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Art & Culture

Classical Dances

Classical dances are based fully or partly on the principles and techniques embodied in the ancient Hindu scriptures and technical texts on dance and allied arts. The earliest of these known scripts is Bharatha's Natya Shasatra believed to have been written around the second century B.C. Most of the prevailing systems of classical dancing governed by elaborate techniques with a high degree of refinement have had their origin in the dances of the common people.The difference between classical dancing and folk dancing is mainly that there is a deliberate attempt at artistry in the former. Sophistication along the norms of the scriptures of advance theories on dance and dramaturgy are strictly adhered to. The concept of portraying emotion, the grace of the individual dances and the virtuosity of the isolated poses are all important in classical dances. Emphasis has been given to different aspects of the dance, namely pure bodily movement, aids to dance like theme, song, instrumental music, the expression of emotions, moods and sentiments, the dress, ornaments, makeup and the stage. Koothu, Koodiyattom, Patakom, Ashtapadiyattom, Krishnattom, Thullal, Mohiniyattom and Kathakali are the most important classical dances.


This classical dance is performed by the members of the professional Chakyar cast and that too only in Koothambalam of temples. It is one of the oldest of theatrical arts peculiar to Kerala. The term Koothu literally means dance which may be taken as an index of the importance attached to dance in the original form of the art. As a matter of fact, the movements and facial expressions and the signs and gestures employed by the actor in Koothu are said to approximate most closely to the principles laid down in the authoritative Sanskrit treatise on the subject, Bharatha's Natya Sastra.

The actor recites stories from the epics (based on Sanskrit text) interpreting them in Malayalam, enlivening his narration with Thandava dance rhythms and also gestures and bodily postures which are clearly derived from Natya Sastra.

The Koothu is very much dominated by the comic element. Impersonated through mime and gesture and interspersed with occasional dances, the narrative art of the Chakyar is essentially dramatic. Humorous, witty analogies and allusions to topical, political and social events are brought in during the narration and the dancer gets ample facilities for criticizing men and things of local interest. Seldom does he miss an opportunity to make comic comments on contemporary life and society. He ridicules the follies and foibles of the age with impunity.

In actual performance the dancer stands on the platform of the Koothambalam adorned with his special type of headgear and peculiar facial make-up. He then offers prayers to the presiding deity of the particular temple where he is performing. After that he recites a verse from the Sanskrit text from which he intends to expound and then explains it in Malayalam.

The instruments used are a pair of cymbals and the mizhavu which is a big copper drum. A member of the Nambiar caste beats rhythm on the mizhavu at the required intervals. The cymbals are played invariably by women known as Nangiyars.

Koothu presented as a solo item by a Chakiyar is also known as Prabhandha Koothu. Occasionally, it is presented by a Nangiyar women, then it is called Nangiyar Koothu.


This is another dance form similar to the Koothu in its technical content. But here the dance element is almost given up and the narration is done through an alternating prose and song sequences, the gestures being retained. A new literary form called Champu, which accommodated more and more of Malayalam idiom and vocabulary was used as text for Patakom. Literally means dissertation, patakom is performed by Nambiyars even outside temple precincts.

The dancer has a red head-dress and on the wrist a red silk. There are garlands around the neck and sandal paste lines across the forehead.


Instead of single Chakiyar a number of performers get together and stage dance-drama. That is why it is called koodiyattom, literally "dancing together" (The beginnings of Kerala dramaturgy can be traced to this dance). Both men and women partake in this performance. Abhinaya is the most important element in Koodiyattom. The texts are always in Sanskrit and the performance is a prolonged affair. It may take anything from a few days to a number of weeks.

All the four types of abhinaya, viz. Angikam, Vachikam, Sathvikam and Aharyam are fully utilized in Koodiyattom.

The plays are performed only in temple precincts as votive offerings. Abhinaya or acting is a three-fold or even four-fold process. Appropriate hand gestures and symbols are first shown when the words of the verse are spoken in a typically modulated tone. As the music is begun, the meaning of the words are translated into a language of bodily postures, attitudes and facial expressions. The third is a repetition of the first.

Koodiyattom is staged on the specially built temple theatre called Koothambalam. The stage is decorated with fruit-bearing plantains and bunches of tender coconuts and festoned with fronds of the coconut palm. A vessel overflowing with paddy is placed on the stage. Lighting is done with a tall oil lamp made of brass. Within a railed enclosure on the stage is a large copper drum called mizhavu with a high seat for the Nambiyar drummer. A Nangiyar woman plays the cymbal and occasionally recites the verses. The musical element is very much suppressed in Koodiyattom. At times special orchestral effects are introduced. The orchestra consists of an edakka, maddalam, a conch, pipe and horn.

