Kerala's Art & Culture

Kerala Back Water

Classical Arts


Kerala is known the world over by its own performing art form, the Kathakali. "Katha" means story and "Kali" stands for dance.
It is a beautiful mix of dance, drama and music that the connoisseurs of art world qualified as 'a total art form of immense sophistication and power'.This is a form of dance formerly confined only to the festival stages in temples.

It is a mime show, dancing with mudras (formulated hand gestures conveying the text of lyrics) and specialised dancing steps following the song rendered in the background by a singer to the accompaniment of Chenda, Maddalam (country drums), Chenkila and Elathalam (Cymbals).
The face painted green and made up with a spot of sacred sandal paste on the brow, eye-lined with mascara, lip toned by cherry and white chin mask, the dancer dons a colourful costume and rich and impressive crown and jewellery.

A traditional pedestal Nilavilakku (oil lamp) with sixty wicks on both sides lit together lights the dancing floor. There are four types of make up. Pachcha (green) face painted green and adorning sober and beautiful attires denoting the godly or virtuous character.

Thadi (beard); divided into Chuvanna Thadi (red beard) depicting aggressive and demoniac characters, Karutha Thadi (black beard) depicting aborigines, cavemen and foresters and Vella Thadi (white beard) representing Rishis, Saints, Preceptors and other intellectuals. Kari (carbon black) representing mean characters and Minukku (refined) presenting women and Brahmins.

There is a school of thought which believes that Ramanattam could be the ancestor of Kathakali, for very many similarities in the presentations, costumes, acting and background music could be cited in both. The stage decor, costumes, make up, and mudras as seen today are purported to be improvements bestowed gradually to this art form by two veteran Namboothiris, Kalladikkodan and Kaplingadan Manas.

Centuries down, there developed a branch of literature known as "Kathakali literature" and compositions of poet laureates like Kottayath thampuran, Unnayi Warrier, Koyithampuran, Vayaskara Mooss are milestones in the history of Kathakali.

Aattakkadhakal (stories for dance), the poetic compositions of legendary stories to special metric scale, set to music in classical Carnatic style are danced out.

This is another form of dance drama, enacted in Guruvayoor Temple, depicting the frolics and divinity of Lord Krishna.
The Sree Krishna Temple of Guruvayoor was absolutely owned and maintained by the Zamourin of Kozhikode till the end of their empire conquered by the British.
One of the Zamourins, King Manavedan, contemporary of Saint Vilwamangalam, a scholar and poet, was an ardent devotee of Guruvayoor deity. He used to find time, even amidst the tight schedules of governance, to spend few days in devotion within the precincts of the temple. Saint Vilwamangalam was very much in the temple and, it was known to all that he was frequented by the sight of Sree Krishna alive.

Zamourin pestered the Saint with a queer request to show him also the lord live during one of His secretive appearance to him. Once, while walking out of the temple towards the 'Manjulal', the Banyan tree named after a virgin devotee unified with the Lord, both of them came across few children playing in the shade of it.
Vilwamangalam looked delighted and told "Lord, quick, look at these children touching my body". Lo! It was a blissful sight of lifetime for the King. He saw Krishna as a lad squatting on the floor frolicking and playing with other children.
The King could not believe his eyes for a second. He lost control of himself, in a sudden leap, jumped to the midst of the children and in a whiff, embraced Krishna. The Lord Himself taken aback, chastised him saying, "tut, tut, Vilwamangalam did not seek permission from me for this" and wriggled Himself out of his caged arms. In the melee, the King managed to pick a peacock quill that the Lord had adorned his tuft with. The King regarded this as a rare divine gift and made a crown in gold to tuck quill on.
By the frenzy caused of divine touch, the King wrote a drama on Krishna and premiered it in Guruvayoor Temple. The actor who played the role of Krishna was adored with peacock quill crown. The legend is that the actor, the moment he wore the crown, slipped into a godly mood and acted in a superhuman manner making the play unexpectedly successful. Lord Krishna Himself invested in him.

The Krishnattam troupe was once invited to perform in the Tripunithura temple. While the show was on, certain mischievous characters brought a tusker in front of the stage. On seeing it, actor characterizing Krishna became angry and jumped down the stage, reached the animal and caught hold of it by its two tusks. The scene became tense. Elders and King himself intervened and pacified him, else it would have been a fierce incident. The legend still continues.

The artistes wear the costumes and ornaments in a similar fashion as that of Kathakali with the conspicuous difference only in the language and rhythmic pattern of the song written in chaste Sanskrit.

