Published: 10th April 2019
Of Theyyam, alcoholism, casteism and civil dreams: Meet Kuttikol Vivek, the first Vannan man to crack UPSC
Vannans are a Scheduled Caste in Kerala, who traditionally perform Theyyam. Vivek belongs to the community and says how the caste's issues prompted him to try a hand in Civil Service
The young boy despised his occasional trips from Kanhangad to his ancestral home in Kuttikol, a hamlet in Kasargode. He remembers how the house's roof was made out of coconut leaves and had a cow dung-laden floor. There was no electricity or toilets, leaving the residents with no option apart from defecating in the open. He had a tough time staying there during his holidays.
But in January and February, the season of Theyyam, festivity blossomed in that little house. He was fascinated by the bright colours painted on the faces and bodies of his kin, who danced dressed like Gods. For generations, Vannans performed Theyyam, a ritual art popular in northern Kerala and parts of Karnataka. Here, the artist is believed to be enchanted by the Gods and he dances in front of the deity, as he narrates folklore and criticises the upper castes for their purported cruelty.
The little boy today is an adult. At 30, Kuttikol Vannanpurakkal Vivek is probably the first from the scheduled Vannan caste to clear the UPSC Examinations. An alumnus of NIT Trichy and IIM Calcutta, Vivek says that he wanted to work in the service sector and on societal issues, after observing the state of his family and caste.
Dance of the deity: Theyyam is performed traditionally by the Vannans
Growing up, it was evident to him that poverty was a way of life for the Vannans — they were employed only at the Theyyam season. But that was just part of the larger problem. To dance, the artist has to be in a stupor and to attain that, they rampantly consumed alcohol. "Most men in our caste are alcoholics. My father, uncle and older cousins consumed it every day. For them, it was a necessity and inside that house, it was as common as drinking tea," says Vivek.
Alcohol can be a real killer
Vivek lost both his father and his uncle to alcoholism. His father died 15 days before his UPSC preliminary examination. "It was a really tough time for me," he recalls. He says that it was his father's alcohol addiction that led to his family moving out of their ancestral home in Kuttikol to Kanhangad and then to Kannur and eventually led to his parents' divorce. "My father used to perform Theyyam a long time ago. Then, he got a clerical job in a bank. But he never got rid of the alcoholism. We often called him an addict and shunned him," he says. But for a very long time, he never understood the societal and structural issues that led to his alcoholism, he admits. "The artist even runs on coal! These are instances when alcohol comes into play," he adds.
Alcoholism always has a way of affecting the women in their community. "As most men are alcoholics, there are issues of abuse naturally. Women suffer a lot here. With alcoholic husbands, the pressure is on them to take care of the family. My aunt was a washerwoman and her husband and children were dependent solely on her meagre income for survival. Also, since the employment is seasonal, these artists don't save money at all," says Vivek, who believes that the artist's wife must also be a stakeholder in Theyyam.
Education, his only way out
Vivek's mother was adamant about providing him a good education and soon after his parents' divorce, he moved to his mother's ancestral home in Kannur, where he went to school. "My mother admitted me in St Michael's Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, Kannur. The fee there was Rs 10 per month and I had access to good quality education. I wonder if that's possible anywhere else in the country," says Vivek. He believes that he was able to clear the AIEEE, CAT and now the UPSC because of the good primary education that he received. "I'm always indebted to the Kerala model of development and the subsidised education in the state. Also, I never had to face any caste-based discrimination there," he says.
My mother admitted me in St Michael's Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, Kannur. The fee there was Rs 10 per month and I had access to good quality education. I wonder if that's possible anywhere else in the country
Vivek K V
After completing his BTech from NIT Trichy, Vivek went on to do his Master's from IIM Calcutta."The motive behind going to IIM was attaining financial security and to be independent. During my stint there, I made up my mind to prepare for UPSC. I started preparing for the exam while I was working in Gurgaon. A year and a half ago, I quit my job to concentrate entirely on UPSC," says Vivek who bagged the 667th rank. He chose Sociology as the main subject, which helped him understand more about the issues faced by his own caste.
Back to his roots
Even today, Vivek's cousins live in Kuttikol. While most of them perform Theyyam during the season, they drive auto rickshaws the rest of the year to earn a living. The ancestral house has access to electricity and has a proper toilet today. A cousin even has regular employment.
But, that isn't the case everywhere. Theyyam artists are still victims of alcoholism and suffer in poverty. "Since there aren't too many employment opportunities, many educated men from our community still end up performing Theyyam and fall prey to the lifestyle," says Vivek. "There is no scope for agriculture since our village is in a rocky area. There isn't much access to good education there," he adds.
How do you save the artist while also preventing the death of the art? Vivek has a solution. "Separating caste from the art can be a way out. If Theyyam is an art, the artist shouldn't be restrained by the caste," he says. He also suggests institutionalising the art, just like Kathakali. "There are a lot of differences between Kathakali and Theyyam. Kathakali is structured and Brahminical. It narrates the tales from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, while Theyyam uses folklore. Maybe an institute like the Kerala Kalamandalam can teach it, just like how they teach Kathakali," he says, adding, "This way, people from my caste can join as teachers there and hence get a regular income. They're yet to realise that they're artists and understand the nuances of art."
Apart from the Vannans, Malayans, Velans and Peruvannans also perform Theyyam. Vivek also calls for their unity. "I want to understand their problems and make sure that their voices are heard," he concludes.