Kerala – God’s own country is famous for its culture and heritage elements. Many traditional art forms are there, that have been performed in temples and stages, enriching its culture. Through this article, let me introduce a few on-stage performing art forms of Kerala.

Kathakali - telling stories through gestures and eyes

Kerala without kathakali, boat races and coconut trees can’t even be imagined. It’s true, these three elements have added a distinct element to Kerala’s traditional culture.

Kathakali was most popularized by great poet Vallathol Narayana Menon through Kalamandalam. Even foreigners are coming to this state to study and research on this traditional art form.

Its origin

Its colourful custom and eye moments are the highlights. It needs 12 years to learn this art form. The whole story (Aatta katha) is conveyed through eyes, hands and body movements. This peculiarity makes this art form popular and a difficult art to perform.

It’s believed that it’s a derived version of Ramanattam. Ramanattam was started by Kottarakkara Thampuran to compete with Krishnanattom of Samudiri of Kozhikode, Sri Manavedan Raja during 17th century. That’s the reason why there is a striking similarity between these two costumes. Now, it is more popular than the original and has a distinct trade mark in the cultural map of Kerala.

Elements of Kathakali


It contains 5 basic elements – Natyam, Nritham, Geetha, Vadhyam and Nrithyam. There are 101 classic stories for this play. Yet, nowadays only a few are used. Nalacharitham attakada – story of Nalan and Demayanthi, Kalyana Saugandhikam – the story of Bhima in search of this flower for his beloved wife Draupathi, Duryodhana vadam, Keechaka Vadam, Rukmini Charitham, Santhana Gopalam etc are most common Aattakada.

Manipravalam – a language of mixture of Gadya and Padya (combination of normal speech and poems) is used for aattakadhas. Also, it has a distinct style of singing known as ‘Sopanam’ – a real classic touch. A traditional chenda also accompany the sopana sangeetham. Its expressions are derived from Natyasastra and actors use gestures (mudras) while performing live.

Years back, it was performed in temples and illams (homes of Brahmins and Nambudiris) after supper. But now, it’s performed at temples and concerts and even competitions. Sopana Sangeetham is also performed in stages as a part of competitions.

Make up of Kathakali

Kathakali performers need to take a lot of effort and hours for make up. Costumes is broadly classified into three.
Sathwika – the hero
Kathi – the anti hero
Minukk – the female/heroine

Colour combinations of red, white and green are really amazing. Villains’ face will be dark while hero’s will be pleasant. Rice flour (for white), manayola (for green), soot (for black) and vermilion (for red) are used for its extensive make up.


The actors perform this art in an open stage in front of an audience. Black curtain will be drawn at first and lamp also placed. A stool is given for the performer as well. Dancers perform according to Swapana sangeetham, accompanied by musical instruments – chenda, idakka, manjeera and sudha madhalam. If you know the meaning of mudras and eye movements, it’s really amazing to watch kathakali before the big lighted lamp.

Krishnanattam - Kathakali's original

It’s a temple art form of Kerala that closely resembles Kathakali in many means. It’s believed that Kathakali is derived from Krishnattom. Though Krishnanattom is not as popular as Kathakali, it’s also a part of Kerala’s traditional culture. It represents story of Krishna in 8 stories from his birth to departure. It’s mostly performed as ‘Nercha’ in Guruvayur Sri Krishna temple by devotees. Very often devotes perform Krishnattom at temples for birth of a child, prosperity, marriage, good agricultural yield and also to solve disputes. Either all the stories from Avatharam to Swargarohanam are performed together or as parts, it depends on the interest of the devotee. It’s believed that Samodhiri of Kozhikode found this new art form and Krishnagiti is used for its performance.

Mohiniyattam - where mohini reigns


Mohiniyattam, originally called Dasiyattam is a typical Kerala art form where the lady wears Kerala off-white sari with golden border to perform this art form. But the dress has a slight variation also. It closely resembles Bharatanatyam of Tamil Nadu, but steps are a little slower comparing the other one. 

It’s a solo dance and the performer is known as ‘Mohini’ meaning beautiful lady. It’s believed that Mohini is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu during ‘Palazhy Madhanam’ to snatch Amrith from asuras and who caused the death of Bhasmasura. Facial expressions, gestures (mudras) and the performance with rhythm tell everything. Earlier it was performed in temples similar to ‘Dasi’ of other cultures similar to Tamil Nadu and Orissa.

Oppana and Mappila paattu - specially for wedding couple

It’s typical Malabar art form of Muslims. Oppana is performed by girls while Mappila paattu by males, both during the marriage occasion of Muslims. It’s performed on stage just one day before marriage, as a part of ‘Mailaanchi Kalyanam’ (Mehndi ceremony).

A group of ladies will bring the bride to centre stage and make her sit in a chair. Then they sing and dance around her. Through their dance steps and songs, they tease the bride. Bride appears shy while her friends tease her. It’s the case of Mappila paattu. ‘Maapila’ means a Muslim bride and ‘paattu’ means song. Now this art form is performed in schools and colleges as competitions also.


Chavittu naadakam - a Christian dramatic representation

It’s a Christian art form performed as a group on stage. It’s a dramatic representation of story telling with nice blends of Kerala tradition as well as Christian culture. Performers wear bright golden colour dresses for performing on stage. It has some folk traces as well.

Margam kali - Christian version of Kaikott Kali

It’s another stage performance of a Christian group named St.Thomas Christians. Performers wear typical Christian dress while performing this art form. It’s off white Kerala sari wore in a special way with typical Christian ornaments including special ear rings. ‘Margam’ means path in Malayalam and ‘kali’ means path. It’s seen as a clear cut way to attain salvation by Christians.

