Dance Forms: Koodiyattam

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Dance Forms: Koodiyattam

According to Kerala tradition, King Kulashekhara Varman (fl. a.d. 900) was responsible for reforming and popularizing the Sanskrit theater in Kerala, assisted by his Brahman minister Tolan. They introduced the use of Kerala's Malayalam language on stage, where only North India's Sanskrit had been spoken. Lay audiences flocked to those plays, which included humorous elements and parodies of the four classical Hindu stages (ashramas) of life.

By meticulous elaboration, Koodiyattam offers limitless possibilities of aesthetic enjoyment. Enactment of one seven-act play would take several months to complete, the staging of a one-act play eight to nine days.

The actual staging of an act is preceded by preliminary rites, and an introduction, which has no direct connection to the theme of the play. The plays employ wit, humor, and sarcasm in brilliant Malayalam, entertaining the audience by making fun of everyone. At the end of the introduction, dancing begins, and verses in Sanskrit are chanted by the characters in monotone. The female roles are enacted by Nangyar women, who also play cymbals to keep tala, the time measure. The Nambyars play the large copper drums, called mizhava. The plays are staged in temple theatres, known as Koothampalam.

The Chakyars (actors) have through the centuries evolved a superb technique of abhinaya (expression), using a threefold presentation of the play. First there is angika, the gestural interpretation, followed by the vachika, the words or speech, and lastly a repetition of angika. Though separate and independent, they complement and amplify each other. The process is rather a long one.

A curtain is held by two persons standing in front of the stage. The actor stands behind it. After the introduction of the main character-hero, the next day begins with a description of his earlier life, prior to the incidents that will be actually staged. The play lasts for many days, with freedom given to the hero to move freely in time—past, present, and future. Dramatic ideas are also explained through hand gestures and bodily poses, as noted in the classical Sanskrit drama text, the Nātyashāstra, and the theatrical manual of gestures and poses, Hastalakshanadipika. Each word is uttered slowly, the gestures defining it, shown both for its stem and suffix; there are special gestures to indicate the number and gender, as well as the tense and the mood. Minute facial expressions and the movements of the eyes are also developed to a great extent. Kerala's Kathakali dance-drama has borrowed many of these techniques from Koodiyattam.

Makeup in some respects is similar to that of Kathakali. Paccha, a green type, is used for noble heroes like Arjuna and Rāma; pazhukka makeup, with the face painted a reddish color, is reserved for kings of magnanimous nature; villains or demons like Ravana have the katti, or upturned mustache; and Shurpanakha has kari, a black makeup. There are the texts, like Kramadipika, which explain the procedure to be adopted in staging the plays, including stage directions. Attaprakaram texts explain the methods of acting and the meanings of the verses.

Formerly there were eighteen families of Chakyars. Now there are only six, and their number is dwindling. Ammanaur, Kitannur, and Painkulam are well-known Chakyar families. Rāma Chakyar, Chachu Chakyar, and Mani Madhav Chakyar were great artists of the past. The living national treasure of Kerala is Ammanur Madhav Chakyar; G. Venu and his daughter Kapila are fine exponents from Kerala's younger generation of actors.

Sunil Kothari


Panchal, Goverdhan. Kuttampalam and Kutiyattam. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1984.

Raja, K. Kunjunni. Kutiyattam. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1964.

Venu, G. In the World of Kutiyattam with the Legendary Ammanur Madhava Chakyar. Irinjalakuda: Natana Kairali, 2002.