Classical dances of Kerala are more or less based on the principles and techniques embodied in the ancient Hindu scriptures and technical texts on dance and allied arts. The earliest of these known scripts is Natyashastra believed to have been written around the second century B.C. In Classical Dance performance, sophistication, along the norms of the scriptures of advance theories on dance and dramaturgy are strictly adhered to. The concept of portraying emotion, the grace of the individual dances and the virtuosity of the isolated poses are all important in classical dances of Kerala. Some of the major classical dances of Kerala are as follows;
Koothu: This classical dance is one of the oldest of theatrical arts peculiar to Kerala. The term Koothu literally means dance which may be taken as an index of the importance attached to dance in the original form of the art. The actor recites stories from the epics interpreting them in Malayalam language, enlivening his narration with Thandava dance rhythms and also gestures and bodily postures which are clearly derived from Natyashastra. In actual performance the dancer adorned with his special type of headgear and unusual facial make-up offers prayers to the presiding deity of the particular temple where he is performing. After that he recites a verse from the Sanskrit text from which he intends to expound and then explains it in Malayalam. The instruments used are a pair of cymbals and the mizhavu which is a big copper drum.
Patakam: This is another popular classical dance form similar to the Koothu in its technical content. But here the dance element is almost given up and the narration is done through an alternating prose and song sequences, the gestures being retained.
Koodiyattam: Instead of single Chakyar a number of performers get together and stage this dance-drama. That is why it is called Koodiyattam, literally means 'dancing together'. Both men and women partake in this performance. Abhinaya is the most important element in Koodiyattam. The texts are always in Sanskrit and the performance is a prolonged affair. All the four types of abhinaya, namely Angikam, Vachikam, Sathvikam and Aharyam are fully utilised in Koodiyattom. The plays are performed only in temple precincts as votive offerings. The make-up patterns as seen in Kathakali are borrowed from Koodiyattam. The stage craft is simple, with hardly any stage setting. Koodiyattam is perhaps the oldest dance-drama in existence in India.
Ashtapadi Attam: This is a popular dance form based on the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva. It was more of a dramatic representation of the renowned lyrical play. Altogether there are only five characters, Krishna, Radha and three females. However, this classical dance form is now almost extinct.
Krishnanattam: A refinement of Ashtapadiattam, evolved by Manavedan, the Zamorin was Krishnanattam. The whole story of Krishna is presented through a drama-cycle.
Ramanattam: Legends say that an offshoot of the rivalry between the Zamorin and the Raja of Kottarakara, the later created the Ramanattom, the dance-drama on the life of Rama. In course of time the masks were discarded and a richer variety in facial make-up was developed. It was this Ramanattam that developed into Kathakali.
Kathakali: Kathakali is one of the most popular classical dances of India. Vivid and eloquent in its characteristics mudras (hand sings), natural and impressive in gesture, graceful and rhythmic in movement, pleasing in choreography and above all delightful in wealth of imagery, Kathakali ranks high among the Indian dance forms. For themes Kathakali draws upon the inexhaustible treasure trove of the ancient Puranas chronicling the lives, loves and conflicts of the gods and supermen of Indian mythology. Music is an important and essential element in Kathakali.
Thullal: A solo dance exposition, Thullal is of three types. Dance is given prime importance in Thullal. Thullal is classified into three different types- Ottan, Seethankan and Parayan.
Mohiniyattam: Mohiniattam is a seductive dance performed by women and it is very sensuous in its appeal. The symmetrical patterns of emotion flow in balanced nuances with smooth footwork, somewhat quickened body movements and special music. As the name implies it is the dance of the charmer. The technical structure of Mohiniattam is fairly similar to that of Bharatnatyam.
Theyyam: It is a renowned and ritualistic form of dance in Kerala. It originated predominantly from the Kolathunadu area and also the Kodagu and South Canara region of Karnataka as living cult carrying forward a tradition, custom and ritual of thousand year old. The performers are from the communities of low level in the ancient structure of caste which was initially formed by the Namboothiri Brahmins who have an important position in Theyyam. The local people consider this dance form as a channel to God. They seek their blessings from Theyyam.
Kerala Natanam: It is a contemporary form of dance that has evolved from the traditional Kathakali. Thankamani and Guru Gopinaths dance programs have discovered traditional pieces that exist side by side with the traditional and modified themes. The style relies heavily on the gestures and bodily movements along with the facial expressions from Kathakali. Guru Gopinath had changed the major stances of Kathakali to a more convenient posture which could be put together well with the concept of Tribhanga.
Padayani: It is a traditional ritual art and folk dance also known as Padeni. It is a ceremonial that involves masks and is performed in the ancient rituals in Bhagavati temple. The dance form is performed in honor of Bhadrakali. It means a “row of warriors” and an art form that blends in dance, theatre, music, paintings, facial masks, and satire. It is staged into the temple dedicating to the goddess Bhadrakali from mid-December to mid-May. It is regarded as the remnants of Dravidian worshipping forms which existed before Brahmanism. It is unique to central Travancore.
Mayilpeeli Thookkam: It is a ritual art of Kerala also known as Arjuna Nritham. It is performed mainlyby men of the ezhava and vikurupp and is prevalent in Bhagavathy temples of the south Kerala.in the Mahabharata, Arjuna is considered as the most valiant of five heroic brothers, who was also a popular dancer and singer. It is said that he propitiated the Goddess Bhadrakali by devotional presentation.
The other name of Arjuna Nritham is Mayipeeli Thookkamas costumes include a characteristic of garments made of peacock feathers. The garment is worn around the waist in the same fashion as Uduthukettu is worn in Kathakali. The dance movements are similar to the movements in Kalarippayattu.
Margamkali: It is an ancient dance of the St.Thomas Christians community in Kerala. It originated in the parts of ancient Tamil culture in ancient Tamilakam where it was practiced mainly by the endogamous subsect called Knanaya or Southist Christians. The dance retells missionary work and life of the St.Thomas the Apostle which is based on the third century apocryphal Acts of Thomas.
Kummattikali: it is a famous and vibrant mask danced of Kerala mostly prevalent in the districts of Thrissur, Palakkad and parts of south Malabar. The Kummattikali performers during the festival of Onam move from house to house collecting gifts and entertaining them at the same time. The original or pristine form of Kummattikal can be witnessed in the Bhadrakali Temple of Palakkad district.
Thus, discussed above are some of the renowned classical dance forms of Kerala that also provide a glimpse of the rich culture of the state.
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