From Krishnattam to Kathakali

Today we see it in its various avatars both in Kerala and abroad, either the capsule version or the full version. The stories have changed; you even have King Lear and Chinese stories done in this form these days, a far cry from the epics. It is greatly respected by dancers of the world and it brings in a bit of awe in the mind of the discerning viewer. Perhaps like the characterization of Keechaka by Panikkar did over a century ago, in the mind of the lovely lass Tatri. Lots of questions come up about the origins of this complex act and people even talk sometimes about the similarity with the Chinese opera or the Kabuki theatre of Japan. It is a rainy morning here, gets the grey cells going for me and so I thought it is a good idea to spend a little time and go over the legends that made it what it is today.

I still recall the sleepy nights at our temple in Pallavur, many moons ago, when we had Kathakali for the Ezham vilakku celebrations (now we have Ganamelas by winners or participants of TV shows..Nobody in the village barring a few cronies has much interest in laborious dances like the Kathakali, they seem to treasure comfortable sleep at home instead and press buttons of the remote or the keyboard to see other more appealing stuff). But in those days, the ceremonious curtain would come up around 10 PM on the small stage, held by a couple of healthy lads from the troupe and the Kathakali performance would follow on until the wee hours of the morning. The few people who understood it (very few then and even fewer now) enjoyed it and talked at length about the glory of the dancers, specific mudras and expressions, my father included. I for one had no interest then, nor much understanding of the art form itself today, but then again, the history aspect and the connotations and similarities with other dance forms interested me enough to take up the subject and study it briefly. The knowledgeable people wax eloquently at length on the dress, the makeup and the artistes as well as their awesome skills. They talk about comparable performances and other artistes long gone, including the great Kavungal Sankara Panikkar.

But before we get to all of that, we have to look at a less popular art form to which Kathakali owes its origins, namely Krishnnattam…Ah – a lovely song by S Janaki comes to my lips…ente makan krishnan unni, krishnattathinu pokumbol…krishnattatinu poyal pora, Krishnan ayi theerenam..Anyway to get to the point, i.e. understand Kathakali better, one has to know about its origins in Krishnattam, so let us start there.

The medieval periods in Kerala witnessed the development of various ‘attam’ or dance forms where temples witnessed expert players use the form to tell a story to the witnessing public with a sonorous singer intoning the story from an epic– the first form of playback singing (not so in koodiyattam). There were various types in vogue, like the Chakiar Koothu, Koodiyattam, Nangiar koothu, Kamsanatakam and Meenakshi natakam, all of which were very popular in the Palghat Shornur areas. By this time frame, Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda from North India had found its way south. One avid fan of it was the Zamorin of Calicut Manaveda Thampuran. Recall that the Zamorins had one of the three names, Manavedan, Manavikraman and Virarayan, and this was the Zamorin born about 1595.

As the caste system had already taken its roots, Sanskrit which was spoken by nobility kind of stood at the top of the languages tree, as the language of the gods, and was the language used by learned Vidwans and nobles like the Zamorins when discussing art or devotional issues. Here a legend takes over and as we know, remains as the large story that envelopes some small fact. We are now way back in the Malayalam year 829 or Gregorian year 1653-54 AD.

Manaveda was in his late middle years was more interested in temples and art. Times were not like it was for his ancestors who had to battle the Portuguese and many others… Manavedan who was deeply religious was a great devotee of Lord Krishna of Guruvayoor and lived and administered Malabar from Guruvayoor and not Calicut, departing from norms.

This particular legends starts at Guruvayoor, the Zamorin Manavedan was with his friend and great philosopher Vilwamangalanm Swamiyar who had this special connection with the lord, for he could see him whenever he wanted, or so it seems, for one does not quite question legends. Manavedan of course had this overwhelming desire to see the lord too and pestered Vilwamanagalam relentlessly, and finally Vilwamanagalam after checking with Lord Krishna said that he could arrange the event. Accordingly the lord would appear in the courtyard of the temple, near the Elanji tree and as promised, he did as the little boy Krishna. Manaveda was overcome and rushed to embrace the little lord in his excitement. Krishna looked at Vilwamangalam and curtly said ‘you did not tell me that this was to happen’ and disappeared, but during the embrace, Manavedan was left with one peacock feather in his hand, which was from the head-tuft of Krishna.

