Know India
This page in Hindi (External website that opens in a new window)

Art & Culture

Fine Art


Kerala has a tradition in the field of painting as is evidenced by the murals in temples, palaces and churches. The murals of Tirunandikkara (now in Kanyakumari district) and Tiruvanchikulam are reckoned as the earliest specimens of Kerala painting. These have been assigned to the period from the 9th to the 12th century A.D. Most of the murals now seen in Kerala temples belong to the period from 15th century onwards.

The murals in the Sri Padmanabha temple, Trivandrum, depicting Puranic themes are noted for their remarkable finish and grace and they belong to the period from the middle of the 17th to the 18th century when the pictorial art enjoyed full State patronage. The Vishnu temple at Trikodithanam, the Siva temples at Ettumanur and Vaikom, the Subramonia temple, Udayanapuram, the Vadakkunathan temple, Trichur, the Krishna temple, Triprangode are among the many temples of Kerala which contain exquisite mural paintings.

Mural paintings with Hindu religious themes may be seen in the many places. The Padmanabhapuram palace has at its topmost floor (Upparika malika) more than forty murals depicting such themes as Anantasayanan, Lekshminarayana, Krishna with Gopis, Nataraja as Dakshinamurthi, Sastha on hunt etc. The bed chamber (Palliyara) and four other chambers in the Dutch Palace, Mattancheri, contain murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Hindu mythology. The Krishnapuram Palace at Kayamkulam has preserved a large panel on Gajendramoksham which has been assigned to the first half of the 18th century. The Natyagriha recently built in the Kalamandalam at Cheruthuruthi (1977) contains the latest specimens of mural paintings in Kerala.

The churches of Kerala contain paintings which depict characters and scenes from Christian mythology. The paintings of Virgin Mary in the churches at Edappalli and Vechur are of deep religious significance to the devotees. The Orthodox Syrian churches at Cheppad at Mulanthuruthi contain interesting murals. The outer walls of the Kanjur church have a huge mural which depicts the scene of a battle fought between the armies of Tipu Sultan on the one side and those of the English East India Company, aided by the bare - footed local militia, on the other.

Swati Tirunal, the great ruler of Travancore, extended generous patronage to the art of painting. Alagiri Naidu, a distinguished painter from Madurai adorned his Court. He gave training in the art of painting to Raja Raja Varma of the Kilimanur royal family and the latter in his turn trained up his talented nephew Raja Ravi Varma. The well-known European oil painter, Theodore Jenson, also initiated Raja Ravi Varma into the technique of European oil painting and helped him to achieve international renown. The innumerable pictures of Gods and Goddesses painted by Raja Ravi Varma which adorn most of the Hindu homes all over India are even today objects of mass worship. Raja Ravi Varma's own sister, Mangalabhai Tampuratti, specialised herself in painting pictures of women and children which won universal appreciation from connoisseurs of art.

In modern times, Kerala produced two outstanding painters, viz., K. Madhava Menon and K.C.S. Panikar. The former excelled in the portrayal of plant and animal life. A refreshingly original style of his own is Panikar's legacy in the field.

Dhuleechitram or powder drawing is a traditional way of drawing mythical figures on floor using natural pigments. This is called Kalam (Kalamezhuthu). 'Kalam' is a ritual art practised in temples and sacred groves of Kerala where the representation of deities like Kali, Lord Ayyappa, et al are made on the floor using usually in five colours. Vegetable and powders and chemicals like lime or carbon powder. Spice Paddy grains are also used. The deities to be drawn is decided based on various factors. Being a ritualistic art, the presiding diety of the temple or sacred grove, the religions purpose that calls for the ritual, the particular sector cast who does it all are deciding factors as to the nature or figure on the 'Kalam'. This is a traditional art and observes strict rules regarding what colours to be used to depict a particular part of the body, what to draw first and the order in which each part of the body has to drawn etc.. Once the Kalam is complete, 'Poojas' or worship of the deity will be held. Ritual songs are also sung on the occasion. There songs are most often never written drawn, and handed from one generation of the other through the vocal tradition only.

Colours used: Powder rice is used for white colour, and for the black powder burn husk. For yellow, turmeric powder; and for red, a mixture of lime and turmeric. Dried and powder red leaves of specific trees provide the green powder. In certain dieties the breast is made with paddy heaped in a cone shape.


The stone and wood carvings of Kerala show the high level of sculptural excellence attained by Kerala artists. The earliest specimen of stone carvings in Kerala may be seen in the Edakkal Caves in Sultan's Battery in Wayanad. They depict human and animal figures and objects of human use and symbols. It has not been possible to fix the date of these stone carvings with any degree of accuracy. In the rock-cut temples of the post-Sangam period, mentioned earlier, are found some of the specimens of early sculptural art. While the sculptures in the southern group show traces of Pandyan influence, those in the northern group are reminiscent of Pallavan influence.

