Arts and Art Forms of kerala

Arts and Art Forms

The rich cultural heritage of Kerala, has resulted in the development of many art forms which has gained international acclaim. Of these, the important ones are Koothu, Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, OttamThullal and Teyyam.


In Koothu, the only actor is the Chakiar(Member of a purana telling community) who takes the role of different characters. The Chakiar in a very cynical and satirical style narrates puranic stories, by drawing parallels from contemporary life. The character has the license to ridicule anybody in the audience, regardless of his/her social position. The person who is the target of attack has no right to retort.

There are three types of Koothu:They are Prabandham Koothu, Nangiar Koothu and Koodiyattam. The first is purely narrations with explanations, and the second is purely acting. The third is a theatrical perfomance, by the Chakiar and the Nangiar.


The meaning of Koodiyattam is “acting together”. In this dramatic art two or more actors appear on the stage. The role of male characters is taken by the Chakiar, while the Nangiar (woman belong to the Nambiar caste)assumes the role of the female characters. These women sound the cymbals and recite the Sanskrit verses which the Chakiar enacts. The Nambiar plays the Mizhavu, which is a close-necked copper metal drum. The Vidushaka or the clown recites the Malayalam translation of the Sanskrit verses enacted by the Chakiar. The plays of Bhasa, Kulasekhara varman, Sri Harsha, Bodhoyana, Neelakanta, Kalidasa, etc, are staged. Detailed information regarding the way of acting is available in the treatises called Attaprakaram and Kramadeepika, written by the Sanskrit poet Tolan.

The actors in Koodiyattam also have the license to speak anything. They have the freedom to ridicule anybody, whether he is a ruler or a pauper. The costumes differ according the characters of the play.

At present Koodiyattam has acquired greater importance due to the activities of the Kerala Kalamandalam.


The original Chakiar Koothu in course of time developed into Kathakali. The origin of Kathakali goes back to a dance form called Krishnattam, which was invented by the Zamorin of Calicut The theme to be enacted was the story of Lord Krishna. It was the synthesis of dance song and instrumental accompainments. After Krishnattam had its beginnings, The Raja of Kottarakkara requested the Zamorin of Calicut to send his Krishnattam troupe to Kottarakkara. But the Zamorin declined. The humiliated Raja, invented the Ramanattam for which the theme was the story of Rama. He composed an Attakatha( story to be enacted)in Malayalam for the purpose. Thus Kathakali had its beginnings. The language employed in the new dance-drama was Malayalam, and not Sanskrit. New costumes which were colourful and attractive were also introduced. The drum and the long finger drum(Chenda and Maddalam) were introduced. The make up known as Chutti was used. The art form was modified and refined in course of time by people like Raja of Kadathanad, Vettath Raja and Kottayam Raja.

The main characteristics of Kathakali are the following: The actors do not speak. Instead they act the dialogue through specific hand movements called mudras. Each mudra could signify and connote any complex theme or idea. Through facial expressions, along with the songs sung by the singers from behind, mudras and dancing strides, Kathakali dancers can communicate to the audience very effectively.

On the basis of make-up, the Kathakali characters are Pacha, Katti, Thadi and Minukku. Pacha(green) is the symbol of the goodness of the characters. The gods, mythological heroes, Krishna, Arjuna, etc belong to this group. Characters like Ravana and Kamsa belong to the Katti group. The characters which come under Thadi are the red beard, the white beard and the black beard. The Minukku group includes women or spiritual characters.

Previously Kathakali perfomances used to extend to 7 or 8 hours, usually a whole night. But now the reduction of time to a couple of hours, and the high popularity it has acquired in the visual media, has made Kathakali more accessible to the common man. Moreover, the popularity that this dance form has enjoyed in the international scene has prompted many people to write Kathakali themes based on Western works like Shakespear’s ‘King Lear’. Hence Kathakali has gained a lot due to its receptivity to accept alien themes.


Mohiniyattam is a blend of the features of Kaikottikali, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. The dancer’s apparel is generally white or off white. Beautiful jewellery is worn by her.

Mohiniyattam has its origins in Dasiyattam, which was the dance of the Devadasis attached to the temples in Kerala. The Devadasis were women skilled in music and dance. Later the devadasi system had immoral connotations associated with it, and hence their dance form which highlighted the theme of erotic love did not gain popular appeal.

It was Maharaja Swati Tirunal who restored the lost honour of Mohiniyattam. At present, Mohiniyattam is a very popular dance form.

Ottam Thullal

Ottam Thullal originated due to the genius of the great poet Kunjan Nambiar, who used to beat the drum for Chakiar Koothu. One day, Nambiar was careless while beating the drum, and the Chakiar reprimanded him in public. Kunjan Nambiar was deeply insulted. This insult evolved the muse in him. He worked hard throughout the night, and came up with a new form of story telling on the next day. On this day, as the Chakiar Koothu was going on, Kunjan Nambiar performed Ottam Thullal. Within a short time, the audience left the Chakiar and started witnessing Nambiar’s Thullal perfomance.

Ottam Thullal which is a solo perfomance is still popular.


Teyyam is a ritual dance performed in association with temple festivals. It is found in temples of Palghat, Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kasargod districts of Kerala. Teyyam originates from some myth prevalent in a specific area. According to this myth, a deity comes into being. Man, inorder to propitiate this deity dances in frenzy. That is teyyam. Heroes too, in teyyam are given the qualifications of god’s and propitiated. Teyyam is the corruption of the word deivam which means God.

Although the teyyam dancer, dances to propitiate the deity he identifies himself with the deity. Such dancers are looked upon as impersonators of the deities. The dances are characterized by rhythmic and measured steps. The teyyam performers wears gorgeous apparels, which attract the spectator.

The movements of the teyyam dancer are vigorous. The dancing movements become faster and faster as the dancer reaches the heights of frenzy. The towering head gear or Mudi of the teyyam dancer is amazing to behold. The Mudi is colourful and spectacular. There are different types of teyyams like Kativannur Veeran, Kantha Karnan, Chamundi, Bhagavati etc.