The Zamorin Manavedan was distraught and wanted to atone his discourtesy to the lord. That was how he came about writing the entire Krishna Geethi, a poem in Sanskrit set in eight cantos. He also vowed to make a headgear and install the lord’s feather in it and dedicate both the poem and the dance drama to the lord. He then selected a dance troupe, choreographed the dances and had it played over 9 nights at Guruvayoor. Thus came about the art form called Krishnattam, performed only by the Zamorin’s troupe at Guruvayoor and at selected locations, mainly temples. The dance had a flowing style, more like what is known as lasya bhava, romantic and lyrical. In older days, the performance was even offered as a vazhipadu by wealthy patrons.

People may ask – what happened to Manavadean? He became the Zamorin in 1655 and reigned 1655-58, breathing his last in Trichur. As mentioned earlier, he was Zamorin only for a short period 1655 A.D to 1658 A.D governing from Guruvayoor. He built a palace at Guruvayur and shifted his administrative offices to Guruvayur. But it appears he passed away at Trichur as he was preparing for a war with the Dutch and his body was brought to Guruvayoor and cremated in the palace premises (now a statue stands over the location).. As VS Iyer explains, ‘It is significant that when Krishnanattam performances at Guruvayur temple used to be concluded with a last show at the Zamorin's palace there, the stage was made to face the south - for the author to witness the performances - a direction which is considered inauspicious and invariably avoided wherever the play is staged elsewhere.’ Perhaps he was touched by Narayaneeyam composed around the same time, and the Bhagavatham, after having been influenced by Geeta Govind and Bharata champu. Anyway every 30th of Malayalam month of Thulam is celebrated at Guruvayoor as Krishnageethi dinam. One aspect to be borne in mind is that Manavedan was no dance expert and was perhaps trained and assisted by the great koothu master Anayath Krishna Pisahraody at Thiruvegapuura near Pattambi. Today you can see paintings of the scene where Manadevan meets Lord Krishna on the walls of the temple in Guruvayoor. (Curious indeed that the Zamorin has his hair tuft all wrong, it was always worn in the traditional way, not as depicted in the painting). It also popularized the beautiful sopana sangeetham tradition, songs sung at the temple steps to the beat of the edakka (the chenda is never used, it is not appropriate).

There are differences of opinion about the exact period when Krishnageeti was transformed into Krishnanattam and about the process of transformation. Ezhuthachan (though he and Poonthanam wrote in Malayalam), Melpattur and Cherussery were also inspirations in the creation, without much doubt. As PKS Raja a later Zamorin explains, ‘Originally the performance of Krishnattam was strictly restricted to the Guruvayur Temple, palaces of the members of the Zamorin's family, temples and houses of Namboodiri Brahmins within the jurisdiction of the Zamorin's empire. Performances outside the jurisdiction of Zamorin were strictly prohibited. Also the Zamorins used to take the original headgear prepared by Manavedan Zamorin along with them when they went out on important occasions, particularly when they went to fight with the neighboring rulers. But this (head gear) was lost at the time of invasion of Hyder Ali’. The Zamorin mostly adopted the costumes, facial make up and mudras from Koodiyattam. While the music in both Koodiyattam and Krishnagiti are in Sanskrit, there is a difference in performance. In Koodiyattam, the actors themselves recite slokas, while the slokas in Krishnattam are recited by expert musicians in the background. While there are Ragas and Thalas in Krishnagiti, there is no formal raga sense in Koodiyattam. Historians are of the opinion that the earlier form Ashtapadiyattam was introduced by a Zamorin, prior to the era of Manavedan Zamorin, so perhaps the next Manaveda perfected it as Krishnattam and propagated it further with the legend..

KK Gopalakrishnan explains about the intricacies in his Hindu article- Krishnageeti was composed in 1654 before the era of the trinity of Carnatic music. In fact, it was during the period of Venkitamahi who introduced the 72 melakartas in Carnatic music. The ragas and talas used in “Krishnageeti” thus clearly point to the existence of a strong musical tradition in Kerala. Though nobody knows how exactly “Krishnageeti” was sung in its formative years, there is every reason to believe that it was in the style of sopana sangeetam. Subsequently, when Krishnanattam evolved, characters were given definite shapes and make-up was prescribed according to the existing rules.

A Krishnanattam performance is basically different from Kathakali, which uses hand and facial gestures and follows padartha abhinaya, the literal interpretation of the verses. Krishnanattam is more dance-oriented with intricate and aesthetic patterns. There is an old saying that to appreciate Kathakali one has to observe the actor’s face and for Krishnanattam the audience must carefully watch the actor’s footsteps. This speaks volumes about the peculiarities of the two forms.

