By Dr. Venugopal K. Menon

The striking sliver of terrain nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats in the southern peninsula of India, is often claimed as 'the God's Own Country', and acclaimed by National Geographic as one of the top places to visit. Officially it is the state of Kerala, the land of the coconut palms, pristine beaches, picturesque peaks, green expanses, meandering rivers, waterfalls and backwater bodies. The place asserts the distinction of having the maximum literacy, lowest infant mortality, highest life expectancy and greatest Human Development Index, the first democratic Communist government, matriarchal families as well as the notoriety with the most suicides, alcoholism, mental illness, divorces and crimes.

'Art' has eminence in Kerala; it commands respect, it attracts audience, it is appreciated, it is taught, it is performed, it occupies an integral part of the culture. Classical Arts in Kerala owns an ancient tradition, spanning through centuries of exposure and expressed in a variety of styles. As every art form in India, the several styles had originated in the temples and were associated with the religious practices, which gradually became integrated into the main cultural fabric. Kings and ruling heads of the various dynasties supported, promoted and nurtured the various art forms. The renowned among them in Kerala were Sri Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma in Classical Music and Raja Ravi Varma in painting, legendary authorities that provided leadership in their respective roles.


oo1Kathakali is the most well-known performing art form, a total style purely from Kerala, acclaimed by the entire world for its distinctive elegance. It combines multiple features of ballet, opera, mime and its own unique style, which require the student over ten years to qualify before they can perform. It is a distinct ensemble of movements, and expression performed with complexity and refinement to the accompaniment of vocal music, Chenda, Maddalam (native drums), Chenkila and Edathalam. Kathakali used to be performed on the temple stages, a play lasting the entire night and portraying stories picked from the famous epics.

The performance is in the light from a huge oil lamp, the 'Nilavilakku', the glow of the light augmenting the expressions of the artists. The performers play out the meaning of the music using mime, facial expressions, hand gestures, the mudras, and body movements. The more eminent artists will perform beyond the music, adding their own elaborate imagination (manodharmam) that elevates the level of the performance and makes it exceptional and appealing to the erudite in the audience.

Kathakali costumes are complex, colorful and highly structured, along with the artist's face painted and made up with distinctive and intricate details, matching the personality they represent. They are grouped as 'Pacha' or green for dignified and virtuous characters, 'Kathi', the knife for the villains, 'Thadi', the bearded with the color of the beard referring to a spectrum of qualities from aggressive to saintly, 'Kari', the black for mean and 'Minukku', the refined for females.

Kathakali themes are almost always based on Hindu mythologies Mahabharata, Ramayana and other related epics. The plays traditionally lasted six to eight hours through the nights during temple festivals, but lately they have been modified, abbreviated and performed as cultural pieces to a variety of audience.


002Some believe that Ramanattam could be the precursor to Kathakali for similarities in the presentation, costumes, music and movements. King Kerala Varma of Kottarakkara, created and modified this style, depicting the story of Ramayana as a counter to 'Krishnattam', created by Zamorin of Calicut and played in Krishna temples, mainly Guruvayur. The composition of Ramanattam is in Manipravalam style, blending Sanskrit and Malayalam as in a golden necklace studded with pearls and other gems.



003As the name indicates, this style depicts the story of Lord Krishna and usually played in the famous Guruvayur temple. The legend goes that Krishnattam was created by the Zamourin (Samoothiri) of Kozhikode, an ardent disciple of Krishna, with the blessings of saint Vilwamangalam, and played for eight nights covering the story of Sri Krishna from incarnation to ascension. The costumes and make up are similar to Kathakali, but the lyrics are in pure Sanskrit.
Chakyar Koothu

One of the oldest theatrical art form played in the temples by 'Chakyars', belonging to the upper class Hindus, who are connected to the temples serving the different needs and receiving alms for their livelihood. The stories are told in a humorous way, often cracking jokes and making fun of individuals in the audience, along with some gestures and expressions, to the accompaniment of music in Sanskrit. The costumes are simple, with bare bodies, few ornaments and a red cap. Usually the Chakiar's wife, the 'Nangiar' is on the stage, singing along, and a Nambiar will be in charge of the special drum, 'Mizhavu'. The style of the Koothu is informal, with colloquial expressions and music blending Sanskrit and Malayalam.


