Krishnanattam (Dance of Krishna) developed from the same tradition as kutiyattam at the turn of the 17th century. It is a full-scale form of dance-drama concentrating solely on episodes in God Krishna’s life, from his birth to his ascent into heaven. In its spirit krishnanattam is pure bhakti art as its function is to sing ecstatic praise to the Dark Lord.
Krishnanattam differs from kutiyattam in the sense that the actors themselves do not speak. Singing is executed by two singers and thus actors can concentrate on abhinaya acting as well as on dancing, which has a much more prominent role in krishnanattam than in kutiyattam. Krishnanattam is performed only in the Guruvayur Temple and it is intended exclusively for Hindu audiences. That is why it is barely known outside Kerala.
The bhakti poem Gita Govinda by the 12th century East Indian poet Jayadeva also gained enormous popularity in Kerala. It has been and still is chanted in the temples. It led to an early form of a Krishna play, asthapadiattam, which was later, at the turn of the 17th century, replaced by krishnanattam.
The creator of krishnanattam was the poet Manadevan, born at the end of the 16th century. It is said that he had a vision in which the flute-playing Krishna appeared. This led Manadevan to create his own praise to Krishna, the Krishna Geeti.
Krishnanattam was favoured by the rulers of the Zamorin dynasty, which was in power for nearly 900 years beginning from the ninth century AD. After the decline of the dynasty a krishnanattam troupe was located at the Guruvayur temple in central Kerala. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple, which is the only place where krishnanattam is now performed.
The stories of krishnanattam, which cover the whole life cycle of Krishna, an avatar of God Vishnu, are based on the Bhagavata Purana, and they are always sung in Sanskrit. The episodes are performed on eight successive nights, while the opening episode, concentrating on the avatar of Vishnu, is repeated at the end of the cycle, thus forming the ninth evening in the series.
In true bhakti spirit it is believed that merely witnessing a krishnanattam is a meritorious act bringing good karma to the spectator. A kutiyattam performance is also seen as an offering to Lord Krishna.
In many respects krishnanattam reminds one of kutiyattam. The costuming, dominated by a large skirt-like lower garment, is similar in both genres, as are the gilded wooden ornaments. They also both share the local, stylised and colourful make-up system. There are, however, distinctive differences between the styles.
Firstly, as mentioned above, the actors do not use their voices in krishnanattam. Two singers from among the accompanying musicians sing all the lines in the sopanam style, used for chanting the Gita Govinda in the temples of Kerala.
The novelty of krishnanattam was that the acting and the singing were separated from each other. This enabled the actors to concentrate on the abhinaya mime acting and dancing. However, the acting in krishnanattam is not as detailed as in kutiyattam. This is perhaps because krishnanattam is a form of bhakti worship, and a kind of offering, and thus not a theatre form for connoisseurs, as kutiyattam has been.
One speciality of krishnanattam is that some of the characters wear masks. They may be larger than the human head, and their style is often naive and robust, even grotesque. Otherwise the outer aspects of krishnanattam are similar to those of kutiyattam, although the variety of headgear in krishnanattam is larger.
As already mentioned, dance has a more prominent role in krishnanattam than in kutiyattam. This is partly because the actors do not have to recite or sing their lines. One reason may also be that dance has a very prominent role in Krishna’s mythology.
Both mimetic abhinaya and non-descriptive nrtta dance are employed. Krishna himself dances as do the milkmaids, Krishna’s beloved ones. Dance sequences in krishnanattam reflect the influence of local folk dances and underline the art forms’ emotional directness, a characteristic of bhakti art all over India.