12 Major Dance Forms of Kerala

Kathakali Artist/Image Source: Gokul Krishna Raja

Kerala, a coastal state in India's southwestern region, is renowned for its rich and varied cultural heritage. Traditional dances are one of the most captivating aspects of Kerala's cultural tapestry. From the graceful movements of Kathakali to the rhythmic footwork of Mohiniyattam, the dance forms of Kerala are a magnificent display of artistry, spiritual expression, and narrative.

Kathakali is a highly stylized dance-drama that originated in the 17th century. It is often referred to as the crown jewel of Kerala's performing arts. Kathakali tells mythological tales with extraordinary precision and dramatic flair by combining dance, music, mime, and elaborate costumes. Characters from ancient epics are brought to life by the performers using intense facial expressions, hand gestures (mudras), and powerful body movements.

Mohiniyattam, which literally translates to "dance of the enchantress," is a graceful and lyrical dance form that is unique to Kerala. It is traditionally performed by women and is distinguished by its delicate movements, subtle expressions, and intricate footwork. Through their fluid gestures and swaying movements, the dancers dressed in white and gold create a mesmerising visual spectacle while narrating tales of love and devotion.

Theyyam is a lively and captivating ritualistic dance form rooted in the Keralan folk traditions. It combines elements of dance, music, and religious devotion, with origins in ancient tribal rituals. The performers, known as "Theyyam artists," transform into deities or spirits by applying elaborate makeup and donning intricate costumes. It is believed that Theyyam performances invoke the blessings of the gods and provide spiritual solace to the community.

Thiruvathirakali, also known as Kaikottikali, is a graceful group dance performed by women during the festival dedicated to Lord Shiva, Thiruvathira. The dancers, dressed in traditional Kerala attire, form a circular formation and move gracefully in unison while clapping their hands and singing folk songs. Thiruvathirakali celebrates womanhood, love, and devotion, and highlights the beauty of participants' unity and harmony.

Oppana is a lively and joyful dance performed by the Muslim community of Kerala during wedding celebrations. It is a group performance in which women dressed in vibrant traditional attire form a circle around the bride and sing melodious songs while clapping rhythmically. The dancers express their joy and celebrate the union of two souls by swaying and moving in unison.

Kalaripayattu is primarily known as a martial art, but it also incorporates elements of dance, making it a distinctive and captivating form of performance art in Kerala. Combining complex footwork, acrobatic movements, and weapon techniques, Kalaripayattu demonstrates the practitioners' skill and agility. The performers engage in simulated combat to demonstrate their physical control and coordination.

Margamkali is one of Kerala's most ancient traditional dances. It is only performed by Syrian Christians living in Kerala. This dance involves a group of twelve women dancing in a circle around a lit oil lamp.  Similarly to Oppana, this dance is performed at festivals and weddings.

Koodiyattam, which in Malayalam means "acting together," is a popular temple dance form. This dance form is performed by men and women as a drama. Female performers are from the Nangiyar community, while male performers are from the Chakkiyar community. It is performed for six to twenty days within a temple. The Sanskrit verses recited with a musical accompaniment attract a great deal of attention.

Chakyar Koothu
Chakyar Koothu is a traditional dance created by the ancient Aryans. This dance style is performed in temples by members of the Chakyar caste. This dance form, like Kathakali, depicts stories from ancient scriptures. The story is told by the dancers through various facial expressions and body movements.  

Kolkali is a popular dance form among the farming population in the northern Malabar region. The tales of regional deities are depicted in Kolkali songs. This dance is performed by 24 individuals using two-foot-long wooden sticks. The dancers perform a circular dance while tapping their wooden sticks against one another.

Ottamthullal, also known as Ottamthullal, originated in the 18th century and is another well-known dance form in Kerala. The famous Malayalam poet Kalakkaththu Kunchan Nambiar created this famous dance form in Kerala. The dancers wear colourful costumes and elaborate makeup. They perform with hand and eye movements that help to narrate a story from Indian mythology.

Like Kaikottikali and Thirayattam dance forms, Padayani is Kerala's traditional folk dance. This ritual dance is performed in the Bhagavati temple to honour the goddess Bhadrakali.  The dancers wear elaborate face masks and perform religious rituals and rites while wearing heavy makeup.

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