And now that we have exhausted the legend behind krishnattam, the divine art form or offering to the lord of Guruvayoor, we get to the even more interesting legend behind the origin of Kathakali.

But before that take heed to this age old Malayalam saying from Malabar

Krishnattam kaanan kulikkanam, kathaikali kandal kulikkanam…

which means you have to take a bath to see Krishnaatam, whereas you have a take a bath if you see a Kathakalai performance (perhaps owing to the inherent impurities in that art form..)…well, I am sure the Kathakali connoisseur is livid, and so I have to hasten to explain that Krishnattam was considered an offering of the faithful whereas the Kathakali was an art form created for the common man’s enjoyment, never as an offering to the lord. But then, there was an intermediate stage when Kathakali was actually called Ramanattam and was more Bhakti inclined..

It all started with a misunderstanding. Now we move away from the suzerain the Zamorin at Calicut, to a lesser king of Venad, the Kottarakkara Thampuran 1625-1685 – named Veera Kerala Varma of Kottarakkara, a place south of Cochin, where the Elayadathu swaroopam ruled. So as we see, Krishnattam had picked up steam and was popular though practiced only in specific places. One fine day, as the story goes, the Kottarakara raja requested the Zamorin for a loan of his fine troupe, to perform at Kottarakara, perhaps for a royal wedding function. The reigning Zamorin scoffed at the idea and rejected it outright stating that the people of Kottarakara were not intelligent enough to understand krishnattam let alone host a performance or enjoy it. Obviously there must have been some friction between the families, perhaps the Kottarakara raja sided with the Dutch at that time or was more aligned to the upcoming raja of Travancore, for there were many power games going one, and some of it may be found in my articles covering the Malabar and the Dutch, so the Zamorin was getting his back at the Kottarakkara king. I would presume this was uttered by the successor of the Krishna geethi Manavedan, for the devout Zamorin would not have uttered such callous comments and secondly the authorship of Ramanattam is dated around 1660-80.

So how did the Ramanattam get created, at least in legends? The Thampuran sat on the steps of the temple pond, praying to Lord Ganesa while looking at the still waters of the pond, when a gentle breeze rippled the waters and the slanting sunlight played a medley of colors on its surface. This was apparently the inspiration behind the multiple cascading colors used in Ramanattam costumes, and well, the lyrics were written sitting under the banyan tree…Interesting, right the similarities..Krishna and the Elanji tree at Guruvayoor, the Banyan tree and Ganesha at Kottarakara…Well, the first staging of the dance drama was done in front of Ganesha at the temple, and the dance steps came from another art form called Parapettam wheras the intricate body movements are said to be from kalaripayattu (this is a little strange for kalaripayattu was more prevalent in Malabar), though I am not quite in agreement with that. The language of the poetry was the Malayalam Sanskrit mix called the manipravalam style (more on that in another blog) which was better understandable to the bigger public. As time went by Kaplingad Namboothiri created the complex choreography. The original Ramanattam as you can imagine was also set around 8 cantos like Krishnattam. The first performers were a bunch of agile youths from the king’s army who were personally conducted by the king and assisted by Kittu kurup the kalari master and Venkalath Sankaranasan on their choreography. As time went by the Kottayam thampuran and many others like the Travancore kings, Iriyamman thampi and Thankachi contributed to create more themes to the Attakatha tradition.

As the legends continue, the story takes a full about turn. The new Zamorin at Calicut has heard about the development of Ramanattam and invited the troupe of the Kottayam Thampuran to perform Ramanattan at Calicut. The old animosity is forgotten and the team arrives in Calicut. One of the key performers, unbeknownst to the Zamorin was the Thampuran himself. So brilliant was the middle aged actor’s performance that the Zamorin goes up to him to congratulate him on a brilliant performance when he recognizes the Thampuran….the Zamorin finally acknowledges that the people of the South do indeed know a thing about arts…grudgingly….

Raamanaattam which was later transformed into Aattakatha, and yet later into Kathakali, described the complete story of Lord Raman. By the end of the seventeenth century, the finished product of Raamanaattam was placed before the world under the title Kathakali. The name Raman Attam now became unsuitable because of the widening thematic range, the multitude of stories and development in mudras and steps and so the name Kathakali or story-play took roots. It got to be played everywhere, as a whole or in bits and is very popular today. That is how we got to today’s Kathakali which has become a peopled form that has tabled many hundred stories using an incredible 847 mudras.

