The performing arts of God’s Own Country have a special pull and connection amongst all audiences. On stage or by the road, the setting is never the primary attraction but rather, what steals the spotlight. It is the artists on stage with their movements, make-up and story telling. For centuries, they have colourfully presented great epics and acted as a mirror on the state of the society with their ever so subtle social criticism. They are important pillars of our heritage. Below we have listed some of the finest performing arts prevalent in Kerala.
Koothu is a socio-religious art performed in the Koothambalam or the Koothuthara of temples, either independently or as part of Kootiyattam. It is a solo narrative performance interspersed with mime and comic interludes. The Chakkiar dons the role of ' Vidushaka' or the wise jester. Through his inimitable narration of stories from the epics (The Ramayana and The Mahabharatha), the Chakkiar satirises the manners and customs of the time. No one is above the butt of his ridicule. His wit ranges from innocent mockery to veiled innuendoes, barbed pun and pungent invectives. Koothu is intermittently accompanied by the percussion instrument Mizhavu.
The Syrian Christians of Kottayam and Thrissur districts usually perform Margomkali. A dozen dancers sing and dance around a lighted lamp (Nilavilakku) in the simple traditional white dhoti. The narration is stark without musical accompaniments. The songs date back to a period much before the Portuguese invasion. Nowadays, women perform Margomkali only as a stage item.
Kathakali is one of the greatest art form of Kerala. It is said to have evolved from other performing arts like Kootiyattam, Krishnanattam and Kalarippayattu.Kerala owes its transnational fame to this nearly 300 years old classical dance form which combines facets of ballet, opera, masque and the pantomime. Kathakali explicates ideas and stories from the Indian epics and Puranas.
Presented in the temple precincts after dusk falls Kathakali is heralded by the Kelikottu or the beating of drums in accompaniment of the Chengila (gong). The riches of a happy blending of colour, expressions, music, drama and dance is unparallelled in any other art form.
Oppana is a traditional dance form, which is a part of the wedding entertainment and festivities of the Malabar Muslims. Maidens and young female relatives sing and dance around the bride, clapping their hands on the eve of the marriage. The songs of Mappilappattu are first sung by the leader and are repeated by the chorus. The themes are often teasing comments and innuendoes about the bride's anticipated nuptial bliss. Oppana is often presented as a stage item today.
Krishnatotom, another traditional art form is a spectacle for both the scholar and the simple rustic. The visual effect is enhanced by varied and colourful facial make-up with larger-than-life-masks, made of lightwood and cloth padding, for certain characters. The characters who do not wear masks have specific facial colours applied within the frame of a white chutti. The predominant colours used are dark green, flesh tint and deep rose. Most of the characters wear red vests and flowing 'Uthariyams'. The characters of Krishna, Arjuna and Garuda wear dark blue vests.
The traditional performance lasts for eight days and covers the whole span of Krishna's life from his birth to 'Swargarohanam' or ascension to the heavens. Orchestral accompaniments are Maddalam, Ilathalam and Chengila. Krishnanattom, though boasting of a unique choreography, assumes more the nature of a Morality Play, seldom presuming to lay claim to the theatrical sophistry so integral to Kathakali and Kootiyattam.
This is a distinctive classical dance form of Kerala with slow, graceful, swaying movements of the body and limbs and highly emotive eye and hand gestures. It is the sinuous dance of the enchantress. The origin of Mohiniyattom is rooted in Hindu mythology. Once the ocean of milk was churned by the gods and demons to extract the elixir of life and immortality. The demons made away with this divine brew.
Lord Vishnu came to the rescue of the panicky gods and assumed the female form of an amorous celestial dame Mohini. Captivating the demons with her charms, Mohini stole the elixir from them and restored it to the gods. This dance was adopted by the Devadasi or temple dancers, hence also the name 'Dasiattam' which was very popular during the Chera reign from 9th to 12th century.
Thiruvathirakali is a dance performed by women, in order to attain everlasting marital bliss, on Thiruvathira day in the Malayalam month of Dhanu (December- January). The dance is a celebration of marital fidelity and the female energy, for this is what brought Kamadeva (the god of love) back to life after he was reduced to ashes by the ire of Lord Siva. The sinuous movements executed by a group of dancers around a nilavilakku, embody 'lasya' or the amorous charm and grace of the feminine. The dance follows a circular, pirouetting pattern accompanied by clapping of the hands and singing. Today, Thiruvathirakali has become a popular dance form for all seasons
Theyyam also known as Kaliyattam, it is a ritual dance popular in north Kerala or the erstwhile Kolathunadu. Theyyam incorporates dance, mime and music and enshrines the rudiments of ancient tribal cultures which attached great importance to the worship of heroes and the spirits of ancestors. Of the over 400 Theyyams performed, the most spectacular ones are those of Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaveni, Gulikan and Pottan. These are performed in front of shrines, sans stage or curtains, by persons belonging to the Vannan, Malayan and other related castes.'Thudangal' (the beginning) and 'Thottam' (the invocation) are the introductory rituals of the Theyyam or the Thira, as it is known in south Malabar. The headgear and other ornamental decorations are spectacular in sheer size and appearance. Karivalloor, Nileswaram, Kurumathoor, Parassini, Cherukunnu, Ezhom and Kunnathoorpadi in north Malabar are places where Theyyams are performed annually from December to April.
Kalaripayattu the martial art form of Kerala is reagarded as the oldest and more scientific in the world. Training in combat is given at the kalari (training school). The principles of kalari education stipulate that training in martial art begins with an oil massage of the body, which goes on until the body is agile and supple. Feats like chattom (jumping), ottam (running), marichil (somersault) etc. are then taught, followed by the lessons the use of weapons such as daggers, swords, spears, maces, the bow and arrow and so on.
Kalaripayattu training aims at the ultimate co-ordination of the mind and body. The traditional training in a kalari includes specialisation in indigenous medical practice too. Kalaris are also centers of religious worship. The general guidelines to be followed in kalaripayattu demand that once the course is complete, a person should undergo oil massage and engage in the practice of the feats atleast once a year to help him keep in shape.