Performing Arts of Kerala Introduction

An introduction to the performing arts tradition in Kerala

Performing Arts of Kerala


Kerala’s rich culture reflects in its own art forms.The UNESCO recently declared the art form, Koodiyattom, as one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Such recognition is the first time in the history of UNESCO.The classical, folk and martial art forms of Kerala have thrilled and intrigued the people world over. Kerala’s typical art forms reflect the outlook and life of the people.Kerala’s own art forms categorise into four groups – classical art forms, folk art forms, martial art forms and temple musics.

Classical Art Forms


Koodiyattom : It originated two millennia ago and relates to Sanskrit theatre of Kerala.The plays in Sanskrit introduce Chakyars in the male roles and Nangiars (women of Nambiar coimmunity) in the female roles.The Vidushaka (clown) recites Malayalam version of the Sanskrit as most of the audience are not in the know of Sanskrit. Manipravalam, a mixture language of Sanskrit and Malayalam is originated from Koodiyattom.

The performance of Koodiyattom was codified through detailed stage manuals known as Attaprakarams and Kramadeepikas.The performers’ action based on these choreographic texts include all the organizational, theatrics and logistic aspects of Koodiyattom.

The plays in Koodiyattom have bare minimum text giving room for the actor to improvise and elaborate imaginatively.Single acts from Sanskrit plays choose.The actor creatively interprets the role.The improvisation of theater has a major role to play.For this the use of orchestra to improve histrionic action and the deliberate amplification of events sequences through a technique called Pakarnattom are employed.

Abhinaya (expression) through angika (body movements), vachika (spoken word), aharya (costume and make-up) ansd satvika (creation and projection of sentiments and moods) are inherent.The costumes and make-up pattern are forerunners of the Kathakali.


Kathakali :Kathakali, the quintessential art form, literally means, story play.The 500 years old dance drama, Kathakali, is based on the guidelines set by Sage Bharatha’s Natya Sastra.It incorporates dance, music, poetry and histrionics and combines thandava (energetic and powerful dance of Shiva) and lasya (gentle graceful dance of Parvathi) elements gracefully.

The essence of Kathakali is abhinaya (expression), mainly aharya abhinaya.From the make-up the nature and personality of the character is read out.Netrabhinaya (expression through the eyes) is an important factor and chundapoovu or Solanum pubesscue is applied to the eyes to have pointed attention of the audience.

For make-up and costume there is an established convention. The vesham (make-up and costume) is classified into four categories – thecha vesham (painted make-up), thadi vesham (bearded make-up), kari vesham (black make-up) and minukku vesham (polished make-up).Thecha vesham is again sub-divided into pach vesham (gree make-up), representing morally excellent characters and kathi vesham (knife make-up), representing evil characters.Thaadi vesham (bearded make-up) has three sub-divisions – vella vesham (white make-up), chuvanna vesham (red make-up) and kari vesham (black make-up).Each colour represents each character.

Women characters are generally played by men. No speaking or singing by the actors.They enact padams (dialog sections) through mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions.There are 24 mudras, expressing nine rasas (emotions) – serenity, wonder, kindness, love, valour, fear, contempt, loathing and anger.

The stage of Kathakali is simple and bare.A center-positioned lamp, drummers and singers standing on either side,that is all. Sopaanam style music with two vocalists singing to the accompaniment of a chengila (gong), elathalam (small cymbals), a chenda and maddalam (drums of different types).The themes of this awe-inspiring art are indebted to the rich and colour mythology of India.


Chakyarkoothu :One of the oldest classical theater arts of Kerala.This is a solo dance. Chakyar community is specialized in this dance form presented in Koothambalams (temple threatres) to the accompaniment of mizhavu (drum in the shape of a large spherical copper pot) and elathalam (small cymbals).The Chakyar is considered as a satirist using narrative, mime, wit and innuendo to communicate with the audience.The communication often results in cracking jokes, some times at the cost of audience.Themes the performance are from epics.


Krishnanattam :Krishnanattam is originated as a votive offering to Shri Krishna.The performance stretching eight nights is based on the Sanskrit text, Krishna Geethi.The costume and make-up are somewhat similar to Kathakali and folk arts like Mudiyettu and Theyyam. Maddalam, elathalam and chengila are the musical instruments used.Acting, dancing and singing performances are incorporated in the art.Singing is done in sopanam style in Sanskrit.Some of the characters wear masks.The performance begins at night after the ritual closing of the temples. Guruvayur temple in Thrissur has daily performance of Krishnanattom.

Mohiniyattam : Lasya is the dominant element in this elegant classical dance form called Mohiniyattam (the dance of the enchantress).The dancer is dressed in white and gold.Jasmine is adorned on the hair balled to leftside of the head.Graceful, gliding movement of the body, a circular use of the torso and revolving in the half-bent position with the toe and heel in a flowing rhythmic structure constitute the technique. Sopanam style musics with drums and cymbals flow.

Thullal :Thullal is the modified version of the Koothu. Simplicity in the presentation, humour and wit form the structure.It was invented by the great Malayalam poet, Kunjan Nambiar.No stage or any sort of arrangement is required for this solo dance.Quick and rhythmic movements form the core.To the accompaniment of maddalam and elathalam the singer himself sings the lead.Thullal is categorized into three – Ottanthullal, Seethankamthullal and Parayanthullal.Each is classified on the basis of metre and rhythm of the songs and the distinctions in the costume and dance.Elaborate headgears, face painting and colourful costumes are essentials to the art.

Folk Art Forms

Theyyam :Originated from north Kerala and in Theyyam’s popularity north Kerala ranks first.It is also called Thirayattam (as the every thira (village) performed this ritualistic art at the village temple in north Kerala).Theyyam reflects features of a tribal culture.Performed in temples and kavus (sacared groves) to propitiate the deities,Theyyam acts as a medium between the deity and the devotees.

Theyyam represents mythological, divine and heroic character.There are over 350 varieties of Theyyam in north Kerala.Each variety has its own shape, form and story of origin.The hood, headdress, face painting, breast plate, bracelets, garlands and attire are meticulously crafted character-wise.

A symbol of goodwill and prosperity, Theyyam wards off poverty and illness, it is believed.The Theyyam recitals begins as soon as the deity is invoked.Series of rites and rituals precede.Flaming torches create shadows.The air is punctured by Chenda beats.The headgear, the facial and body make-up, rich in artistry, presents an awesome look.

Theyyam requires perfect knowledge on many things.Recitation of songs, make-up, costume preparation, playing of instruments, dancing etc warrant perfect knowledge.Physical agility is essential.Chenda, veekuchenda (two types of drums), kuzhal (horn) and elathalam make up musical instruments.

Kalampattu :Kalampattu is also known as Kalamezhuthupattu.This too is more popular in north Kerala where it originated 600 years back.The performance is by a group of 5 to 15 artists and the venue is Bhadrakali and Ayyappa temples.A kolam (an elaborate picture) of Bhadrakali with five colours draws on the floor and the performance of the rituals is around it.The performance lasting a full night gets through in the light of temple torches.The women singers wear their hair on one side of the head and all the singers wear neatly.The nanthuni (stringed instrument) and elathalam are the musical instruments used.

Kunhi Theyyam : North Malabar is the Kalavara (store-house) and home of Theyyams, the amazing ritual arts. The centuries old art form depicts gods and goddesses in art form. Based on mythology, Theyyams are integral part of temple festivals in North Malabar, especially in Kaavus (the shrines of goddess Bhagavathi/Kaali). The theme of the Theyyams is victory over evil spirits.

Kunhi Theyyam (Tiny Theyyam) is performed by boys below 10 years. It is spectacular and amazing. Kunhi Theyyam is performed not in Kaavus but in courtyards of the houses. No selective houses but all Hindu houses without any exemption of haves and have-nots. Fag end of the monsoon and dawn of Chingam (August/September) heralding Onam is the selective time for Kunhi Theyyam. Karkidakam (July/August) is the month when demons and evil spirits get into play. Karkidakam is the Panhamasam (poverty month) as the field casual workers are forced to stay home due to incessant rain, finding hard to meet both the ends. Their condition further worsens due to rain-born diseases. Monsoon deprives normal life.

During Karkidakam and Chingam, Kunhi Theyyam descends three times. The first is on 16th day of Karkidakam, that is, half past Karkidakam, as Aadivedan, a tribe called Vedan coming in Aadimasam (Karkidakam). Aadivedan is supposed to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva in a form of hunter otherwise called Kirathamoorthy. He visits with a bell in hand each household and dance to dispel evil forces and showers blessings. The matriarch of the house is directed by him to perform Kuruthi (blood sacrifice). The stuff for Kuruthi is made by mixing turmeric powder and calcium carbonate in water. This concoction will look like blood. The evil spirits supposedly are thirsty for blood. The Kuruthi and a burning wick are thrown away from the courtyard and the Kunhi Theyyam leaves the premises after receiving Dakshina (voluntary compensation in cash or kind). Dakshina is given during all the three visits.

The second visit of the Kunhi Theyyam is during Sankramam of Karkidakam and Chingam, that is, the beginning of harvest season, as Karkkidothi. Karkkidothi is the incarnation of Shiva as Mangalamoorthy, the symbol of prosperity. Everything is done as in the first visit except that the Kuruthi is made of ash and water.

The third appearance of Kunhi Theyyam is during Onam as Onathar. Onathar is supposed to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Onathar appears with a bow and arrow. As against driving out the evil spirits during the first and second visit of Kunhi Theyyam, the third visit is aimed at bringing in prosperity to the household.

Kunhi Theyyam in Aadivedan and Karikkodothi are performed by children from Malayan community as against Onathar, the third appearance, performed by Vannan community. Both the communities consider the performance as their hereditary right.

Kaliyoottu: An eight day long folk ritual event.The theme is enactment of the combat between goddess Durga and the demon Darika. The ritual has different stages.The paranettu (the climax of the play) is performed on a 100 feet high special stage on the 8th day.

Kanniyarkali :Kanniyarkali is also known as Deshathukali.It is usually performed in Bhagavathy temples.The ritual is in the form a swift dance to accompaniment of devotional folk songs and the drum beats.

Kavadiyattam :Kavadi is a multi-colour bow shaped wooden structure with 6 to 10 feet high.There are two types of kavadis – pookavadi and ambalakavadi.The pookavadi has clusters of multi-colour paper, cloth or plastic flowers while ambalakavi is structured and decorated like temple.The ritual dance with kavadi is performed in Subramnya temples.The dancers wearing bright yellow or saffron costumes with scented ash smeared on face and body do the performance to the a accompaniment of resounding beats of percussion instruments – udukku, chenda and nadaswaram (a wind instrument)

Kummattikali :This is a ritualistic ceremony meant to propitiate goddess Devi.The performers wear masks and adorn garbs of grass, dry leaves and the like.They go house to house singing and dancing and accept cash as offering.

Kumbamkali :Kumbamkali is also knowm as Kumbhamthullal (pot dance).The devotees carry pots on the heads and dance ritualistically.

Kuthiyottam :A ritual art performed in Devi temples, mainly in south Kerala.A team of artists performs dance and songs.The songs are in praise of Durga and other deities.Padapattu (war songs) and kalaripattu) (martial art songs) are the main ones.The dancers paint their faces.Musical instruments used are mainly percussions such as ganjira, bells and chaplankatta.Red curtains used as partitions on the stage.

Kolam Thullal: Kolam Thullal is a traditional Kerala ritual offering, which involves different characters with hideous make-up and flat big head-gears. This ritual art form includes dance by the dancers on primitive percussion instruments. The ritual is basically performed to get rid of the trouble caused evil-spirits. The main attraction of this traditional ritual is the decorative costumes of the dancers which gives Kolam Thullal a great feel.

Thattumelkoothu :A devotional folk art.The dance is performed on a special platform carried around the temple by devotees themselves while the performance goes on.

Pootamkali :This folk art dance performed in Bhagavathy temples is mainly in Malappuram.Pootham is a character who accompanied Durga in her combat with Darika.Colourful and meticulously designed masks carved out of the pala and murukku trees are the main attire.The performance, lasting only 15 minutes, starts slowly and works up to a frenzy towards the end.The percussion instrument used is thudi.The performers, usually three, undergo a week’s austerity before the presentation of the performance.

Sarpapattu :Also known as Sarpamthullal (snake dance) is performed in shrines and temples devoted to Nagaraja, the king of serpents.It is performed by women belonging to the Pulluvar caste.A decorated pandal (samiana) is erected and a sarpakalam (snake designs drawn on the floor with colour powder) drawn.The women dance in a frenzy to the rhythm of the sarpapattu until they exhaust and fall down.Pulluvakudam, a stringed instrument, is the percussion instrument engaged during the performance.

Thidampu Nritham :Thidampu Nritham is a 700 years old ritualistic art form that is mainly found in north Kerala.The dancer carrying thidampu (the symbolic image of the deity) on his head dances to the rhythmic beats of the chenda and other instruments.Seven artists with percussion instruments and two others holding aloft the ritualistic lamps accompany the dancer.The artist wears multi-coloured jewellery and decorated turban known as Ushnipeetam.

