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Classical Dance of Kerala


The world famous opera of Kerala, Kathakali, is one of the ancient dance forms of Kerala. Once confined to temples alone, Kathakali has a lineage and history of 1500 years; and today this wonderful dance performance, with its elaborate dresses, make up and headgears and with emoting movements of hands and eyes, is staged the world over.

The name Kathakali actually means a dance drama in the local language. The artists perform with most difficult movements to convey the exact meaning as the drama unfolds to the tune of drums, cymbals and lyrics sung by the singer in the background.

The make up of Kathakali is the most tedious process and it takes an artist nearly four hours to dress for the exact characters. A character of a man is portrayed through the colours of the face. Basically male dominated dance form, today even females are venturing in the act. The dance dramas are based on Hindu mythological stories and the characters are depicted by the colour of the make up they wear. While the green face depicts a virtuous man, a green face with red beard depicts an aggressive man or a man with a demons characters but from a good family, Ravana is often depicted by this makeup. A white beard depicts a Rishi or an ascetic while a black coloured beard depicts a hunter or an aboriginal, tribal man. The women characters also performed by men normally are depicted with lustrous yellow colour on the face.

Earlier the performances were staged overnight from dusk to dawn and enjoyed the patronage of the royalties. Staged with melodious music and drum beats, with the actors emoting every single emotion and trying to convey every message to the audience with various hand and eye movements, in the flickering light of the huge oil lamps, gave these performances an awe of divinity earlier. Today although the divinity is lost, the awe-inspiring effect still lingers on. The only dance performance that comes near to Kathakali is the Chinese opera.

Mohini Attam:

Mohini Attam is the dance of the enchantress. While Kathakali was a male dominated art form, Mohini Attam was evolved to counter the male dominance and it is the dance form performed by females only. It is distinctively not a temple dance performance as any other classical dance form of India and is also one of the youngest classical dance performances of India. Vishnu once came to solve the dispute between the gods and demons in the form of Mohini, a beautiful seductive maiden. Hence the name Mohini is attached to the dance, which is Attam in the local language.

Mohini Attam is a dance of sheer enchantment, its purpose being overtly sensual. The dress is simple and not elaborate like the Kathakali, neither too jazzy like the Bharathanatyam but essentially sensuous, with a white gold bordered sari tied in a typical way, with just few gold ornaments and the hair tied in a bun, tilting to the left with a white flowers adorning it. This classical style was born out of a clever fusion of the highly stylized and male-monopolized Kathakali with the rigid Bharathanatyam. Though it shows deep affinities with both these styles, it has developed as a distinct dance-form with its own personality. Like Bharathanatyam, Mohini Attam is primarily intended as a solo dance to be performed by girls only, and its technical structure is quite similar to the former. At the same time, the great influence of Kathakali movements has given it a much greater dramatic, emotional impact.

Although today exponents like Kanak Rele have brought it outside Kerala and gave it its due recognition, this beautiful and sensuous dance performance still remains in the peripheries of Kerala.

Chakyar Koothu:

Another ancient dance performance of Kerala that dates back to around 1800 years and more, Chakyar Koothu is a narrative based performance. Verbal entertainment through narration is Koothu. Generally this form has both verbal and physical action and a person who does not understand the language, cannot enjoy this performance.

Koothu prevalent in Kerala is the art form associated exclusively with the clan called Chakyar. The word Chakyar actually means those who give expression to commendable words. Koothu is the ancient form of narration of a story. Telling stories of the legends in a humorous manner is the main aspect of this dance form. The legendary stories are related to the day-to-day political situations and jokes are cracked upon by them. The performer may cut joke upon anyone and let the audience enjoy. The main feature of the performance is the language and its use in a witty way. The attire is simple and with not much of pomp and show as the base is on the language and the acting to entertain the people. The audience comes to watch the show not for the pomp and glamour like the other Kerala dance performances, but to listen to sarcasm and to have a laugh.


One of the most famous Gods in the Hindu Mythology, Lord Krishna and Radha, have always been the point of art and expression of love in all the art forms. The dance performances depicting Radha and Krishna are the favourites. Krishna Attam is also the same kind of dance performance in which the beauty of the love of Radha and Krishna is enacted and by the performers. This traditional dance performance is meant to be performed only in the Guruvayur temple of Kerala in the praise of the reigning deity of the temple, Lord Krishna.

The origin of Krishna Attam can be traced back to another form of dance worship in the temples of India. It can be called as the predecessor to Kathakali as many dance steps and expression in Krishna Attam are still present in the Kathakali performances. The artistes wear the costumes and ornaments very much similar to that of Kathakali. The only difference is the rhythm and the language which is chaste Sanskrit telling the story of Lord Krishna from his birth and all the big and small incidents of his life.


