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Art & Culture

Performing Arts

Tribal Art

The primitive inhabitants of Kerala, are only about two hundred thousand now and they are scattered in the jungles and hills of the state prominants. There are about 35 different types of the tribals, among them being the Kurichiyar, Nayadi, Mullakurumbar, Uralikurumbar, Paniya, Mudaga, Irula, Ernadar, Kadar, Muthuvan, Kanikkar, Uralees, Paliyan, Malavedan, Vettuvar, Eravallan, Veda and Malayan.

They are unique examples of communities in isolated existence, still preserving their life, customs and manners almost untarnished by the advancing waves of urban civilization.Though adapted to different dialects and customs, their artistic expression evidently reflects the distinct, secluded and primitive social structure and nature of the people and it still survives as virile a state as ever in the tribal hamlets of the hilly tracts. Each of these aboriginal tribes has its own distinct dance tradition and invariably all of them are interwoven with the life of the people who dance it, so much so that it seems that some of their daily tasks are given to rhythmic pattern. In the background of mystery shrouded nature, tribal celebrations originate and the dances work up intoxicating excitement physical expressions of their joys and grieves, hopes and fears.

Some times the dancing is extremely simple and consists of little more than shuffling of the feet or waving of the hands. At other times it is swaying of the body to the clapping of hands or beating of primitive drums to mark time. Yet another form shows only the monotonous movement of the hands and feet. But generally speaking, a wide range of movement involving all parts of the body, the head back hips, arms, fingers and the feet and even facial muscles are utilized in tribal dances.

There are very complicated tribal dances as well in which dancing harmonises gesture, expressing the whole gamut of sentiment, where rhythm is kept by swaying the body and intricate steps executed with adept foot-work. Usually the dances have a slow beginning, but gather momentum and work up to a heavy tempo of the vociferous climax of the drums, and the ecstasy of the ever-mounting rhythm of spontaneous music. Many of these dances are heroic or martial in character.

Some tribes have songs to accompany their dances. Either the dancers themselves sing or the on-lookers sing and thus participate. Special musical instruments are sometimes used, but the drum is almost an indispensable feature. The costumes of the dancers vary from approximate nudity to full attire and ornaments which are extremely colourful.

Like all tribal arts, Kerala's tribal dances are and spontaneous. It is the most direct expression of the inner most spirit of a people and the instinct of rhythm is an natural and basic as human nature.

Some of the more known tribal dances of Kerala are Elelakkaradi, Kadarkali, Kurumbarkali, Paniyarkali, Edayarkali, Mudiyattam and Vedarkali.


This is highly heroic group-dance in which almost the whole community of men, women and children participate. The dance is very common with the tribals called Irular of Attappadi in Palakkad district. The dance brings out the fight of the people against the wild bears which very often attack their tribal hamlets.


Only women partake in this primitive dance of the Kaadar tribes of the forests of Kochi area. The performers arrange themselves in a semicircle. They hold the tip of their clothes in their hands to the level of the waist and wave it to various rhythms of the dance. It is a very simple but elegant tribal dance in slow steps.

Kurumbar nritham

Waynad district had different types of hill tribes of which the Kurumbar and the Kattunayakar are the most prominent. They perform a special type of dance which is staged in connection with marriages.

Kaanikkar Nritham

This is a group dance of the Kanikkar tribes. The dance is performed as a rural offering. The steps of the dancers perfectly synchronise with the waving of the hands and the beating of the drums.

Man Kali

The Ramayana episode in which Sita is being enchanted by Maricha in the guise of a golden deer is enacted in graceful movements.

Parvalli Kali

It is mixed dance of the aboriginals of the 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 dance develops into variety of pleasing pattern, in which the men and women change their positions with amazing speed.

Kooran Kali

Koorankali is another tribal dance which is similar to Mankali. Here one man takes the role of a wild bear with another enacting the role of a wild bear with another enacting the role of a hunting dog. The movements are perfectly timed to the rhythmic beats of primitive drums. While this is going on, the large number of onlookers who form a circle round the two dancers, shout wild cries of joy with occasional clapping of hands and jerky dances.

Edaya Nritham

Edaya nritham is the dance of the tribal shepherds. Both men and women participate. One of the shepherds sing. This is repeated in chorus by all the rest. As the singing is going in, one of them imitates the special sounds of shepherds driving their sheep.


Mudiyattom, also known as Neelilayattom, is a tribal dance in which only women partake. The women stand on small wooden blocks and the dance begins with slow and simple movements of the body which culminate in graceful movements of the head. The uncombed hair of the participants flow down and swing in rhythmic waves.

Naikar Kali

This is popular among the tribes in Wynad and Malappuram districts. It is more ritualistic than entertainment oriented. This is performed as pooja to family deities and during marriages.

When the instruments, Thappu and Kuzhal start playing, the naikars begin their performance. With jingling anklets round their legs, they dance round in clock-wise and anti-clockwise movements to the accompaniment of the instruments.


Gadhika is ritual dance performed by Adiya tribes of Waynad district. The art form is meant to cure ailments. The performance is also done as part of a ritual for having a safe delivery of child.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala