The Indigenous Music of Kerala ‘Sopana Sangeetham ‘

The Indigenous Music of Kerala  ‘Sopana Sangeetham ‘


Kerala’s unique music form, the beginnings of Sopana Sangeetham (music) can be traced to the temples of Kerala. The word ‘Sopanam’ refers to the steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum. So, the Sopanam music also means singing from the side of the temple steps. Another interpretation is that Sopanam sangeetham is similar to the ascending and descending order of raga. The music starts in Vilambitkal (slow tempo) and progresses to and gradually descends.



Chapter one, deals with the genesis and History of Music Tradition in Kerala .It focusses on the early origins of Kerala’s musical, performing arts and Folk yore. These were interwoven with the social life of Kerala, that content pertaining to the socially relevant themes, besides myths and mythological stories.

Chapter Two highlights the Evolution of Sopana Music. Sopana Sangeetham is a continuation of Dravidian music. The period of Dravidian music is from the Sanghom period to the rule of the Cheras (4 AD to 10 AD). Prominent among them are the ancient Tamil songs, ‘thevaram’ songs etc. Elangovadikals’s ‘Chilapatikaaram’ clearly mentions raga- based music. The heroine in Chilapatikaaram is an expert in dance and music. She possesses all the qualities of a music teacher. We get a lot of information about the rules of music, musical instruments etc. from Chilapatikaaram. Sapta Swarangal or the seven notes were known as Vazhiku Vazhikural, thutham, Kaikila, Uzhai, Illi, Vilari and Taram. Sruthi was known as ‘alah’ and raga as ‘Punn’. The musical instrument used was yazh which had many strings. Ragas were known by the names of native lands like Naital punn, Palai punn, Marutham punn, Kurinji punn, Mullai punn etc.

With the Aryan invasion taking firm ground during 8th century AD, temples sprang up in Kerala. During this period musical offerings were offered in Saiva-vaishanav temples. In Vishnu temples it was ‘tiruvaimozhi’ and in Shaiva temples, ‘thevaram pattukal. ‘Tevaram pattukal’ were based on 28 ragas. Prominent Tamil ragas included Koushikam, Vyzhakurinji, Pazham Panjooram, Gandhara pachamam, Thakesi, Sadari, Chenthuruthi Sevazhi, Thiruthadavam, Pazhamthakka, Indhalam, Gandharam, Puraneermai and Kolli.


Chapter Three analyses the Journey of Sopana Music through different art forms. Sopana Sangeetham is of two types, ‘Kottipaadi Seva’ and ‘Ranga Sopanam’. ‘Kottipaadi Seva’ is the style in which the Marar strikes the edakka (small hour glass – shaped ethnic drum) standing near the temple steps at the time of puja (worship). In the beginning a ‘Keerthan’ is sung in praise of the main deity. After that, ‘ashtapadi’ from Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam is sung. Sopanam is traditionally sung by men of the Marar and Pothuval castes of Ambalavasi (semi-Brahmin) community, engaged to do it as their hereditary profession.

By 12th century AD Jaydeva’s Gita Govindam became popular both as music and dance in Kerala. Even the songs sung by striking the edakka was based on ragas. Ahari, Kalyani, Kamodari, Kedaragoula, Kedarapanth, Gujjari, Khanda, Devagandhaari, Desakhsi, Panthuvarali, Punnagavarali, Bhupalam, Madhyamavati, Malahari, Malva, Mukhari, Ramakriya, Vasanthabhairavi, Sakarabharanam and Sourastram were some of the ragas used for ‘Kottipadi Seva’.

Chapter Four examines the progressive development of Sopana Sangeetham through great personalities and their contribution by incorporating this system of Arangu Sangeetham in performing arts. The most important branch of Sopana Sangeetham is ‘Arangu Sangeetham’. This is also known as Abhinaya Sangeetham. The music is used in folk art forms like Mudiyettu, Arjuna nritham and classical arts forms like Kutiyattam, Krishnanattom and Kathakali. The music is based on the abhinaya. This is thouryatrika – based, that it incorporates the four precepts of classical Indian theatre – Angika (physical expression), Satwika (facial expressions), Vachika (rhetoric aspects) and Aharya (art of costume and makeup). On stage, the singer sings, the instrumentalist strikes on his instrument, and the actor dons the role of different characters. The role of music here is to describe to the audience the story and the characters. A peculiarity of this form of music is the ragas and talas used to portray the expressions of the characters. Instruments like chenda, veekan chenda, chengila, ilatalam and sanku are used, structured on talas like ekam, triputa, chempada, chamba, adantha, muriadantha etc.

