India

The Dance Forms of Kerala. Kerala more than just Kathakali – JUST A SAMPLE OF KERALA’S ARTISTIC DIVERSITY

For various Kerala dance forms such as, for example, Kathakali, Theyyam, and Ottan Thullal, make-up is as much a part as the dance itself. The Kerala Kalamandalam (a centre of learning for performing arts) teaches make-up as a subject of its own. Applying make-up is an intricate process. Most colours used are naturally made from flowers, leaves, soot and stone that are combined with coconut oil to produce paint. Colours often represent specific traits – green represents good, white symbolizes spirituality, red communicates passion, and black stands for evil.

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A dancer with red headgear, performance dress, and painted body performing Theyyam- Kerala’s most popular ritualistic art form, at a traditional Theyyam ceremony in a temple in Kannur © Dietmar Temps

In this Article:

Theyyam
Ottan Thullal
Glove Puppeteers
Mohiniyattam
Kalamezhuthu
Pulikali
Koodiyattam
Kathakali
Poothan Thira


The State of Kerala has always attracted travelers from all over India and abroad. But Kerala is more than just a destination – it is an experience that deepens as you explore it and unfolds its marvelous kaleidoscope of art, music, and dance. As a welcome visitor, you too can submerge yourself into the manifold forms of art that fill Kerala, both the popular and the unexpected. There are the astonishing athletes of Kalaripayattu, the cast members who assume the forms of the gods in the rituals of Theyyam, the last Aandipandaram practitioners of puppetry, and witness the charms of the Poothan Thira folk dance that has been performed for centuries in small village temples. These forms of art often recount the tales and folklore of ancient times as well as stories of daily life. The heritage here is rich and is profound, and despite waning popularity in the face of modern diversions, there is still a deep connection to the natural world that captures the essence of Kerala. Each art form, regardless of whether famous or obscure, contributes a piece to this land’s history and culture.
 

THEYYAM

This form is actually a form of ritual worship danced exclusively by members of the lower castes. It is performed in temples in northern Kerala from December to March. Drumbeats accompany men who dance wearing exuberant headdresses and very thick make-up to drumbeats. The performance is meant to summon the gods, who are believed to possess the dancers and speak through them. This belief is so powerful, that even members of higher castes temporarily forget traditional caste taboos to eagerly seek the blessing of these ‘gods’ after the performance.

A Theyyam artist performs during the annual festival at Puliroopakaali temple in Ramapuram. Theyyam is a ritualistic folkart form of Kerala

A Theyyam artist performs during the annual festival at Puliroopakaali temple in Ramapuram. Theyyam is a ritualistic folk art form of Kerala © RPEES photography


Religious performance by the Theyyam artist perform during the temple festival in the town of Payyanur in Kerala. Theyyam is a popular ritual form of worship in Kerala

Religious performance by the Theyyam artist performs during the temple festival in the town of Payyanur in Kerala. Theyyam is a popular ritual form of worship in Kerala © Mazur Travel


OTTAN THULLAL

Although dance forms not as well-known as others, Ottan Thullal is still popular – in a true sense of the word. It resembles Kathakali in many ways, borrowing much of its dress, make-up, and movements. But whereas Kathakali involves many dancers and was directed at the more refined, upper classes, Ottan Thullal has only one performer and addresses spectators in Malayalam, the language of commoners. Its stories are rooted in the Puranas (Hindu texts from the Vedas), but the performances poke fun at society and make them easier to relate to than more formal forms.

An Ottamthullal art form dancer performing the dance form that was introduced by the Malayalam poet Kunchan Nambiar in the early eighteenth century.

An Ottamthullal art form dancer performing the dance form that was introduced by the Malayalam poet Kunchan Nambiar in the early eighteenth century


GLOVE PUPPETEERS

One of Kerala’s last practitioners of glove puppeteering is KC Ramakrishnan, a member of the Aandipandaram community. His ancestors came centuries ago from Andhra Pradesh to settle in Kerala and began performing the tales and characters of Kathakali dance in their own style of Aryamaala puppet theatre. The puppetry developed here in Kerala is unlike any elsewhere in India – for one reason because the puppeteer is an integral part of the performance.

Craftsmen create glove puppets and practice the art of puppeteering, generally depicting characters and scenes from tales of God

Craftsmen create glove puppets and practice the art of puppeteering, generally depicting characters and scenes from tales of God


MOHINIYATTAM

Along with Kathakali, this dance is one of the two classical forms that developed in Kerala. This ‘Dance of Mohini’ is named for a mythical enchantress of the Hindu god Vishnu. Like all classical Indian dances, this form has its origins in the Natya Shastra, an ancient Sanskrit text on performing arts. It is performed by a lone female who moves in ways that emphasize her feminine enchanting power – so much so, that it was once banned by the British who regarded the dance as immoral.

A teacher demonstrates hand movements to a class of students learning the Mohiniyattam dance form at RLV College of Music and fine arts in Ernakulam, India.