Created by the illustrious Kunchan Nambiar, as a response and challenge to the humiliation he suffered from a Chakiar during a Koothu. Kunchan Nambiar who was playing the 'Mizhavu' for the Koothu dozed off and was ridiculed by the Chakiar with sarcastic remarks in front of the audience. As retribution, Nambiar wrote a poem the very same night, depicting a story from the epic Mahabharata, devising a new approach in his inimitable style. It is said that the show was played on an adjacent platform drawing the entire audience from the Chakiar Koothu. There is facial make up, head-gear and flowery costume, along with more dancing than of the Chakiar Koothu.



Meaning 'performing together', this style is the beginning of dramatic art forms in Kerala. Performed by Chakiars and Nangiars, from Sanskrit dramatic compositions, Koodiyattam is in the form of dance-dramas. The presentation is in 'Koothambalams', theaters within the temple complexes. The themes are from the Hindu epics, but bringing in social, moralistic and other relevant present day life issues with an educational message. One story may take many days to complete, with the 'vidooshaka', a central character explaining the Sanskrit story in Malayalam to the audience using his skill in mime and dramatic expressions.



The chapter, 'The Dancer from Kannur' in the book "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India" by William Dalrymple gives a beautiful description about Theyyam, the Hindu worship ritual piece from northern Kerala. The performer of the dance play, is called 'Kolam', personifying the deity. He is from a 'lower' class who is traditionally chosen with the privilege, observes severe penance for three months and assumes the 'power' of the God he is representing during the performance. To the accompaniment of music and drums, the Theyyam artist enacts the ritual in the open without any stage. There are several types of Theyyam based on the story and the deity they represent. Many families subscribe for and support Theyyams as offering and penance to the deities, to receive blessings for the families.



This is a ritual dance drama played during festivals in temples of the Goddess, often considered as a subdivision of Theyyam but with differences in costumes, rituals, music, make-up and performances. Traditionally it is the right of one community, the Vannaans. Like the Thiyyam, the characters assume the roles of divine personalities. The dance takes place at night under the light of torches and has indigenous instruments as accompaniments. Unlike Theyyam the Kolam or the attire of the Thira dancer can take up various manifestations. Like in Kathakali the make-up is elaborate and time consuming. The eyes are blackened with 'mashi' with details and a reverence than in any other theater art. There are traditional rituals and meticulous details that are observed before the actual performance of Thirayattam. During the play, there are many stages and the artist changes the costume to enact the various roles. The climax involves the ritual called 'urayal' where the performer goes into a trance, shaking, shivering and dancing vigorously.


This is a ritual art form performed in the temple premises and is an extremely vigorous and spectacular dance form. It used to be performed by groups of about fifty from the warrior class of Nairs, who dress up like soldiers and perform with swords or canes. They display the martial art skills and with music and instruments including trumpets and drums, perform with energy and vitality. The deity is taken on a procession on an elephant and people join the procession with chanting and encouragement.



Kalaripayattu is the 2000-year-old, martial art style of Kerala, still existing, and representing the traditional valiant, physical and cultural character of the state. In recent years it may have even gained more popularity outside the state and the younger generation showing interest to learn the technique. Perhaps styles like Karate and Kung fu, may trace their origin to Kalarippayattu as the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma took the tradition to the Far East. The art is described in Vishnu Puranam of Dhanur Veda and thus is very much a part of Hindu religious traditions. The legend goes that the warrior saint Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu created the art form after he reclaimed the land of Kerala from the seas by throwing his axe. He also established forty-two 'kalaris' and trained twenty-one gurus to teach. Kalari means a court related to war and payattu is the skill of fighting.

The training involves rigorous physical and mental exercise with learning of physiology and the preparation taking many years of submission in the traditional Gurukula style. There are the Northern and Southern styles of training with emphasis on physical and meditational methods that are followed. The training involves agile body movements, foot and hand work, aiming to strike the opponent at his 'marma', the vital points of the body. The only attire of the artist is a 'katcha', a long piece of cloth bound tightly around the waist and legs, which protects the hip and waist and allows free movement. They use a sword (vaalu) and a shield (paricha) in the combat or may fight bare, without any armaments.


The typical classical art form of Kerala, Mohiniaattam blends the poise of Bharatanatyam and the dynamism of Kathakali, delivered with the most charming feminine elegance of movements and expressions that are unique to the style. The costumes are exclusive in simplicity and stunning with glamour, the white and gold ensemble imparting a distinctive presence of auspicious femininity. The hairdo with the rolled up bun, wrapped around with jasmine garlands, is reminiscent of the ancient royalty.