Chapter Five includes interviews with noted Personalities, Researchers and Practitioners of Sopana Sangeetham based in Delhi.


Sopana Sangeetham – a scratch back through the history

 The influence of the societal features, significant historic stages of evolution of society, certain fundamental beliefs, assumptions, and myths will be reflected in its art forms. Elements of Self Expression and Self Respect in the songs created and sung can be traced very back to the farmer on the field which was quite an obvious thing for a predominantly agrarian Kerala society then. Farm owners, in Kuttanad used to pay the Pattukooli (wage for singing) also. This encouraged ‘Farm Songs’ that echoed the stories of both exploiters and exploited,

Every society nurtures its artistic value in resonance with the changing times and at the same time maintaining its own link with tradition, for which Kerala is an excellent example. Kerala always exhibited a willingness in accepting and assimilating foreign cultures for which it had witnessed without losing its authenticity of traditional belief systems.



Chavittunatakam is an amalgamation of Kerala’s martial art and dance traditions and many suitable aspects of Greek Theatre. The character of Yavana in the Muchukundamoksham story in Krishnanattam is another example where Yavana with his long gabardine, of unmistakably Greek moorings is seen.


Myths and Legends have been always instrumental in finding the cultural history and traditions when there is scarcity of material proofs regarding historical studies. It provide important historical events, their chronology or of important personalities. The Vatakkan Pattukkal, the Ballads of North Malabar, sing of pride and self-respect of yesteryear heroes, with other diverse facets of society being mentioned in them.

A profusion of Myths like Origin of kerala by Parasurama, the prosperity of golden days of Mahabali, various caste among twelve sons of Parayi , a low caste woman and legends about the Goddess Mother in Chilapathikaaram. The Festival of Vishu in the month of April and in Medam month of Malayalam Calendar is a festive of joy, new aspirations and better hopes for their future. A practice of Kani or Auspicious Spectacle is a belief that it will bring prosperity in the rest of the year and also the Kaineettam, money given by elders to young ones in the family, is a mark of wealth and prosperity.


Onam, is a festival of brotherhood and celebration of a glorious past under the Emperor Mahabali whose story of expulsion to the underworld by Vamana, the 5th incarnation of Lord Mahavishnu. The myth of their benevolent Emperor’s visiting his land and people once in a year, a boon granted by Vamana to this truthful emperor, is the day of Onam, which falls in September and Chingam of Malayalam Calender.

The Kerala society has always been interested in finding the sparks of goodness in Anti- heroes and worshiping them also. The temple dedicated to Duryodhana, the anti-hero of Mahabharata is found in Malanada, Kerala. The Parayi petta Panthirikulam is a strong example of Kerala’s nondiscrimination of Caste Heirarchy in Kerala as various castes from same parentage and the story of Adi Sankaracharya of Advaita Philosophy receiving Vedanta Discourse from a Chandaala, is a mark of lofty philosophy of life.

The Mother Goddess

The approach of Kerala to Mother Goddess concept is quite unique and different, Chilapathikaaram, ancient text which is believed to have been composed in Kerala. The text not only proclaims the status of the women as equal as men but also the injustices meted out to them and the manifestation of a Woman into a complete destroyer of city of Madurai as Kannaki and as well as into a mother goddess concept in Attukal Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

The thottam songs, asserts Shiva- Shakti Concept in which Shakthi is the Creator and Destroyer and the supreme without which even the Shiva is incomplete. The cult of Mother Goddess worship is realted to Shakti Concept of Goddess Kali in Bengal. But when it comes to Kerala, it takes it unique different forms like Yakshi and Bhadrakali in Groove Shrines (Kaavu). The Pulluvan outside the Sanctum Sanctorum of Temple was an unreplaceable worship as important as Brahminical rituals performed by the preist inside the Sanctorum. Whatever the so called upper caste practice, its completeness is achieved by the traditional customs and beliefs of the so called low caste.

