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iXiGOers Jul 31 2013

Which are the traditional art forms of Kerala?

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Kerala has an astonishing range of dramatic and martial art forms, which are so popular across the country. Take a look at some of the more popular ones:

Koodiyattam

The oldest art form of Kerala, Koodiyattam was described by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. For close to 2,000 years, this art form has been giving expression to the deepest of human emotions — anger, frustration, happiness, joy... using ancient Sanskrit texts such as the plays of Bhasa. It was an integral part of temple worship; in fact, it was as late as 1955 that the celebrated Guru Mani Madhav Chakyar performed for the first time outside a temple (risking threats of excommunication from a deeply conservative community).

Koodiyattam has traditionally been performed by the Chakyars (a splinter group of the Namboodiri Brahmin caste), who today number no more than 200 members spread over seven families. Yet, as in the days of yore, they continue to be the sole performers of Koodiyattam and Koothu, also called Chakyar Koothu. Both men (Nambiars) and women (Nangiars) participate in the performance. Watching the locals perform this classical art form is indeed one of the most popular things to do in Kerala.

Koodiyattam Dance Form


Mohiniattam

Literally, ‘the dance of the enchantress’, Mohiniattam is associated with Vishnu as he took on the guise of a beauty called Mohini in two mythological tales. This art form of Kerala is traditionally performed by women. Recognisable by the solo dancer’s white sari with gold border, it’s also about the costume and elaborate hairstyles that have been immortalised in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. The origins of Mohiniattam are traced back to the 16th and the 17th centuries. Some consider the 18th-century Balaramabharatam, by Karthika Thirunal Balarama Varma, to be the authentic treatise on Mohiniattam. Others point to earlier references. But most agree that the dance corresponds to several chapters of the Natyashastra, written in 2 BCE. There is some debate about whether Mohiniattam was performed by Devadasis in temples. Its modern form as a recognised classical dance of India owes much to the famous Guru Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma.

Mohiniyattam Dance Form

Kathakali

The youngest of the classical art forms of Kerala and a highly refined pantomime dance drama, the all-male Kathakali is one of the most colourful and recognisable dances of India. It is as much about make-up, costume, elaborate headgear and jewellery as about expressions, dialogues and story (Kathakali literally means ‘story performance’). The make-up code for Kathakali is elaborate — for instance, a green face denotes a divine and heroic character — and putting it on is a complex 4-hr process. The stories are mainly from the epics, especially the Mahabharata. Traditionally, all night performances used to take place in temple courtyards. As with any classical form, over the years Kathakali incorporated many elements from various dance forms and its ‘origins’ are hard to trace. There are those who trace it to Ramanattam, penned by Kottayath Thampuran. Some say the early performances were given in Malabar some 400 years back, by troupes of actors patronised by local kings and noblemen (especially the Namboodiri Brahmins of Malabar).


Kathakali Dance Form

Theyyam


Theyyam has its roots in age-old tribal rituals to propitiate village deities, spirits, ancestors and the like. It is a prominent one in the list of most popular places to visit in Kerala. With time, this living tradition became oriented to Hindu deities. Distinct from other temple art forms of Kerala, Theyyam artists are usually from tribes or from so-called ‘lower’ castes. Theyyam is an all-male performance, danced to drums, cymbals and pipes, with elaborate masks, body paint, headgear and costumes. It uses some incredibly vibrant colours, especially the rich red. The art is confined to the northern hamlets of Malabar (see Kannur on page 1016). The word ‘Theyyam’ is said to come from devam (gods) and refers to both the performance and the performer, who’s said to attain supernatural powers during the performance. He becomes the manifestation of the divine. In their reverence of and participation with the god-performer, the people watching Theyyam are as important in this form as the performer.

Theyyam Dance Form


Kalaripayattu

If legends were to be given the go-by, this martial art form of Kerala dates back to 9-12th century Kerala, when many feudal lords were constantly waging wars over their small kingdoms. Each region had its own small band of trained fighters, mostly from the Nair community, for protection. These soldiers, it is said, gave Kalaripayattu its current form. The word kalari denotes a gymnasium or school and payattu means both exercise and fight. Perfection in the form comes after years of concentrated training at the kalari. The process is spread over three stages, starting with Meippayatt (exercises to control the body). This is followed by Kolthari (fighting with sticks) and Ankathari (felicity in using metal weapons such as daggers and swords). The weapons commonly used include otta (curved stick), urumi (a flexible sword, popular with women) and kettukari (long stick). Talented disciples go on to learn much more. They are taught secrets about the human marma (108 highly sensitive, vulnerable and vital parts of the body) and the techniques of Verum Kai Prayogam (fighting with bare hands). This is the finale of what is usually at least a decade-long training process. There are some Kerala packages that include this classical art form. Make sure that you check them.

Kalaripayattu Art Form


Deep rooted in tradition and history, these dance forms are an integral part of Kerala culture.

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