In sacred groves in Northern Kerala, frenzied figures in grand accoutrement and ornate facial paintings move to the rhythm of the chenda. The denizens gather around, with hands folded in piety and prayer, watching them strike the ground with their bewitched heels. The Gods have arrived.

The divine dance begins. The ancient ritualistic dance form of Kerala, Theyyam, offers a peek into the life of the subalterns of the Hindu society who are upraised by all devotees, irrespective of caste and status, to the stature of God during these festivals. This carefully protected traditional practice is witnessing a resurgence and is one that blurs the evident caste system.

My search to immortalise this art form ended with an artist known for her unique voice and fierce spirit.

In 2016, I was fortunate to interview Resmi Sateesh, then a burgeoning folk artist who would later go on to become one of Kerala’s most sought-after singers. I met her at an art festival in Ernakulam where she launched her band. She set the stage afire with her performance, captivating the hearts of hundreds of spirited youths.

One of the songs that raised a furore was “Polika Polika” which was praised for its lyrics that challenged societal hierarchies. The lines loosely translate to “If you slit your skin, you’d see blood and if I slit mine, there’d be blood, too.” These words promoting oneness and nullifying all man-made boundaries resonated with every listener.

For this shoot, I wanted to capture the spirit of Theyyam through someone who understood the sentiments and culture attached to the pantheistic art form. Resmi, who has been a regular at Theyyam rituals for years, also wrote songs inspired by them, and that to me meant I had arrived at my muse.

As a team, we took time to research every element of the art form, wanting to ultimately execute it in a style of storytelling that is characteristic of a documentary.

Ever since Theyyam became a subject of discussion for its questioning of caste structures, I knew I certainly had to capture its essence, especially because of the impact I felt it would create in this time of intolerance. A local practice like it deserved a global platform as it spoke the language of universal oneness.

I believe fashion, beyond its glamour and ephemerality, plays a greater role in establishing and promoting ideas, culture and politics. Resmi, through her powerful stance and fiery eyes, succeeds in evoking the spirit of an ancient art form that refuses to fade away.

The makeup & hair was designed by keeping Theyyam’s original color story in mind. The whole aura of the looks were intended to be surreal, assertive and almost theatrical by using bright reds, black and motifs of yellow to speak the essence of folk painting in Kerala.

Look 1: Head gear made of fake hair structure, adorned with Jungle geranium flowers; Saifi silk organza kurta and pyjama from Raw Mango (festive 2020), The Shop Cult Modern.

Look 2: Head gear made with cardboard, painted sequins, adorned with Jungle geranium flowers and silver chain (stylists own);pleated (polyester satin) tunic from Payal Khandwala (spring summer 2020), The Shop Cult Modern.

Look 3: Head gear made with cardboard, paper mache, paint and stones; satin silk one shoulder dress with structured flare (stylist’s design) adorned with House of Tuhina chain.

Concept and photography - Rose Tommy | Featuring - Resmi Sateesh | Stylist - Caroline Joseph | Makeup and hair - Vibuthi Singh | Photo assistant - Bennett Paul | Words - Lidiya Prasad