The stone images of the Buddha sittings in the yogasana posture discovered from such places as Karumadi, Mavelikkara, Bharanikkavu, Maruthurkulangara and Pallikkal are also among the finest examples of early Kerala stone sculpture. They are believed to show traces of the influence of the Buddhist art of Sri Lanka. The Jain images of Parswanatha, Mahavira and other Tirthankaras obtained from such places as Kallil, Chitaral, Sultan's Battery, Pallikunnu etc., also form an invaluable part of the sculptural heritage of Kerala.

The temples of Kerala contain exquisite sculptures, particularly in stone, which exhibit diverse influences such as Pandya, Chola, Vijayanagar etc. The figures of deities and animals and of dance scenes on the walls and balustrades of temples are typical of the temple sculpture of Kerala. The Trikkodithanam Vishnu temple (11th century) is noted for its two Yazhi panels depicting two types of ancient Kerala dances, viz., Kudaikuthu and Kudakuthu. The Parasurama shrine at Tiruvallam has interesting panels depicting animals like elephants and lions. The Siva temple at Kandiyur has exquisite stone sculptures depicting puranic legends and myths. In the Haripad Subramonia temple there is an imposing stone figure of Hanuman, with its face looking upwards. The sculptures in the Sri. Padmanabhaswami temple, Trivandrum, the Janardana temple, Varkala and the Siva temple, Vaikom, are the products of the influence of the later Vijayanagar and Nayak styles. The Sri Padmanabhaswami temple is, in fact, a treasure house of all that is best in the 18th century stone sculpture. The Kulasekhara mandapa and the Siveli mandapa in this temple are embellished with masterpieces of stone sculpture belonging to the 18th century. The scenes from the Puranas and the Epics and the story of Bhagavatham have been executed with remarkable finish and grace in small relief's.

The churches of Kerala have also enriched the sculptural tradition. In many churches may be seen huge granite Cross erected on beautifully carved granite platform, eg., the churches at Kaduthurthi (Valiapalli), Changanacherry, Kanjur, Ankamali and Kuruvilangadu. A familiar piece of sculpture seen in churches is the one depicting the scene of the Crucifixion. The baptismal fonts or basins used in the churches for carrying out be sacrament of Baptism are fine examples of stone sculpture. A unique piece of sculpture seen in some Kerala churches is the Persian Cross. It is formed by the inter-section in the centre and at right angles of two bars equal in length bearing inscriptions. The wings of this Cross also end with floral designs. Among the most famous of Persian Cross is the one seen at the churches at Kadamattom, Kaduthuruthi, Kottayam, Parur and Alangad.

The wood carvings in Kerala temples show the art at its best in the same way as the stone sculptures. The most common of the wood carvings are seen on the namaskara mandapas. They depict figures of Navgrahas on the ceiling and Puranic figures on the rafters and beams. The Kuthambalams are also noted for their fabulous wood carvings, as for example, those in the temples of Subrahmonia at Kidangur and Haripad. Wooden walls with beautiful carvings are also seen in several temples. In addition, there are wooden bracket figures, sculptural columns etc. The Mahadeva temple, Katinamkulam, the Sri Mahadeva temple, Kaviyur, the Narasimha temple, Chathankulangara, the Sri Vallabha temple, Tiruvalla, the Sri Rama temple, Triprayar and the Krishna temple, Trichambaram are some of the temples noted for exquisite carvings.

Wood carvings of excellent quality may be found on the altar, the pupils, the doors, the beams and the ceilings of some of the churches. The St.Thomas church Mulanthuruthi, the Cheriapalli at Kaduthuruthi, the churches at Koratti and Irinjalakuda, the St.George's church, Edappalli, and the All Saint's Church, Udayamperur are among the churches noted for their wood carvings. "The Last Supper of Christ" carved in wood in the Mulanturthi church is a star attraction.


Music like dancing, had its origin in the primitive dances and plays, developed by the ancient people in propitiation of the deities of the hills and forests. The development of such art forms as Kuthu Kudiyattam, Astapadi Attan, Krishnanattam, Ramanattam, Kathakali etc., gave a fill up to music in later days. An indigenous classical music called the Sopanasangita developed itself in the temples of Kerala, in the wake of the increasing popularity of Jayadeva's Gita Govinda or Ashtapadi. The Kathakali padas composed by scholars like Irayimman Thampi and the Tullal songs of Kunjan Nambiar also enriched the musical culture of Kerala.

