As elsewhere, in Kerala also, performing arts originated in the form of folk dance and songs.
Folk art was probably born as spontaneous jumping about and cries of early humans when they got excited with phenomena and sights around them. Gradually, these took more pleasing forms with the inputs of talented persons. The performances also took different forms as these travelled from community to community.
Performing arts today is a pleasing mix of singing, dancing and the lights and sounds generated by devices.
Workers in the agricultural fields made up songs to make their work less wearisome and these songs became njattu pattukal. The rowers of boats sang vanchi pattukal as they rowed for long in the numerous rivers of Kerala. Many folk songs originated thus to make repetitive work less boring.
The strange natural phenomena created wonder and fear in the minds of our primitive ancestors. They believed that there were powerful unseen beings who controlled these happenings. They also believed that certain rituals and performances would please these powerful controllers.
These beliefs gave rise to innumerable rituals. Many of these rituals involved singing and dancing, often to the accompaniment of drums and pipes. The rituals also involved wearing certain ornaments or decorative gear.
In time, these performances got refined to become more pleasing to the senses and mind. Rhythmic singing, dancing in tune with the rhythm, wearing brilliantly colored and patterned gear and use of artificial lighting (oil lamps in the beginning) to highlight the stage and performers, combined to create a pleasing (and even exciting) experience for members of the audience.
The experience became more entertaining and meaningful when the performances focused on dramatic presentation and/or commented on the social behavior of their communities. Dancing transformed itself into drama performances.
Kathakali is probably the most famous of Kerala's performing arts. It was a refined form of numerous earlier art forms such as kootiyattom, mohiniyattom, yatrakkali, chakyar koothu, ashtapadi, krishnanattom, thira, patayani, kolam thullal, theeyattu and mudiyettu. It is a highly disciplined performance, requiring years of training to master. Using standardized gestures, expressions, decorative gear tailor-made to the characters and accompanied by story-telling songs and musical instruments in the background, kathakali recreates, in the light of tall oil lamps, the mythological world of gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines. Performances could last whole nights.
Some of the original art forms that influenced kathakali are still being performed. Then there are other performing arts like Ottan Thullal (emphasizing social commentary), kalari payattu (vigorous martial art), kavadi attom (dance in which performers carry decorated arch-like structures on their shoulders), chavittu natakom (with a focus on christian themes) and mappila pattu (songs that depict muslim life). Innumerable other forms of kerala performing art forms have either disappeared or performed only rarely in obscure locations.
The picture that we get on going through the list of performing arts, past and present, is of a talented people ready to express themselves. As you listen to the kurathi pattu (songs sung at peoples homes by a wandering tribe) that seems to express the sheer pleasure of the singer and to come from somewhere deep inside, a sense of peace could envelop you.
We look more closely at some of the performing arts in separate essays.
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