The cultural Heritage of Kerala goes way back to ancient times. The contribution of Kerala to literature, music and arts of Indian heritage is unique and exemplary. Isolation of Kerala from the other parts of India by Western Ghats helped Kerala to retain its cultural heritage almost to its original form.
Koodiyattam is the sole surviving classical Sanskrit theatre in India. Koodiyattam literally means "acting together". This is the earliest classical dramatic art form of Kerala. Kathakali's 2000 years old predecessor, Koodiyattam is performed as a vo-tive offering to the deity in the temple.
Chakyars enact the male-characters and Nangiars (the women of the Nambiars) enact the female-characters. Nambiars play Mizhavu, the major percussion-instrument in Koodiyattam. The charector Vidooshaka who speaks three languages- Sanskrit, Prakrit (Crude form of Sanskrit) and the local dialect (Malayalam), portrays the true-character of the protagonist with his words and actions. The four-fold concept of acting dealt with in the Natyasastra find its due significance in Koodiyattam. Hand-gestures, body-movements, verbal acting, make-up, costuming and facial expressions in Koodiyattam are highly stylised.
The name Kathakali is derived form the two words "Katha" meaning story and "Kali" for dance. It is a beautiful mix of dance, drama and music that the connoisseurs of art world qualified as 'a total art form of immense sophistication and power'.
Kathakali was born only in the 17th century. But in less than four centuries it grew up to represent India's cultural heritage to the world outside. An eclectic art Kathakali evolved its classicism receiving inspiration from most of its predecessors like Koodiyattam, Krishnanattam, Theyyam, Kalaripayattu etc.
Kathakali plays are composed from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavatha. The play synchronizes on stage Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (Expressional Dance), Natya (Histrionics), Geeta (Vocal Music) and Vadya (Percussion Ensemble). The language of hand-gestures, body movements and facial expressions are the means of communication. The text of the play is sung by the principal and supporting vocalists. The dancers translate the songs into appropriate gestures, movements and expressions.
Mohiniyattam (dance of the enchantress), the classical female dance-tradition of Kerala, probably was evolved in the seventeenth century. Known for its graceful and sensuous movements, it depicts emotions in ways which are universally understood. Mohiniyattom falls within the soft, graceful traditions of lasya - the expression of the cosmic feminine creativity. Mohiniyattam flourished in the court of King Swathi Thirunal who ruled Travancore in the 18th century. The post-Swathy period witnessed the downfall of Mohiniyattam. Mahakavi Vallathol rescued Mohiniyattam from total extinction and added to the carriculam of Kalamandalam.
The make-up and dressing of Mohiniyattam is simple and semi-realistic. The dancer's face is made up of yellow and pink-paste. She wears sandal coloured jacket and sari. Jasmin flowers adorn her tied up hair. She decorates her eyes with Kajal and the lips are reddened. The theme of Mohiniyattam is devotion to love of God. Mridangam, Violin and Edakka lend excellent support to the vocal music and to the visual rhythm of Mohiniyattam.
The members of the Chakiar caste perform the Chakiarkuthu, introduced to Kerala by the Aryan immigrants. An orthodox entertainment, staged in a theatre known as 'koothambalam', in earlier days witnessed only by the Hindus of the higher castes. The Chakiar acts the role of all the charactors to the tune of the Mizhavu played by the Nambiar and the cymbals by the Nangiar. He expounds puranic stories drawing parallels from contemporary life in order to emphasize a point or relate a moral from the stories he is narrating. Chakiars has the privilege to crack jocks even at the expense of the dignitaries present in the audience.
Thullal is a solo dance-drama created 200 years ago by Kunjan Nambiar. The basic element of Thullal is satire, through which Nambiar set about correcting the evils that prevailed in the society. All the sixty plays of Thullal composed by Kunchan Nambiar are replete with humour, sarcasm and social criticism. Thullal has three divisions - Seethankan, Ottan and Parayan. The distinction between them lies mostly in the make-up and costumes and to some extent in the metres and the rhythm used.
Thullal is a combination of the humorous elements of Koothu and some elements of Kathakali and is performed by a single actor wearing colourful costumes. Thullal often reflects the literary, artistic and cultural life of the medieval Kerala. In Thullal, episodes from the Indian Epics are retold in simple Malayalam poetry. The performer establishes easy rapport with the audience through verbal acting which is full of humour and social references.
It is a Christian dance-drama art form of Kerala. During the 16th Century AD the Portuguese introduced this art form which spoke of the heroic exploits of legendary Christian warriors. 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. The players sung their lines loudly with exaggerated gestures, rich dialogues and songs to the accompaniment of beating of country drums. The language is a colloquial mix of Tamil and Malayalam.
Theyyam, also known as Kaaliyattam, is a ritual dance popular in north Kerala. It incorporates dance, mime and music and enshrines the rudiments of ancient tribal cultures which attached great importance to the worship of heroes and the spirits of ancestors. These are performed in temples by appointed people in fulfillment of vows of devotees. The dancers are men in feminine attire wearing colourful costumes made of palm leaves, cloth and brass jewellery, ferocious masks and big head gear
A dance form essential to the wedding entertainment and festivities of the Malabar Muslims, now performed among all muslim communities in Kerala. 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. Oppana is often presented as a stage item today.
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. The dancers perform around a nilavilakku. The dance follows a circular, pirouetting pattern accompanied by clapping of the hands and singing. Today, Thiruvathirakali has become a popular dance form for all seasons.
Kakkarissi natakom is a satirical dance-drama that questions and redicules injustice and evil practices those prevail in the society. It is based on the puranic legends of Lord Siva and his consort Parvati when they assumed human forms as Kakkalan and Kakkathi, a nomadic tribe of fortune tellers, and set out to reform the society. The language is a blend of Tamil and Malayalam. The chief characters are Kakkalan, Kakkathi, Vetan, Velichappadu, Thampuran and the Jester. The Dholak, Ganchira, Chenda and the Harmonium perform in the background.
Kerala claims its share in the field of Indian painting as well. The renowned Raja Ravi Varma was (1848-1906) a great artist who brought Indian Painting to the attention of the World. His magnificent paintings like Hamsadamayanti, Sakuntala, Milkmaid etc., still shine in their undying golry.
Kerala's rulers and musicians contributed to the development of Carnatic music. Swathithirunal Maharaja in the 19th century promoted karnatic music and wrote many keerthanas, pada and thillanas.
The stand alone music of Kerala is Sopanasangeetham that is used to sing kathakali padas and temple songs of rituals. In addition there are two percussion instruments, Chenda and Edakka, those are unique contribution of Kerala to Indian musical instruments.