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    The Twelve Liberal Arts of  Kerala                        


    Kerala, with its rich background of art & culture, has its own art forms which symbolise the outlook & life of Keralites. From the famous Kathakali, which is considered as the complete art form as it synthesises  all that is best in the fields of drama, music & dance to the fascinating folk dances, which are the rhythmic impulses of a sensitive egalitarian society, Kerala's arts are unique ! The Yogi Bharatha wrote the famous Natya Shastra, the Science of Dance, in which he postulated that Musicology consists of the Eternal Triad of Poesis, Dance & Music ( Geetham Vadyam Thadha Nritham Trayam Sangeetham Uchyathe ) !  


    Kathakali - The Dance Drama of Kerala

    ( Ramanattom - The Dance of the Avatar ) 

    Acting, dancing & Music - these three arts constitute this dance drama. It is pantomime in which actors do not sing nor do they speak but interpret their emotions through highly sensitive medium of appropriate gestures, picturesque hand-poses and vivid facial expressions, which is intelligible even to the layman ! Both dramatic & a dance art, Kathakali with predominance of histrionics, is considered as a complete art.  It belongs to the imaginative form of Art & not the realistic, which is highlighted by Bharatha in his famous treatise ! 

    This Master Art is Kerala's very own, drawing its themes from the vast wealth of India's Mythology & folklore. Ramanattom was created as a sort of rival to Krishnanattom & Kathakali evolved from Ramanattom into a complete art. It strictly follows the fundamentals & axioms laid down by Bharata, who was considered to be the father of Indian Classical Dances. 

    A high degree of control over body & muscle movements and facial expressions is called for, from the actor's perspective. The performer  is helped by vocal & percussion accompaniments & the theme is expounded by him through hand gestures known as Hasta Mudras , which are 25 in number. The best way to appreciate a Kathakali performance is to get the story explained to you in advance. This amazing evocative art has evolved into a package that weaves a tantalising spell today, combining chant, drama, dance, makeup, dress & gesture !



    The History of Kathakali 

    Prior to the genesis of this magnificent Art, there existed in Kerala different types of dance, drama & dance-dramas. Arts like Chakyarkoothu, Kootiyattam & different dances associated with the cult of the Mother Goddess, such as Moodiyattu, Thiyyattam & Theyyattom, the socio-religious & material dances like the Sastrakali & Ezhamattukali & the latterly  evolved dance-dramas like Krishnanattom & Ramanattom, were flourishing in Kerala prior to the advent of this Divine Art. You will find that characteristic features of these dances & dramas had been incorporated & assimilated by this Master Art

    Magnificent archaic costumes, grand head gears and enchanting make ups characterise this majestic Dance-Drama. It is perhaps the only dance form in India in which the masculine aspect of the dance is preserved in its pristine vigour.    

    All feelings are idealised and facially expressed with intense vividness and you will find that this compensates for the absence of the spoken word. All such facial expressions will harmonise and synchronise with the rhythm of the Dance & the musical melody.

    Music is a very important ingredient and the Orchestra is composed of two vocal musicians, one keeping time with a resounding gong known as Chengala & the other with a pair of clanking cymbals known as Elethalam, a Chenda player and a Maddala player. Chenda is a cylindrical drum with a beautifully sweet sound while the Maddala appears as a big Mridanga.  

    Amongst the two vocal musicians in Kathakali, the main one is Ponani & the minor partner is Sinkidi & the Kathakali songs, couched in wealthy poetic diction have, enriched Malayalam literature.  

    All the characters of Kathakali are mythological and have different modes of makeup.

     Adornment & attire are reduced to 5 types. They are

    1) Pacha ( Green )  representing Noble & virtuous characters 

    2) Kathi ( Knife )   Unrighteous characters 

    3) Thadi ( Beard )  Demoniac characters  

    4) Kari ( Black )     Agressors 

    5) Minukku ( Polished ) Spiritually inclined characters 

    While the ornamentation & costumes are elaborate, the large overcoats, the bulging skirts, the antique ornaments - all create a tremendous impression on the viewer, while the facial expressions of the actors along with the celestial music behind create a Virtual Reality or Life out of India's massive mythological literature ! 



    This is the most comprehensive system of Martial Arts, considered as the most ancient & most scientific in the world. Aiming at the ultimate coordination of body & mind, training in Kalari includes knowledge of indigenous medicine also. Kalaris are also centers of Worship.
    Ottam Thullal 


    The most distinguished amongst the Thullal arts, Ottam Thullal was ingeniously devised by a master artist, Kunjan Nambiar. It is written that he was humiliated by a Chakyar, as Nambiar dozed off during a performance. In order to take revenge on his humiliation he wrote a poem depicting an episode from the epic Mahabharata in a never-to-fore metric & pattern rhythmic. A special kind of dance for its exposition was formulated. By innovative methods, humor and the enjoyableness of the programme, he attracted all audiences that had surrounded Chakyar. A new art was born and this was christened as "Ottam Thullal ".

