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Culture of kerala  >>  Dances of Kerala

Kerala has a long tradition of ritual and performing arts. Social and religious history of Kerala greatly contributes and perpetuates to the evolution of these arts. Dances of Kerala are integral parts of Kerala's socio-cultural life. They are performed on the occasion of religious festivals and social events such as childbirth and marriage.

Kerala is the birthplace of two classical dance forms - Kathakali and Mohiniattam. The former has only male performers, and the latter can only be performed by females. Kathakali owes its origin in the 17th century Kerala. It is a highly evolved form of dance-drama, where subtle facial

expressions and mudras or hand formations play crucial roles in infusing life to the characters.In Kathakali recital, emotive expressions of the elaborately costumed actors with colourfully painted faces, amalgamate with their fluid dance movements to take the viewers to a new aesthetic level, where only music, dance and pantomime narration rules…

Kathakali is also known as the king of the performing arts as it combines five main fine arts such as painting, literature, acting, music and dance. It combines aspects of ballet, opera, pantomime and masque in it. The themes of Kathakali are generally mythological, and are centered around Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kerala's famous wood items with magnificent carvings are used for costumes. The face painting requires about 3-5 hours. The vegetable dyes and lime, indigo, soot, sulphur, rice paste and vermilion are used for painting the face, which is rubbed with coconut oil. Two male singers sing the songs which accompany these dance performances. These songs are known as Kathakali Padam. The instruments used are the ela talam, the maddalam, the chengila and the chenda.

Another important classical dance of Kerala is the Mohiniattam. It is a solo dance, to be performed by a woman. It was initially performed by the Devdasis in the temples. However, the dance has a sensual element in it. The dances are accompanied by singing of lyrics and music. The costume of Mohiniattam is a white sari embroidered with dazzling golden brocade at the edges. This dance form is also heavily dependent upon facial expressions and mudras, which complements the deft movements of the     danseuse.Mohiniattam has imbibed influences of Bharata Natyam and Kathakali in it.

Besides these classical dances, Kerala also has a great many ritual and folk dance forms, which amply embody the fascinating enigma of this land. Theyyam, Arjuna Nrityam and Kaikottaikali are only some of them.

Arjuna Nrityam is referred as 'the Dance of Arjuna'. It is inspired from Mahabharata. This dance form is performed in the Bhagavathy or Bhadrakali temples of Kerala. This dance is performed by the men wearing a costume with the lower garment made from the peacock feathers. Hence, it is also known as Mayilpeeli Thookkam or Mayilpeeli Nrityam. 'Mayil' in Malayalam means peacock whereas 'Peeli' translates into feather. The dancers paint their faces using the green vegetable dyes in the traditional way. They also wear headgears. This dance is performed either solo or in pairs; the performances lasting the whole night. The performance is held in the light of traditional oil lamps. The songs to which the dances are rendered are known

as Kavithangal. They deal with the Hindu mythological themes. The traditional instruments used during the dance are maddalam, ilathalam, chenda and talachenda.

Theyyam is another folk dance of Kerala which has its origins in the archaic past. It is generally performed among the tribal groups of Kerala, and the dancers adorn grotesque make up and costumes. This folk dance takes the form of worshipping and appeasing of spirits and various deities, and invoking them to the mortal body of the dancers. The 'possessed' dancers display uncommon fervour and dance animatedly, while bestowing blessings to the believers. The Theyyam performers belong to the Mannan, Velan and Malayan communities of Kerala. It is an open-air dance and doesn't have or require any stage.

The Theyyam dances are accompanied by full-throated tottam songs, devoid of any literary sophistication, which the folk singers render in their loud voices, along with the 'possessed' dance of the dancers. The atmosphere becomes charged with excitement and anticipation, which can even induce many non-believers to believe in spirits. However, despite its primeval character, Theyyam dance is many a time performed for satiating many day-to-day needs of today, such as wining of law suits and getting children.

Kaikottikali is a popular folk dance form of Kerala, which is being performed only by the women and young maidens. This dance form is associated with two festive occasions known as the Onam and the Thiruvathirai. The participants wear the traditional attire, the gold-bordered mundu and neriyathu. A group of 7-10 women perform this dance around the brass lighted lamp known as the nilavilakku. Kaikottikali emphasize on the rhythmic movements.

Some of the other popular dance forms of Kerala include:
- Thullal
- Margamkali
- Bharata Natyam
- Pallukali
- Koodiyattam
- Oppana
- Kathaprasangam

Together, these dances of Kerala represent the seminal rhythm of the life-force of the colourful and fascinating people of Kerala.


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