The music of Mohiniattam is of the 'sopaanam' style, similar to that of Kathakali. The instruments include Maddalam (drum), Kuzhithalam (a variety of cymbal), Edakka (an hour-glass drum used in temples of Kerala), Veena, Violin or flute. The array of styles follows that of Bharat Natyam, with more graceful and gliding movements of the body, that incorporates circular and revolving rhythms. The basic sentiment of Mohiniattam is 'sringara' or love, divine and elemental, of union or separation, articulated through facial expressions and body movements.


Kaikottikkali, literally the word meaning 'clapping the hands and playing', is also called Thiruvathirakali since it played during the seasons of Thiruvathira and Onam. It is a group dance where in the participants dance clapping their hands in unison and playing to the tunes of songs, mostly from mythological stories, related to romantic or devotional themes, often from Kathakali style. This essentially used to be an entertainment by and for women of all ages where men are not present even as spectators. This is a very popular folk dance performed during festival times, but with modern interest in the traditional art forms, it has found its way into the main stream, and into the college and school art festivals. This is an exceedingly graceful dance form with feminine elegance and allure, 'lasya', being the predominant theme. The costume is very simple, two cotton pieces of white or off white mundu and neriyathu, with colored or gold borders, 'kara'. Their hair is bundled into a tight mass or bun-shape bordered with jasmine flowers. The participants wear simple traditional ornaments and there is practically no make-up except the sandalwood paste and kumkumam on their foreheads. The group usually is in even numbers of 6 to 8 to as many as can be accommodated on the stage or in the open yard. Played in circles, moving rhythmically clockwise or counterclockwise, hands clapping and bodies bent and curved following the traditional choreographic pattern. Many of the movements involve two women clapping hands together and changing partners as they move on in circles. There is usually a nilavilakku, the traditional oil lamp or 'pookkalam', flowers arranged in colorful pattern in the center of the circle.


This is a variety of Mask dances popular in Palghat and Trichur districts with many variations and connotations with legendary stories. In Palghat district it is more religious, associated with Devi temples around harvest times, while in Trichur district, people perform it as a secular item during Onam. The dancers wear different kinds of masks, often representing mythological characters and perform to the tune of music and string instrument or drums. The varieties of Kummatti may have relevance to certain local historical episodes and thus may widely vary in styles and patterns.

Dance Dramas and Tribal entertainment

There are several kinds of regional art forms practiced by certain sections and only by some tribes or castes, limited to areas of the state and almost becoming extinct in modern times. Aviar Naatakam, Kaakkarissi Naatakam, Kothaamooriyaattam, and Mudiyettam are just a few among the folk art forms.

Aviar Naatakam is a ritualistic art form of rural drama, performed by Viswakarmas, the five kinds of artisans, the carpenter, blacksmith, goldsmith, brassmith and mason, enacting stories from Mahabharata. Played in temples at night on a platform in front of oil lamps, with minimal make up, singing devotional songs and dancing around the lamps.

Kaakkarissi Naatakam, a popular entertainment among the backward communities, Kaakkaalas of mostly Sothern Kerala, with the theme of making the community aware of poverty among poor people. The presentation starts with Narada telling Siva and Parvathi about suffering of people. The theme is that of Kakkaan and Kaakkathi presenting their family squabbles and other situations with many characters involved. Similar form that is played in northern Kerala is called Paanarkali. The performers use rustic costumes and play to the accompaniment of instruments. There seems to be a recent revival of the art form after years of lost popularity.

Koothaamooriyattam is another kind of village drama, played in northern Kerala, with the theme of fertility, agriculture and cattle raring but relating them to mythological contexts. The player group goes from house to house and performs after getting permission from the house owner.


Performed by the community of Marans in Bhadrakali temples, the fierce form of the Goddess, it is a dance drama based on the Devi killing the demon Daarika.

The story of the duel is enacted in ritualistically prepared kalams, with colorful drawing of Bhagavathy's figure on the ground. There are special pujas performed on the day of the performance. The show is announced by special drumming, hymns are sung in praise of the Goddess, oil lamps are placed at the stage and women with 'thalappoli' walk in procession welcoming her. Songs are like in Kathakali accompanied by elathalam (cymbals), shankhu (conch) and two kinds of chenda (drums). Narada informs Lord Siva about Daarika's misdeeds, when the demon enters the stage and ferociously shrieking, runs around the grounds. Kaali, the Goddess later enters the scene, after receiving blessings from the priest and fiercely challenges the demon. Kaali chases Daarika around the lamp and around the temple finally catching up with him, entering into an intense encounter and finally killing the demon.