The reign of Swati Tirunal, the ruler of Travancore, is called "the Augustan Age of Kerala Music". A great patron of music, he attracted to his court some of the gifted musicians of the age. In collaboration with his Guru Meruswami who was well-versed in Hindustani and Karnatic music, Swati Tirunal composed a number of songs in popular ragas in a variety of languages. Four musicians from Tanjore by name Vativelu, Ponnayya, Chinnayya and Sivanandan, otherwise known as the "Tanjore Quartet", lived in his court. To Vativelu goes the credit for the introduction of violin in Karnatic music. The Tanjore brothers were also highly gifted in Bharata Natyam and under their influence Swati Tirunal composed Varnas, Swarajits, Padas and Tillanas for staging this dance form. Subbukkutty Ayya, a master of Veena, was also leading light in Swati's court.

In addition to the musicians mentioned above who came to Swati's court from outside Kerala, several gifted local musicians also enjoyed his patronage, the most celebrated among them being Shadkala Govinda Marar. Marar was a rare musical prodigy. He devised a Tamburu with seven strings instead of the usual four. He also achieved the unique distinction of being able to sing pallavis into six degrees of time and this won for him the title Shadkala. At Swati Tirunal's instance, Marar went on a futile mission to Tiruvayyur to fetch Tyagaraja to the royal court. Tyagaraja was so much impressed by an inspired musical performance of Govinda Marar at the place that he composed and sang on the spot that famous Telugu song "Entaro mahanubhavalu, Anstariki Vandanamu" (There are ever so many great men in this world and I bow to all of them). Two other Kerala musicians who adorned Swati's court were Paramesware Bhagavatar of Palakkad and Maliyakkal Krishna Marar. Irayimman Tampi, a close associate of Swati Tirunal, was also a musician and composer of high calibre who lived in the royal court and collaborated with the Maharaja in his efforts to promote the cause of cultural development.

The tradition of Kerala in the field of music has continued unsullied in modern times. To the galaxy of modern Kerala musicians belong such stalwarts as Vina Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar, Kathakalashepam Anantarama Bhagavatar, Palghat Mani and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar who have substantially enriched Karnatic music by their valuable contributions.

Kerala has developed its own typical temple arts in which instrumental music plays an important part. Chenda Melam which is played with such instruments as Chenda, Kombu, Kuzhal etc., is a feature of all temple utsavams. Tayambaka which involves the elaborate display of talas on a classical piece of drum (Chenda) is also typical of Kerala. It is performed in several sessions, each session having its climaxes and anticlimaxes. Panchavadyam is another unique art in which the sounds emanating from five musical instruments, (Maddalam, Idakka, Timila, Kombu and Elathalam) and two auxiliaries, Sankku (Conch) and Kuzhal, in varying pitches are synchronized. As in Tayambakam so too in Panchavadyam, each session lasts for hours. Nagaswaramelam, otherwise called Pandimelam, is another set of Vadyams played in connection with temple pujas and on such auspicious occasions as marriages.

Sopana Sangeetham

Sopana Sangeetham is a very ancient form of temple music in Kerala. The word Sopana means a flight of steps leading up to the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. Devotional recitals rendered on these steps came to be known as Sopana sangeetham. Besides, the musical notes (ragas) too have an ascending (aarohana) and descending (avarohana) nature. Even though over fifty types of musical instruments can accompany Sopana sangeetham, Edakka is most commonly used.

Kathakali Sangeetham

Kathakali music belongs to the Sopana category of music which is typical of Kerala and is characteristically slow, strictly adhering to the tala (rhythm) giving full scope for abhinaya (acting). The bhagavathar or the singer plays a key role in the staging of the art form. The Bhagavathar plays a key role in a Kathakali performance. He is not just the singer, but also the manager of the entire show. Among the noted Kathakali singers of yester years are Appukuttan Bhagavathar, Thiruvilwamala (1851-1930), Ettiravi Namboothiri (1809 - 1908), Kannappa Kurup (1845 - 1921), Kunjiraman Nambisan (1871 - 1916), Kunju Podhuval (1879 - 1940) and Krishnankutty Bhagavathar. Kathakali, especially its verses and music are an enormous contribution to Malayalam literature and music. Aattakkatha, the literature part of Kathakali, forms a separate division in Malayalam literature. There are around 500 Aattakkathas and a few among them are Nalacharitham aattakkatha, Keechakavadhom aattakkatha, Dhuryodhanavadhom aattakkatha etc. Compared to others Kathakali music is more involved and complex clarifying the meanings of mudras or hand gestures, describing the context and expressing the depth of emotions enacted by the artiste.

With Kelikottu, an orchestration, the performance begins percussion music - Suddha maddalam marks the ritualistic beginning of a Kathakali performance. Two back up artistes hold up a curtain and remove it to signify the start and finish of each scene. Vocal musicians or bhagavathars standing at the corner of the stage sing, the lead singer called Ponnani bhagavathar keeps time with a resounding gong called the Chengila. He is assisted by Shankidi who plays a pair of Ilathalam (small cymbals).

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala