Origin of Tullal Dance
There is an interesting story behind the origin of Tullal. During a performance the proficient Kunchan Nambiyar dozed off for a while and did not provide percussive support to the Chakkiyar actor. The Chakkiyar made fun of his behaviour with some whimsical remark. Nambiyar took offence and walked off. In protest against the Chakkiyar's comments, he dissociated from Kutiyattam and started contemplating a different art form. Thus the concept of Tullal comes. Leaving aside the question of credibility, the fact remains that Nambiyar made his art more meaningful and appealing to the common people. This has been done by introducing a new technique of storytelling. Nambiyar was an active participant in the elitist Sanskrit theatre. Apart from his own experience in Kuttu in which social criticism and satire are of prime importance, he delved deep into the popular form of Patayani. He combined this with indigenous narration, rhythms, dance, and costumes in the total art of Tullal.
Features of Tullal Dance
While retelling stories from the epics, Nambiyar dealt with events and experiences in his contemporary context and made the epic characters live among the people. Social commentary, humour, satire, colloquial expressions, proverbs, gave his texts immediate appreciation from the common man. Tullal has three variations namely Ottan, Sitangan, and Parayan. These are adopted by Nambiyar from Patayani characters and assigned specific costumes. There are differences in metrical structure and tempo in each style. He composed many stories in each of the above denominations, for a total of forty-one. Later authors also composed Tullal poems, but only a few made lasting impacts. All the poems came down as oral literature, finally printed only in the early twentieth century.
The solo Tullal performer sings the entire passage. It is repeated by a musician from behind to the accompaniment of cymbals and Toppi Maddalam. This is basically a cylindrical drum with both sides covered with pelt and played with the palms. He also translates the meaning of the sung text into action through dance, gestures and facial expressions. The footwork is extensively patterned to blend with the rhythms and the gestures are simple and communicative. This follows the ancient Sanskrit text Hastalakshana Dipika i.e. 'Light on Hand Gestures'. This is a treatise on gestural language popular in Kerala. Malabar Raman Nair of Kerala Kalamandalam was the best-known exponent in the mid-twentieth century, followed by Vechoor Thankamani Pillai in recent times.
Ottan Thullal Dance
This is the most popular style among all the forms of Thullal. It has an impressive costume which consists of a long tape of cloth which is hooked around the waist string forming a knee length skirt. A chest plate is also worn by the performer which is embellished by beautiful beads and ornaments. On the wrists the dancer wears painted wooden ornaments. Tinkling bells are tied to the legs. The lips are painted red whereas the face green. The eyes are made prominent with black paint. Colourful head dress is also worn. The songs of this style have a high tempo.
Sheethankan Thullal Dance
It is another form of Thullal which is performed at a little less pace than Ottan Thullal. The costumes are similar however head, arm and wrist dresses are adorned with fresh tender coconut fronds. Only the eyes are darkened and no facial make up is done.
Parayan Thullal Dance
It has the slowest tempo of all the forms of Thullal. The dancing style is also quite different where the dancer explains the songs with different gestures by standing erect. Actions are very less in Parayan Thullal. The costume consists of red, flowery cloth which is worn around the waist, a crown made of black cloth on the head and necklaces on the chest. Light yellow colour paints the face of the dancer.