Story of Sree Krishna, from incarnation to ascension, as narrated from the tenth chapter of Mahabharatham, is the theme of this drama staged in the Koothambalam (Temple dance stage) of Guruvayoor temple for eight nights till dawn.
Chakyar Koothu

Chakyar is one among the many upper cast Hindus, dependant on the temple, living by the sacrament food and meagre salary from the temple, adept in telling stories from the legends in a humorous and enchanting manner.
The term Koothu literally means dance which may be taken as an index of the importance attached to dance in the original form of the art.
In Chakkiarkoothu, the story is recited in a quasi-dramatic style with emphasis on eloquent declarations with appropriately suggestive facial expressions and hand gestures.
It is one of the oldest of theatrical arts peculiar to Kerala. As a matter of fact, the movements and facial expressions and the signs and gestures employed by the actor in Koothu are said to approximate most closely to the principles laid down in the authoritative Sanskrit treatise on the subject, Bharatha's Natya Sastra.
Attired in a gilt bordered cloth, wearing a red cap and ornaments on the neck, ear and hands, he recites the scriptural poem and annotations with witty and humorous examples and anecdotes with the accompaniment of the cymbals and another cast Hindu Nambiar drumming the Mizhavu, made of copper with a narrow mouth on which is stretched a piece of parchment (a percussion instrument made of covering an narrow mouthed big earthen jar with deer skin).

He is licensed to tease and cut jokes on anyone among the audience, even the mighty ruler, during the discourse exploiting the legendary situations as all those are permitted as the prerogatives of the Chakyar. One should know Malayalam to enjoy the congenital jokes.

Kunchan Nambiar, the drummer, was playing Mizhavu for Chakyar koothu. It is a solo dance with the artiste himself singing the verses to the accompaniment of Mridangam and timing with a refrain repeater singing in the background. Usually the performance lasts a couple of hours.

One day, against all precedence, he happened to doze off by sheer inactivity caused by a prolonged talk by the Chakyar after a recital of poem that needed the rhythmic support.
When the Chakyar abruptly started reciting another lyric, having had no rhythmic response from the drummer looked back and found Kunchan Nambiar dozing. He not only woke him up but also ripped him down by humiliatingly sarcastic comments and jokes on his person. Nambiar hanged his head in shame and silently walked off.
Instead of crying over the incident in self-contempt, he sat through the whole night, with a vengeance, and wrote a poem depicting an episode from Mahabharatha in a never-to-fore metric and rhythmic pattern. He also devised a special kind of dance for its exposition.

The legend is that he presented it the very next evening at the same temple where he was humiliated on a different platform at the same time the Chakyar had begun. By the novelty, wittiness, and acridity of the programme he attracted all the audiences that had surrounded Chakyar to his show. It was the birth of a new art form that he named as "Ottanthullal".

Impressive costume down the waistline and colourful crown are copied from Kathakali, with slight variations. Ornaments are made up mainly of tender leaves of coconut and glass beads

The literal meaning of the title being concomitant dancing, it is another temple opera performed jointly by Chakyars and Nambiars.
A dance traditionally enacted in temples. it is Kathakali's 2000 year old predecessor and is offered as a votive offering to the deity.Both men and women partake in this performance. Abhinaya is the most important element in Koodiyattom.

The texts are always in Sanskrit and the performance is a prolonged affair. All the four types of abhinaya, viz. Angikam, Vachikam, Sathvikam and Aharyam are fully utilized in Koodiyattom.
The plays are performed only in temple precincts as votive offerings. Abhinaya or acting is a three -fold or even four-fold process. Appropriate hand gestures are symbols are first shown when the words of the verse are spoken in a typically modulated tone. As the music is begun, the meaning of the words are translated into a language of bodily postures, attitudes and facial expressions. The third is a repetition of the first.
Koodiyattom is staged on the specially built temple theatre called Koothambalam. The stage is decorated with fruit-bearing plantains and bunches of tender coconuts and festooned with fronds of the coconut palm. A vessel overflowing with paddy is placed on the stage. Lighting is done with a tall oil lamp made of brass. Within a railed enclosure on the stage is a large copper drum called mizhavu with a high seat for the Nambiyar drummer.
A Nambiyar woman plays cymbal and occasionally recites the verses. At times special orchestral effects are introduced. The orchestra consists of an edakka, maddalam, a conch, pipe and horn. There is facial make-up using colour schemes and pattern having symbolic value, though strict standardization of types is absent.The make-up patterns as seen in the better-known Kathakali are borrowed from Koodiyattom.

In the actual performance, first the drum is sounded and then the Nambiyar woman recites the invocatory verse, (vandana slokam). After that a purificatory ritual of sprinkling holy water on the stage is done by the Nambiyar. Then there is an interlude of orchestra, after which the dance ritual ceremony called Kriyachavittuka is performed by the Sutradhara.
The next item is the stapana of the particular act. The main character is introduced in the next stage called Koothupurappadu in the background of the tense dramatic sense created by the full orchestra fury.

Nirvahana, the next part of the drama, follows. This itself consists of three phases, the Anukrama, the Samkshepa and the Vistara respectively. Purushartha follows in which clown (Vidushaka), caricaturing the moods, is the hero. This is a significant departure from tradition and a remarkable feature of Koodiyattom. The drama proper now begins sluggishly and leisurely through the long drawn out, detailed and elaborate abhinaya process.

Once the King Kerala Varma of Kottarakkara requested Manavedan, Zamourin of Kozhikode to send the Krishnanattam troupe to his palace for a performance.
Manavedan curtly rejected the request expressing that it is meant to be staged only in the Guruvayoor temple and also that the people of Southern Kerala have not yet grown intellectually to understand and enjoy such an art form, citing the incident at Tripunithura.

Belittled and humiliated King vowed to retort and immediately wrote Ramayanam in the Attakkadha fashion with verses set to music and prose dialogues. He named it "Ramanattam", opposing Krishnanattam, and wished to bring in all the pomp and grandeur of Krishnanattam to it.
He composed the entire Ramayanam in eight volumes in Manipravalam style (form of poetic composition in which words of Malayalam and Snaskrit are blended indistinguishably like pearls and gems studded in a golden necklace). It was a dance drama and the actors were given special and tough training and rehearsals with rich costumes and jewellery and premiered in the Kottarakkara palace.
It could be the ancestor of Kathakali for very many similarities in the presentations, costumes, acting and background music could be cited. The stage decor, costumes, make up, and mudras (formulated hand gestures conveying the text of lyrics) as seen today are improvements bestowed gradually to this art form by two veteran Namboothiris, Kalladikkodan and Kaplingadan.

Centuries down, there developed a branch of literature known as "Kathakali literature" and compositions of poet laureates like Kottayath thampuran, Unnayi Warrier, Koyithampuran, Vayaskara Mooss are milestones in the history of Kathakali

It is the typical dance form of Kerala. Mohini means enchantress and attam is dance. As the name denotes, it is an amorous (Lasya) dance performed in slow, elegant and sensuous pace with formulated hand gestures translating the song to which it is performed.
It is closely related to Bharathanatyam of Tamil Nadu, which was originally called 'Dasiyattam'. Originated as the temple dance performed by Devadasis, it portrays feminine love in its myriad forms - carnal, devotional and maternal- with accent more on Lasya and Bhava.

Mohiniyattam is said to have originated in Kerala. It is an art form of Travancore of nineteenth century enlivened during the regime of King Swati Thirunal. The king, a scholar, Sanskrit poet and an exponent of Carnatic and Hindustani music, patronized and popularised this art form with whole-hearted co-operation and lyrical support from Irayimman Thampi, a noted poet, often referred to as gem of his court.
Most of the component items of Mohiniyattam are similar to Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi, though subtle differences of style is obvious. The language used in the lyrics is a pleasant mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit, known as Manipravalam. Formerly, the Padams were specially composed to include only Sringararasa. Now a days artists are using any classical or semi-classical compositions, even from other language.
The real beauty of Mohiniyattam comes through only when mature ladies enact the romantic padams specially written to present the Ashta Nayikas: Swadheena Bharthruka, Khanditha, Abhisarika, Vipralabdha, Kalahandtharitha, Vasakasajja, Proshithabharthruka, Viraholkhanditha.
Among the main items Cholkettu, Padavarnam and Padam, Mudras and facial expressions are more important than the rhythmic steps.The tuft knotted at the side of the head adorned by a garland of jasmine circling it, the dancer with normal facial make up and clad in gilded sari with series of pleats and jacket sways her body to the rhythm of orchestrated background music.

Compared most other dance forms, Mohiniyattam gives more importance to gestural and facial acting. The Mudras (hand gestures) are almost always same as those employed in Kathakali. The artists try to enact the lyrics almost in its entirety, like in Kathakali.