According to the Hindu mythology, dance is believed to have been conceived by the supreme Lord Brahma who inspired the sage Bharata Muni to write the Natya Shastra, a treatise on performing arts. From this emerged the practice of dance and drama. It is supposed that he used pathya (words) from the Rigveda, abhinaya (gestures) from the Yajurveda, geet (music) from the Samaveda and rasa (emotions) from the Atharvaveda to form the Natyaveda (body of knowledge about dance). The greatest of the Hindu deities-Shiva, Kali and Krishna-are typically represented dancing. Shiva’s cosmic dance, tandava, Kali’s dance of creation and destruction and Krishna’s dance with the gopikas (cow-herd girls)-Rasa Lila-are popular motifs in Hindu mythology.
‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala, possesses a rich collection of such unique forms of dances and art. There are many native folk dances which are performed during temple festivals and other ceremonious occasions. A marked attraction in each of these dances are the accompanying costumes and ornaments adorned by the performers. The dances of Kerala can be divided into mainly three types being the folk dances, dance dramas and semi-classical dances .
There are more than fifty well known folk dances in kerala. Of them the Kaliyattom, Mudiettu, Kolam thullal, Kolkali, Poorakkali, Valakali, Kamapadavukali, Kanniyarkali, Parichamuttukali, Thappukali, Kuravarkali and Thiruvathirakali are most popular.
Kummi is perhaps the most captivating with its continuously increasing pace and rhythm of the song and the dance steps and the exciting advancement of the complication of the dance steps that enchants the audience.
Tiruvathira is a popular group dance performed during Onam festival in Kerala. It is performed by maidens moving in circle and dancing rhythmically to the tune of Thiruvathira songs. One of the well known thiruvathira songs is the narrative poetry based on the story of Shakuntala that Machatt Illyat wrote for this dance in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Margamkali is a group dance developed by the Syrian Christians of Kerala with the word ‘Margam’ meaning ‘path’. The dancers sing themselves while dancing in a circle around a lighted oil lamp. The master, leader and tutor of the performance of the troupe is known as ‘Asan’.
Kolkali has a group performing dance in a circle, choreographed in such a way that dancers make rhythmic beat with short sticks in their hands. The steps are vibrant while songs consist mostly of meaningless syllables followed by verses. The dance gains tempo and pace as it advances. Only males participate in this dance and require basic martial art training to perform its complicated steps.
Oppana and Aravanmuttu are the dance forms performed by the Muslims of Kerala. These are performed by both men and women. Oppana is accompanied by clapping of hands. Mainly performed in marriages, the women perform in a circle and receive the bride while men stand aside singing songs, ready to receive the bridegroom. However, the origin of Aravana can be traced back to the Arabs and is still accompanied by Arabic music. The instrument used to produce rhythm is called daf or tap, a round percussion instrument with one side covered with hide.
Kathakali is a well-developed dance drama where the actors depict characters from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Puranas (ancient scriptures). Adorned with elaborately painted faces, headgears and grand costumes, the dancers are accompanied by drummers and vocalists. Ritual traditions like Theyyams, Mudiyattam and the martial arts of Kerala played a major role in shaping the dance into its present form. The great poet Vallathol rediscovered Kathakali and established the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1932.
Yatrakali is known by different names such as Samghakkali, Chattira Ankam , Sastramkam , Kshatramkam or Panemkali. An art of the Nambootiris, it originated when the Nambootiris were persecuted under the rule of one of the Cheraman Perumals who accepted the Buddhist faith as a mirror held against the artistic and social sense of the region and the times.
Ochirakali is held at a place called Ochira in Alleppey district as a part of an annual festival where a mock fight is staged lasting for two days to commemorate a battle fought between the kings of two feudal principalities, Kayamkulam and Ambalapuzha. The fight takes place in front of the Ochira temple that has no temple building or any image of god or goddess. Each group advances in offence and retreats in defence and the movements gain momentum and tempo as the show advances.
Chavittunatakam is a Christian dramatic form which was introduced during the time of the Portuguese in Kerala in the16th century A.D. ‘Chavittu’ means the rhythmic steps which accompanied the recitation of lines. Inspired by the Western Opera type of theatre, the themes, acting techniques, stage structure and plot treatment presented were western while the texts were written in old Tamil.
Krishnattam was founded by Manavedan and is a choreographed dance drama based on Krishna’s life while the Raja of Kottarakkara introduced Ramanattam, play based on Ramayana. Ramanattam was performed in Manipravala style and was performed by the Raja himself and his Nayar soldiers.
Chakyar Koothu is an ancient dance form performed in Kerala. In this highly refined dance form, the performer narrates events from Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is generally performed in temples during special occasions and festivals and is accompanied by satirical humor.
Semi Classical Dance:
Mohiniyattam, also known as the “dance of the enchantress” precedes Kathakali in history. It is a female semi-classical sensual dance form performed mainly in the temple precincts of Kerala. The, Mohiniyattam is also the heir to Devadasi dance heritage like Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. The first reference to Mohiniyattam is found in ‘Vyavaharamala’ composed by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri, assigned to the 16th century AD. Vallathol, a poet, revived it and gave it a status in modern times.
Thullal, meaning dance, is the cumulative product of all traditional folk and classical theatrical arts of Kerala. It was founded by Kunchan Nambiar in the 18th century to represent the accumulated aesthetic experience of all sections of the society. Based on different styles of narrative singing, rhythms of dancing, foot work and make-up of the dancer, three varieties of Thullal that were evolved in course of time with the Ottam Thullal being the most popular one followed by the Seethankan Thullal and the Parayan Thullal.
Koodiyattam emerged in the ninth century as a full-fledged dramatic presentation in Sanskrit. Koodiyattom is a temple art and probably the only surviving form of the traditional presentation of Sanskrit drama.
Nanniar Koothu is a dance form conducted in some prominent Kerala temples by the women of the Nambiar community, who are believed to be the descendants of the Devadasis community, as a ceremonial ritual. It is a solo dance based on the story of Sri Krishna.
Theyyam is a popular dance form performed in Malabar region of Kerala. For thousands of years, Theyyam and its rituals are in practice in this region. It is a Dravidian art form and is quite popular due to its accessibility to lower castes.