There is facial make-up using colour schemes and patterns having symbolic value, though strict standardisation of types is absent. The make-up patterns as seen in the better-known Kathakali are borrowed from Koodiyattom.

In the actual performance, first the drum is sounded and then the Nangiyar woman recites the invocatory verse, (vandana slokam). After that a purificatory ritual of sprinkling holy water on the stage is done by the Nambiyar. Then there is an interlude of orchestra, after which the dance ritual ceremony called kriyachavittuka is performed by the Sutradhara. The next item is the sthapana of the particular act. The main character is introduced in the next stage called Koothupurapadu in the background of the tense dramatic sense created by the full orchestra fury. Nirvahana , the next part of the drama, follows. This itself consists of three phases, the Anukrama, the Samkshepa and the Vistara respectively. Purushartha follows in which clown (Vidushaka), caricaturing the moods, is the hero. This is a significant departure from tradition and a remarkable feature of Koodiyattom. The drama now begins sluggishly and leisurely through the long drawn out, detailed and elaborate abhinaya process.

The stage craft is simple, with hardly any stage setting. Koodiyyattom is perhaps the oldest dance-drama in existence in India.

Ashtapadi Attom

This was a popular dance form based on the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva. It was more of a dramatic representation of the renowned lyrical play. Altogether there are only five characters, Krishna, Radha and three females. This form is now almost extinct (instruments chenda, maddalam, elathalam, chengala).


A refinement of Ashtapadiattom, evolved by Manavedan, the Zamorin was Krishnanattom. The whole story of Krishna was cast into a drama-cycle which would need eight nights for serial production. Vilwamangalam, a Krishna devotee, helped in designing the costume of Krishna. The actors in this dance drama have to conform themselves to the ballet element and mimetic expression. The narrative song is left to the musicians.

Krishnattom was created as a votive offering and it survives in that capacity in the temple of Guruvayoor where it is still performed. The dance drama is based on the text Krishna-Geeta which is in Sanskrit. Many of the characteristics of the earlier ritual folk dances such as Thiyyattom, Mudiyettu and Theyyam are seen in Krishnanattom especially in the painting of the face in intricate pattens, and the use of masks and colourful, gorgeous costumes and head-dresses. The make-up costumes and ornaments used in Krishnanattom are almost similar to that seen in Kathakali, though in Krishnanattom some of the characters are seen using painted masks made of wood. The gestural language and abhinaya are not very well developed. More importance is given to pure dance (nritta) and the stress is always on group movements and group compositions. All the eight night plays are full of beautiful dances. In no other dance could be seen so many characters performing the same dance with the same facial expressions, eye movements, gestures, foot-work (and set to the same rhythm) with so much of co-ordination, and grace, e.g., Mullappoochutal in Rasalila (Sree Krishna with Gopoikas) Kaliyamardana Nritham etc.

Maddalam, elethalam and chengala are the musical instruments used.


Legends say that an offshoot of the rivalry between the Zamorin and the Raja of Kottarakara, the later created the Ramanattom, the dance-drama on the life of Rama. It was also for serial enactment on eight successive days. Here facial abhinaya and hand gestures were given more importance. The songs were all in Malayalam. In course of time the masks were discarded and a richer variety in facial make-up was developed. It was this Ramanattom that developed into Kathakali.


Unique a month the Indian dance forms, Kathakali is the classical dance-drama of Kerala. Vivid and loquent in its characteristics mudras (hand sings), natural and impressive in gesture, graceful and rhythmic in movement, pleasing in choreography and above all delightful in wealth of imagery, Kathakali ranks high among the Indian dance forms.

For themes Kathakali draws upon the inexhaustible treasure trove of the ancient Puranas chronicling the lives, loves and conflicts of the gods and supermen of Indian mythology.

Noted for its archaic costumes, weird make-up and grand headgears, Kathakali is perhaps the only dance form in India in which the masculine aspect of the dance is preserved in its elemental vigour.

Kathakali as it is known today is not more than three to four hundred years old, even though its actual roots can be traced to at least 1500 years earlier. Kathakali marks the culmination of a long process of evolution during which the various histrionic arts of Kerala had their birth and development and paved the way for the eventual emergence of this composite art. Kathakali also symbolises a blending of the Arryan and Dravidian cultures, for in shaping its technique this dance form assimilated various elements which it borrowed freely from the dances, dramas and ritual performances associated with these cultures.

In reconstructing the history of Kathakali it is necessary to take into consideration practically every type of formalized dance, drama and dance-drama that existed in Kerala prior to the genesis of this art. Such a study should include the earliest types of stylised dance and drama in Kerala such as Chakiarkoothu and Koodiyattom, various ritual dances associated with the cult of Bhagavathi, such as the Mudiyettu, Thiyyattam and Theyyam, the socio-religious and martial dances such as the Sastrakali and Ezhamattukali and the latterly evolved dance-dramas such as the Krishnattom and Ramanattom. The art of Kathakali incorporates the characteristic features of many of these dances and dramas and it is safe to summarise that Kathakali evolved out of these earlier forms.

Kathakali is a complete art constituting three fine arts-Abhinaya (acting) and Nrithya (dancing) and Geeta (music). It is pantomime in which the actors do not speak or sing, but interpret their emotions through highly sensitive medium of appropriate gestures, picturesque hand-poses and vivid facial expression perfectly intelligible even to the uninitiated. Kathakali is both dramatic and a dance art. But primarily it is the former. Histrionics or Abhinaya predominates and that too is of a far profounder type than ordinary dramatic acting. It is not realistic art but belongs to the imaginative type spoken of in Bharatha's Natya Shastra.

Every feeling is idealized and expressed on the face with an intense vividness, which more than compensates for the absence of the spoken word. And every shade of such expression on the face is made to harmonize with the rhythm of the dance and melody of the music. Acting in Kathakali is not merely the expression of the subjective emotions of the human heart, but also an objective realization of the person, scenes, creatures and things around. It actually involves impersonation through the medium of art and herein consists the essential expansiveness of Kathakali, its pictorial splendour and its poetic sublimity.

Music is an important and essential element in Kathakali. The orchestra in it is composed of two vocal musician, one keeping time with a resounding song called chengala and the other with a pair of clanking cymbals called elathalam, a chenda player and maddalam player. The chenda is a cylindrical drum with a loud but sweet sound while the maddalam has the appearance of a big mridangam.

Kathakali music has developed into a distinctive type of singing known as the sopana style which is of a very slow tempo. There is neither raga, raga aalapana as such nor are there elaborations like niraval and swaral singing. Preserving the broad features of the ragas and adhering meticulously to the tala they sing the songs in such a manner as to give the actors full scope for abhinaya. There are two vocal musicians in Kathakali of whom the main one is known as ponani and the minor partner as the sinkidi. The Kathakali songs couched in rich poetic diction are among the gems of Malayalam literature.

The mudras (hand gestures) used as a substitute for spoken language are as much suited, if not more, for the purpose of dance and drama. To the accompaniment of the chenda, the maddalam, the chengala and the elethalam the musicians sing the words of a dialogue from behind, the meaning of which is vividly translated by the actors into the silent language of facial expressions, bodily attitudes and poses and figurations of the hands. As these songs proceed, the actors mute of word but eloquent of expression recreate the epic and bring to life a dream world to sheer fantasy. The actors act and dance in harmony with the rhythm as well as with the sense of the songs. The mudras form and inseparable part of the nrithya and abhinaya.

The characters in Kathakali are all mythological and so the question of their make-up cannot be settled on a realistic basis. They all have set modes of make-up and attire and adornment and are reduced to five main types, according to their real character or qualities. These types are usually known by the predominant color applied to the face or its pattern. These are pacha (green), Kathi (knife), thadi(beard), kari(black) and minukku(polished).

Virtuous and noble characters are in pacha. Proud aggressive and unrighteous characters belong to the kathi type. The bearded type known as thadi are of three varieties. The most aggressive and demoniac are known as chuvanna thadi (red beard), mythical and fabulous beings like the monkey-gods are known as vella thadi(white beard); aboriginals, forest-men and cave-dwellers are known as karutha thadi(black beards). The lowest type of beings like the aggressor are classed as kari(black). The gentle and spiritually inclined character (like women, sages, Brahmins etc.) come under the type known as minukku (polished).

The costume and ornamentation are elaborate and designed to heighten the superman effect. The large overcoats, the flowing scarves, the bulging skirts, the antique ornaments, the stirkingly opulent headdresses with streaming hair flowing down to the waist and covering the back-all create enlarged figures well befitting the sculptured facial features and produce tremendously impressive impersonations.


A solo dance exposition, the Thullal is of three types. Its origin is attributed to Kunchan Nambiar, a veritable genius and one of the foremost poets of Kerala. Though based on classic principles of Natya Shastra the technique of this art is not rigid. The songs, written in simple Malayalam, frank to outspoken wit and humour, the simplicity of presentation and the direct appeal to every day life made Thullal very popular.

The instruments used in Thullal are the maddalam and the cymbals. The cymbal player who tunes the rhythm, also assists the actor dancer(Thullakaran) in singing.

In actual performance the cymbal player first sings the invocation song when the dancer faces the orchestra and does obeisance. After that, with his back still to the audience the dancer does a slick flourish of step and body movements. Then he turns to the audience and the dance proper is begun. He first sings a verse and while the lines are being repeated by his musical assistance, he brings out the meaning through facial expressions, hand gestures and bodily postures. The roles of the raconteur and actor are perpetually interchanged with tremendous aesthetic efforts. In one moment he is the narrator but in the next he completely identifies himself with the narration.

It is to the dance that prime importance is given in Thullal. From the beginning to the end there is dance even though it lacks much of variety. To compensate for the monotony, sometimes the dancer executes some vigorous footsteps and rhythmic movements of the body.

Thullal is classified into three different types. Ottan, Seethankan and Parayan based on the difference in costume, dance and also the metre and rhyme of the Thullal songs.

Of all Thullal dances the Ottan Thullal is the most popular. The costume is peculiar and impressive. A long tape of cloth of white and red color is hooked around a waist string to form a knee-length skirt. A chest plate adorned with various types of coloured beads, glass and tinsel and other ornaments is also used. Gaudily painted wooden ornaments are worn at the wrist, and on the shoulders. Tinkling bells are tied to the legs just above the calf. The fact is painted green, the lips are reddened and the eyes are emphasized with black paint. The head-dress is colourfully decorated. The metre and rhyme of the Ottan Thullal songs are very fast, and the dance as such has a high tempo.

In Seethankan Thullal the metre and rhyme of the Thullal songs are a bit more slow than in Ottan Thullal and consequently dance is also slower in tempo. The dancer uses similar skirt as in Ottan Thullal. But the arms, wrists and head are adorned with ornaments made of fresh tender coconut fronds. There is no facial make-up except darkening of the eyes.

The Parayan Thullal is the slowest in tempo. Even the stance of the dancer is different from the other two. Here the dancer almost stands erect and explains the meaning of the songs by gestures. There is very little of the dance element or of action. The costume is also different. A red, flowery clothe is worn around the waist. A crown of black clothe adorns the head. Necklaces are used on the chest. The face is painted with light yellow.


Mohini the temptress, is a recurring character in HIndu mythology. Attom means dance. It is seductive dance performed by women, sensuous in its appeal. In technique Mohiniyattom lies somewhere between Kathakali and Bharathanatyam, Lyrical in the extreme its keynote is coquetry. The symmetrical patterns of emotion flow in balanced nuances with smooth footwork, somewhat quickened body movements and special music.

Parallel to the Bharatanatyam of Tamil Nadu, solo Mohiniyattom dance is performed only by by women. The music is classical carnatic.

As the name implies it is the dance of the charmer. Its origin is a matter of conjecture, but it retains a lovely fusion of the parallel streams of dance in the eastern and western regions of South India. Combining the formal grace and elegance of Bharathanatyam, with the earthy vigour and dynamism of Kathakali the petalled nrita hands of the one with the wide stance of the other, the delicate expressions of the one with the stylised eye movements of the other, it co-ordinates the instinct with charm, subtle allure and seductive appeal. In the rendering of this style there is enchantment, grace delicacy and passion.

The technical structure of Mohiniyattom is fairly similar to that of Bharathanatyam. There are no abrupt jerks or leaps in Mohiniyattom nor is there any inordinately hard stamping of the foot. The gesture language of Mohiniyattom is largely similar to that of Bharathanatyam but it also incorporates elements from Kathakali tradition. And again, like Bharathanatyam, Mohiniyattom too has items of nritta, pure dance, as well as nrita, expressional dance.

Mohiniyattom is mainly the Lasya dance performed strictly according to scriptures of Batya Shastra. The repertory of Mohiniyattom as it is presented now consists of Cholkettu, Varnam, Padam, Thillana, Kaikottrikkali, Kummi and Swaram. It is well evident that the Kaikottikali and Kummi are later additions. Because of the special type of instruction associated with it the dance presents striking bodily poses and attitudes and exquisitely graceful foot-work. In its gestures and also with regard to the expression of the eye, Mohiniyattom is indebted to Kathakali.

If in Bharathanatyam the predominant moods are santham and veeram, in Mohiniyattom it is sringaram.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala