Saturday, 29 November 2014

Kerala - Art Forms


Kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. It originated in the area of southwestern India now known as the state of Kerala. Kathakali is a group presentation, in which dancers take various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Characters are categorized according to their nature. This determines the colours used in the make-up. The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, the divine hero Rama, etc., are predominantly green. Characters of high birth who have an evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Extremely angry or excessively evil characters wear predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard. Forest dwellers such as hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces.

The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigourous. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this art, a Kathakali dancer undergoes a strenuous course of training, and special periods of body massage.

The dancers wear large head dresses, and the contours of the face are extended with moulded lime. The extraordinary costumes and make-up serve to raise the participants above the level of mere mortals, so that they may transport the audience to a world of wonders.

The orchestra of a Kathakali performance includes two drums known as the chenda and the maddalam, along with cymbals and another percussion instrument, the ela taalam. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. The style of singing particular to Kathakali is called Sopaanam. The orchestra of a Kathakali troupe is unique and provides not only the background to the dancing, but also serves as a highly expressive special effects team. In the traditional village ambiance, the percussionists also provide publicity for the event by playing outside the venue for some hours before the start of the show.

A traditional Kathakali performance begins in the evening and continues throughout the night, culminating at the auspicious hour of dawn, when Good finally conquers Evil. Today, however, it has been modified for the proscenium stage, and urban audiences can participate in this ritualistic theatre experience in the comfort of a plush auditorium, within the span of a couple of hours.



Krishnanattam or Krishnattam is a temple art, now performed at Guruvayur Temple as a votive performance by a troupe under the management of Guruvayur Devaswom (Guruvayur- 680 101, Thrissur Dt, Kerala, India). The performance is based on Krishnagiti, a text of slokas and padams in Sanskrit, composed by Manaveda, the Zamorin King of Calicut, in 1654. Krishna's story as described in detail in the Tenth and Eleventh Cantos of Srimad Bhagavatha, Mahabharata and Harivamsa is presented as song, dance and acting in a cycle of eight plays in eight days. The plays are Avataram, Kaliyamardanam, Rasakrida, Kamsavadham, Swayamvaram, Banayuddham, Vividavadham and Swargarohanam (Akaraka Swabhaviswa is the mnemonic to remember the names in order). An excellent critical article concerning the various aspects of this temple art and its appreciation is 'Preparing for Krishna' by Dr. Rustom Bharucha [1]. Krishnanattam, the Malayalam commentary to Krishnagiti by Prof. P.C. Vasudevan Elayath [2] includes an excellent introduction Krishnattapravesakam. Krishnattam, a book by Dr. Martha Bush Ashton Sikora and Robert P. Sikora [3] summarises the historical development, training of the artists, description of performances, views of the artists as well as other aspects of Krishnanattam.

Preliminary Rituals

Kelikottu is the first event of the play. Kelikottu is carried out by playing drums (maddalams), gong (chengala) and cymbals (Elathalam) in the evening during daytime at the East Nada of the temple. This is to inform the people in the neighborhood about the performance scheduled in the night. A lamp is lit in the makeup room at dusk. Actors (all male) put on their make up, sitting on the floor, around another lamp lighted from the lamp in the makeup room.

As soon as the daily rituals of the temple are completed and the Sanctum Sanctorum is closed for the day (about 10 to 10.30 p.m.), the Kali Vilakku (An Oil Lamp of the Play) is kept in front of performance space in the Temple on the North side of the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Kali Vilakku is lit by a Brahmin from the lamp in the make up room. Stage hands place the musical instruments (drums, gong and cymbals) on the ground behind the Kali Vilakku. The maddalam players touch them respectfully, lift them up, play a couple of beats on both sides to regulate the sound and hang the instruments around their waists. Then Kelikkayyu is performed using maddalams, chengala and elathalam.

After kelikkayyu, a colourful rectangular screen is held behind Kali Vilakku by two stage hands. Then Totayam is performed behind the screen by the women characters appearing on that day's play. Totayam is a prayer dance performed by the dancers accompanied by music to invoke the blessings of the lord. Totayam is not for the spectators. For Totayam, the lines starting with Narayana Narakanthaka Narakaparayana in the fifth padam of the play Kaliyamardanam are sung.

