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Arts, Crafts, Dance, Literature, and Ayurvedic Traditions of Kerala

  • This article is part four of similar articles, the first three being on Punjab, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Lush green fields, bustling rivers, spectacular white sandy beaches with pristine blue waters, dreamy houseboats that sail in the backwaters, and an abundance of flora and fauna in expansive marshlands - all the factors that contribute to the epithet for Kerala: ‘God’s Own Country.’ 

Despite being an ancient land, Kerala is one of the most socially and pedagogically progressive states in India. The people of Kerala: the Malayalis, value their time-honoured arts and traditions. They live a modern lifestyle classically intertwined with a traditional approach. Here is an attempt to extol the arts, crafts, dance, literature, and ayurvedic traditions of Kerala.

1. Arts & Crafts of Kerala

Kerala is a paradise for the connoisseurs of aesthetics. Its centuries’- old art and craft forms have enthralled millions of visitors. 

1. Paintings

A painting from Kerala.

Kerala boasts of a unique style of paintings. Floor drawings and paintings in the state are traditionally called ‘Kalamezuthu.’ Kerala is known for its oil paintings on canvas, among these are the beautiful paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, the greatest artist from Kerala.  Frescos depicting scenes from local traditions and epics are seen on the walls of temples. Many temple walls are adorned with centuries-old murals that are well-preserved.

2. Handicrafts

Handicrafts in Kerala range from brass and metal works, wall hangings, coconut shell products, and gold and silver jewellery. All these products are artistically embellished by skilled craftsmen.

a. Brass and Metal works

Metal works from Kerala.

Bell metal - an alloy of tin, copper and brass is moulded into distinct shapes and sizes to create idols that depict characters and events. One specific event depicted in bell metal is the Tandava Dance. One can also find several household articles and lamps made of bell metal on display in local markets. 

b. Coir and cane products

The cottage industry in Kerala boasts of manufacturing coir products. Several household objects such as mats, mattresses, floor furnishings and so on are made of coir and cane. Furniture made of cane finds many buyers and is shipped across the country.

c. Sandalwood carvings

The districts of Cochin, Trichur, Tiruvananthapuram, and Ernakulam are famous for articles made of sandalwood. Decor pieces and souvenirs such as jewellery boxes, pen cases, wall hangings, wind chimes, ashtrays, toys, candle stands, miniature models of animals and so on made of sandalwood are seen in local markets and at all tourist destinations across the state.

2. Dances of Kerala

Performing arts in Kerala comprise dance, music, and theatre. Kerala features classical dances such as Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Pulikali as well as ritualistic form dances like Theyyam, Kummathikkali and Mudiyettu. Read on about the glorious dances.

Folk Dances

a. Kathakali

A Kathakali dancer.

Kathakali, the classical dance form of Kerala is renowned for its elaborate and heavy make-up, costumes, masks, and ornaments. It dates back to the 17th century and presents stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Mahakavi Vallathol Narayan Menon is known to have given Kathakali its present form by establishing the Kerala Kalamandalam, an institution to train people in classical dance forms. Earlier these dance forms were staged only in temples. Vallathol played a major role in bringing them out of the four walls of temples and providing opportunities for others (communities and religions) to witness this art form.

Kathakali consists of both nritya (pure dance) and abhinaya (mime). It uses the entire body, including the facial muscles, to depict emotion. Earlier it was performed only by men, but women are increasingly taking to this dramatic dance form.

The characters in Kathakali are Pacha (green-Satwika-heroes), Kari (black-villains)and Minukku (female). Characters don either a white or a red beard - Hanuman and the sages wear a white beard, while Baali is seen sporting a red beard. Kathi (means knife) is another category of villain. The dancer uses his/her interpretation to portray the story that is sung for them, making the dance form one of the most magnificent theatres of imagination and creativity. 

b. Mohiniattam

A Mohiniattam dancer.

Mohiniattam originated in the state of Kerala. It is a solo female dance performance performed by gently swaying the body from side to side. The theme of Mohiniattam is rooted in the feminine concepts of shringara and love. It is believed that Mohiniattam is devoted to the feminine form of Vishnu: Mohini - the enchantress.

The guidelines for hand and arm movements in this dance form are mentioned in the classical text called ‘Hastha Lakshandeepika.’ 

