The Dance Forms of Kerala
This form is actually a form of ritual worship danced exclusively by members of the lower castes. It is performed in temples in northern Kerala from December to March. Drumbeats accompany men who dance wearing exuberant headdresses and very thick make-up to drumbeats. The performance is meant to summon the gods, who are believed to possess the dancers and speak through them. This belief is so powerful, that even members of higher castes temporarily forget traditional caste taboos to eagerly seek the blessing of these ‘gods’ after the performance.
Although dance forms not as well-known as others, Ottan Thullal is still popular – in a true sense of the word. It resembles Kathakali in many ways, borrowing much of its dress, make-up, and movements. But whereas Kathakali involves many dancers and was directed at the more refined, upper classes, Ottan Thullal has only one performer and addresses spectators in Malayalam, the language of commoners. Its stories are rooted in the Puranas (Hindu texts from the Vedas), but the performances poke fun at society and make them easier to relate to than more formal forms.
One of Kerala’s last practitioners of glove puppeteering is KC Ramakrishnan, a member of the Aandipandaram community. His ancestors came centuries ago from Andhra Pradesh to settle in Kerala and began performing the tales and characters of Kathakali dance in their own style of Aryamaala puppet theatre. The puppetry developed here in Kerala is unlike any elsewhere in India – for one reason because the puppeteer is an integral part of the performance.
Along with Kathakali, this dance is one of the two classical forms that developed in Kerala. This ‘Dance of Mohini’ is named for a mythical enchantress of the Hindu god Vishnu. Like all classical Indian dances, this form has its origins in the Natya Shastra, an ancient Sanskrit text on performing arts. It is performed by a lone female who moves in ways that emphasize her feminine enchanting power – so much so, that it was once banned by the British who regarded the dance as immoral.
This dance form is usually performed in temples and for aristocratic families. It combines upper caste and tribal traditions and serves in part as a ritual for welcoming and praising deities. The dance is performed on a floor that the artist paints in various colors such as white (made with rice flour), black (charcoal), yellow (turmeric), green (leaves), and red (a lime-turmeric mixture). In the photo, the artist paints a design that represents the Goddess Kali in the home of the aristocratic Ollapamanna, a Namboodari Brahmin family with a centuries-old tradition as patron of the arts. The image composed represents the specific deity that the dance means to worship, and can it take hours of painstaking detail to finish the painting.
Pulikali means ‘play of the tigers’ and is danced as an integral part of the annual Onam harvest festival as a traditional entertainment mostly performed in the Thrissur district in central Kerala. As its name suggests, the dance artistically recreates a tiger hunt, and the dancers are colored in bright tiger hues of red, yellow, and black to represent tigers or hunters.
The name means ‘combined acting’ and is a very old form that indeed combines old Sanskrit theatre with Koothu, an ancient Tamil form that goes back to the Sangam era, the very earliest period of Tamil literature that has survived. The performers assume roles in a play that is danced to the accompaniment of traditional music.
Perhaps the classical dance of Kerala, the origins of this form go back to temple and folk dramas that can be identified as far back as the 1st century CE. A Kerala dance is a ‘story play’ with themes from ancient myths and legends. The make-up is typical and immediately recognizable to Indians, and it is so elaborate that applying and removing it can take up to three hours. The colors are extracted from natural materials such as flowers and leaves.
This form is a traditional dance performed in the villages and temples in the Valluvanad region by the Mannan community. The dance is meant to drive evil spirits from villages and towns in the form of a struggle between gods and demons. Thira (or Bhadrakali), a form of the Goddess Kali, is struggling to banish the demon Darika. Poothan is a demon, a lieutenant of the God Shiva, and sent by him to assist Thira. The dancer representing Thira wears a semi-circular black crown and is dressed and made-up as a female. Poothan, meanwhile, is bare-chested, wears large, wooden headgear, and is made-up as a male. Dance troupes travel to towns and villages at the end of the harvest season to drive evils spirits away and find an eager welcome in homes everywhere.