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Performing ArtsThe story and culture of Kerala is best portrayed by the evolution of its art. The performing arts of Kathakali, Mohiniattam and Theyyam, musical extravaganzas like Panchavadyam and martial art forms like Kalaripayattu reveal the times of the people that once lived Kerala. Art that once was only a part of the temples and palaces is now emerged into the public space. Today this art is packaged as cultural products so that the cultural mosaic is saved from the danger of being lost forever. Let's have a peep into the art forms of Kerala:


Kathakali which literally means 'Story-play' is a highly dramatic combination of dance, music, action, literature and even painting. It is believed that the martial art form of Kalaripayattu, the Sanskrit theatre of Koodiyattam and other ritual arts have influenced the current form of Kathakali. Earlier versions of Kathakali performed stories from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The elaborate make up and preparation the artists undergo for performance is demanded by the stature of the gods they depict. The dressing of artists needs to seen directly in order to absorb it in the totality. Decorative headgear made of red and green stones, painted face with a chutti made of rice paste forms the face of the character. The upper torso is elaborately decorated with ornaments and the umbrella white skirt enhances the stage presence of the character. Since Kathakali is a mimetic dance form, the characters can be delineated only with gestures, general appearance and colour of the facial setup. Drums, a gong and cymbals provide for what is the music part of this performance. A trip to kerala can be said to be incomplete without treating yourself to the colourful cultural extravaganza.


Mohiniattam is a gentle and graceful semi-classical dance form which has love and devotion to god as its theme. 'Mohini' which means seductive enchantress who captures the desire of the onlookers also refers to a character taken by Lord Vishnu from time to time. This dance form is done by women as an offering to propitiate the gods. Songs of love for Shri Krishna or Vishnu sung in classical Carnatic in the Sopanam style form the base for this art. Danseuses convey this love through body postures, footwork and slow but graceful flowing movements of the hand. Musical accompaniments for Mohiniattam are violin, veena, cymbals and traditional percussion instruments. The dressing is the customary two piece, cream coloured, pleated saree with wide gold border called kasavu and traditional gold ornaments. The eyes are deeply lined to increase the effect of the dancer's expressions and hair is tied into a bun which is encircled by jasmine flowers. This beautiful dance form which is the pride of Kerala is recognized as one of the four classical dance forms of India.


Thullal a dance form devised by Kunjan Nambiar is a solo dance form characterized by its wit and humour. The marvel of this art form is that the raconteur and artiste is just this one actor and he manages both the role together perfectly. The dressing for this art in its most sophisticated form includes epaulets, gilded crowns, colourful skirts and painted face. The instruments used are maddalam and cymbals. The literary quality of this relatively new art cast it to fame .


This Sanskrit theatre estimated to have survived for 2000 years is considered the mother of all dances. It has recently been recognized by UNESCO with the title- 'Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.' Koodiyattam is a temple art performed in the koothambalam (a theatre within the temple) and is traditional performed only by Chakyar men and Nambiar women. The performance takes several nights to perform. Facial expressions involving the navarasas (9 basic emotions) communicate the attitude and words are translated to language of body postures for presenting the character in Koodiyattam. The facial preparations with natural dye are similar to Kathakali but the attire is more colourful and have stripe design.


Chakyarkoothu is a blend of comedy, social satire and mime performed by a solo vidushakan (jester). It is an intellectual entertainment and social criticism is the core of the performance. Elements of humour, sarcasm and introducing contemporary topics on a base of a Puranic story telling makes this art form very unique. The vidushakan also has the ability and freedom to pull off on the feet jokes making the whole process enjoyable.


Krishnanattam is a 16th century folk and classical art which generally deals with episodes in the life of Sree Krishna. It was the Zamorin of Kozhikode, an ardent follower of Krishnanattam, who shaped and paved way for the upcoming of this art form. It takes around 8 days to do a complete performance of Krishnanattam. In this art form hand movements are fewer and body gestures drawn from martial arts express the character. Today, this art form is seen only the Guruvayoor Sree Krishna temple where people donate this performance as an offering to the god.


Theyyam which is also called Kaliyattam is a ritualistic dance predominantly seen in north Kerala (Malabar region). With its special headgear, crowns, vibrant body painting, ornaments and elaborate designed garments, Theyyam makes for a colourful visual. This high energy pulsating performance with drums is generally conducted in the village area surrounding the local temple. The performers of Theyyam are believed to invoke the spirit of the god they represent at the time of performance and dance to the tune of the throbbing music. The devotees come and seek the blessing of the god from the Theyyam for the wellbeing of their family.

Panchavadyam & Chendamelam

The wide range of native musical instruments of Kerala together form unique notes and melodies. Most of these are part of the temple rituals including the Panchavadyam and Chendamelam. The Panchavadyam is a combination of 5 instruments - 3 percussion instruments (Thimila, Maddalam, Edakka) and a cymbal and a horn. Starting from a slow-tempo it steady progresses and reaches the crescendo. The Chendamelam is played with Chenda, Kombu and Kuzhal. These are generally used for giving the traditional kerala style welcome. The best place to witness these arts in full vigour and energy would be at the temple festivals.


Kalaripayattu is a 12th century martial art form of kerala considered to be the mother of all martial art forms. Even Shaolin Kung fu traces its origins to Kalaripayattu. It was devised as a system to train and bring up expert fighters for the kings. The training is done in a Kalari which is a shed with enshrines a Kalari god which is generally a Bhagavati or a Shivashakthi. The training involves body control and flexibility exercise and poses. It involves Ayurveda to strengthen the student mentally and physically. The result of this extensive training is tapping the kundalini energy to develop intuitive ability to respond to danger. It is in the recent past that Kalaripayattu started being showcased along with other dance forms to add variety to the theatre performances.

Kerala Kalamandalam

No write up on the performing arts of Kerala is complete without the mention of the Kerala Kalamandalam. It is the premier art and culture institute of Kerala imparting training and conducting performances in classical arts of Kerala like Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Koodiyattam, Thullal and Panchavadyam. This institution which was founded in 1930 by revered poet Vallathol Narayana Menon is situated in Cheruthuruthy (Thrissur district) on the banks of the Nila River. Today Kerala Kalamandalam has created for itself a niche in the world cultural map. 'A day with the masters' is a popular programme conducted in the Kerala Kalamandalam for art aficionados to get a feel of the art where it is taught to promising youngsters in the purest form.

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