Mohiniattam gradually gained a tainted reputation as the Devdasi system took root in Southern India. However, with social reform and ethical consciousness, the dance form eventually regained its past glory and respect.

In the 19th century, the enlightened ruler of Travancore, Swati Tirunal revived the dance form and encouraged performances with the accompaniment of musical instruments such as the violin, veena, and mridangam. He composed approximately 50 padams (verses) replete with scope for abhinaya.

c. Pulikali

Pulikali performance. 

Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a traditional folk dance-form of Kerala, most popular in the regions of Palakkad and Thrissur. In Malayalam, Pulikali lierally means ‘play of the tigers.’ It was introduced by Sakthan Thampuran about two centuries ago. 

Pulikali is performed on the fourth day of Onam. The performers of Pulikali, usually six in a group, have their bodies painted in colours and patterns that represent the tiger, wear tiger masks, and perform a dance which resembles the hunting rituals performed while on a tiger hunt.

The dance comprises scenes such as the tiger catching its prey (offered as bait by the hunters) and crescendo where the tiger is finally caught by the hunters. The drummer plays a very important part of this act as the beat, rhythm, tempo, and vibrations are provided by the drums.

To see 5 pictures of Pulikali dance at Thrissur

Ritual dances

a. Theyyam

Theyyam performance. 

Theyyam, a ritual dance-form performed by a certain community of Kolathunadu area of Kerala dates back several thousand years. The dance is performed by a dancer referred to as Theyyam (corrupt form of deivam means God). People of neighbouring districts revere Theyyam as one would revere God himself, and seek his blessings.

Theyyam is first performed without make-up and called Vellaattam. Then with make-up. The performer makes a parikrama of the Temple or the grove in the ancestral home, then he runs in the courtyard and blesses the family members. Musical instruments, dance steps, vocal recitations, peculiar makeup, and costumes – make Theyyam a visual treat. 

b. Mudiyettu

A Mudiyettu performance. 

This traditional ritual dance-form is performed to enact the event of Goddess Kali killing the demon Darika. This ritual belongs to the Bhadrakali cult prevalent in some parts of Kerala.

Kuruppanmar, a certain set of people, perform this ritual dance in temples called Bhagvati Kavus. These temples are dedicated to the Mother Goddess.  

3. Martial Arts & Sports of Kerala

The Malayalis believe in holistic development of the body, mind, and soul, and train in martial arts starting right from early childhood. Martials arts are teamed with rowing competitions which take place during festivals such as Onam and Vishu.

a. Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu.

Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest martial art forms in the world, originated in Kerala and is a matter of immense pride for the Malayalis. The masters and practitioners of Kalaripayattu believe that this art form is about 1500 years old.

Kalari is an ancient place of learning for subjects such as medicine, philosophy, architecture, astrology, geometry, and martial art. Kalaripayattu literally means the ‘art of fighting from the land of Kalari’ and conceptually means training in the art of combat. 

The postures and exercises are derived from the science of Yoga and medical treatments are derived from the science of Ayurveda.

b. Parisa Kali

Parisa Kali.

The Parisa Kali martial art form involves rigorous physical training and knowledge of the use of arms or weapons. It belongs to the North Malabar region of Kerala.

c. Velakali

Velakali martial art originated in Travancore. Velakali performances portray the classic battle fought at Kurukshetra between the warring cousins: Pandavas and Kauravas.

It involves enacting both an overview of the entire battle and individual scenes from the epic battle, detailing the concepts of right and wrong, and reinforcing good deeds over bad deeds. Velakali is usually played out during temple festivals at Cherthala and Amabalapuzha.

The spectacular show put up by Velakali performers at the Shree Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram during the ten day annual Painkuni temple festival, held in March-April, is visually captivating.

d. Valeru and Kundameru

Among the marital art forms of Kerala, Valeru is unique. The art form, primarily concerned with using swords as a means of combat, involves sword-throwing. Kundameru literally means throwing spikes / spears and entails tightrope walking. It is performed at temple festivals in Kerala during certain seasons only.

There are some lesser known martial art forms such as Njaninmel Kali which also consist of tightrope walking. However, this martial art form is gradually collapsing. Unique acts, postures, and formations from this martial art form are now being deployed in circus training in South India. In fact, the Kannur and Thalassery regions of Kerala are now known as the ‘home of circus in India.’ 

