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Dances of Kerala

Dances of Kerala | Kerala Dances | Kerala Dancers

Kerala is rich with about 35 different types of tribal people and tribal dances like Elelakkaradi, Paniyarkali and Mankali have managed to withstand the test of the changing times. The dances of Kerala can be divided into roughly three types - folk dances, dance dramas and semi-classical dances apart from the two most popular classical dance forms of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. Here, we have tried to cover almost all the popular dances of the region but the land is so full of myriad culture, tradition and rituals that only a visit to the place can reveal all its glory.

Folk Dances

Out of 50 traditional folk dances that have survived, Kummi is perhaps the most captivating with its continuously increasing pace and rhythm of the song and the dance steps and the exciting advancement of the complication of the dance steps that enchants the audience.

Tiruvathira dance is performed by maidens who revolve in a circle while performing dance steps to the beat of rhythmic claps that gives music to their graceful movements and the narrative song sung by the dancers as they go round. One of the best example is the narrative poetry based on the story of Shakuntala that Machatt Illyat wrote for this dance in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Evolved from Kalaripayattu, a group dance developed by the Syrian Christians of Kerala is known as Margamkali. The word 'Margam' means 'path' and it was indeed meant for the propagation of Christian religious ideas. There is no music to accompany the prformance and dancers sing themselves while playing in a circle around a lighted oil lamp. The master, leader and tutor of the performance of the troupe is known as 'Asan'. Since the language used by the characters is old Tamil, which is not the language of the performers and the audience (which is Malyalam), Asan remains on stage as the interpreter and leads the song too for the group.

Kolkali has only slight differences when performed by Christians, Muslims and and Harijans. A group dance performed in a circle, choreographed in such a way that dancers make rhythmic beat with short sticks in their hands. The steps are vibrant while songs consist mostly of meaningless syllables followed by verses. The dance gains tempo and pace as it advances. Only males participate in this dance and require basic martial art training to perform its complicated steps.

Muslims of Kerala have specific dance forms of their own including Oppana and Aravanmuttu. Performed by both men and women, Oppana is accompanied by clapping of hands. Mainly performed in marriages, the women perform in a circle and receive the bride while men stand aside singing songs, ready to receive the bridegroom. However, the origin of Aravana can be traced back to the Arabs and is still accompanied by Arabic music. The instrument used to produce rhythm is called daf or tap, a round percussion instrument with one side covered with hide.

Dance Dramas

Yatrakali is known by different names such as Samghakkali, Chattira Ankam, Sastramkam, Kshatramkam or Panemkali. An art of the Nambootiris, it originated when the Nambootiris were persecuted under the rule of one of the Cheraman Perumals who accepted the Buddhist faith as a mirror held against the artistic and social sense of the region and the times. Elements of many popular forms of dance and music were incorporated into this art either in their transformed or real forms.

Ochirakali is held at a place called Ochira in Alleppey district as a part of an annual festival where a mock fight is staged lasting for two days to commemorate a battle fought between the kings of two feudal principalities, Kayamkulam and Ambalapuzha. The fight takes place in front of the Ochira temple that has no temple building or any image of god or goddess. Each group advances in offence and retreats in defence and the movements gain momentum and tempo as the show advances.

Chavittunatakam is a Christian dramatic form which was introduced during the time of the Portuguese in Kerala in the16th century A.D. 'Chavittu' means the rhythmic steps which accompanied the recitation of lines. Inspited by the Western Opera type of theatre, the themes, acting techniques, stage structure and plot treatment presented were western while the texts were written in old Tamil.

Manavedan founded Krishnattam, a choreographed dance drama based on Krishna's life while the Raja of Kottarakkara introduced Ramanattam, play based on Ramayana. Ramanattam was performed in Manipravala style and was performed by the Raja himself and his Nayar soldiers.

Semi Classical Dance

The word 'Thullal' means dance and it emerged in the eighteenth century. The cumulative product of all traditional folk and classical theatrical arts of Kerala, it was founded by Kunchan Nambiar to represent the accumulated aesthetic experience of all sections of the society. The themes were drawn from the never failing myths and epics of India. A solo performance, it is a tale narrated in verse. The full painting of the face is retained for the expressive advantage. The costume is picturesque. Based on different styles of narrative singing, rhythms of dancing, foot work and make-up of the dancer, three varieties of Thullal that were evolved in course of time are Ottan Thullal, the most popular one, Seethankan Thullal and Parayan Thullal.

Koodiyattam emerged in the ninth century as a full-fledged dramatic presentation in Sanskrit. The Vidushaka, the comic character, was the only one character who spoke in Malayalam and was actually an ironic foil to the hero. For the common people, a parallel tradition emerged in the form of Pathakam, which was written in Malayalam instead of in Sanskrit by Punam in the fifteenth century. Pana-Thottam is another form of a similar recital. This tradition finally culminated in the Thullal. Koodiyattom is a temple art and probably the only surviving form of the traditional presentation of Sanskrit drama.

Nanniar Koothu is a dance form conducted in some prominent Kerala temples by the womenfolk of Nambiar community, who are believed to be the descendants of the Devadasis community, as a ceremonial ritual. It is a solo dance based on the story of Sri Krishna.


A well-developed dance-drama, it is a performance where the actors depict characters from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and from the Puranas (ancient scriptures). Adorned with elaborately painted faces, headgears and grand costumes, the dancers are accompanied by drummers and vocalists. Ritual traditions like Theyyams, Mudiyattam and the martial arts of Kerala played a major role in shaping the dance into its present form. The great poet Vallathol rediscovered Kathakali and established the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1932.


Older than Kathakali, Mohiniyattam is the female semi-classical dance form mainly performed in the temple precincts of Kerala. The dance of the enchantress, Mohiniyattam is also the heir to Devadasi dance heritage like Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. The first reference to Mohiniyattam is found in 'Vyavaharamala' composed by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri, assigned to the 16th century AD. Vallathol, a poet, revived it and gave it a status in modern times. The theme of Mohiniyattam is love and devotion to god. There are circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions that include suggestive 'bhavas'. It maintains a realistic makeup and simple dressing. The dancer is attired in the beautiful white and gold-bordered Kasavu saree of Kerala.

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