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The performing arts of Kerala


Spectacular visual effects and stunning music are hallmarks of Kerala's performing arts. In a land which cannot boast of monumental architectural feats, unlike many other parts of India, the performing arts, both individually and collectively, make up for the lost magnificence. No other State in India can match the grandeur and  creativity of Kerala's performing arts. The classical and ritual arts of Kerala have always enjoyed a rich patronage, from the former kings who ruled the state to the latter day democratic governments.

Mohiniyattom Chakyar Koothu
Bharathanatyam Chavittu Nadakam
Kalarippayatt Koodiyattam

Classical and ritual arts of Kerala

Cherumarkali, is a harvest dance in which dancers, both men and women, move in a swift rhythm, linking arms and donning red and white costumes.

 Chakyarkoothu, also known as Koothu, is one of the oldest classical theatre arts of Kerala. This is a solo dance performing at the koothambalams of temples with  instruments like mizhavu and elathalam. Koothambalams are special stages set apart in temple compounds for the performance of temple art-forms. The performance begins with an invocation to the presiding deity of the temple. The narration is enlivened with the thandava dance movements, gestures and facial expressions developed according to the rules of the Natya Sastra. Koothu is noted the way the artist takes digs at current events and personalities, adding to its dramatic character. Any theme can be presented under this art. The costume is colourful, bordering on the bizarre, with a strange headgear.

Kaalavela: This is a folk art, noted for the procession of huge, colorfully decorated images of bulls.

Kalampattu also called Kalamezhuthu pattu, is an ancient folk-artform of northern Kerala. This 600 years old artform is performed by a group five to fifteen people in Bhadrakali and Ayyappa temples. The ritual is performed around a kolam - an elaborate picture, usually of goddess Bhadrakali, drawn on the floor with five colors, and under the light of blazing torches. The singers are neatly dressed, the women wearing their hair on the side of the head. A series of special songs, kalampattu, are sung to the accompaniment of  nanthuni and elathalam, two traditional  musical instruments.

Kaliyoottu: An eight day long colorful folk ritual which re-enacts the mythical combat between goddess Durga and the demon Darika. This folk ritual has various stages. On the last and eight day, a ritual called Paranettu - is performed on a specially designed 100 feet high stage on which both the actors work themselves to a frenzy for the climactic end.

Kanniyarkali:   A ritual art form with swift dance performed to the accompaniment of  devotional folk songs and resounding beats of drum.  Usually performed in Bhagavathy temples.

Kavadiyattam:  A ritualistic dance in  Subramanya temples. The devotees wear colorful dresses. Kavadis are colorful bow-shaped wooden structures from six to ten feet tall, carried on their heads by the dancers. The Ambalakavadi is looks like and is decorated like a temple. The Pookavadi has stuck to it bunches of colorful paper, cloth or plastic flowers. The resounding beats of percussion instruments like udukku and chenda and that renowned wind instrument of south India, the nagaswaram, characterise the a kavadi procession.

Kolkali:   A group dance of  the farming communities in Kerala. Twelve to twenty four dancers move rhythmically in a circle around the ceremonial lamp, tapping together the two-feet long wooden sticks that they hold. 

Krishnanattam:  A ritual dance in honor of  one of the most famous gods of the Hindu pantheon, Sree Krishna. This group performance, based on the Sanskrit text Krishna Geetha, spans over eight nights.  A dance with great importance for movements. The costume and makeup of Krishnanattam bear traces of resemblance to Kathakali and folk arts like Thiyattam, Mudiyettu and Theyyam. Musical instruments like maddalam, elathalam and chengila lend flavor to the performance. Krishnanattam is an important dance performed in the  Guruvayoor temple.

Kummattikali:  It is a temple art, also known as the mask dance.

Kumbhamkali / Kumbhamthullal:  Folk ritual dance of devotees of Lord Krishna, who carry pots on the head.

Kuthiottam: A ritual exclusive to Devi temples of South Kerala.  A group dance with  songs including those in praise of goddess Durga and other deities, padapattu  or war songs and kalaripattu or martial  songs. Instruments used  are mainly percussions, ganjira, bells and chaplankatta. Faces decorated with paints and red curtains are used as partitions on the stage, to enhance the frightening effect.

Mamangam: This huge and wonderful  festival is a replication of the cultural extravaganza that used to be held every 12 years by the Zamorins (ancient rulers of Kozhikode)  in the middle ages. Royal families, principalities and chieftains from all over Kerala used to participate in this great cultural event which was held on the grounds of the Thirunavaya Navamukunda Temple at Ponnani in the present day Malappuram district.

Thiruvathira: This beautiful dance is usually performed on specially put up stages in connection with temple festivals. The costume is the traditional white mundu and melmundu of Kerala. The hair is gathered and put up at the side of the head and adorned with jasmine flower

Mayilnritham / Mayilattom: Peacock dance

Oppana: A  Muslim bridal group dance performed  the day before the wedding day.

Padayani:  This colorful ritual art is symbolic of the victory march of goddess Kali after she defeated the demon Darika.  The art form has some resemblance to Theyyam.

Patakam: This art form is very similar to Koothu on gestures and movements, but the narration is through prose and song sequences. The costume is predominantly red - a red head dress and a red silk wrist band. The performer also wears heavy garlands around the neck and thick lines of sandal paste smeared across the forehead. Patakam is also performed outside the temples.

Poothamkali:  A  folk art commonly performed in the Bhagavathy temples of Malappuram. Pootham is the character who accompanied Durga in her combat with Darika. The performers, usually three in number, undergo a week of austerities before the presentation. Colourful and intricately designed face masks carved out of the pala and murikku trees are the highlights of the attire. The fifteen minute performance starts slowly and works up to a frenzy towards the end. The thudi provides rhythm to the dance, performed at night.

