Kerala, Kerala Dances, Kerala Classical Dances

Classical Arts of Kerala

Classical Arts of Kerala

The classical arts of Kerala dates back to thousand of years. Some of the classical arts of Kerala are Kathakali, Chakyarkoothu, Koodiyattam, Mohiniyattam, Krishnanattam, Patakam and Thullal.


Kathakali is the popular art form of Kerala. Kathakali literally means the story play. This spectacular classical dance drama of Kerala is based on the guidelines laid by the Natya Sastra, the ancient treaty on dance and drama. This classical dance is usually performed in the evenings and cultural festivals in Kerala. This dance is also referred as the first theatre of imagination of the world due to its elaborate and ornamental costumes, ornaments and facial make-up. In this dance, the actors do not speak or sing but enact the story through mudras (hand gestures), graceful movements and facial expressions. The themes of the dance are taken from the colourful and rich mythology of India. Music is an essential part of the Kathakali dance, where two vocalists sings to the accompaniment of a chengila (gong), elathalam (small cymbals), chenda and maddalam.


The Krishnanattam dance originated as a votive offering to Sree Krishna. This dance is performed in groups and based on the Krishna Geetha, the Sanskrit text. This dance is presented for eight nights. The charm of this classical dance can be seen in the synchronized graceful movements of the entire group. The costume and makeup of Krishnattam resembles to Kathakali and folk arts like Thiyattam, Mudiayettu and Theyyam. The musical instruments which are used in this dance are maddalam, elathalam and chengila. Krishnattam is most commonly performed in the Guruvayoor temple.


Mohiniyattam is another classical dance of Kerala. This dance of the enchantress combines the graceful elegance of Bharatanatyam and the vigour and dynamism of Kathakali, to create a mood that is predominantly sringara (erotic). The dance is usually performed on specially put up stages in connection with temple festivals. The costume is the traditional white mundu and melmundu of Kerala. The hair is gathered and put up at the side of the head and adorned with jasmine, in the traditional style. Mohiniyattom reflects the graceful nature of the land. The movements of the dancer can be compared to the palms swaying in the gentle breeze and the sweeping waves which are a part of Kerala’s lush landscape.

Chakyarkoothu also known as Koothu, is one of the oldest classical theatre arts of Kerala. The solo dance is usually presented in the Koothambalam of temples with the mizhavu and elathalam. The performance begins with an invocation to the presiding deity of the temple. The narration is accompanied with the thandava dance movements, gestures and facial expressions acoording to the guidelines in Natya Sastra. Koothu is mainly known for its comic element which is added to its dramatic character. The themes are taken from the epics. The costume is colourful and bizarre with a strange headgear.

Patakam literally means dissertation. Patakam is similar to Koothu in technical content, gestures and movements. The narration is made through prose and song sequences. The dancers wear the red colour costume like the red head dress and a red silk wrist band. The performer also wears heavy garlands around the forehead. Patakam is performed outside the temples.

Koodiyattam that literally means dancing together is one of the oldest dance drama in India. This dance drama is associated with temple rituals and was recently selected by UNESCO as one among the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. This dance is based on the Sanskrit text and is performed from a few days to few weeks. The Koothambalam is elaborately decorated with plantain trees, bunches of tender coconut and fronds of coconut leaves. But, the stage is very simple. Koodiyattam is performed in different stages which begins with the opening beat of a drum, the invocation (vandana slokam), the purification ceremony, an interlude of orchestra and the actual recital. The makeup patterns and costumes of Koodiyattam are believed to be the forerunners of the costumes in Kathakali.

Thullal is a modification of the Koothu and characterized by simplicity of presentation, wit and humour. Thullal, another classical art form of dance keeps the audience in a constant state of merriment. This dance form was originated by Kunjan Nambiar, one of the leading poets of Malayalam. The solo performance is marked by fast and rhythmic movements. The dancer himself sings the lead to the accompaniment of the maddalam and elathalam. Ottanthullal, Seethankam thullal and Parayanthullal are the three different types of Thullal based on the metre and rhythm of the songs and difference in their costume and dance. In this dance also, the dancers wear colourful costumes, with elaborate headgears and paintings on the face. This dance is usually presented during temple festivals.

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