    The costumes & crown are copied from Kathakali, with variations. It is a solo dance with the artiste singing verses to the accompaniment of Mridanga with a refrain repeater singing behind. Duration of the programme is a couple of hours. 

    O T has its origins in Natya Sastra, the Science of Dance. Kunjan Nambiar was insulted by a Chakyar in another art, Chakyar Koothu ( as he fell asleep while playing the mizhavu ). O T parodies the prevailing regional prejudices.

    It parodies the politicians thus

    Deepasthambham Mahascharyam
    Namukkum kittanam panam

    Everything is great
    But we want money !

    All the dependants
    Of the Temple will steal
    Okke Kakkum

    If Teacher commits a mistake
    Students will commit 58 mistakes
    Asan aksharam onnu pizhachal
    Ambathettu pikhakkum Sishyanu !

    Nehru ji defined OT as a poor man's Kathakali !




    With the dancer wearing special dress & head gears, Theyyam is a form of spiritual dance performed in temples of the Mother Goddess in North Malabar. Songs and musical instruments accompany Theyyam.  



    This is the oldest amongst the classical theatre arts and the solo dance is usually presented in Temples, to the accompaniment of Elathalam & Mizhavu. Beginning with an Invocation the Deity of the Temple, its narration is enlivened by the Thandava dance movements, facial expression & gestures according to the principles of Natya Shastra. Humour is abound in plentitude in this art and its themes are taken from India's Epic Poetry ( Ramayana & Mahabharatha ). 


    The Dance of the Enchantress, Mohiniyattam



    The dynamism & vigour of Kathakali is integrated with the grace of Bharata Natyam in this beautiful, attractive Art. This dance is performed in connection with festivals in the Temple. The white cloth ( mundu ) is the costume & hair is gathered up & put up at the side of the head, Kerala style, & adorned with jasmine. 

    Aaravam.... Ragam
    Aasuram ... Thalam
    Mannile Vinnaninnum
    Keraleeyam !

    Aaravam Her Melody
    And Aasuram Her Thala
    Kerala is eternally
    A Heaven on Earth !



    The Divine Athira Dance, Thiruvathirakkali

    Dressed in the traditional style of Kerala, women & girls stand in a circle round a lighted Lamp ( Nilavilakku ) and they sing and dance around the Lamp. This is normally performed on the Vedic constellation day of Thiruvathira ( when the Moon is in the constellation of Aridra ).  Songs praise the deities of the Vedic pantheon. 


    Margazhi Manjil Kuli Kazhinju...
    Mangalya Thali Charthiya
    Manavi latakal
    Eerananinjadi !

    In the snows of Margazhi, Dhanu,
    After taking bath
    After wearing the sacred Thali
    The lovely maidens
    Played the glorious Dance, Athira !

    Neela Nilavu Nilavilakkin
    Nizhalukal Neele
    Thalathil Kaikotti Kali Adi

    In the blue moonlight
    Before the Lamp Divine
    In rhythmic steps
    Kaikotti Kali was born !




    Devotees of the Commander-in-Chief of the celestials, Lord Muruga, wearing bright yellow or saffron costumes with ash smeared all over the body, dance in a frenzy carrying Kavadis on their shoulders. Kavadis are wooden structures that rise 6 to 10 feet. Ambalakavadi is shaped like a temple & Pookavadi has clusters of plastic flowers arranged on them. 


    The Combining Dance, Koodiyattam

    UNESCO declared Koodiyattam, the Sanskrit  Art  tradition of Kerala as  'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'. Dealing with the ancient plays of eminent Sanskrit dramatists like Bhasa, Shaktibhadra, Kalidasa et al, Koodiyattom is firmly rooted in Kerala Culture. 


    The Dance of the Lord, Krishnanattom


    Ramanattom ( Kathakali ) derives from Krishnanattom. Kathakali became more popular as the language used is Malayalam, while both Koodiyattom and Krishnanattom are considered scholarly, as they are in Sanskrit !


    More info about Krishnanattom at http://www.guruvayur4u.com/html/krishnanattom.htm





    This solo dance drama is normally performed in front of Dhooli Chitram or ritual drawing with colored powders in the Temples of the Mother Goddess. Lord Ganapthi is invoked initially, after which the performer dons a Crown similar to the one used in Mudiyettu. It depicts the grand Duel between Goddess Kali & the demon Darika, the negative and the positive elements in Man. 



    A mask dance popular in North Kerala. The dancers go dancing from house to house. The major Kummatti character is Thalla or Witch while others represent the various deities of the Vedic pantheon. Songs are basically devotional & are normally accompanied by a bow like instrument called Ona-villu. Spectators generally join in the performance as no training is required in this Art.