Pulikali: Also known as  Kaduvakali, it is a traditional art form in Kerala during festive seasons. Performers paint their bodies in bright yellow, red and black spots and lines to resemble tigers, and dance to the loud beats of percussion instruments like udukku and thakil.  It is a common art form during Onam season.

Sarppa Pattu:  This snake dance is performing to satisfy the snake gods.

Thattumelkoothu: A devotional dance performed on a special platform  carried around the temple by devotees, even as the performance goes on.

Theyyam:  The most outstanding of the folk arts of Kerala, especially in the northern regions. Also called Thirayattam, (because every thira or village performed this ritualistic art at the village temple). This primitive ritualistic art demands long hours of preparation. The Theyyam or Kolam,  represents a mythological, divine or heroic character. There are over 350 Theyyams in northern Kerala. The hood, headdress, face painting, breast plate, bracelets, garlands and fabric of attire of each of these kolams are distinct and meticulously crafted according to the character presented. The instruments used  are chenda and veekuchenda (drums), elathalam and kuzhal (horn). This art form is mostly performed in Bhagavathy temples. Performances are carried out between October and May. Thira is the major subdivision of Theyyam.

Thidampu Nritham:  700 years old  ritualistic art form of north Kerala. The dancer moves to the rhythmic beats of the chenda carrying the thidampu on his head. Seven artists accompany him on percussion instruments while two others hold aloft the ritualistic lamps. The artists wear lots of  jewellery and a decorated turban known as Ushnipeetam.

Thiyyattu:  A   devotional offering to Bhadrakali and Sree Ayyappa. The performance usually starts at dusk. The artists sing and dance to the rhythmic music of the chenda, elathalam and chengila.

Tholpavakoothu: This art originated in the 18th century. Also known as pavakoothu (puppet play) or nizhalattam (shadow play). An art of entertainment,  is performed on the special stage called koothumadam in the temple courtyard. Puppets (pavakal) made of deer skin, usually representing four characters from the Ramayana, are arranged behind a long white screen, in front of bright wick lamps. The puppets are made to dance to songs from the Kamba Ramayana (the Tamil version of the epic). The performance starts late at night and extends till the morning.

Thullal: Another version of  Koothu and is characterised by simplicity of presentation, wit and humour. The inventor of this art form is Kunjan Nambiar. The dancer himself sings the lead to the accompaniment of the maddalam and elethalam. The three forms of Thullal are - Ottanthullal, Seethankanthullal and Parayanthullal.  Very colorful costumes.

Vadithallu:  Resembling Kolkali, a folk dance performed holding short sticks in both hands.

Velakali: A  most elaborate and spectacular martial folk arts of Kerala.. Fifty or more performers in the traditional attire of soldiers, bearing colourful shields and swords or long canes, dance with war like steps in perfect orchestration to the resounding beats of the thakil, suddha maddalam, elathalam, kuzhal and trumpets. A few fighting techniques of Kalaripayattu are also displayed in the course of the performance.

Koothambalam:  Specially decorated hall in the temple premises meant for ritual and art performances

Koothumadam:  A stage specially erected for certain ritual and art performances in the temple.

Temple Music systems prevailing in the state

Pancharimelam / Pandimelam: The traditional temple percussion music accompanying almost all art forms.

Panchavadyam: The  traditional temple music accompanying processions and pageants. The five instruments are chenda; kuzhal; edakka; elathalam, timila.

Important Rituals in the State

Ammankudam: A ritual dance of devotees carrying holy pots on the head as offering to the goddess. Usually performed in Bhagavathy temples.

Arattu:  A  ritual connected with the end of a festival. The idols of deities are carried in procession to the river, where they are bathed. The purified idols are then escorted back to the temple in procession accompanied by caparisoned elephants, panchavadyam, nadaswaram and chendamelam.

Chandanakudam:  Ritual offering of coins in earthen pots, in Muslim shrines . The pots are smeared with sandal paste, mouths covered with white cloth, with a garland around the neck and three incense sticks stuck into the cloth covering.

Chuttuvilakku:  Thousands of oil lamps fixed on the outer walls of the temple are lighted.

Ezhunnallathu: Ceremonial procession of the idols of a temple. The procession usually comprises various cultural art forms, traditional temple music and elephant pageants. Kodiyettam is the ceremonious flag hoisting ceremony denoting the beginning of the festival or festive season in a temple, church or mosque.

Pallivetta: Symbolic of Lord Vishnu hunting down the demon of evil in a forest. The colourful procession  attracts devotees in large crowds.

Paraveppu: A ritual performed in many Hindu homes as part of a festival. The Para (wooden/ brass measure) heaped with paddy is arranged in front of the house along with lighted lamp and other offerings like fruit, jaggery and so on. The offering is collected by a procession of elephants carrying the thidampu (idol of the deity of the temple)

Pongala: This ritual offering to Goddess Bhagavathy, is a preparation of rice, jaggery, coconut and plantains cooked together in the temple premises.

Seeveli: A ceremonial procession which denotes the conclusion of the morning and evening pooja (devotional rites) in certain temples.

Thalappoli: A ceremonial procession, around the temple, of maidens or women in traditional attire holding the thalam in their hands. The thalam (usually a silver or brass plate) contains rice, flowers and a lighted lamp - all of which symbolize prosperity.

Velichappadu / Komaram:  The oracle of a temple usually dressed in red and carrying a sword and shield. Possessed by the spirit of the deity this ritual character dances in a frenzy at times of festivals and other special occassions in devi temples. 

Koothambalam: Special hall in the temple premises for ritual and art performances

Koothumadam: Stage specially erected for certain ritual and art performances in the temple.

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