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Dance and Culture of Kerala : A Brief History

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The culture of Kerala is a synthesis of Aryan and Dravidian cultures, developed and mixed for centuries, under influences from other parts of India and abroad. The culture of Kerala evolved through the Sanskritization of Dravidian ethos, revivalism of religious movements and reform movements against caste discrimination. Kerala showcases a culture unique to itself developed through accommodation, acculturation and assimilation of various faculties of civilized lifestyle. Different kinds of performing arts, musical elements, literature, folklore, martial arts and sports and temple festivals largely make up the ultural face of the state. Also, Kerala's rich cultural heritage and diverse culture is influenced by three main religions - Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.


The traditional beliefs, customs and rituals of the people of Kerala are reflected in the folkart and songs of the state. Folklore in this region is a spontaneous expression of human behavior and thoughts. Kanyar Kali, Padayani, Mudiyettu, Thirayattam, Malavayiyattam, Theyyam, Kothamooriyattam, Nira, Puthari, etc. are some of the ritual folklore of Kerala. Kerala can be divided into four cultural areas: Travancore – Cochin, Central Kerala, South Malabar and North Malabar. North Malabar, which was under the rule of the Kolathiris, has its own cultural identity. The Kolathiris, the Kings of Kolathunadu, codified rituals, beliefs, taboos and folklore as performing arts. Even the dates of specific fertility rituals and folk performances were decided by the Kolathiris, many of which continue till date. For instance, the Theyyam festivals are still conducted as per the dates fixed by the King in the olden days.


Ritualistic folk arts can be further divided into two categories: devotional and magical. Devotional folk arts are performed to appease a particular God or Goddess. Theyyam, Thirayattam, Poothamthira, Kanyarkali and Kummatti are some forms of ritualistic folk arts. Art forms like Panappattu and Thottampattu are composed in the form of songs. In Kolkali, Margamkali and Daffumuttukkali the ritualistic element is not very strong. Magical folk arts seek to win general prosperity for a community or exorcise evil spirits or to beget children. Gandharvas and Nagas are worshipped in order to win over these favours. The magical folk arts include Pambinthullal, Pooppadathullal, Kolamthullal and Malayankettu.



Kathakali is a classical dance-drama art form that utilizes detailed, stylized makeup and colorful costumes. The great poet Vallathol rediscovered Kathakali and established the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1932. The themes of the Kathakali are religious in nature, and typically deal with the Mahabharath, the Ramayana and the ancient scriptures known as the Puranas. The Kathakali costume includes a headgear, billowing skirt and plentiful ornaments. During a performance, the artists play the role of mythological characters from the above mentioned Hindu epics. The entire story or one particular scene from a mythological story is depicted by the artists, by making use of graceful movements of hands, eyes and legs. Props are used wherever necessary. A Chenda (traditional drum) player is accompanied by one or two singers, who narrate the story in the form of song. This completes a Kathakali performance.


Koodiyattam is a part of Sanskrit theatre art and emerged in the ninth century as a full-fledged dramatic presentation in Sanskrit theatre art. This popular dance form of Kerala is the only remaining proof of the ancient Sanskrit theatre culture in the state or even in the nation. Traditionally, Koodiyattom was performed in temples for centuries. The important musical instruments used in this temple art form are Mizhavu, Kuzhitalam, Kurumkuzhal and Sankhu.


Chakyar Koothu is an ancient dance form of Kerala. A highly refined dance form, here the performer narrates events from Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharatha & also stories from the Puranas. Chakyar Koothu is generally performed in temples during special occasions and festivals. Sometimes, however, it is also a traditional equivalent of the modern stand-up comedy act, incorporating commentary on current socio-political events with personal comments directed at the members of the audience.


Famous Malayalam poet Kalakkaththu Kunchan Nambiar has been credited with the creation of Ottamthullal, way back in the 18th century. Originally, this dance was performed by a single actor wearing heavy makeup and colourful costumes. Later, it was staged as group dance involving many actors playing their individual characters in the story. This art form is very popular among common man due to its satirical touch. During the performance, the dancer musically narrates a story, which may be based on mythological stories.


The word 'thira' means lustre and the Thirayattom dance is said to cast radiance by virtue of his gorgeous array, made all the more dazzling by the blaze of torches which are made of clusters of dried coconut fronds. Thirayattom is a ritual performing folk art of South Malabar region in Kerala. It is a fine blend of dance, theatre, music, satire, facial and body painting, masking, martial arts & ritualistic functions. This vibrant folk art form has a great resemblance to the traditions and customs of the ancient civilization. Thirayattom is usually enacted in courtyards of kaavukal (sacred groves) and village shrines of the South Malabar region. The performer comes into a trance with the "moorthy" or deity whose "koolam" is enacted with vigorous moves, exhibiting belligerent mannerism and gestures, which are believed to be divine.


Padayani is regarded as a remnant of the Dravidian forms of worship that existed before the advent of Brahmanism. An art form that blends music, dance, theatre, satire, facial masks, and paintings, Padayani is part of worship of Bhadrakali and is staged in temples dedicated to the goddess from mid-December to mid-May. It is one of the



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