Kerala, Richness of Theatrical Traditions

No other state in India can offer such an abundance of theatrical genres as Kerala. This rather small state is located on the western coast of southern India. Its history is known from approximately 200 BC onwards. Although it has been a crossroads of international maritime trade routes for over some 600 years, it has, on the other hand, been isolated from other parts of the subcontinent by mountain chains.

In Kerala it is still possible to find forms of archaic ritual theatre, probably originating from the Neolithic Stone Age (teyyam). Kerala is also the inheritor of the one and only surviving performing tradition of Sanskrit Dramas (kutiyattam). Later, this tradition gave birth to new innovations (krishnanattam, ramanattam, kathakali).

Two solo forms, preformed by women, still survive in Kerala. One of them (nangiarkuttu) concentrates mainly on the mimetic abhinaya technique, described in the Natyashastra, while the other (mohinyattam) belongs to the “temple dances” performed in the South Indian temples by devadasis, female temple servants. In Kerala many of the theatrical arts are still carried out by specific hereditary castes, which have been specialising in music, acting, and dancing for some two thousand years.

Two forms of puppetry are still practised in Kerala: an archaic form of shadow theatre specialising in the Ramayana (tolpavakoothu), and a relatively recent tradition of glow puppet theatre inspired by dance-drama (bhavakathakali). Kerala’s famous form of martial arts (kalaripayattu) is still a thriving tradition and its energetic technique has also been adapted by local dance-theatre.

Two centuries ago an exceptional actor blended the ancient art of abhinaya or mimetic acting with a more direct approach and created a rare form of popular solo theatre (tullal). The theatrical tradition of the whole of India has been compared to an age-old tree with many branches. One can, indeed, also use this metaphor in the case of Kerala’s traditions.