This beautiful dance performance is based on the theme of praise to Lord Shiva. Thiruvathirakalli is a group dance performed by 8 to 10 girls in rhythmic movements with a superb blend of Kathakali, Mohini Attam mixed with the folk culture. The music and movements of Thiruvathirakalli has a native simplicity and lyrical grace. This graceful systematic group dance is performed also on festivals like Onam.In the Malayali month of Dhanu, corresponding with December, on the night of Thiruvathire, Shiva was pleased with the penance of Parvati and granted her the boon of forever-marital bliss; says the legend. So to acquire the same boon the unmarried girls pray to Lord Shiva and the married too ask for the marital bliss. The women deck up in their best attire, and perform these rhythmic movements in circular motion, which gives it a nave wonderful character.


Thullal is conceived as a solo dance form and is very near to the Koothu style with language of a lay man and the dressing style some where near to Kathakali. Thullal is another version of Koothu and is characterized by simplicity of presentation, wit and humour. The inventor of this art form is Kunjan Nambiar. The word Thullal actually means jumping in the local language. Presented by a single man with two accompanying artists for music in the background, Thullal is attended by young and old alike for the humour and wit that accompanies the dance and song. Thullal presentation generally lasts two hours and is rendered at a pitch and pace that keep onlookers thoroughly gripped. The dancer dances and sings simultaneously and this entails a long period of rigorous training, an agile body and a communicative voice. The dancer must also be gifted with a sharp memory, for he must remember long poems some of which have over 1000 couplets. The emotions pertain mainly to valour, humour, pathos, anger and devotion. Sringara, the erotic element, is virtually absent, but is rarely missed, for the burden of the songs and the nature of the dance are hardly conducive to tender passions. Thullal is of three kinds: Ottan, Parayan and Seethangan. The distinctions between them lies mostly in the make-up and costumes and to some extend in the ragas of the text. Of these Ottan Thullal is the most popular.


Probably the only surviving form of traditional Sanskrit dance drama, Koodiyattam is a temple art performed traditionally by a specific community. It has all the elements of popular dance drama but narrated in Sanskrit. The lyrics and plays of the great Indian ancient poets like Bhasa and Harsha are enacted through this art form. Developed in the 9th century, Koodiyattam has the most prominent figure of Vidushaka, the joker who makes the audience laugh not with his antiques but with his linguistic wit and humour. The performance is confined to the temple theatres known as Koothambalams; the performing artists belong to specific temple dependant communities known as Chakkiars and Nambiars. The performers use make-up similar to Kathakali but are permitted speech, albeit in a stylized manner. The make-up is symbolic of the nature of the character presented on the stage. At the same time, there is no typifying of characters as in Kathakali. The plays are presented in parts and not as a whole as they are too elaborative for today's world.


Oppana is the traditional bridal dance form performed by the Muslims of Kerala before the wedding. Both male and females take part in it and has unique costumes and songs those are famous all over central and north Kerala.


One of the most famous folk arts of Kerala, Theyyam is a ritualistic dance performed in temples on certain occasions. This too is an elaborate art form, which takes a few hours to dress up, and they are the representations of folk and tribal deities. It represents mythological characters and there are over 350 types of Theyyam those are performed all over the Northern Kerala during the season.The attire of the performer is what puts the audience in awe of this performance with dark painted faces and large headgears that they wear. All the dresses are meticulously crafted according to the character that the performer represents.The Theyyam or Kolam represents a mythological, divine or heroic character. There are over 350 Theyyams in northern Kerala. The hood, headdress, face painting, breastplate, bracelets, garlands and fabric of attire of each of these kolams are distinct and meticulously crafted according to the character presented. Also known as Kaliyattam, Theyyam evolves from Kaliyattam practiced by aboriginal tribes of northern regions of the state. Kaliyattam is an annual festival attached to some shrines known by the names like in the district of Cannanore.  The word Theyyam comes from the word Deviam that means God. The performer for that particular is possessed by the God he is enacting and for that time the audience also look upon him as the God and make offerings an worship him.


This is another form of dance drama present only in Kerala, Chavittunatakam, is form of art performed by the Christian community of Kerala. It was introduced in the 16th century during the Portuguese era as counter part of the famous Kathakali. Chavittu means the rhythmic steps, which accompanied the recitation of lines. Basically performed only by male artists, this dance form would recite the stories of the great saints in the west. The actors dress in typical western or Roman attire and perform on a specially built stage of wood. Today stories from the bible performed through this form of art.

Other than these prominent classical and Folk dance forms there are many other dance forms performed in the state of Kerala. Some of them are the offshoots of the prominent dances while the others are local forms of the dances, which are performed.

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