The poorakali is an art form in which the Tiyaas and Maniyanis of North Kerala participate. It is performed by men in the Kavus (grove shrines) of the Goddess. It is believed that women who originally danced in the Kavus passed on the right to Oracles of the temple. That’s how the Poorakali gradually came to be a dance of the men. Consists of a group of dancers and a Panikkar who is the leader. Specially attired young men gather to form a circle around an oil lamp. The dance begin under the leadership of Panikkar. The panikkar sings and the dancers repeat the song and dance with fast footwork and tedious body movements.



  • Sopana Sangeetham


The Thiruvathira festival is celebrated during the Malayalam month of Dhanu (December– January), where Kamadeva (Cupid) is worshipped. Women observe fasts and dance Kaikottikali in a circle around an oil lamp. The songs of which is an integral contributor of Sopana Music and other performing arts in Kerala. They forego sleep the entire night.



Christianity in India is a unique socio-cultural phenomenon, which took its birth in God’s own country. Christian faith reached India even before Christianity became an official religion. The faith took a new identity as Mar Thomante Margam (“the path of St. Thomas, the Apostle”). It came from West Asia and the Aramaic language that Jesus and the apostles preached in and the Syrian language had its own influence which intermingled with the then existed temple music and folk music traditions prevailed in Kerala. Even today, the sound, memories, and melodies of the Syrian language and their liturgy are essential components of the rich cultural repository of Kerala.


Chavittunatakam is a colourful Christian art form which is popular in the districts of Thrissur, Ernakulam and Alappuzha. Its origins are associated with the Portuguese. Collaborating with the Malayali scholars, they developed a new art form which is chavittunatakam. It has elements borrowed from both European (eg. western costumes) and Kerala art forms (eg. Kalaripayattu, the martial art of Kerala). The themes are stories from the Bible. Spiritual, moral and historical themes are also figured in these performances which have been in existence since the 18th century.

The art form had its name from its distinctive feature of performers stamping (chavittu= stamping) on the dance floor which produces a sound that emphasizes and highlights the story. The performance is musical with the performers singing and acting out their characters, with exaggerated gestures and rhythmical stamping. The costumes follow the European style. It is in effect a blend of music – instrumental (usually bell and drum) and vocal – dance and drama. The master of the dance drama is called the Annavi.

The performances are held either on open stages or church interiors, though nowadays they are mostly held indoors. It is mostly the Latinate Roman Catholic community that performs this art form.

Margamkali is a folk art performed by the Syrian Christian community of Kerala (especially the Knanaya faction), particularly in Kottayam and Thrissur districts. The word margam means path or religion. The theme of the margamkali performance is the activities and travels of Mar Thoma (St Thomas) in the Malabar region and his martyrdom.

Earlier margamkali used to be performed only by men, but now women also perform this dance. It is now popular as part of Syrian Christian weddings as well as on stage. The men’s costumes used to be simple – mundu (dhothi worn in the South Indian style) with gold border and a head cloth. With women entering the performances, traditional Christian jewelry such as earrings, necklaces, anklets, etc. are also being worn.

Arab Influence

An intermingling of Arab and Kerala culture began in the 9th Centuary CE when Arab merchants reached Kerala Coast for trade. The muslim pilgrims accepted the hospitality of Cheraman Perumal who himself later converted to Islam. Mappilappaattu, born out of the melodious blending of Arab and Malayalam cultures have gifted this land with very romantic poems and melodious songs that brought a different scenario in Kerala’s cultural diversity.

The word ‘Mappila’ is also used to refer to the son-in-law. Muslims in Kera;la refer Bridegroom as ‘Puthiya Mappila’ improvised into ‘Puthiyaapla’. It is also said that Maha Pillai elided to Mappila. Mapila songs relate to diverse themes but they use simple languages. The Mailanchi (Mehendi) songs by women in marriage celebration forming a circle with clapping their hands around the seated bride express emotions of love, compassion, oneness with its simple but meaningful lyrics. Mappila songs express lofty spiritual thoughts which inspired the common man which got popularized among the entire population.

Therefore we can unearth many similarities and differences in the cultural homogeneity of Kerala’s rich heritage when we go deep in the study of History of Kerala. Blessed are those who were fortunate to witness this art forms in their life.


