Kutiyattam is India's oldest living theatrical art form

Kerala’s culture, landscape and Ayurveda amongst others attracts people from all over the world. This beautiful state of India is a land of exceptional art forms and colourful festivals.


Kuttiyattam is a good example of the rich cultural tradition of Kerala. This form of Sanskrit drama is one of the most remarkable and signature art form of Kerala.  Kutiyattam is Sanskrit theatre that was performed mainly in the temples of Kerala known as kootampalas. It would not be an exaggeration to say that without Kutiyattam, there is no soul to Kerala. 


This unique art form Kutiyattam is also known as Kootiattam or Koodiyattam. It is the most pristine and authentic form of ancient Indian theatre. Kutiyattam has also been declared as the Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.


The origin and history of Kutiyattam 


Historians believe that the idea of this Sanskrit theatre originated almost two thousand years ago. This ancient tradition came into limelight even prior to Kathakali and other theatrical art forms.


Kutiyattam is about the dramatized dance worship services in temples of ancient south India, particularly Kerala. Kutiyattam finds its roots in an ancient south Indian art form Koothu; this Sanskrit art form has been mentioned several times in the epigraphs belonging to Pallava, Chera, Chola periods.


King Kulasekhara Varman, a king of Chera dynasty who lived around 900 AD, had written two dramas, the Tapatisamvarana and Subhadradhananjaya. He made arrangements to enact these two dramas with the help of friends. These dramas played a huge role in reforming this Sanskrit art form of Kerala. King Kulasekhara Varman introduced the local language for Vidusaka and structured the presentation of the play to well-defined units. This dramatized dance form used to be offered in worship to the gods and goddesses along with chanting of the hymns. (Viduska was historically an entertainer during the medieval and Renaissance eras who was employed to entertain the royal guests.)


In the 20th century Kutiyattam was not limited to the boundaries of temples, instead it was played on stage and theatres like other dance forms. Kutiyattam has successfully preserved its literary heritage, acting technique, music, make-up and costume practices.


Specification of the performing actors


The meaning of Kutiyattam is ‘acting and dancing together’. The dance form is said to be based on ‘Drama Manual’ or the ‘Natyasastra’ which is a second century treatise of Bharata Muni.


This dance is performed in a specific manner and a lot of rules must be followed while enacting the ancient dance drama. The dance can only be presented by the men of Chakiar caste and the music is played by men belonging to the Nambiar caste. The female members of the Chakiar caste are not allowed to take part in this performance. The female roles of the drama are enacted by the female members of the Nambiar families. Chakiar and Nambiar are the sub-caste of Hindus in Kerala. When performed on stage this traditional art form is a treat to watch.  


The significance of Kutiyattam 


In the performance of this Sanskrit dance drama, everything has a meaning; nothing is done hastily or without purpose. Therefore, the construction of the kuttambalam, sacred theatres on the grounds of Hindu temples in Kerala where the Kutiyattam is performed, has spiritual significance too.


The assembly of a kuttambalam is related to the theory of vastupurusamandala, which is a combination of three words: vastu, Purusa, and mandala. Vastu is a concept linked to the limitations of existence and, in this case, it is related to the borders of the temple.


The kuttambalam is a symbol of the “Divine Cosmic Essence (Purusa). With Purusa being the supreme power, the kuttambalam, and the performance of Kutiyattam are regarded as sacrifices. The mandala is a ritual diagram or plan which defines the exterior of a holy place. This careful and meaningful construction of the kuttambalam exhibit the spirituality involved in Kutiyattam tradition.


Kutiyattam is a sacred, spiritual dance form and has powerful bonds with the idea of sacrifice and religion. Furthermore, it is believed that a Kutiyattam actor loses his individuality and transcends to a personality of the character he is enacting.


The Grandeur of the dance drama


Kutiyattam is an art form that defines the hard work and persistence of the skilful actors. The Sanskrit theatre displays myriad of emotions and expressions that help to re-live several scenes from well-known epics. The enactment is engrossing and breath-taking, both visually and content-wise. The dance is performed by the language of gestures which is called Hasta Abhinaya and the expressions of eyes, known as Netra Abhinaya. Both these constituents are very important for this act. The dancers' expression of the eyes and hands explicate several emotions.


To become a full-fledged performer, dancers go through almost ten to fifteen years of meticulous training and practice. Actors are taught to master the controlling of breath in a dignified way and make extremely fine muscle shifts of the face and body. It takes days and weeks of practice to master a single act and get a particular step right.  The entire act is oriented to minute details; furthermore, it is astonishing to see how impersonating a few verses from a play can take several hours. Sometimes the performance lasts for days.


To symbolize the divine presence, an oil lamp is customarily placed on the stage while performing. A combination of music, from multiple instruments, along with Vedic ragas and chants create a divine and primitive ambience. The entire Sanskrit act is explained by a jester who is called the Vidushaka. He explains the act in Malayalam and adds an element of humour to it as well.


Acting, stage and music


Most of the ‘kootampalas’ or the temple theatres have a rectangular ground plan. This stage plan allows the audience to enjoy the performance right in front, witnessing the exquisite hand gestures and eye expressions. The act starts with lighting an oil lamp on the stage and the characters are introduced from behind a portable curtain.


The acting consists of detailed body language. The execution of a mimetic monologue by the actors is splendid. When the solo act is done other actors join in. One of the most unique traits of this act is the actor’s mimetic skills. The actor is extensively trained to become an expert. He is trained such that if the play demands, the actor can express different feelings with the left and right side of his face simultaneously.


Kutiyattam is an act which is very slow and concentrates on defining each character’s reactions in an elaborate way. This is the reason for performances starting with recaps of the previous act or flashback scenes, summarising the main events of the previous act. This helps the audience to follow the sequence as the play sometimes take days to finish.


Coming to the music, the predominant instrument is a large copper drum which is played throughout the play at the back of the stage. This drum is called mizhavu and is placed in its own wooden enclosure. Other instruments include a conch shell and a small drum played with a stick called cymbals.


Make-up and costume 


Kutiyattam is an indigenous form of art when it comes to make-up and costume. The actors are meant to represent mythical characters and cosmic beings, so they wear intricately detailed make-up and elaborate bright costumes. The costume of the performer mirrors grandeur from every aspect. The actors wear a long-sleeved jacket to cover upper body and arms and an intricate skirt-like heavy garment below.


The make-up is usually heavy and very colourful with green being one of the dominant colours painted on the face. Traditionally, thick rice paste is applied on the actors face to give the white colour. The make-up also varies according to each specific character. They wear heavy ornaments which creates a lavish appearance.


The performance, costume and make-up adds up to bring a surreal experience for the audience. 


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