A teacher demonstrates hand movements to a class of students learning the Mohiniyattam dance form at RLV College of Music and fine arts in Ernakulam, India © Nina Lishchuk


Young female dancer performing Mohiniyattam, or the dance of enchantress, a traditional South Indian dance form at Fort Kochi in Kerala

Young female dancer performing Mohiniyattam, or the dance of enchantress, a traditional South Indian dance form at Fort Kochi in Kerala © Zzvet


KALAMEZHUTHU

This dance form is usually performed in temples and for aristocratic families. It combines upper caste and tribal traditions and serves in part as a ritual for welcoming and praising deities. The dance is performed on a floor that the artist paints in various colors such as white (made with rice flour), black (charcoal), yellow (turmeric), green (leaves), and red (a lime-turmeric mixture). In the photo, the artist paints a design that represents the Goddess Kali in the home of the aristocratic Ollapamanna, a Namboodari Brahmin family with a centuries-old tradition as patron of the arts. The image composed represents the specific deity that the dance means to worship, and can it take hours of painstaking detail to finish the painting.

Kolam, also known as dhulee chithram and referred to rangoli in the North of India, in Wayanad, uses colored powders on the floor as a canvas to celebrate, worship and propitiate goddess Kaali

Kolam, also known as Dhulee Chithram and referred to rangoli in the North of India, in Wayanad, uses colored powders on the floor as a canvas to celebrate, worship, and propitiate goddess Kaali © Santhosh Varghese


PULIKALI

Pulikali means ‘play of the tigers’ and is danced as an integral part of the annual Onam harvest festival as a traditional entertainment mostly performed in the Thrissur district in central Kerala. As its name suggests, the dance artistically recreates a tiger hunt, and the dancers are colored in bright tiger hues of red, yellow, and black to represent tigers or hunters.

People with bodies painted as tigers take part in the traditional Tiger dance in September 2017, the dance is performed during the Onam festival celebrations.

People with bodies painted as tigers take part in the traditional Tiger dance in September 2017, the dance is performed during the Onam festival celebrations © AJP


Two men posing for the camera with tigers painted on their torso by hand, in preparation for the Tiger Dance as a part of Onam celebrations.

Two men posing for the camera with tigers painted on their torso by hand, in preparation for the Tiger Dance as a part of Onam celebrations © CRS PHOTO


KOODIYATTAM

The name means ‘combined acting’ and is a very old form that indeed combines old Sanskrit theatre with Koothu, an ancient Tamil form that goes back to the Sangam era, the very earliest period of Tamil literature that has survived. The performers assume roles in a play that is danced to the accompaniment of traditional music.

A female dancer performs the renowned dance form Koodiyattam on the stage; Koodiyattam combines elements of ancient Sanskrit theatre with koothu, an ancient performance art.

A female dancer performs the renowned dance form Koodiyattam on the stage; Koodiyattam combines elements of ancient Sanskrit theatre with koothu, an ancient performance art © Santhosh Varghese


KATHAKALI

Perhaps the classical dance of Kerala, the origins of this form go back to temple and folk dramas that can be identified as far back as the 1st century CE. A Kerala dance is a ‘story play’ with themes from ancient myths and legends. The make-up is typical and immediately recognizable to Indians, and it is so elaborate that applying and removing it can take up to three hours. The colors are extracted from natural materials such as flowers and leaves.

A Kathakali dance performance underway at Fort Kochi in Kerala; the dancer with their face painted green represents Pacha Vesham or the dignified male hero.

A Kathakali dance performance underway at Fort Kochi in Kerala; the dancer with their face painted green represents Pacha Vesham or the dignified male hero © cornfield


Dancers paint their faces in preparation for their Kathakali dance performance, a classical Indian dance form that incorporates traditional warrior martial arts movements.

Dancers paint their faces in preparation for their Kathakali dance performance, a classical Indian dance form that incorporates traditional warrior martial arts movements © Iulian Ursachi


POOTHAN THIRA

This form is a traditional dance performed in the villages and temples in the Valluvanad region by the Mannan community. The dance is meant to drive evil spirits from villages and towns in the form of a struggle between gods and demons. Thira (or Bhadrakali), a form of the Goddess Kali, is struggling to banish the demon Darika. Poothan is a demon, a lieutenant of the God Shiva, and sent by him to assist Thira. The dancer representing Thira wears a semi-circular black crown and is dressed and made-up as a female. Poothan, meanwhile, is bare-chested, wears large, wooden headgear, and is made-up as a male. Dance troupes travel to towns and villages at the end of the harvest season to drive evils spirits away and find an eager welcome in homes everywhere.

During a ritual at Sree Kalari Bhagavathi Temple in Vilayur, artists play Poothan who is Lord Shiva's lieutenant, as per the ritualistic art form of the South Malabar region.

During a ritual at Sree Kalari Bhagavathi Temple in Vilayur, artists play Poothan who is Lord Shiva’s lieutenant, as per the ritualistic art form of the South Malabar region © KV Naushad


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