Is the song of Bhagavathi of the Goddess, performed by the Brahmin castes of Kerala, praying for the girls to be married off without delays and obstruction. In the past Namboodiri girls were excommunicated if they eloped with or had an affair with non-Brahmins. The performance is under a canopied roof of cloths and leaves. The ground is decorated in the shape of the temple and the priest chants with the Brahmins singing to the accompaniment of instruments. One woman from the ex-communicated group called 'Pushpakas' will be seated under the canopy who will get into a frenzied trance as the singing and praying continue.

Pampinthullal or Sarpam Thullal

Literally translated as a serpent dance, this is an elaborate ritual to appease the serpent gods. Traditionally serpents were protected in a highly wooded area set aside in the vast family compound, which was called 'Sarpa Kavu' or 'Pampin Kavu'. Every evening a lamp was kept at the kavu and poojas were performed periodically to keep the serpents respected and pleased.

It was believed that ecologically the serpents will absorb all the 'poisons' from the nature and thus protect humans from harm; and hence they are worshipped. During the ritual of 'Sarpam thullal', a Kalam is prepared with a thatched roof, floral decoration and the floor is elaborately decorated in snake forms with multi-colored powders. A community of 'Pulluvas' has the privilege to decorate and perform at the ceremony with singing along with instruments, mainly an earthen urn, the 'Pulluvakudam' and a string instrument. Snakes are worshipped during the ceremony and the ritual is done for blessings of the family. Young girls, 'kanyakas' of the family will be seated near the Kalam and they go into a trance as the tempo of singing and rituals increase; often the girls swing their heads in a circular motion as their long hair brushing and wiping out the decorated Kalams.

Two distinct items which merit mention among Kerala Art forms and with their origin belonging to non-Hindu traditions, are the 'Maargam Kali' and 'Oppana'.

Maargam Kali

This is an ancient art form performed by the Syrian Catholics of the Knanaya sect of Christian community. 'Margam' laterally means the path; the path that leads to attain God, towards salvation. There may be some connection of its Jewish or Syrian origin, with the arrival of St. Thomas when his influence might have introduced it to Kerala. The dancers performing the Kali, used to be men in the past, but lately more women have become the participants. The costumes are plain cloth (mundu) worn in a particular style and a blouse (chatta), with a lamp representing Christ. The singing is slow first in praise of St. Thomas with the dancers moving gracefully, but then the movements gather speed and intensity as if in martial arts, but without use of any instruments. Maargam Kali has gained prominence in the state and has become an item of competition at the school and state levels.


This is a popular style of dance of the Muslims, the Maappila community, throughout the state of Kerala, mostly performed by women during wedding celebrations. The bride dressed up in bright, glittering costumes, with her feet colored with henna and with gold ornaments sits on a pedestal and the dancers sing and perform around her. There is singing and clapping as the dancers entertain and tease the bride, to the accompaniment of harmonium, Tabla and Elathalam. It is the usual custom to sing only Muslim songs, 'maappila pattu'. Rarely men perform Oppana around the bridegroom. The word 'Oppana' may have derived from Arabic origin, but it is a very popular style, seen in movies and as a competitive item in Youth Festivals.

There are several varieties of art forms in Kerala, almost all originating from religious themes and rituals and developing into combination of styles with music, dance, instruments, drama, offerings and entertainment. As many of the styles have become extinct, quite a few have gained popularity and are being performed to a wide range of audience. Today, many such forms have survived as ritual arts performed in connection with events of sentimental significance, with exposure to limited audience. But with the advent of technology with accessibility to and availability of the various forms of entertainment to mass media, there is certainly a welcoming revival of some of the ancient styles. The explosion of competitive events organized by the media discovering the abundance of young talents present an extremely welcoming breath of fresh air and an immensely positive promise of the future.

Courtesy Credit to sources:

  •, All that's Kerala,
  • The Art Forms of Kerala
  • Kerala Art Forms
  • Indianetzone – Thirayattam costume
  • Kerala Greenery – Mudiyettam picture
  • Mallika Sarabai (ed), Performing Arts of Kerala
  • – Sarpam Thullal picture
  • – Margam Kali picture
  • – Oppana picture