ‘mukhadarshanam’, or ‘the seeing of the face’, is the exact moment in which a Theyyam artist becomes in the eyes of his devotees an other-worldly being with mystical powers.

It is in this supernatural semblance, adorned with striking, carmine costumes, silver bracelets and anklets, and magnificent headdresses, that Theyyams enter the temple’s precinct to enact the ritual dance of divine revelation at the heart of a Theyyam ceremony, and interact with their followers.

The dance of the gods

Once a Theyyam performer has transformed into a particular deity, he, or she, begins to dance through the sacred space – the temple compound, or the kavu – where deities are worshipped.

Around half of the estimated 450 deities that populate the Theyyam pantheon are still regularly worshipped – each is unique in every respect. Deities include animals, trees, ancestors, heroes and heroines, as well as gods and goddesses.

Yet, whichever being is invoked and whichever aspect of their mythology is represented during a performance, the dance that a Theyyam artist performs during a ceremony is considered not as an act of propitiation of the gods, but as a dance of the gods, or goddesses, themselves.

Beguiling in all of its facets, Theyyam presents an extraordinary range of photographic opportunities alongside some interesting challenges, including capturing a live performance with an abundance of movement in extreme light conditions.

As such, in addition to being one of the most exhilarating spectacles visible of the Indian subcontinent, Theyyam is an ideal subject for photographers with a keen interest in documentary photography, who are looking to test and refine their technical as well as their interpretative skills.


If each phase of a Theyyam performance – from the lengthy make-up session, to the sacred dance, and the Theyyams’ interaction with their devotees – holds great potential for visual exploration, realising it requires stamina, tact, and a good level of technical ability.

Since most of the performances reach their peak at night and involve the use of fire, photographing them involves extensive night-time shoots, and the ability to work in extreme light conditions characterised by low light and high contrast situations.

Most important, as Theyyam is a religious practice and not a secular form of open theatre, capturing it requires the photographer to step lightly, working unobtrusively, with due regard for the sacrality of the event and the profound spiritual meaning it holds to its devotees.

So while Theyyam is extremely rich in photographic opportunities, exploring them demands technical fluidity as well as a willingness to understand the specific nature of the ritual.

As such, this Expedition is an advanced photography workshop suitable only for experienced photographers with a good level of technical competence, travel experience, and preferably, some existing experience in photographing tribal cultural performances.

The Expedition is open to a maximum of four photographers and participation is subject to a portfolio review and Skype interview.

As is always the case on our Unique Photographic Journeys in India™, curiosity, flexibility, a strong sense of adventure, and a good level of fitness are essential to participate.


The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ 2019

Dates: April 2019 (For exact dates please enquire)

Expedition Leader: Dariusz Klemens

Group Size: Limited to 4 participants

Fees: £7500 – Include: Photography tuition. 11 nights’ accommodation, with all meals and bottled water. All ground transportation (for details, see Overview Tab). All entrance and related camera fees, visits, and excursions.

Fees are per person, based on single use of double room.

Fees in other currencies:

USD 9,843 / EUR 8.411 / CAD 12,797 / AUD 13,227

(Fees in other currencies are based on current exchange rates and are approximate. Billing is in GBP)


The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ 2019

To make the most of our time on the ground, this Expedition begins and ends in Kochi (Cochin), Kerala, India. Kochi has an international airport and is well connected by internal flights to all main cities in India. If you require assistance with making your travel arrangements to/from the start and end point of the Expedition, please let us know.

As the purpose of our journey is to make pictures and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the places that we photograph, besides comfort and cleanliness, our choice of accommodation is based on ease of access to shooting locations, and character. We make it a point of staying in places that reflect the historical character – and wherever possible, preserve the natural resources – of the areas in which they are located, and that permit participants independent access to places of interest (in their own time, if they wish to, outside of the scheduled shoots where we photograph as a group). At every location, rooms are clean and comfortable, with A/C and en-suite facilities.

In Kochi, our base is a small heritage hotel housed in an elegantly refurbished historical building in the heart of Fort Kochi, next to the harbour and its famed Chinese Fishing Nets; rooms here are spacious and tastefully furnished. Whilst in Kochi, we enjoy lavish, organic breakfasts at Fort Kochi’s top-rated art cafè and sample the best of the local cuisine at two of the town’s best known restaurants.

In northern Kerala, our base is a small heritage hotel housed in a converted traditional hand-loom factory set among cashew and coconut groves, close to a secluded sandy beach. From here, we will travel to the ‘kavus’, or shrines, in the surrounding area, where Thayyam rituals are performed. There are no tourist facilities in the area and all our meals will be provided by our own cook, whose traditional Keralan cuisine is ranked among the best in the state. Meals will be served to accommodate our shooting times, which are likely to be erratic.

Transfers between Kochi and northern Kerala are by rail, the fastest and most comfortable way to travel between these two destinations. The journey takes around 5 hours, seats are in A/C carriage, in first class or best class available at the time of booking. In northern Kerala, transfers are by private, air-conditioned, vehicles; this allows us to move in comfort, at our own pace, between shooting locations.

Both in Kochi and in northern Kerala, for short rides between urban locations and to navigate the small lanes that sometime provide the only access to the location of Theyyam performances, we occasionally also use rickshaws (tuk-tuks).

