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Art and Craft

Martial arts

The martial arts of Kerala - Kalaripayattu - consists of a series of intricate movements that train the body and mind. The discipline is continually practised and complemented by the Kerala's famous ayurvedic and nature cure techniques. These are believed to have travelled to eastern China, where they inspired the evolution of other martial art forms. 'Verumkai' is the final and most difficult of lessons taught in the kalari. The others are Maithozhil - combat through kicks, Kolathiri - combat using sticks and Angathiri - the use of metal weapons.


Painting in Kerala can be traced back to the 9th century, as evident from the murals in it's temples and the practice of Kalamezhuthu - the practice of drawing pictures of gods and goddesses on temple floors using five different types of colour powder. Raja Ravi Varma's numerous paintings of gods and goddesses adorn calenders even today, earning him the ire, critics usually reserve for a calender artist who promoted kitsch. But several of his works are flawlessly executed and display a mature sense of colour. Modern painting continued in the work of outstanding talents like K.Madhava Menon and K.C.S.Panikkar.


As in the rest of India, carnatic music is the popular classical form, but Kerala's own contribution is the sopana style - slow in tempo and emotional. Kerala's folk music, on the other hand, is neither sophisticated nor refined, but it displays a strong sense of rythm and rhyme. The theme is usually devotional, as in Sarpa pattu, Bhadrakali pattu and Ayyappan Pattu. The most famous of kerala's music composers is Swati Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore in the early 19th century. Other contemporary composers were Irayimman Thampan and Shadkala Govinda Marar.


An old time industrial art is bell metal casting. One famous product is the Aranmula polished metal mirror, made of an alloy of copper and tin. In woodcraft, apart from the temple art tradition, kathakali models and accessories, weaving of mats, baskets, coir matting figure among it's handicraft. Since the ban on ivory trade, Kerala's ivory carvings, especially that of the snake boat are now made of buffalo horn. Kerala is also known for it's jewellery. Designs range from the elaborate and exquisite to the simple and functional.The Nagapadam or serpent-hood pendant was originally used by Nair women. Namboodiri women wore the cherutali necklace and Tamil Brahmin women, the oddiyanam waist-chain. Christian women wore the Mekka Mothiram. Though relegated to history, contemporary goldsmiths still draw inspiration from them for their designs.

Performing Arts


Kathakali uses vivid and eloquent mudras (hand signs). A visually powerful art form, the Kathakali dance dramas are based on stories from the two great indian epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is said to have evolved from a rivalry between two princely families. One had written a story cycle revolving around the life of Krishna, called Krishnattam, the other around the life of Rama called Ramattam. This nearly 300 years old classical dance form combines facets of ballet, opera, masque and the pantomime. The riches of a happy blending of colour, expressions, music, drama and dance is unparallelled in any other art form.


A Christian art form of Kerala. Evolved at the turn of the 16th Century AD during the Portuguese colonization and bears definite traces of the European Christian Miracle Play. In this musical drama, the actors wear Greco-Roman costumes and even the stage props bear several foreign influences. In the past, the Chavittunatakom was performed on open stages, though sometimes the interior of a church was also a venue. The language is a colloquial mix of Tamil and Malayalam. The chavittu natakam originated with the portugese missionaries as an alternative to kathakali. Patterned on the lines of european opera and ballet, it tells the stories of christian saints and heroes. Not only do the dancers sing and recite, they literally stomp their feet on the wooden dance floor.


A dance form essential to the wedding entertainment and festivities of the Malabar Muslims. Maidens and young female relatives sing and dance around the bride, clapping their hands. The songs of Mappilappattu, are first sung by the leader and are repeated by the chorus. The themes are often teasing comments and innuendoes about the bride's anticipated nuptial bliss.


A spectacle for both the scholar and the simple rustic. The visual effect is enhanced by varied and colourful facial make-up with larger-than-life-masks, made of light wood and cloth padding, for certain characters. The characters who do not wear masks have specific facial colours applied within the frame of a white chutti. The predominant colours used are dark green, flesh tint and deep rose. Most of the characters wear red vests and flowing 'Uthariyams'. The characters of Krishna, Arjuna and Garuda wear dark blue vests. The traditional performance lasts for eight days and covers the whole span of Krishna's life from his birth to 'Swargarohanam' or ascension to the heavens. Orchestral accompaniments are Maddalam, Ilathalam and Chengila. Krishnanattom, though boasting of a unique choreography, assumes more the nature of a Morality Play, seldom presuming to lay claim to the theatrical sophistry so integral to Kathakali and Kootiyattam.


Slow, graceful, swaying movements of the body and limbs and highly emotive eye and hand gestures are unique to this dance form. The simple, elegant gold-filigreed dress, in pure white or ivory, is akin to the traditional attire of the women of Kerala. The origin of Mohiniyattom is rooted in Hindu mythology. This dance was adopted by the Devadasi or temple dancers, hence also the name 'Dasiattam' which was very popular during the Chera reign from 9th to 12th century.


Thiruvathirakali is a dance performed by women, in order to attain everlasting marital bliss, on Thiruvathira day in the Malayalam month of Dhanu (December- January). The dance is a celebration of marital fidelity and the female energy, for this is what brought Kamadeva (the god of love) back to life after he was reduced to ashes by the ire of Lord Siva. The sinuous movements executed by a group of dancers around a nilavilakku, embody 'lasya' or the amorous charm and grace of the feminine. The dance follows a circular, pirouetting pattern accompanied by clapping of the hands and singing.


Thullal is a solo performance combining the dance and recitation of stories in verse. Staged during temple festivals, the performer explicates the verses through expressive gestures. The themes are based on mythology. This satiric art form was introduced in the18th century by the renowned poet Kunchan Nambiar. Humour, satire and social criticism are the hallmarks of Thullal. The make up, though simple, is very much akin to that of Kathakali. The Thullal dancer is supported by a singer who repeats the verses and is accompanied by an orchestra of mridangam or thoppi maddalam (percussions) and cymbals. There are three related forms of Thullal - Ottanthullal , Seethankanthullal and Parayanthullal - of which the first is the most popular. The three are distinguished by the costumes worn and the metre of the verses.


Kootiyattam literally means "acting together". This is the earliest classical dramatic art form of Kerala. Based on Sage Bharatha's 'Natyasasthra' who lived in the second century, Kootiyattam evolved in the 9th century AD. Kootiyattam is enacted inside the temple theatre, there are two or more characters onstage at the same time, with the Chakkiars providing the male cast and the Nangiars playing the female roles. The Nangiars beat the cymbals and recite verses in Sanskrit, while in the background Nambiars play the Mizhavu, a large copper drum. The Koodal Manickyam temple at Irinjalakkuda and the Vadakkumnatha temple at Thrissur are the main centres where Kootiyattam is still performed annually.


Aravanamuttu is also known as Duffmuttu. It is a group performance popular among the Muslims of Malabar. Duffmuttu is staged as a social event during festivals and nuptial ceremonies. The artistes beat on a quaint round percussion instrument called the Duffu, the leader of the group sings the lead, while the others form the chorus and move in circles. The songs are often tributes to martyrs, heroes and saints.