Art & Culture of Kerala

Dance and Theater

    Of over 50 folk dances in Kerala, the popular ones are Kaliyattom, Kolam Thullal, kolkali, Velakali and kaikottikali. All these are performed in accompaniment of songs and drumming and often in colourful ornamental costumes. From these arose Kerala's classical dances like Koothu, Kathakali, Mohiniattom and Patokom.

Kathakali     Kathakali is a classical dance drama of Kerala, dates from 17th century and is rooted in Hindu Mythology. Kathakali is a harmonious combination of five forms of art, they are Literature, Music, Painting, Acting, Dance. Its literature is poetic and dramatic, also narrative and indicative. Kathakali uses vivid and eloquent mudras (hand signs). Kathakali dance dramas are based on stories from the two great indian epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Mohiniyattam Mohiniattom which literally means "the dance of the enchantress", is sensuous and lyrical. Dancers display grace as well as passion. In Mohiniyattam, it is the 'Lasya' element that is dominant. Swati Thirunal who was a generous patron of all fine arts extended his patronage to Mohiniyattam. Malayalam poet Vallathol too extended his patronage on this art by including it in the syllabus of the Kerala kalamadalam. In fact, Mohiniyattam as dance form has been developed in Kalamandalam to such perfection as to attract the attention of students and teachers of art from other parts of India and even abroad.

    Thullal is a solo dance, a kind of a one man ballad opera, presented simply and laced with wit and humour. Ottam Thullal is said to have originated with the Poet Kunjan Nambiar. A single actor plays many parts the acting being accompanied by his own singing.

Martial Arts

kalaripayattu The martial arts of Kerala -Kalaripayattu - consists of a series of intricate movements that train the body and mind. The discipline is continually practised and complemented by the Kerala's famous ayurvedic and nature cure techniques.These are believed to have travelled to eastern China, where they inspired the evolution of other martial art forms. The word 'kalari' has been derived from the Sanskrit 'Kholoorika' meaning a military training ground. The traditional training of Kalaripayattu is always done inside a 'Kalari' which is a specially constructed practicing area, where the presiding deities of the art and the entire line of gurus of the tradition is ritualistically represented. Not only is the Kalari a temple of learning, it is also a temple of religious worship with a cult and ritual of its own. The master who is addressed as the 'gurukkal' is revered as the representative of the deity and is considered as the living embodiment of a long line of gurus. The 'Parisakali' of North Malabar and 'Velakali' of Travancore are two other martial art forms which involve considerable physical training and knowledge of the use of the arms.


      As in the rest of India, Karnatic music is the popular classical form, but Kerala's own contribution is the sopana style - slow in tempo and emotional. Kerala's folk music, on the other hand, is neither sophisticated nor refined, but it displays a strong sense of rhythm and rhyme. The theme is usually devotional, as in Sarpa pattu, Bhadrakali pattu and Ayyappan Pattu. The most famous of Kerala's music composers is Swati Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore in the early 19th century. Other contemporary composers were Irayimman Thampan and Shadkala Govinda Marar.


It is a dance form essential to the Wedding entertainment and festivities of the Malabar Muslims. Maidens and young female relatives sing and dance around the bride, clapping their hands. 'Mappila Pattu', the wedding songs 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.


MargomkaliMargomkali is a ritual folk art of the Syrian Christians of Kottayam and Thrissur districts. A dozen dancers sing and dance around a lighted wick lamp ( Nilavilakku), clad in the simple traditional white dhoti and sporting a peacock feather on the turban to add a touch of colour. This is an allegorical enactment with the lamp representing Christ and the performers his disciples. The performance is usually held in two parts and begins with songs and dances narrating the life of St.Thomas, the apostle. It then takes a striking turn with a martial play of artificial swords and shields. The narration is stark without musical accompaniments. The songs date back to a period much before the Portuguese invasion. Today, Margomkali is only performed as a stage item by women


KaikottikkaliThe dance is a celebration of marital chastity and female energy, for this is what brought Kamadeva (Cupid of Indian mythology) back to life after he was reduced to ashes by the ire of Lord Siva, the Destroyer, one among the Trinity in Indian mythology. The sinuous movements executed by the dancers during Thiruvathirakali around a nilavilakku (the traditional oil-lit wick lamp made of brass), embody lasya or the amorous charm and grace of the feminine. The dance follows a circular, pirouetting pattern accompanied by clapping and singing. Today Thiruvathirakali has become a popular dance form for all seasons and the rituals linked with it are hardly observed. Also known as Kaikottikkali it is an important entertainment folk art of Malayalee women during Onam season.


The most outstanding folk arts of Kerala especially in the northern part of Kerala. Also called Thirayattam, (because everyTheyyam thira or village performed this ritualistic art at the village temple) this primitive ritualistic art demands long hours of preparation for its performance. The Theyyam or Kolam, represents a mythological, divine or heroic character. There are over 350 Theyyams in northern Kerala. The hood, headdress, face painting, breast plate, bracelets, garlands and fabric of attire of each of these kolams are distinct and meticulously crafted according to the character presented. The instruments used are chenda and veekuchenda (drums), elathalam and kuzhal (horn). This art form is mostly performed in Bhagavathy temples. Performances are on between October and May. Thira is the major subdivision of Theyyam


Paintings Painting in Kerala can be traced back to the 9th century, as evident from the murals in it's temples and the practice of Kalamezhuthu - the practice of drawing pictures of gods and goddesses on temple floors using five different types of color powder. Raja Ravi Varma's numerous paintings of gods and goddesses adorn calendars even today, earning him the ire, critics usually reserve for a calender artist who promoted kitsch. But several of his works are flawlessly executed and display a mature sense of colour.Modern painting continued in the work of outstanding talents like K.Madhava Menon and K.C.S.Panikkar.