Duffmuttu is an art form performed by the Muslims of the Malabar region of Kerala, in their social events, festivals and religious occasions.

The duff is a percussion instrument made of wood with ox skin stretched over it. The male performers, usually 6-10, stand or sit in a semicircle, and sing songs which are in praise of saints, martyrs or god. The leader sings the songs and the rest, the chorus. They move in a circle with simple steps and to the rhythm of the song. It is believed to have originated in Saudi Arabia.

Evolution of Sopana Sangeetham


In predominantly agrarian society of Kerala, esch caste had their own songs and dances like Velan pattu, Malayan Kettu, Pullon pattu, and visual performances. Storytelling was one of the main entertainment at that time, remnants of which can be seen even today. By time, society started progressing from a nomadic way of life to settling in different areas of Kerala. The classical music intensity lessened gradually where farmers in the field would be singing songs no way related to any circumstances or situations. Farmers used to sing Ballads of North Malabar, as they felt the singing lightening their work load even the context of their singing had no connection.

The process of transmission is from the lips of one to the ears of another. The person who received it through ears makes it flow again as sound through his lips known as Sruthi.

The Ramacharitam composed by Cheeramakavi, Ramakathapaattu by Kovalam poets, Kannassa Ramayanam , Bhasha Bhagavad Geeta, composed by Niranam poets and the most popular Krishnagaadha by Cherusseri, were compositions inspired by unknown folk musicians of Kerala. The compositions of Thunjathu Ezhuthachan, the Father of Malayalam Language, have essence of ancient Dravidian influence. Even in the tyaanis (hymns) sung during the Kottippaadiseva before the Santum Sanctorum, we hear the essence of common man.



Kerala had been the birthplace of powerful Spiritual and social reformers who arose from the oppressed low castes, led to a transformation in the society. Sree Narayana Guru, Ayya Swami and Chattampi Swamikal with their subtle but strong socially obliged spirituality. Relocating the sree moolasthanam from grooves and under the trees (Kaavu) to specially constructed temples started with the influence of Buddhism. A hierarchical status came to exist not similar to the open and worship as in valleys, grooves and under the trees. A new caste evolved there, which could be compared to the structure of the sopanam or the flight of stairs leading to the Sanctum sanctorum. The Sopana talaas developed by early musicians dwelled into the instrumental and percussion arts like Panchavaadyam and Thayambaka. It is in an ascending order fashion starting from ati ati vilamba (very very slow) , ati vilamba (very slow), vilamba (slow), to madhyama (medium) to druta (fast) to ati druta (very fast) to the fastest speed possible. This a characteristic feature of rhythmic system of Kerala.

The architectural structure of temple influences the society and culture. The similarity of Kathakali and temple wall paintings can be observed. The influence of temple architecture, their towers could be traced in many kerala art forms like Kalaripayyattu, the martial art form which is considered as the mother of Kerala art forms, Mohiniyattam, Krishnanattom, Theyyam, Thiruvathirakali, etc. The same architectural style of the temple and homes of Kerala could be seen also in the early churches and mosques as well. Hybrid structures of Kerala and Dutch styles can be traced in Napier Museum, Kanakakkunnu Palace and other buildings nearby to it in the Palayam premises in Thiruvananthapuram. The St. Mary’s Orthodox Church (Kallooppara Valiya Pally) in Kallooppara, Kerala is an example of Church with Kerala’s Temple architecture style.


Music, the universal art of Human, communicates more profoundly from heart than any other art form like poetry, dance or painting. Music leads to more than perform based to a world of imagination, conceptual, perceptual, unclear, unreal images and ideas.

The subtle experience of sound and the emotive aspect of music had been a spiritual, aesthetic experience which creates intangible memories in mind. The concept of Dhwani, the sound and when becomes musical, its naada, which are audible to the inner ear and visible to the inner eye in a higher sense.

The considering of dance and music as divine led to the evolution of these art forms as an offering to the deity. The Sarppa pattu (serpent song) is an offering in serpent temples, which was in practice long before the establishment of temple culture and idol worship in Kerala.

In the Sopana music tradition, there is practice of singing specific ragas during specific hours of the day and night for specific poojas in the temple. The 9 raagas, Desakshi, Sreekanthi, Nalatta, Bhoopali, Malahari, Ahahari, Samanthamalahari, Bhowli and Antari are called Nitya raagas.




Time Pooja Ragas Sung Talas
Dawn Usha pooja Desakshi Triputa
Morning Ethirtha pooja Srikandi Triputa
Late morning Panthiradi Nalatha Rupaka
Noon Uccha pooja Malahari Rupaka
Noon If delayed Ahari Triputa
Dusk Deeparadhana Samantamalahari Triputa
Night Athazha Pooja Natta or Bouli Triputa
Pradosha Pradosha Andhali Chempa

The raga is rendered with the accompaniment of Idakka while keeping the rhythm on the chengila followed by the tyaani, the song composition in typical couplet of Keralan Music. The Idakka, the percussion instrument is harmonized by movement of the hand to produce different tones and pitches. The hourglass type middle piece is the controlling unit of Idakka.




The practice of singing Ashtapadi from the Sanskrit hymns of Geetha Govinda , composed by Jayadeva, in the 12th  Century. The Kottippaadiseva, the offering of music (Kotti literally means beating, here refers to playing Idakka; Paadi means to sing, Seva means Offering) is the earliest platform where Jayadeva ashtapadi was first heard and propagated. The Ashtapadi compositions mesmerizingly blended with the couplet tyaani music tradition of Kerala. The amalgamation of vedic influence of Worship and the bhakthi aspects of Ashtapadi with the traditional classical and folk musicality in Kerala can be called as Sopana process. The Ashtapadi didn’t get so much acceptance and appreciation and propagation in South India as such as in Kerala. Due to its Bhakthi element, in many temples Geeta govinda became a mandatory ritual for worship. Nowadays, Ashtapadi has become widely accepted and new manifestations and intrepretations, not only in its rendering but also in its use for Classical dance forms like Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam, Odissi and even Manipuri.


Tyaani in the repertoire of Kottippadiseva is the only item as part of tantric ritual. The naadopaasana or music worship is a customary pooja. The rendition is umcomplicated and simple and doesn’t completely exploit the musical possibility of raga as in the case of Carnatic music through swara combination and the calculations of korvais and moras as in Mridangam. Njeralath Rama Poduval, veteran Sopana musician said that the word tyaani is derived from the word taayvaani (mother language), but it could have been metamorphical.

The music that had a strong influence of Carnatic music with the advent of the latter’s propagation in Kerala. Music, in service to tantra and mantra, btought a new dimension to spirituality by propagation of Bhakthi element. Bhakthi became the new spiritual concept than the core vedic and

Upanishad lessons, which let the human emotions and feelings for God in simple and subtle way of expression. It is the sacred purity of this emotional expression that is established in the rules of the ritual Kottippadiseva.

The raga in which the akaara and tyaani are sung are called samaya raga. The rendering of akaara in pace with the rhythm is known as Aanandam Vaykkuka. It is in Kalamezhuthu pattu, Mudiyettu where we find the visual splendor in competence with the classical folk music which evolved over the years as a ritual especially in Central and North Kerala.

Padmabhushan Kavalam Narayan Panikkar, the legendary Indian Playwright, Author, poet, lyricist and Musicologist through his decades long research elucidated the Eleven Characteristics, which are unique to the Sopana Music tradition of Kerala.

  • Rhythmic Rendition of Akaara

Singing akaaram to the rhythm of Chengila is a unique practice in this, which is concluded with the word aanandam. It is just like the ta-da-ri-na sung without rhythm, but without any rhythm, which would not be suited for Sopana music’s emotionality and bhakthi.

  • Singing the kattala Swaram

This is singing Jeevaswaras of the raga in akaaraa. It starts from the Adhara shadjam to Panchamam proceeding along the fundamental notes and returns to adhara shadjam. Second stage starts at Panchamam and reach to Mel shadjam and back to panchamam. Then Mel shadjam to Ucha sthayi to Mel shadjam. Fourth stage, Panchamam to Lower panchamam.

  • Applying Air Thrust

This is bringing the tandaava (masculine) aspect to the majorly laasya (feminine) aspect of bhakthi singing. The effects on the Idakka also enhance the singing and conveying the mood and feelings to the devotee listeners.

  • Singing the tyaani

It is sung just after kattala swara, which has a couplet structure, a basic structure of Sopana Music. It has been composed with respect t to the poojas. It is the similarity between this couplet structure and Geetagovinda that it could be assimilated to Sopana sangeetham so easily                                               and                                                effectively.

  • Kooradakkam

It is a special characteristic of Sopana music of starting and ending the rendering of the composition by playing of kooru on Idakka. Kooru is a special playing on Idakka letting the listeners get to know that the singer is going to start or end or is going for a new composition.

  • Kalaayappaattu System

It is that the singing stops at the last beat of one rhythmic cycle enters the next one as an ashabda. This method of incorporating ashabda into the rendition itself clarifies the nature of taala.

  • Rhythm contolled singing

Rhythm is rendered in this system of music. The rhythm keeps the pace and beauty of Sopana sangeetham and it is the merging of rhythm and rendition that makes Sopana music so special.

  • Special Types of Gamakas

Gamaka is the movement of music from one swara to another or from one swara to itself. There are 10 gamakas mentioned in sangeetha fratnakara, of which Sopana Music uses 3 of them- andolita, sphurita and kampita.

  • The appearance and disappearance of Raagas

Here, the singer involves another raga amidst singing one particular raga and exits peacefully without disturbing the essence of the first raga. Exquisitely talented musician can perform this precisely without letting off the musical aesthetics of the former raga.

  • Abhinaya Sangeetham

The rhythmic backbone of Sopana Music and its simple, yet emotive aspects, makes it apt for expressing the content of performances in various art forms like Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Krishnanattom.

  • Mnemonic ingredient

The combination of mnemonics with the song itself helps to highlight the quality of music and to express the emotive aspects very effectively.

Rhythm is the most important aspect of any art forms of India. The important role of music is to carry the message inherent in narration, for which music has to be simple and capable of effective communication. The ballads and dances of regional culture got much popularity at religious festivals and social gatherings, which served to herald the emotional intensity of our traditional dance and music culture. It was a message conveyed by Visual- Aural blending. It has ragas, taalas, even then it traverses the bounadries of spontaneous music, redefined, establishing in its own unique identity, and at the same time, it spreads, its emotional expression through its application in visual art forms.

Sopana Music: Through Different Art Forms

Music has the power to create an emotional journey within us of space and time. Music being a listening experience over the years had led to the incorporation of this music tradition to other performing art forms which led to the wide spread popularity and acceptance in every sects of the society.

Kalaripayattu and Kudiyattam may be considered as the initial art forms that formed the foundation for Kerala’s performing arts, but the former is a martial art form, less equipped to deal the emotive aspects of theme presentations, whereas latter had all the characters but it was Sanskrit based Art form where use of singing compositions was not there.

Kutiyattam (also Koodiyattam) is an old form of Sanskrit theatre, which until recently has been performed solely in the temple theatres, Koothambalam (temple, of Kerala, a state  with  an  exceptionally  strong   Sanskrit  tradition. Kutiyattam (lit. “Acting and dancing together”) is traditionally performed by men of the Chakiar caste, and the music is played by men of the Nambiar caste, while the women of the Nambiar families, Nangiars, play the female roles.It is the sole example of an unbroken tradition of Sanskrit drama. It meticulously follows the instructions of the Natayashastra.


It was not well known in other parts of India or abroad until it was included in the UNESCO List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage in 2001.


The art form Krishnanattam (literally knwon as Dance of Krishna) was composed by King Manavedan of Kozhikode. King Manavedan wrote Krishnageethi based on the renowned poet Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda. This work in Sanskrit presents the story of Lord Krishna and the art form Krishnanattam originated from this.


Krishnanattam combines artistic elements of Ashtapadiyattam, a dance form evolved in

Kerala based on Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda. (However, Ashtapadiyattam ceased to exist almost a   century  ago.)


In Krishnanaattam, the story of Krishna right from his birth to his ascent to heaven is presented in eight parts. In the olden days, it was performed in eight days. There is no dialogue. The actors render in accordance with the songs from background. Chengila, maddalam and Elathalam are the accompanying musical instruments. The make-up and costumes are colourful and vibrant. The Krishnanattam performance is based on the text of Krishnagiti by Manavedan in Sanskrit. The Kathakali performance texts are Attakathas, based on stories in Itihasas, Puranas and others in Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam. In Krishnanattam, maddalam, chengila, elathalam and idakka are used. Chenda is not used in Krishnanattam. Chenda is important in Kathakali.


In Krishnanattam, the principal singer sings a line once and the second singer repeats it. There are only few occasions of acting of the word meaning using hand signs and expressions in Krishnanattam. Hence repeating each line once is sufficient. The singing is in the Sopana style, where devotion is prominent.

Krishnanattam is a dance play while the detailed and varied performance using hand signs and Satvika acting is a unique feature of Kathakali. In Kathakali, the lines are sung repeatedly. Krishnanattam is performed only by a single troupe (managed by Guruvayur Devaswom). There are several troupes performing Kathakali (Kalamandalam, Kottakkal, and International Centre for Kathakali etc.


It is a temple art in Kerala, India. The dance drama presents the story of Rama in a series of eight plays and was developed by Veera Kerala Varma (AD 1653-1694) alias Kottarakkara Thampuran. Ramanattam is based on epic Ramayana, covering the incarnation of Rama to the Rama-Ravana War, Ravana’s defeat and Rama’s crowning at Ayodhya. These eight sections are puthrakameshti, seetha swayamvaram, vicchinnabhishekam, kharavadham, balivadham, thoranayudham, sethubandhanam and yudham (war). Ramanattam is widely believed to be the immediate stem of the well-known classical art form of Kerala, Kathakali.

Evolution into Kathakali

The Raja of Kottayam (Kottayathu Thampuran) redefined Ramanattam into Kathakali. Kottayathu Tampuran was a poet who gave a formal basis to Kathakali and Attakkatha literature. Bakavadham, Kirmeeravadham, Kalyana saugandhikam and Nivathakayacha kalakeyavadham are 4 among them. Simple arrangement of padams, sweetness of expressions, and depth in conception in the works of Thampuran made it widely accepted

and formed the foundation for Kathakali. The contributions of Kottayathu Tampuran are invaluable as far as literature, music and technical aspects are concerned.


Kathakali is considered to be a combination of five elements of fine art:

  • Natyam (Acting), the use of facial expressions to convey emotion
  • Nrithyam, the use of hand gestures “mudras,” to convey meaning and emotion
  • Nritham (Dance), the use of rhythm and movement of hands, legs and body
  • Sangeetham (Music): Song/Vocal  accompaniment   (Geetha), and  instrumental accompaniment (Vadyam)
  • Chutti: Painting or make up

The lyrics, the literature (Sahithyam), are considered as a component of Geetha, and play an additional role to Nritham, Nrithyam and Natyam. Kathakali songs, couched in rich poetic diction, are among the gems of Malayalam literature.

Music in Kathakali, which is of the “margi” type, follows the classical Ragamala code  that represents the purest form of South India Music or the Carnatic music. In fact, this form of purest music has almost become extinct in the present days.

A general and vigorous rhythm dominates the entire performance, and the body movements that is Anga Abhinaya and the different gestures (Hasta Abhinaya) enormously help perfect expressions of the various emotions, the Nava Rasas or the nine classical sentiments including Shringara, Vira, Karuna, Adbhuta, Raudra, Hashya, Bhyanaka, Bibhatsa and Shanta

both in their intensity and complex reactions to each other. There are more than five thousand Kathakali padams or songs, but the most popular songs are by the Titans of Kathakali music namely Kottayath Tampuran, Unnaayi Varier and Irayimman Tampi.


On the stage the music in Kathakali comprises a couple of singers accompanied by the clinking of the cymbals and the jingling of the Chengala in harmony with the playing of the drums. The leading singer has a song and the secondary singer, a pair of cymbals to mark time. Strokes made on the gong with a stick keep time for the actors. The drummers emphasize each gesture and keep rhythm for the singers. The conclusion or full stop to every conversation is marked by a Kalasam that is measured steps and poses controlled by the time beats on the drum. The variety of sounds which the drummers produce with the aid of their hands and the tiny stick is marvellous.

Two drums called Maddalam and Chenda are used.

The Maddalam is fixed to the waist of the artiste with a cotton belt and remains in a horizontal position. The Chenda is fastened in a vertical position. The demonically clever and incessant drumming that shakes up the hearers assumes an entire gamut of rhythm. Of late, Edakka, a percussion instrument is also used when the female characters are on the stage and then the Chenda not used.