Here also, a group of female dancers gather around a lighten lamp to perform clapping their hands, similar to Kaikotti kali. It resembles a Christian version of Thiruvathira kali or Kaikott kali a lot. Now it’s displayed in art festivals and school competitions a lot.

Parichamuttukali - Christian version of Kalari Payattu

It’s a marital art form similar to Kalaripayattu performed by Christians on stage, as a part of their celebrations. It’s most commonly performed in Malabar and central Kerala, than south. It’s performed by a group of males and they use sword and shields. While margam kali is performed by Christian women, parichamuttukali is performed by males.

‘Paricha’ means shield and ‘muttu’ means knocking and through out the performance they move in circular motions around a Kerala lamp, displaying their marital arts with the help of sword and shield. So, it has close resemblance to Thiruvathira kali and kai kottu kali as well, though it’s performed on stage by males.

There is a group leader for the performance and he is called ‘Aasan’ meaning ‘Acharya’ or leader, who sings songs for his group. Only musical instrument used is ilathallam. So, the sound of swords and shields in rhythm accompanied by Ashan’s song and ilathalaam’s voice make a perfect visual art form. This entertainment art form is nowadays performed in art festivals and school/college competitions as well.

Performers wear white dhoti in a special style and tie red bands around his waist. They tie another red band around his head and sing as a group while performing on stage. Their performance turns to a vibrant mode as time pass by and reaches an extreme in the climax. It truly echoes Kerala tradition of marital arts a lot.

Kalari payathu - Kerala's pride

It’s a martial art form performed in kalaris and hence known as kalaripayattu. ‘Payattu’ means ‘a competition’ or ‘a small battle’ and it’s performed as single, two or more than two people. It’s greatly dependent on flexibility and body movements of the performer and it requires a lot of hard work to become a trained performer.

It’s performed in two distict styles – North and South. While north Kalaripayattu was performed by Nairs, Ezhavas and Mappilas, south Kalaripayattu was performed by Nadars during ancient times.


‘Vadakkan paattkal’ – songs of Malabar tell a lot of stories about brave heroes like Aaromal Chekavar, Thacholi, Chandu etc who are still considered as the best performers of kalaripayattu. The teacher is known as ‘Ashan’ and his disciples respect him a lot and worship ‘paradevatha’ in their kalari, before performing this art form.

It’s done with and without weapons. Sword, knife, shield, flexible sword (urumi) and short sword (churika) are the common weapons used in Kalaripayattu. The steps are often coordinated in different dance forms including Kathakali and Parichamuttukali for performance. Kalari payattu is seen as a true symbol of Kerala culture and heritage.

Theyyam and Thira - with careless make up


Theyyam is a divine art form, most commonly performed in temples of Malabar and middle Kerala which resembles tribal culture a lot. It has colourful costumes and make up. But make up is not done neatly.

Thullal - to mocker the crowd

Thullal was originated by Kunjan Nambiar. There are three categories of Thullal – Ottan Thullal, Parayan Thullal and Sheethangan Thullal of which ottan thullal, the most fast one is most popular among three. Through fast movements and its typical method of presentation it’s warmly welcomed my audience. It’s a fun and 100% entertainment package. If you want to know about its origin, just click the link placed below the article. You can also know about other two traditional art form of Kerala – Kooth and Koodiyattam.

Thiruvathira kali - for Thiruvathira celebration

Thiruvathira kali - another cultural art form of Kerala that symbolizes heredity and divine nature of the state. Normally thiruvathirakali is performed on Thiruvathira star day in the Malayalam month Dhanu. Women used to fast on this day to get a good husband. They used to wear ‘desapushpam’ (10 flowers) as well. But nowadays, it’s seen as a part of Onam celebrations and performed one stage by a group of girls or women for fun and entertainment or as competition.

It consists of even number of girls. 2 girls form a pair and they dance in circular motion around a Kerala lamp. 8 or more women participate in this dance form. Girls wear Kerala Off-white sari with green or red blouse and wear jasmine flowers. Steps start in slow mode and reach a high node as time pass by. Though it looks simple to dance in circular slow motions, it gives a lot of effort to waist and body muscles to perform this art form.

It’s believed that Siva consent to marry Parvathy on Thiruvathira day and that’s the reason why this day is most special for unmarried girls. They go fasting, wear desapushpam and do Thiruvathira dance to please Lord Siva to get good husband. Married women do so, for the well-being and prosperity of her husband.

Kai kottukali - clapping hands while dancing

It looks similar to Thiruvathirakali and often it’s confused with the other one. Here movements are a little more vigour and girls clap their hands while dancing. ‘Kaikott’ means clapping hands. Similar to thiruvathira kali, girls wear Kerala sari and dance in circular motions around the lamp according to the rhythms of song and preference is given to movements than mudra. Also, they have pairs. Main difference is the speed and more preference to hand clapping. It’s normally performed during Thiruvathira and Onam season. Performers first dance in anti-clockwise direction, later in clockwise, clapping their hands.

Kaikottikali is identified by fast movements and clapping. In all other cases, it looks almost similar to thiruvathirakali. It’s performed by maiden girls or married young women. 


Before concluding this article let me mention a few diverse art forms of Kerala, deeply rooted to its culture. Ramanattam, Kavadiyattam, Kerala nadanam, Kerala folk dance, Mudiyett, Thiriyuzhichil, Mangalam kali, Yakshaganam, Kol kali and Duff mutt. Yes, Kerala tradition is a blend of three religions – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and that’s the reason why all these religions have contributed a lot to Kerala culture by their own means.
Article link to know more about kooth, koodiyattam and thullal

 Kooth and Koodiyattam

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