4. Literary Arts and Cinema

Apart from the regular arts, crafts, dance, music, and culture of the state, Kerala has a lot to offer in terms of literature and cinema.

Literature

Malayalam poetry, prose, and drama are appreciated the world over for their universal appeal despite their local Dravidian flavours. Malayalam literature dating back almost 1000 years, in addition to its own distinctive charm, has been influenced heavily by languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic, English, French and Portuguese.

It is not surprising to note that Kerala is home to production of not only Malayalam but also Tamil literature, given the geographical proximity of the states and the descent of both languages - Malayalam and Tamil.

Some of the noteworthy creations in Malayalam include:

a. Ramacharitham

Poems composed during the first 600 years of Malayalam literature are called pattus. The Ramacharitham, composed by Cheeraman in 1198 CE, is a compilation 1814 pattus - a collection of stories from the Yuddha Kanda in Ramayana. While some experts argue about Ramacharitham being a Tamil verse, recent research has established that the literary piece is in fact compiled in an ancient style of Malayalam.

b. Manipravalam

Manipravalam, literally meaning ruby coral, is a peculiar mixture of Malayalam (mani) and Sanskrit (pravalam). It is widely considered literature of the elite, patronized especially the Nambudiris. Some of the most renowned works belonging to the Manipravalam School of literature include Vaisika Tantram, Achi Chiratams, and Sandesa Kavyas.

c. Niranam Poets

Madhava, Sankara, and Rama Parrikar - three writers resumed and replenished the traditions of conventional, serious-minded poetic craft set up by the Cheeraman of Ramacharitham. Influenced by the Bhakti movement, the three writers wrote one of their most important works - Kanassa Ramamyanam.

d. Champus and Krishnagatha

Two parallel schools of literature emerged in the later 15th Century CE - the Champus (influenced by Manipravalam) and Krishnagatha (influenced by pattus). While Champus were essentially a combination of prose and verse, Krishnagatha is the song of Krishna composed by the legendary poet by the sobriquet Cherusseri.

Cinema

Since the period of silent Malayalam movies in 1928, the film industry in Kerala has struck a chord with its audiences given their social orientation and relevance. The fourth biggest film industry in India, Malayalam cinema goes by the sobriquet of Mollywood (Malayalam + Hollywood).

Known for their realistic and content-driven plots, compelling storylines, and awe-inspiring cinematography, several old and new Malayalam movies have been shortlisted under the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category at the Academy Awards. 

5. Kerala Ayurveda

An Ayurveda Centre.

Kerala extends to the world, the gift of Ayurveda. Ayurveda is an ancient Vedic system of healthcare and wellness that developed in India roughly about 5000 years ago. It is a science of holistically treating the body, mind, and soul. Overall, Ayurveda is known to offer healthy solutions or long-term treatment opportunities for almost all the diseases experienced by humankind.

Hence, Ayurveda is known as the Science of Life.

Kerala is the perfect place for the enrichment of Ayurveda owing to a tropical climate and a cool, soothing monsoon which lasts approximately 5 months, which in turn foster the growth of its rich, dense forests teeming with herbs and medicinal plants. Medically potent ingredients and oils are extracted from these medicinal plants and are offered to those who wish to avail of them – in different Ayurvedic treatment and massage plans and packages. 

These treatment solutions and massage therapies are verified and certified by medical authorities and are offered by Ayurvedic centres across the state. Ayurvedic centres today combine the practices of Ayurveda, Unani and Naturopathy to effectively formulate customised packages for everyone.

It is incredible how Kerala has retained, preserved, and enhanced this glorious tradition and ancient science of Ayurveda.

The people of Kerala are intelligent, warm, progressive, and hospitable to say the least. They demonstrate immense respect for the wholesome essence of life.

To read similar articles about other states

1. Maharashtra

2. Punjab

3. Rajasthan

Also read

1. Ayurveda courses at the Sivananda Yog Ashram Kerala

2. Poomully Mana – Home to pristine Ayurvedic remedy

3. Sabarimala is also connected to Tamil culture

4. The all women festival in Kerala is Attukul Pongala

5. Kerala’s outstanding women

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