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Dance n Music of Kerela



Kathakali is a unique classical dance-drama form in Kerala. The themes for Kathakali are taken from the treasure trove of the ancient Puranas, depicting the lives, loves and conflicts of the gods and the supermen of Indian mythology.

Kathakali ranks high among the Indian dance forms through its vivid and eloquent mudras (hand signs), natural and impressive gestures, graceful and rhythmic movements, apart from excellent pleasing choreography and delightful wealth of imagery. Well known for its archaic costumes, weird make up and grand head gears, Kathakali preserves the masculine aspect of the dance in its elemental vigour.

Even though the roots of Kathakali can be traced at least 1500 years earlier, it came to be known only since 300 to 400 years. It symbolizes the blending of the Aryan and Dravidian cultures, as it assimilates various elements borrowed freely from the dances, dramas and ritual performances of these cultures. It has evolved out of the earlier forms of dance dramas such as the Chakiayarkoothu and the Koodiyattom, various ritual dances with the cult of the Bhagvathy such as the Mudiyattu and the Theyyattom, socio-religious dances such as the Sastrakali and the Ezhamattukali and later forms of dance dramas such as the Krishnanattom and the Ramanattom.

Kathakali is not a realistic art but it is an imaginative form as specified in Bharatha's Natya shastra. It constitutes three fine arts of the Abhinaya (acting), the Nrithya (dancing) and the Geetha (music). The Abhinaya has every feeling idealised and expressed on the face with intense vividness and every shade of such expression is harmonised with the rhythm of the Nrithya and the melody of the Geetha. Kathakali music has a very slow tempo singing style called the Sopana.

There are two vocal musicians in Kathakali of whom the main one is known as ponani and his partner as sinkidi. Also there are two important music players, the Chenda player keeps time with a resounding gong called the Chegala and the Maddalam player with a pair of clanking cymbals called the elethalam. The chenda is a cylindrical drum with a loud but sweet sound while the maddalam has the appearance of a big mridangam.

The mudras (hand gestures) used as a substitute for spoken language, with the actors acting and dancing in harmony with the rhythm as well as with the sense of the songs. The mudras form the inseparable part of the nrithya and abhinaya. The large overcoats, the flowing scarves, the bulging skirts, the antique ornaments, the strikingly opulent head dresses with streaming hair flowing down to the waist and covering the back are the main costumes and ornamentation of the Kathakali dance.

The characters in kathakali are all mythological and they all have set modes of make-up and attire and adornment. There are five main types of make-up attires based on the predominant colour applied to the face. They are the paccha (green), the kathi (knife), the thadi (beard), the kari (black) and the minukku (polished). The colour paccha represents virtuous and noble characters. The colour kathi represents proud aggressive and unrighteous characters. The bearded type known as thadi are of three varieties. The chuvanna thadi (red beard) represents the most aggressive and demoniac characters, the vellathadi (white beard) represents the mythical and fabulous beings like the monkey-gods, and the karutha thadi (black beards) represents aboriginals, forest-men and cave-dwellers. The colour Kari (black) represents the lowest type of characters. The colour minukku (polished) represents the gentle and spiritually inclined characters like women, sages, Brahmins etc.


Koodiyattom means “dancing together”. Instead of single Chakiyar, this dance is performed by a number of performers, including both men and women.

Abhinaya is the most important element in Koodiyattom. Here all the four types of Abhinaya, namely the Angikam, the Vachikam, the Sathvikam and the Aharyam can be seen.

The narration is in Sanskrit and the performance is a prolonged affair. Koodiyattom is staged on the specially built temple theatre called Koothambalam.

The stage is decorated with fruit-bearing plantains and bunches of tender coconuts and festooned with fronds of the coconut palm.

A vessel overflowing with paddy is placed on the stage. Lighting is done with a tall oil lamp made of brass.

There is a large copper drum called the mizhavu with a high seat for the Nambiyar drummer.

A Nangiyar woman plays cymbal and occasionally recites the verses.

The musical element is very much suppressed in Koodiyattom. The instruments include the edakka, the maddalam, the conch, the pipe and the horn


Koothu is one of the oldest theatrical classical dance performed by the member of the professional Chakyar cast, only in Koothambalam of temples.

Koothu means dance. The movements, the facial expressions and the signs and gestures employed by the actor in Koothu are said to be closely associated with the principles laid down in Bharatha's Natya Sastra. The dance depicts the stories from the epics based on Sanskrit text, but interpreted in Malayalam, enlivening the narration with Thandava dance rhythms, gestures and body postures derived from Natya Sastra.

Koothu is also dominated by comic elements. Impersonated through mime and gesture and interspersed with occasional dances, the narrative art of the Chakyar is essentially dramatic.

Humorous, witty analogies and allusions to topical, political and social events are brought in during the narration and the dancer gets ample facilities for criticizing men and things of local interest. The dance is performed by the Chakyar on the platform of the Koothambalam adorned with special type of headgear and peculiar facial make-up. In the beginning, he offers prayers to the presiding deity of the particular temple where he is performing. After that he recites a verse from the Sanskrit text and then explains it in Malayalam.

The Cymbals’ pairs and the Mizhavu are the instruments used in the dance. A member of the Nambiar caste beats rhythm on the Mizhavu at the required intervals. The cymbals are played invariably by women known as Nangiyars.

Koothu presented as a solo item by a Chakiyar is also known as Prabhandha Koothu. Occasionally, it is also presented by a Nangiyar woman, when it is called Nangiyar Koothu.


Mohinyattom is a dance of the charmer. It is a seductive dance performed by women, sensuous in appeal. Mohini means the temptress, a character in Hindhu mythology and Attom means dance. Being parallel to the Bharatanatyam of Tamil Nadu, Mohiniyattom dance is performed only by women. In Mohiniyattom, the symmetrical patterns of emotion flow in balanced nuances with smooth footwork, somewhat quickened body movements and special music.

The technique of Mohiniyattom lies in between Kathakali and Bharathanatyam. Combining the formal grace and elegance of Bharathanatyam, with the earthy vigour and dynamism of Kathakali, Mohiniyattom presents delicate expressions of the one with the stylised eye movements and co-ordinates the instinct with charm, subtle allure and seductive appeal. In the rendering of this style there is enchantment, grace, delicacy and passion. There are no abrupt jerks or leaps in Mohiniyattom nor is their any inordinately hard stamping of the foot. The gesture language of Mohiniyattom is largely similar to that of Bharathanatyam but it also incorporates elements from Kathakali tradition. The music for the dance is pure carnatic classical.

Mohiniyattom is mainly the Lasya dance performed strictly according to scriptures of Natya Shastra. It is a lovely fusion of the parallel streams of dance in the eastern and western regions of South India. The presentation styles of Mohiniyattom comprise of the Cholkettu, the Varnam, the Padam, the Thillana, the Kaikottikkali, the Kummi and the Swaram. The predominant mood of Mohiniyattom is Sringaram.

Tribal Dance Forms

Kurumbar Nritham
Hill tribes of Kurumbar and Kattunayakar perform a special type of dance which is staged in connection with marriages. Before marriage, the members of the families of both the bride and bridegroom and after marriage the newly wedded couple perform this dance.

Kaanikkar Nritham
Kaanikkar Nritham is a group dance of the kanikkar tribes. The steps of the dancers perfectly synchronise with the waving of the hands and beating of drums.

Elelakkaradi is a highly heroic group dance in which almost the whole Irular community of men, women and children participate. The dance brings out the fight of the people against the wild bears which often attack their tribal hamlets. The various stages in the fight against the wild beasts are very well presented.

Kaadar Nritham
Kaadar Nritham is a type of tribal dance in which only women participate. It is a primitive dance of the Kaadar tribes of the forest of Kochi area. The performers arrange themselves in a semicircle holding the tip of their cloths in their hands to the level of the waist and wave it to various rhythms of the dance.

Parvalli Kali
Paravalli Kali is a mixed dance of the aboriginals of dense forest of Travancore area in which both men and women participate. They dance holding arms together, or shoulder to shoulder, linked in a backlock posture. The linked arms swing to the rhythm in a fascinating wavelike movement.

Thavala Kali
Thavalakali is a tribal dance in which a number of participants, usually boys, jump one above the other in succession, imitating the leaps of the frog.

Kooran Kali
Koorankali is another tribal dance which is similar to Mankali. One man takes the role of a wild bear with another enacting the role of hunting dog. The movements are perfectly timed to the rhythmic beats of primitive drums.

Paniyar Kali
This higly masculine dance is performed by the men folks of Panyar tribes of Wayand district. As the dance gathers momentum the circle is swiftly expanded and contracted and the dancers utter peculiar cries which gradually run up to a high pitch.

Man Kali
Man Kali is a tribal dance depicting the Ramayana episode in which Sita is being enchanted by Maricha in the guise of a golden deer is enacted in graceful movements.

Edaya Nritham
Edaya Nritham is the dance of men and women from the tribal shepherds. As the singing is going in, one of them imitate the special sounds of shepherds driving their sheep. The dance as such consists of someone of the group crying successively to imitate the wild animals while the other members of the group adeptly bring out the terror on their faces.

Naikar Kali
Naikar Kali is popular ritualistic dance among the tribes in Wyanad and Malappuram districts. This is performed as pooja to family deities during marriages. Naikars perform to the tunes of the instruments, the Thappu and the Kuzhal. With the jingling anklets around their legs, they dance around in clock-wise and anti-clockwise movements to the accompaniment of the instruments.

Gadhika is a ritual dance performed by Adiya tribes of Wayanad district. This dance is meant to care ailments and for having a safe delivery of child. Gadhika begins with the principal performer invoking lord Siva for his help to cure the patients. Once Lord Siva was brought down to earth and he was pleaded by the invocations of the worshippers. The other gods, goddesses were enrolled by the performance. These gods include Chamundi, Maniamma, Malankali (Siva) and Karinkali. The participants include men dressed as women whose function is to welcome the gods and goddesses arriving in response to the summons from Siva.

Folk Songs

Folk Songs
Kerala has a very rich folk song tradition. The farmers, the peasants, the boat men have all contributed to this tradition. They forgot the tedium of toil by singing songs. Even the happiness of the harvest season, the sacramental union of man and woman, and the advent of progeny also found expression in beautiful melodies. Irayimmam Tampy, wrote a lyric for the melody of the traditional lullaby which is one of the most beautiful songs of this kind in Malayalam. Another lullaby melody was chosen by Cherrusseri in the 15th century to retell the Krishna story from the Bhagavatha in mellifluous verse in a Kavya of classical dimensions with forty-seven cantos. The boat song melody was used by Ramapurath Warrier in the 18th century for a fine narrative poem on the story of 'Kuchela' and by Kumaran Asan, for another narrative poem on the great compassion of the Buddha and the disciples who were inspired by him.

Mappila Pattukal (Mopla Songs)
Mopla Songs also known as Mappila Pattukal reflect the Muslim arts forms. These songs represent a long tradition of a happy blending of Arab and local elements of music. The language used in these songs represents a mixture of Arab, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Sanskrit and Kannada. It is believed that the rich literature of Mopla songs has a long history going back to 700 years. These songs sung in rituals, household ceremonies like marriage and as a vocal accompaniment for dances. Love, heroism and devotion to God are the basic sentiments in these songs.

Christian Songs
Pattu literature has many Christian songs which were meant to propagate the Christian faith. One of the main songs deals with the life and deeds of St. Thomas. These songs blend the touch of western music and folk tunes of Kerala.

Music of Kerala

Kerala's music is known as Sopanam. Sangeetam (Music) appears to have acquired its name from the 'Sopanam' which means 'Sanctum Sanctorum' of the temple. Its essential features were born out of a happy blending of the vedic, the folk and tribal music of the region.

The structure of the Sopanam music is believed to reflect the experience of the devotee in ascending the heights of devotion. Sopanam music developed and became popular through the practice of singing invocatory songs in front of the 'Kalam' of Kali meaning the floor drawing of Kali and later on at the sanctum of the temple.

There are a few powerful schools connected with the temples like Pazhoor, Tiumandhamkunnu, Guruvayoor, Ramamangalam. Neralattu Rama Poduval of Tirumandhamkunnu bani, Janardhanan Nedungadi of Guruvayoor, Damodara Marar belonging to the Mudiyettu bant of Pazhoor are some of the most effective experts.

The music system had rejuvenation when 'Geet Govindam' was introduced to Kerala in the local musical mould during the14th and 15th centuries A.D. It was certainly a revival of the Pattu School of music which was preserved in the devotional tyanis.

The musician is inspired by the particular time, when the offering is made to the deity and he selects ragas which is most suited for that time. Such ragas are known as Samaya (time) ragas because time is the deciding factor in singing. The singing of tyanis takes its roots from the music of the earliest singers of the land as mentioned in the great text 'Chilappatikaram'.

Some of the rare melodies specially conceived for the purpose of embellishment of certain emotions are 'Pati', Indisa', 'Puraniru', 'Kanakurinji'. There are certain ragas like 'Sri kandi', 'Desakshi', 'Nalatha' and 'Samantamalahari' used in old devotional songs which produce remarkably fascinating lilt and swing of a local character. The accompanying instruments include the edakka, the maddalam and the chenda
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