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India Heritage:Performing Arts:Dance:Folk Dance

Kutiyattam Kathakali Krishnattam Cavittu Natakam


Kutiyattam is second to none in terms of its antiquity. This is a comprehensive theatre form that has existed since before the tenth century AD and is India's oldest theatre to have been continuously performed. King Kulashekhara Varman reformed the Kutiyattam in the tenth century AD, and this form continues the tradition of performing in Sanskrit. The Prakrit language and Malayalam in its ancient form have also been kept alive through this medium. The repertory includes plays written by Bhasa, Harsha and Mahendra Vikrama Pallava.

Traditionally, the actors have been members of the Cakyar caste and it is the dedication of this group that is responsible for the preservation of Kutiyattam through the centuries. Nambiars, a sub-caste of drummers, have been associated with this theatre as players of the mizhavu ( a pot-shaped, large drum unique to Kutiyattam). It is the women of the Nambiar community who act the female characterizations and play the bell- metal cymbals. While individuals of other communities do study this theatre and participate in stage performances, they do not perform in temples.

Performances usually last several days, the first few being devoted to introductions - of the characters and incidents from their lives. The complete performance - from beginning to end - is performed on the last day. However, it does not necessarily mean that the entire written text of the play will be enacted. An evening of Kutiyattam begins at 9 p.m. after the close of rituals in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, and continues till midnight, sometimes till 3 a.m. before the commencement of the morning rituals.

Complicated gesture language, chanting, exaggerated expressions of the face and eyes, together with elaborate headdresses and makeup constitute a Kutiyattam play. There is little of the dance element in Kutiyattam. Music is provided by the mizhavu drums, small cymbals, idakka (an hour-glass shaped drum), kuzhal ( an oboe-like wind instrument), and the shankha (conch shell).

The actors observe rituals even in their dressing rooms, and are not averse to consulting the manuals of old to ensure the continuance of traditions.

This dedication is inculcated in the artists through schools like the Kerala Kalamandalam School in Cherathuruthy village, and the ones run by Mani Madhava Cakyar in Likkadi and Madhavan Cakyar in Irinjalaganda. The art is kept alive through the efforts of Vatukumnathan Temple and the Irinjalaganda Temple, both of which schedule at least one annual performance.

Kutiyattam's legacy to world theatre is in architectural terms: permanent theatre structures. These are known in Kerala as kuttampalam.



A seventeenth century dance-drama, Kathakali is intrinsically masculine in its vigor and bold characterizations. This energetic quality is true to the Natyashastra concept of the polarities of feminine and masculine: the lasya as represented by certain other forms, and the tandava (male) energy as depicted in Kathakali. Folk roots notwithstanding, Kathakali observes classical norms and hence is an asset as both folk theatre and classical form. The headdresses, the exaggerated movements and makeup are reminiscent of Kutiyattam and Ramattam, both of which are regarded as its inspiration. Dance, music, and acting all combine to interpret the ancient Indian epics: Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas.

The actors have traditionally been drawn from the Nair community, well-versed in the martial arts of ritual warfare. This has proved a sound background because the training for Kathakali performers is strenuous and extends over 6-10 years. A normal day of training begins in the early hours of morning to continue till midnight. The text of the plays as well as the dance sequences and choreography are to be memorized, complete with facial expressions, movements, gestures.

Precision is the key word in Kathakali for the ideas and the emotions are all communicated through physical movements. The text of the play is sung in the characteristic style known as sopana by two singers who remain behind the actors. The ponnani (lead singer) holds a heavy gong that is struck with a banana-root stick and the second singer plays large cymbals. These two artists provide the basic rhythm that is enhanced by the harmonium, the conch shell and three different types of drums. The harmonium maintains pitch, while the conch shell announces gods and significant rituals. The maddalam, a large, horizontal drum, allows for a change of pace and intonation; the cenka, a vertical drum, is used for special effects; and the itekka , a delicate-sounding drum with an hour-glass shape that indicates the presence of female characters.



Krishnattam is performed by only one troupe at only one venue: the Guruvayur Temple. According to legend, Krishnattam was created by a Zamorin king, Raja Manaveda, in the seventeenth century after a miraculous vision of Krishna at the Guruvayur Temple. The peafowl feather worn by the visionary Krishna was all that remained, and generations of actors wore this feather while portraying the god.

A feminine, lyrical quality (lasya) imbues this dance - drama with a character that is very much its own. The gesture-language, the marvelous headdresses and makeup, the costumes and the ornaments - all recall Kutiyattam and Kathakali, but there are differences, apart from lasya, that a discerning spectator cannot but notice. Performances begin at 9 p.m. after the evening prayers of the temple, and conclude before the morning rituals at 3 a.m. This time schedule has another story behind it: the idol of Krishna within the shrine had come to life during a performance long ago - the music, as many believe, had been enchanting enough for a god to dance to.

Plays are based on the incidents from Krishna's life, and are considered auspicious if enacted on corresponding occasions. Thus, a wedding in the family is blessed by a play on the marriage of Krishna; viewing Krishna's miraculous birth is believed to guarantee a male child to a childless couple; a performance centering on the death of the evil King Kamsa is regarded as protection against the evil eye. However, the plays when performed in chronological sequence must end with a second enactment of Krishna's birth. It is considered inauspicious to end a performance-series with a depiction of Krishna's death.

The text of the plays is sung in the soprano style by two main singers. Maddalam (large, horizontal drums) and idakka (hour-glass shaped drums) , the harmonium, cymbals, and a conch shell provide the music to this theatre form to which no new work may be added.

Cavittu Natakam

Cavittu Natakam is the Christian response to the ancient theatre forms of India. It emerged under the guidance of Catholic priests and the Portuguese presence in Kerala in the mid-sixteenth century. Once popular throughout the state, performances are now held in Quilon and Cochin districts. The cost of this grand production proves prohibitive.

The word cavittu means `stomping', natakam means `play'. The all-male cast frequently stomps on the stage as part of the dance movement The masculine quality notwithstanding, there is little of Kathakali and the other forms in this theatre. Only a slight influence can be detected in hand and face expressions.

The asan or master of performance trains the actors in every aspect, and controls every detail of production. Training is made available for specific roles, there being no concept of all-round practice. The roles assigned to individual actors are commensurate with their social standing, and only those from special Christian families are permitted to play kings. The language of the plays (Tamil) is not the language of the actors and the audience (Malayalam). The asan will remain on stage through the performance to act as interpreter.

The vicinity of a church or cathedral is ideal ground for staging of the play. The stage itself is in two parts. The main stage may well be 100 feet long and 30 feet wide, with high wooden platforms at either end. These platforms are the courts of the kings, while the central area is for battles.

The costumes: elaborate local renditions of historical dress, colorful, and indicative of character. For instance, the villain is required to wear tennis shoes and sunglasses. Makeup is kept to a minimum but false hair, moustaches and beards are part of the costume.

The stories themselves are based on Christian historical and mythological characters, as well as epic romances. `The Play of Charlemagne' is a favorite. Inspired by Ariosto's `Orlando Furioso' , the play has a cast of almost 80 characters and stretches over a fortnight. This play is the ideal Cavittu Natakam, replete with battle and court scenes. The lives of saints, of characters from the Old and New Testaments - all contribute to the themes of heroism and love.

Music is of course provided by the popular mridangam drum, the harmonium, clarinet, the centa drum and cymbals.

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