The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ 2019

This Expedition is crafted to inspire you to expand your photographic skills and refine your understanding of photography whilst assembling a portfolio of expressive images illustrating your experience of Theyyam, one of the oldest and most intriguing forms of ritual art visible on the Indian subcontinent.

To accomplish this, the workshop balances intense shooting opportunities, with ‘pauses’ for editing and individual/collective review, and covers both technical and aesthetic aspects of photography through location shoots, one-to-one reviews, and targeted feedback.

As the goal of the Expedition is to produce a photographic story, emphasis is put on assembling strong, coherent coverage of the subject of Theyyam – the itinerary and all its components have been created, planned and timed to deliver this specific goal, enabling participants to produce a complete photographic essay/story on Theyyam, or particular aspects of it.

The workshop is structured to provide you with the most favourable conditions in which to experience first-hand, the decision-making processes that support the creation of meaningful images and underpin the development of photographic narrative, along with guidance that is tailored to your photography interests.

We like to focus on the individual needs of our participants well in advance of each workshop; so, by the time the Expedition begins, we have already given some careful thought to how best to help you achieve your photography objectives – whatever these may be.

During the workshop, enabling you to become immersed in your surroundings and anticipate the moment, whilst remaining in full command of the technical skills needed to capture it, is central to our endeavour. For this reason, every aspect of the workshop is aimed at facilitating your interaction with your environment and making you comfortable enough on the ground to be able to bring all of your photographic skills to bear in rendering your subject.

Dariusz has photographed Theyyam numerous times. This experience enables him to provide workshop’s participants with guidance on approaching and rendering this particular subject. Since, as is the case for all our photographic journeys, this Expedition is based entirely on real-life situations, interaction techniques are a fundamental aspect of this workshop.

Throughout the Expedition, Dariusz’s objective is to share his knowledge and expertise in the most effective way possible to help you define and accomplish your individual, photographic goals.

Time to edit and review images is an essential feature our daily schedule and feedback session are timed to allow you to make the most of each shoot.

Throughout the Expedition, you can expect to be shooting, editing, receiving feedback on your images and have the opportunity to implement the insights that you have gained, on a daily basis.

This alternation of extensive shoots and targeted feedback is an extremely effective way of understanding the practice and principles that govern the making of distinctive images, and of gathering a body of photographs that is coherent in style and content. As such, the workshop is particularly well-suited to photographers who are interested in expanding both their technical and interpretative skills and developing a portfolio of images showcasing their work.

Besides generating ideas and inspiration, the feedback sessions provide the opportunity to move beyond the specifics of particular images, to consider the techniques that can reliably be employed to produce strong images, construct stylistically consistent narratives, and make the best of any photographic opportunity/situation.

As the journey progresses, and participants develop their individual projects and ideas, the scope of the feedback and group discussions widens, generating debate on extremely diverse aspects of photography and producing an intensely creative environment in which to advance your photographic goals.


The Theyyam Photography Expedition™ 2019

Type of camera
We recommend that you bring a single-lens reflex (SLR) type of camera; this can be for film or digital, in 35mm or medium format. The camera can be of any make, but it must have a manual option for aperture and shutter-speed adjustment. Compact’ and instant cameras, or any other camera without adjustable f-stops, focus and shutter speed is not appropriate for the type of photography that we practice on our Photography Expeditions. Whatever camera(s) you choose to bring, we strongly recommend that you bring a back-up body, as fixing any problems during the journey would be impossible.

Whilst a choice of different focal length lenses will allow you greater flexibility, you do not need more than one lens to take full advantage of the workshop. If you bring only one lens, it would be preferable for it to be a zoom lens with a range of 24-70mm f2.8. The optimum selection for this workshop is 2 or more zoom lenses covering the 20 to 200mm range, plus a fast prime lens – e.g. 50mm f1.8 or 35mm f1.4, preferably both.

Digital SLRs
To ensure that you have sufficient memory to shoot high-resolution images throughout each day on the Expedition, you should bring a minimum of two 32GB memory cards per camera. Additionally, you will need a 500GB, and up to 1TB of external storage to store your images.(Cloud storage is not a realistic option during the workshop).To edit and process your images for review, your laptop needs to be reasonably fast; we recommend at least 500GB of free hard-drive space. Please ensure that you bring all the necessary ancillary equipment including connecting cables, memory card reader and software back-up disks.

If you shoot film please note that professional transparency film is not widely available in India, so you must bring a sufficient number of rolls with you when you join the Expedition.

If your equipment includes a flash unit, you may find it useful to bring it. A flash unit is not an essential piece of equipment, but can certainly prove useful in some circumstances. However, in considering whether to bring it with you, you should bear in mind that the use of a flash is strictly prohibited during Theyyam performances, particularly those that take place at night.

The only filter we recommend that you bring is a standard UV Filter. A Sky 1A or Sky 1B is also a useful alternative. Although the workshop covers the use (and misuse) of filters, these are not essential.

Although a tripod can be useful for working in low light conditions, this is by no means an essential piece of equipment for 35mm camera users on this workshop. However, a tripod is a must if you are planning to bring a medium format camera. Bear in mind that a monopod can be a useful, more portable alternative to a tripod for both 35mm and medium format.

Cleaning Equipment
During the Expeditions, we put our camera equipment through its paces; a good camera and lens-cleaning kit is essential for daily maintenance.

If you have any questions, please contact us

[quform id=”16″ name=”Join this expedition”]