Kerala Arts

Kerala has an intensely rich culture of performing arts-living art forms that are passed on to new generations in specialised schools and arts centres.

Kathakali, with its elaborate ritualised gestures, heavy mask-like makeup, and dramatic stories of love, lust and power struggles based on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, stems in part from 2nd-century temple rituals, though in its current form it developed around the 16th century.

The actors tell the stories through precise mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions. Traditionally performances start in temple grounds at around 8pm and go on all night, though versions for those with shorter attention spans are now performed in many tourist centres, to give a taste of the art.

Theyyam is an even earlier art, believed to be older than Hinduism, having developed from harvest folk dances. It is performed in kavus (sacred groves) in northern Kerala.

The word refers to the ritual itself, and to the shape of the deity or hero portrayed, of which there are 450. The costumes are magnificent, with face paint, armour, garlands and huge headdresses. The performance consists of frenzied dancing to a wild drumbeat, creating a trance-like atmosphere.

Taking its moves from both these ancient arts is the martial art of kalarippayat, a ritualistic discipline taught throughout Kerala. It is taught and displayed in an arena called a kalari, which combines gymnasium, school and temple.

Traditional Arts


The art form of Kathakali crystallised at around the same time as Shakespeare was scribbling his plays. The Kathakali performance is the dramatised presentation of a play, usually based on the Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. All the great themes are covered - righteousness and evil, frailty and courage, poverty and prosperity, war and peace.

Drummers and singers accompany the actors, who tell the story through their precise movements, particularly mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions.

Preparation for the performance is lengthy and disciplined. Paint, fantastic costumes, ornamental headpieces and meditation transform the actors both physically and mentally into the gods, heroes and demons they are about to play.

You can see cut-down performances in tourist hot spots all over the state, and there are Kathakali schools in Trivandrum and near Thrissur that encourage visitors.


Mohiniyattam (the dance of the enchantress) is the gracefully elegant classical dance form with lasya as the predominant element. The dancer is dressed in white and gold. The hair is gathered and put up at the side of the head and adorned with jasmine, in the traditional style.

The entire technique in Mohiniyattam is a graceful, gliding movement of the body, a circular use of the torso and a revolving in the half-bent position with the toe and heel used in a flowing rhythmic structure. Music is in the sopanam style with the drums and cymbals as accompaniments.


Kerala's most popular ritualistic art form, theyyam, is believed to predate Hinduism, originating from folk dances performed during harvest celebrations. An intensely local ritual, ifs often performed in kavus (sacred groves) throughout northern Kerala.

Theyyam refers both to the shape of the deity/hero portrayed, and to the actual ritual. There are around 450 different theyyams, each with a distinct costume; face paint, bracelets, breastplates, skirts, garlands and especially headdresses are exuberant, intricately crafted and sometimes huge (up to 6m or 7m tall).

During performances, each protagonist loses his physical identity and speaks, moves and blesses the devotees as if he were that deity. Frenzied dancing and wild drumming create an atmosphere in which a deity indeed might, if it so desired, manifest itself in human form.

During October to May there are annual rituals at each of the hundreds of kavus. Theyyams are often held to bring good fortune to important events such as marriages and housewarmings.


Kalarippayat is an ancient tradition of martial training and discipline, still taught throughout Kerala. Some believe it is the forerunner of all martial arts, with roots tracing back to the 12th-century fight between Kerala's feudal principalities.

Masters of Kalarippayat, called Gurukkal, teach their craft inside a special arena called a kalari.

Kalarippayat movements can be traced in Kerala's performing arts, such as kathakali and koodiyattam, and in ritual arts such as theyyam.

Art Forms of Kerala

Classical Art Forms

Koodiyattom, Kathakali, Chakyarkoothu, Krishnanattam, Mohiniyattam, Patakam, Thullal.

Folk Art Forms

Theyyam, Kalampattu, Kaliyoottu, Kanniyarkali, Kavadiyattam, Kummattikali, Kumbhamkali, Kuthiyottam, Thattumel koothu, Poothamkali, Sarpa pattu, Thidampu nrittam, Mayilattam, Padayani, Thiyattu, Chavittu natakam, Pulikali, Thiruvathirakali, Margamkali, Cherumarkali, Kolkali, Vadithallu, Oppana.

Martial Art Forms

Kalaripayattu, Velakali, Parisakali.


Sopana sangeetham, Panchavadyam, Pancharimelam, Thayambakam.

For the additional information about the various art forms can be obtained from the following institutions.


Near Fort High School
Tel: 0471 2434066, 2478806

CVN Kalari

East Fort
Tel: 0471 2474182

Tel: 0481 2486114, 2486115

East Nadakkavu
Tel: 0495 2769114, 2768214

Cochin Cultural Centre

Manikath Road
Tel: 0484 2356366, 2357153

Kalvathy Road
Fort Cochin
Tel: 0484 2216911

Kerala Kalamandalam

Tel: 04884 262418

Ammannur Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinialakkuda

Tel: 0480 282 8173

Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy

Tel: 0487 2332134, 2332548

Vijnana Kalavedi

Tel: 0468 2214483, 2310451

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