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Folk Dances & Music



Theyyam is one of the most outstanding folk arts of Kerala and has its origin in the northern parts of the state. Also called Thirayattam, (because every thira or village performed this ritualistic art at the village temple) this primitive ritualisic art demands long hours preparation before the performance.

TheTheyyam (a form or shape) represents a mythological, devine or heroic character. There are over 350 Theyysma in northen Kerala. The hood, headdress , face painting, Breast plate, bracelets,garlands and fabric of attire of each of these Theyyams are distinct and meticulously crafted according to the character presented. Musical accomaniments are chenda and veekuchenda (drums), elathalam and Kuzhal(horn). This art form is mostly performed in Bhagavathy temples. Performances are on between october and May. Thira is the main subdivision of Theyyam.

Cherumarkali is a harvest dance in which the dancers, both men and women move in a swift rhythm, linked in a back lock or holding arms. The costumes are in striking red and white.

Kaalavela is a spectacular procession of huge, gaudily decorated motifs of bulls (kaala.)

Kalampattu (kalamezhuthu pattu) is another folk art form that belongs to the northern regions of Kerala. This art form which is over 600years old is performed by a group of five to fifteen people in Bhadrakali and Ayyappa temples. The rituals is performed around the kolam -an elaborate picture, usually of Bhadrakali, drawn on the floor, using five colours. The performance in the light of temple torches lasts through the night. The singers are neatly dressed with women wearing their hair on the side of the head. A series of songs (kalampattu) are sung to the accompaniment of nanthuni and elathalam.

Kalaripayattu is the comprehensive system of martial arts if Kerala, regarded as one of the oldest and most scientific in the world. Kalaripayattu training aims at the ultimate co-ordination of mind and body. The traditional training in a Kalari includes specialisation in indigenous medical practices too. Kalaris are also centres of religious worship.

Kaliyoottu is an eight day long colourful folk ritual which re-enacts the combat between goddess Durga and the demon Darika. The ritual is performed in different stages. The climax of the play- the ritual called paranettu- is performed on a specially constructed 100 feet high stage on the eight day.

Kanniyarkali (Deshathukali) which is a ritual art and a swift dance form, performed to the accompaniment of devotional folk songs and the resounding drum beats is usually performed in Bhagavathy temples.

Kavadiyattam is a ritual dance offering in Subramanya temples. The group of devotees wearing bright yellow or saffron costumes with ash smeared all over the body, dance in a frenzy carrying Kavadis on their shoulders. Kavadis are colourful bow shaped wooden structures rising six to ten feet high. The ambalakavadi is structured and decorated like a temple. The Pookavadi has clusters of colourful paper, cloth or plastic flowers arranged on them. The resounding beats of percussion instruments like udukku and chenda and the nadaswaram are characteristic of the kavadi procession.

Kettukazhcha is a spectacular pageant of colourfully decorated effigies of gods and goddesses, and images of animals like the horse, bull etc.

Kolkali is a group dance form of the farming community in Kerala. Twelve to twenty four dancers move rhythmically in a circle around the ceremonial lamp, tapping the two feet long wooden sticks held in their hands.

Kummattikali is a temple folk art and an awe inspiring mask dance.

Kumbhamkali / kumbhamthullal (pot dance) is a folk ritual dance of devotees carrying pots on the head.

Kuthiottam is a ritual art exclusive to the Devi temples of south Kerala. A team of artistes perform this song and dance ritual. The songs include those in praise of
Durga and other deities, Padapattu (war songs) and Kalaripattu (martial art songs). Instrumental accompaniments are mainly percussions, ganjira, bells and chaplankatta. Faces are painted and red curtains are used as partitions on the stage.

Pooram is the great elephant pageant of certain temples in Kerala. Bejewelled tuskers numbering ten to hundred, line up for this exotic spectacle with mahouts siting atop them carrying the muthukuda (tinsel covered silk parasols) and waving the venchamaram (white tufts). The pageant is accompanied by the panchavadyam which gradually works up to a crescendo. The most fascinating aspect of the pooram is the Kudamattom ritual, the ceremonial synchronised changing of the colourful parasols held aloft the elephants.

Mamangam (the term today describes any endeavour that is reckless and expensive). This festival is a replication of the cultural extravaganza held every 12 years by the zamorins of Malabar in the middle ages. Royal families, principalities and chieftains from all over Kerala used to participate in this great cultural event which was held on the grounds of the Thirunavaya Navamukunda Temple at Ponnani in Malappuram.

Mayilnritham/Mayilattom is a ritual art performed by artistes in peacock costume. It is performed in Subramanya in south Kerala. Oppana is a Muslim bridal group dance.

Padayani (literally, a column of army) is a colourful ritual art which is symbolic of the victory march of goddess Kali after she defeated the demon Darika. The elaborate costume of this art form bears slight resemblance to Theyyam.

Poothamkali (pootham) is a folk art more commonly performed in the Bhagavathy temples of Malappuram. Pootham is the character who accompanied Durga in her combat with Darika asura. The performers, usually three in number, undergo a week of austerity before the presentation. Colourful and intricately designed masks carved out of the pala and murukku trees are the highlights of the attire. The fifteen minute performance starts slowly and works up to a frenzy towards the end. The thudi provides rhythm to the dance which is usually rendered at night.

Pulikali also known as kaduvakali is a common sight in Kerala during festive seasons. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the loud beats of percussion instruments like the udukku and thakil.

Sarpa pattu (sarpam thullal) or snake dance is a ritual art performed in shrines and temples devoted to Nagaraja the king of serpents. It is performed by women who belong to the Pulluvar caste, in a specially decorated pandal, before the sarpakalam (snake designs on the floor). The women dance in a frenzy to the rhythm of the sarpa pattu, until they fall down exhausted. The sarpa pattu is performed to the accompaniment of veena, kudom and kaimani.

Thattumelkoothu is a devotional folk art. The dance is performed on a special platform which carried around the temple by devotees even as the performance goes on.

Thidampu Nritham which is over 700 years old, is a ritualistic art form of North Kerala. The dancer moves to the rhythmic beats of the chenda carrying the thidampu (the idol of the deity) on his head. Seven artists accompany him on percussion instruments while two others hold aloft the ritualistic lamps. The artiste wears much jewellery and a decorated turban known as Ushnipeetam.

Thiruvathirakali is a dance form which is a pointer to the old customs followed in Nair tharawads (joint families) where the women of the house dance elegantly around the ceremonial lamp or floral decoration on festive occasions to the accompaniment of the Thiruvathira Pattu (song).

Thiyyattu is a devotional offering to Bhadrakali and Sree Ayyappa. This ritual art is performed in a specially decorated pandal, before the Kalam (five colour design on the floor), the traditional lamp (nilavilaku), and peetam (stool). The performance usually starts at dusk. The artists sing and dance to the rhythmic music of the chenda, elathalam and chengila. The costumes bear resemblances to Ottanthullal and Kathakali, the distinctive features are huge jingling anklets and face makeup with tiny white dots.

Tholpavakoothu which is said to have originated in the 18th century is also known as pavakoothu (puppet play) or nizhalattam (shadow play). This entertainment art is performed on a special stage called koothumadam in the temple courtyard. Puppets (pavakal), usually representing four characters from the Ramayana, are arranged behind a long white screen, in front of bright wick lamps. The puppets made of deer skin are made to dance to songs from the Kamba Ramayana (the Tamil version of the epic). The performance starts late at night and continues up to daybreak.

Vadithallu is almost similar to Kolkali and is a folk dance in which artistes tap the short sticks held in both hands.

Velakali is one of the most elaborate and spectacular martial folk arts of Kerala. This ritual art form is usually presented within the temple premises and is called Thirumumbil vela when performed before the deity and Kulathivela when performed near the temple pond. Fifty or more performers in the traditional attire of soldiers, bearing colourful shields and swords or long canes, dance with war like steps in perfect orchestration with the resounding rhythm of the thakil, suddha maddlam, elathalam, kuzhal and trumpets. A few fighting techniques of Kalaripayattu are also displayed in the course of the performance.

Koothambalam: Special hall in the temple premises for ritual and classical art performances.

Koothumadam: Stage specially erected for certain ritual and classical art performances in the temple.


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