The credit for inventing and popularizing Krishnanaattam goes to Zamorin of Kozhikode, a former ruler of Malabar. The theme of Krshnanaattam is the life and activities of Lord Krishna. Krishnanaattam is an art worshipping folk dance drama. Zamorin had once a vision of Krishna during which Krishna gave Zamorin a peacock feather. Later, the peacock feather became a symbol of Krishnanaattam and the performers used to wear peacock feather as a symbolic gesture. The story of Krishnanaaattam is centered on Geetha Govinda which deals with the love affair of Krishna and Radha. The involved characters are Krishna, Radha and her female companion.
The story is enacted in eight episodes. Krishnanaattam is performed in nights. Each episode takes one night. First episode is called Avathaaram. Lord Vishnu incarnates himself as Lord Krishna. Other episodes deal with Kaaliyamardanam, Rasakreeda, Kamsavadam, Swayamvaram, Baanayuddham, Vividhanadam and Swargarohanam in the subsequent seven nights respectively.
During the era of Zamoirins, Krishnanaattam was performed in their palaces. Later, with the forfeiture of ruling right to Zamorins, the venues shifted to temples.
The play is staged in front of a Brahmin lit large oil lamp made of bell metal.
The musical instruments employed are Shuddha Maddalam, Topi Maddalam, Gong and Cymbal.
In the evening a musical proclamation, known as Keli vernacularly, is made at the entrance of the temple as invitation to the deities and people of the village. Instruments used for Keli are drum, gong and cymbal.
There is diet restriction for the players. On the day of performance they eat vegetarian meals only. The actor of Krishna is more stringent on the vegetarian meal and he eats only one meal. The actor playing the role of Lord Vishnu eats only snacks and no meals.
Each performer gets purified by bath before adorning the costumes.
The costumes and make-ups are highly important in Krishnanaattam. The costumes required are self-made by the performers.
Male characters basically wear (a) a starched gathered petticoat, (b) gathered white skirt with alternate orange or orange-red and black horizontal stripes at bottom, (c) leather-pads holding bells for tying below the knees, (d) back opened and long sleeved shirt, (e) a tie, (f) breast-plate, (g) chest ornaments made of beads and fresh flora, (h) a girdle, (i) upper arm and wrist ornaments, (j) each end mirrored shawl – one or two, (k) ear and forehead ornaments, (l) headgear.
Costumes are more or less common, but character-wise distinction is made by colour and design, design of head gear, design of ornaments, weapon etc.
Female characters basically wear (a) a feet-length long white gathered skirt with red border, (b) a long sleeved back opened blouse, (c) a tie, (f) a girdle, (g) arm ornaments, (h) breasts wrapped in red cloth and ornamented above and below, fitted on wooden plate, (i) beads, (j) ear and fore-head ornaments, (k) strings of bells around the angles,(l) head dress (made of black cloth resembling hair and wrapped in a peculiar type of bun). A piece of cloth appended to the bun and secured on forehead with some sort of ornament. Other portions of the appended cloth fall on the shoulders and stretch down in the back.
Character-wise changes are in the costumes, design of ornaments etc.
The colours used for make-ups are blue, yellow, black and white. The creation of colours is similar to creation for other art worshipping folk dances. For primary make-up the colours used are reddish orange, yellowish orange and yellowish green. Certain characters require “Chutti”. Chutti is two white lines stretched ear to ear along jaw and chin.
Head gear is considered as sacred in Krishnanattam. There are two types of head gear. In one type hair or say Mudi in local language is wound to a bun. The second type is crown or Kireetam in local language.
The wearing of Mudi is ritualistic. The person who places the headgear on the head of artist gives him a small quantum of water. The actor applies this water on his eyes and feet as symbolic to washing. This ritual is known as Thottu Vandanam (showing reverence by touching with hands). The crown installer then touches headgear and his own forehead respectively in reverence and puts the head gear on actor’s head. Following this, the actor picks up his weapon and seeks permission of the Guru (teacher) to perform, and blessings.
As beginning of the show, an oil lamp is lit auspiciously by a Brahmin and musicians enter the stage as follow up. The dress is a dhoti which is called Mundu in vernacular language. A shorter Mundu is tied over the waist while another shorter one is casually laid over a shoulder.
The musicians pick up the instruments only after prostrating before the lamp. Touching the instruments and own forehead by both hands in reverence to the instruments to produce sweet and sacred sounds follows. Then they start performing in specific rhythm as indication of the beginning of the show. No sooner this is over than two persons hold up a small curtain. Behind this curtain female characters present themselves and touch the floor in reverence to goddess earth. On completion of this ritual the musicians begin their performance called Totayam meaning beginning. After Totayam a poem is recited in praise of Lord Vishnu as Guruvayoorappan (the deity of Guruvayoor temple in Thrissur district).
Now is the turn of female characters to perform Totayam, the beginning. At this stage, Lord Krishna or say Lord Balarama descends on the scene to perform the rituals. As soon as the singers complete the singing of Totayam, the curtain holders disappear with the curtain. Following this, ritual dancing called Purappadu takes place. After finishing all the rituals, all vacate the stage. Soon two curtain holders re-appear with the curtain and holds up the same. Now is the turn of musicians. They enter. The entry of character Lord Krishna from behind the curtain follows. As a signal to his arrival small pieces of leaves are sprinkled on the curtain as synonymous to flower raining by gods from heaven. Same is the case when Lord Vishnu enters the stage from behind the curtain. When all the characters appeared on stage from behind the curtain, curtain is removed and the show is ignited.
The initial performance is dancing. During the dancing, the characters articulate eye movements and facial expressions to convey specific meanings of the episode. The drummers dutifully present appropriate rhythms and sounds.
In Krishnanattam certain characters wear additional arms as against they wore in other art worshipping folk dances. For example, in Krishnanaattam, Brahma has two additional wooden arms. Similarly, Garuda has a beak and colorfully painted wings and Baana has six additional arms.
In some sequences, unique stage arrangement in Krishnanaattam is noteworthy. In Swargaarohanam which is taking place in Lord Vishnu’s abode called Vaikunta, in heaven, there are two vivid scenes. In one, Vishnu wears a serpent-hooded crown and sits with several gods behind. In another, Vishnu reclines on coiled serpent called Ananta. For these, raised, walled and roofed stage is specifically arranged. For reclining posture, the stage is more articulated by lighting incenses and many small oil lamps. This is for creating an artificial screen between the audience and the stage.
Similarly, the tableau of Krishna and Satyabhama, Krishna’s second half, riding on eagle, Garuda, his vehicle, in the sequence of Baanayuddham is cleverly articulated on the stage. In the same sequence, at one phase the stage resembles a palace or fort behind the curtain and looking down the action below. At the conclusion of the show, the actors perform a farewell dance called Mangalam dance. This is just a symbolic dance. Finally the actors pay respects to the audience with folded hands and dramatic steps and withdraw from the stage. At this movement the drummers play a short finishing shot.
The dressing room returned actors pay obeisance to the oil lamp representing Lord Krishna and then remove the costumes and undo the make-ups.