Mayilnrittam :Also known as Mayilattam.The artists wear peacock feathers and dance as peacock.Subramanya temples in south Kerala are the venue for this ritualistic performance.

Padayani :Padayani means, a column of army.This colourful ritual art symbolizes the victory march of goddess Kali after defeating the demon Darika.The elaborate costume of the performer has slight resemblance to the costume of Theyyam.

Thiyyattu :Thiyattu is performed to appease goddess Bhadrakali and Shree Ayyappa.This ritual art is performed in a specially decorated pandal.There will be kalam (five-colour design drawn on the floor), a nilavilaku (the traditional lamp) and a peetam (stool).The artists sing and dance to the rhythmic tune of chenda, elathalam and chengila.The costumes are somewhat similar to that of Ottamthullal and Kathakali | Kathakali]].Big jingling anklets and face make-up with tiny dots are special features.

Chavittunatakam :Portuguese has influenced this art form.It was developed for the purpose of presenting Biblical themes under the churches in Kerala.The dancers stamp with their feet on wooden platforms rhythmically to the tune of song and drums.Music is an important factor.Stories invoked are of Christian saints, Charlemagne and Napolean.

Pulikkali :During festive season, Pulikali is a common sight in Kerala.Performers get painted like tigers in various colours and adorn tiger-head like masks and dance to the beats of percussion instruments like udukku and thakil.Thrissur is most famous for this art performance, especially during Onam.

Thiruvathirakali :This dance form art is vehemently followed by Nair tharavads (Nair joint families).Women of the house dance around a ceremonial lamp or a floral decoration on the floor and sing thiruvathirapattu during festive occasions.Kummi is also part of Thiruvathirakali.

Margamkali :This art form is popular among the Syrian Christians of Kerala.Twelve persons sing and dance around a nilavilakku (traditional lamp) with eleven burning wicks.The lamp represents Christ and the performers, His twelve disciples.

Cherumarkali :A harvest dance.The dancers, both men and women move in a swift rhythm, linked in a back lock or holding arms.The costume colours are red and white.

Kolkali :Kolkali is a group dance form of the farming community. Twelve to twenty four dancers move rhythmically in a circle.They tap two feet long wooden sticks held in their hands while move around. There will be a ceremonial lamp in the center of the circle.

Vadithallu :Vadithallu is more or less similar to Kolkali.The artists hold short sticks in their both hands and tap while dance around.

Oppana :A bridal group dance of Muslim.The well-dressed bride sits in the center and others (ladies) move around her, singing and clapping their hands rhythmically and systematically.

Ottamthullal: This performance art of Kerala is better known as poor mans Kathakali. The noted Malayali poet Kunchan Nambiar created this art form as a protest against the socio-political structure and the injustice of the religion which was much prevalent that time. Ottamthullal is a satirical art form in which the actor wears a colourful costume, while reciting thullal (the dance song) during this acting and dancing. The artist has the comfort to add humour and invent with the story in this art form which makes it more connected and popular among common man. Ottamthullal is also said to be an alternative to the Chakyar kotthu which is another art form of Kerala.

Mudiyettu Mudiyettu is a ritualistic dance form which showcases the glory and victory of Bhagavathy over the demon Darika. This varied dance form is performed by a set of people known as Kuruppanmar, they use to don different characters with colourful costumes, elaborate makeup and conventional facial paintings. Before the actual dance starts a kolam of kali is first made up to which floral offerings and different rituals are done. This ritualistic dance involves few musical instruments like chenda and elathalam.

Poorakkali Poorakkali is more over a ritual than a traditional dance form; this unique ritual is performed during the 9 day Pooram festival in the Bhagavathy temple across the Northern Kerala. This festival starts with the Karthika (asterism) and ends on the pooram asterism of the Malayalam month of Meenam (Pisces). Poorkkali incorporates lots of martial skills and masculine moves by the performers who dress like lions. These dancers revolve round the nilavilakku (bell metal lamp). The dance doesn’t require any musicians or percussion instruments, the dancers themselves clap their hands and sings to keep the synchronisation going.


Kerala has a place of its own in Carnatic Music field, created by Swathi Thirunal, the erstwhile ruler of Travancore.Swathi Thirunal was a musician-cum-composer of high caliber.His period of reign was ‘Augustan Age of Kerala Music.’ The immortal tharattu (lullaby), ‘Omanathinkal kidavo’ was composed by one of his close associates, Irayimman Thampi.Shadkala Govinda Marar, the renowned singer, had enjoyed the patronage of the Swathi Thirunal.