Upananda, Balarama, Krishna, Nandagopa. Purappatu in Kaliyamardanam All performances begin with the recital of the sloka starting with Souvarnatbhuta as the mangala sloka (Auspicious Beginning).

After Totayam it is time for Purappatu, a piece of pure dance choreography. Either Krishna or Balarama or both, or along with other characters, dance with gestures of hand and face and special steps. In Avataram, the first scene (Brahma and Bhoomidevi) is considered as purappatu. In other plays, the scene in which either Krishna or Balarama or both appear first on stage is considered as purappatu. In Kamsavadham, Purappatu is in the middle of the play. In Vividhavadham, there are two Purappatu, first in the beginning (Balarama and wives) and the other after some time (Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna). In Swargarohanam, there is no Purappatu.


 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. 


Among the classical performing arts of Kerala, Thullal is distinct for its simplicity of presentation, wit and humour. It follows the classical principles of Natyasasthra (a treatise on art compiled in the 2nd century B.C). Ottanthullal is the most popular among its three varieties. The other two are Seethankan and Parayan Thullal.

Thullal is a solo performance combining dance and recitation. Staged during temple festivals, the performer explicates the verses through expressive gestures. Themes are based on mythological stories. Humour, satire and social criticism are the hallmarks of this art form. The Thullal dancer is accompanied by a singer who repeats the verses. The orchestra consists of the Mridangam or the Thoppi Maddalam and a pair of cymbals.

Thullal was introduced in the 18th century by the famous Malayalam poet Kunchan Nambiar (1705 - 1770). A satirist, he is the man who brought literary wit and humour within the ken of common man. His innovative satiric art form Ottanthullal reflected his deep sense of social responsibility. Witticism and anecdotes from the life of this genius have become part of the lores and legends of the State.

There is an interesting story about the origin of the Thullal. Nambiar, who used to play the Mizhavu, (a percussion instrument) during Koothu performances, was once caught napping during a performance and the annoyed Koothu player sent him off the stage. To get his own back, the insulted young man created the new art form overnight and presented it himself the next evening. The audience were thrilled. However this story has been debated by scholar ever since, who believe that it is impractical to create a new art form Thullal overnight.

The Costume: The make up, though simple, is very much akin to that of Kathakali. The actor wears a long tape of white and red coloured clothes looped around the waist-string to form a knee-long skirt. The chest-piece is adorned by various coloured beads, glass and tinsel, and other ornaments. The face is painted green, the lips, red and the eyes emphasised with black paint. The headgear is colourful and richly decorated.


Koodiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre tradition of Kerala, India has been declared as among the 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' by UNESCO.

It is for the first time that UNESCO has selected art forms from across the world to bestow recognition as part of its effort to safeguard expressions of oral heritage and traditional culture.

Koodiyattam was selected from among 32 entries from all over the world. Dating back to 2,000 years, `Koodiyattam' is a unique theatre tradition which survived in Kerala from an ancient past. It deals with the plays of eminent Sanskrit dramatists such as Bhasa, Harsha, Kalidasa, Maendravikrama and Saktibhadra. While following the performative principles of the larger Indian aesthetic tradition, `Koodiyattam' has its own distinctive characteristics that are firmly rooted in the culture of Kerala.


 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.


The sinuous dance of the enchantress, this is a distinctive classical dance form of Kerala. Slow, graceful, swaying movements of the body and limbs and highly emotive eye and hand gestures are unique to this dance form. The simple, elegant gold-filigreed dress, in pure white or ivory, is akin to the traditional attire of the women of Kerala.

The origin of Mohiniyattam is rooted in Hindu mythology. Once the ocean of milk was churned by the gods and demons to extract the elixir of life and immortality. The demons made away with this divine brew.

Lord Vishnu came to the rescue of the panicky gods and assumed the female form of an amorous celestial dame Mohini. Captivating the demons with her charms, Mohini stole the elixir from them and restored it to the gods. This dance was adopted by the Devadasi or temple dancers, hence also the name 'Dasiattam' which was very popular during the Chera reign from 9th to 12th century.

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