Subsequently, the spread of Kathakali worldwide started due to the personal interest of Uday Sankar and other popular dancers like Ragini Devi and Louise Lightfoot. In fact we have even a Chinese story amongst modern works; the play is based on an episode from Journey to the West, a classical novel about the adventures of the Chinese monk Sanzang who attempts to bring the Buddhist Sutras from India to China.

Finally what connection could Chinese or Japanese art forms have with Krishnattam and Ramanattam? Well, there are obviously a few connections, for people who have seen Chinese opera or kabuki say that they are somewhat similar. I have not seen it so I will pass on that issue, but I am not surprised, for we do know that the Zheng He treasure ships of 1407-1410 brought along large number of performers to Calicut. I am sure the intricate masks perhaps influenced the masks of Krishnattam. It is also possible that the flow of information went the other way from Krishnattam to China, for the mudras in Chinese opera are less developed in comparison. Also the Chinese opera uses only males just like Krishnattam though covering mainly the Mongol invasion stories. On the other hand, there had been extant attam forms in Malabar dating to the Buddhist times or even linked to Aryan stories like the Ramayana & Mahabharata. These were similar to the ones in SE Asia as well as China and Japan. Such forms found their way into Koodiyattam and koothu forms and we saw that Koodiyattam indeed influenced Krishnattam (check out kandyan Ves in Ceylon). As these were practiced by a chosen few, the forms remained largely unadultered and so we still see the similarities in parts of Asia.

And so that was a little bit about attams, especially kristnattam and kathakali where the audience sits in front of a stage without special effects and backdrops, just listening to a story being sung to a tune and watching the performers making elaborate feet and facial as well as hand movements, to tell old stories, but not speaking. They collectively transport you to the period, the personnel, events and locales of the epics or even modern stories, for a period of some 3-4 hours after which they are gone, and so is the stage while the people who watched are left to recant and recount, the events and stories in their mind for many more days. That is the mystique of today’s kathakali.

Now to the photograph on the right - That is the kathakali statue in my house, all of 4 feet in height shown in full splendor, depicting Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas. It was gifted to us by our closest friends Hari and Geetha, and this Arjuna travelled the full distance from Kottayam to Raleigh, from a place connected with Kathakali’s origin (ironically to the very house of a person somewhat connected to the Zamorins). Some days I sit and look at the statue and it connects me to a story that is slowly taking shape in my mind…Hopefully I will write it soon, when time permits…


1. SangeethaSabaha blogsite
2. Origin and Technique of Krishnanattam, V. Subramonia Iyer
3. Hindu article
4. Krishnageethi 
5. On Krishnattam – PKS Raja
6. Theatre and the world: performance and the politics of culture Rustom Bharucha
7. Kathakali dance-drama: where gods and demons come to play -Phillip B. Zarrilli
8. The Social history of India – SN Sadasivan
9. The Ramayana in Kathakali dance drama - Nagendra Kr Singh, David Bolland


- Kathakali is all about makeup, actions or mudras and facial expressions. To really appreciate the makeup and preparations which take many hours, you should see this video.

- One of the persons who spent his post middle years on the study and appreciation of Kathakali was none other than David Bolland who came to Calicut in 1950 to work for Pierce Leslie. He was so enamored with the art that he spent his later years and money and created such a collection of video and archival material. His books are also testament to his interest in the subject. I will cover him later in a separate article, and Bolland Sayip is still well known to the people of Calicut, at least some of the older ones.

- This article was briefly edited after it was first posted - i had made an erroneous statement in para 5 and connected the role of Tipu in Malabar and the English to this story without a second thought. My mistake and thanks to Vijay an avid reader for spotting it right away...

pics - hindu and sangeethasabha BS, thanks


P.N. Subramanian said...

Very interesting. Since I was brought up in the North, I could not much appreciate the Art forms of Kerala. I remember while on a visit to our native place, we were invited for a Kathakali performance organised by Kaplingad Mana (could be a branch) close to my home. The performance lasted till 4.30 AM and we did take a dip in the temple pond nearby. Incidentally there is a memorial of a Zamorin (tomb like) at the Shaktan Thampuran palace, Thrissur.

Maddy said...

Thanks PNS..
yes, I think that is the same Zamorin. anyway it was an interesting study for me, just got my own copy of the Bolland book as well..

harimohan said...

Though I had read earlier ,I wanted to make a FB post today on Krishnattam as today we have offered Avataram in Guruvayur temple and was reading up then came your excellent blog of how katakali evolved .

Maddy said...

thanks Hari..
enjoy your Guruvayur darshan..