Kerala’s contribution to the development of folk music is also commendable.Vadakkan pattukal (northern ballads) celebrating the exploits of heroes like Thacholi Othenan, Mappila pattukal (sung by the Mappilas of Malabar), vanchipattukal (boat songs) and vathil thurapattu (song requesting the bride to open the door) are few among them.

Sopana sangeetham :This sangeetham (music) is sung in front of sopana (steps in front of the sanctum sanctorum).It has a distinct style.Sopana sangeetham was influenced by the Bhakti movement in Kerala.Most of the asthapathi (lyrics) are based on Jayadeva’s (thirteenth century poet) immortal work, ‘Geetha Govinda’.The song varies depending upon the time of performance and the type of deity. Musicians always stand on the left side of the sopana and the singing ceases when the shrine opens.The percussion instruments used are edakka and chengila.

Panchavadyam :Five instruments used in Panchavadyam are suddha-manddalam, komb, edakka, elathalam and timila.Sankh (conch) is also used as an ancillary instrument.There are different types of panchavadyam depending on the number of instruments.The minimum requirement is three thimilas, one suddha-maddalam, two elathalams, two kombs, one edakka, and one sankh.The positioning of the artists is also important and mandatory.The timila and suddha-maddalam artists face each other, elathalam artists stand behind timila artists and komb artists stand behind suddha-maddalam artists.Edakka drummers and the sankh blower stand in front, next to them.Blowing of sankh signals the start of panchavadyam.The famous Thrissur Pooram gives an opportunity to witness the playing of a full complement of Panchavadyam, numbering more than 200.

Pancharimelam :Chenda, komb, kuzhal and elathalam are the main instruments used. 33 veekuchendas, 33 elathalams and 11 each of komb. kuzhal and muttuchenda are required for a complete peformance of medium range.

Pandimelam :Though the instruments used are the same as used in panchavadyam the method of their use slightly differs.For the beating of chenda in pancharimelam two sticks are used, whereas in pandimelam only one stick is used.Another difference is in the blowing of kuzhal. In pandimelam it is done in Bhairav Raaga, whereas in Pancharimela it is done in some other Raaga.Pandimelam can be enjoyed in full splendour during Thrissur Pooram.

Thayambakam :The instruments employed are chendas and elathalams.The artists of chendas use their palm and sticks for drumming.

Martial Art Forms

Kalaripayattu : Kalaripayattu is an advanced combat art.North Kerala evolved Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest and most comprehensive system of martial arts in the world.Kerala has produced many valiant heroes who has a place in Kerala’s folk songs and legends.One of them, Thacholi Othenan is immortalized in Vadakkan Pattukal (northern ballads) as one of the greatest exponents.

North Kerala has many kalaris (gymnasia).Boys and girls get training under a gurukkal (revered teacher).At first stage they are physically moulded by intensive body exercises.In the second stage they are taught the usage of weapons like kuruvadi (short stick) and sariravadi (mace, spear, dagger, sword and shield).In the third and final stage, marmams (vulnerable parts of the human body) are taught.Marmams learned persons can disable or kill their opponents by a mere touch in a marmam.Marmam is taught only to the promising and level-headed persons, to forbid misuse of the technique.

Defence and attack are the pillars of Kalaripayattu.Meipayattu (body combat) involves high jumping and kicking movements and striking blows on vital spots of the body, using arms, shoulders and hands.Meithari is an unarmed technique.Kolthari is usage of sticks while Ankathari is usage of weapons.

Kalaripayattu training results in ultimate co-ordination of the mind and body.The training in kalaripayattu also includes imparting of thorough knowledge in indigenous medical practices.This is essential to overcome the injuries.Kalari is also a centre of religious worship.

Velakali :Velakali is a ritual art.Fifty or more performers in the traditional attire of soldiers, bearing colourful shields and swords, dance with war like steps rhythmically to the tune of thakil, suddha manddalam, elathalam and kuzhal.When this velakali performed before a deity it is called thirummumbilvela and when performed near a temple pond it is called kulthilvela.There are some of the Kalaripayattu techniques in the valakali.

Parisakali :This art form was developed by the Mappilas of north Kerala as a folk art.It is a game played in the form of mock fight by boys holding short sticks in one hand and red straw-board shields in the other.

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