The music of the Kathakali is a perfect combination of Raaga, Tala    and    Swara    and Bhava. Kathakali orchestral group stand facing the audience. The raagas of the songs have been carefully selected to suggest the relevant emotional nuance and dramatic content. Sixty different raagas and six talas are used with supreme used by the accomplished musicians. The closest and most harmonious co- operation is necessary between the three artistes the dancer, the singer and the drummer to render a performance in the Kathakali dance, a success. The effect of the triangular harmony between the Geetham, Nritham and Vadyam is highly enchanting.


Mohiniattam evolved has an association with Lasya style of dancing. The temple sculptures of the state are the earliest manifestations of Mohiniattam. Mohiniattam poses are also palpable from the various feminine sculptures that adorn the 11th century Vishnu temple at  Trikodithanam,  and  the  Kidangur  Subramanya  temple.  The  16th  century  book  titled ‘Vyavaharamala’ written by scholar, poet, author and astrologer Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri is the first known book that mentions the term Mohiniyattam in connection with a payment due to a Mohiniyattam dancer. While discussing about various performing art forms of Kerala, renowned poet Kunchan Nambiar in his 17th century book ‘Gosha Yatra’ mentioned about Mohiniyattam. The 18th century Sanskrit treatise ‘Balarama Bharatam’ on natyam written by the king of Travancore Karthika Thirunal Bala Rama Varma (considered to be a significant secondary work on ‘Natya Shastra’) refers about ‘Mohino Natana’ among various other dance styles.

The initiation and patronage of the Maharaja of the Kingdom of Travancore, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, a poet and brilliant music composer himself. His contributions in the art form saw the eventual development and systematization of present day Mohiniattam.

Traditionally the repertoire of Mohiniyattam follows two performance

categories namely, ‘Nritta’ and ‘Nritya’ mentioned in ‘Natya Shastra’. It follows the Lasya type of dance that showcases a more graceful, gentle and feminine form of dancing and displays excellence in ‘Ekaharya Abhinaya’ form in other words a solo and expressive dance art complimented with music and songs. ‘Nritta’ is a technical performance where the dancer presents pure dance movements giving stress on speed, form, pattern, range and rhythmic aspects without any form of enactment or interpretive aspects. In ‘Nritya’ the dancer-actor communicates a story, spiritual themes through expressive gestures and slower body movements harmonized with musical notes thus engrossing the audience with the emotions and themes of the act.

The vaitaris in Kerala art forms have their own peculiarities as in chollus we use in Mohiniattam. Cheche, kukumtari khikam, tenkuku, nakatarakam, dhiyam. tinganeka dantam etc. These are preserved in different instruments like Edakka. Maddalam. Udukku. Tuti etc. This system had developed from the style of chanting of the Veda mantras of the region

and many other articulations in the different folk form. It develops further in Astapadi singing and Kalamezhuthupattu. This musical system is fast disappearing. There are certain important banis (gharanas) which even now prevail in some temples like Guruvayur. Ramamangalam, Thirumandhamkunnu. Chottanikkara, Pazhoor. Kidangur etc. Shri Naralathu Rama Poduval (Thirumandhamkunnu Bani) and Shri Guruvayur Janardanan Nedungadi (Guruvayur Bani) are two noted musicians who represent two distinct styles. The former, is known for its tandava and the latter for its lasya touches.


Today’s music in Mohiniyattam is a result of great efforts of Padmabhushan Kavalam Narayana Panickker incorporating Sopana Music to the mohiniattam repertoire with the sincere hardworks of two great personalities who revived Mohiniattam to the form that we see today- Padmabhushan Dr. Kanak Rele and Padmashri Bharati Shivaji. The contributions by composing and unearthing Kerala’s rare metric taalaas and indigenous compositions by Padmashri Leela Omchery and incorporating them in Mohiniattam stands unique for Dr. Deepti Omchery Bhalla’s repertoire.

The Trailblazers of Sopana Music:

Kottarakkara Thampuran

Regarded as the Father of Kathakali, Kottarakkara Thampuran (the King of Kottarakkara or Veera Kerala Varma) wrote the first story for Kathakali. The story was divided into eight poetic sections depicting various incidents of the great Indian epic Ramayana. Each story performance lasted from 6 to 8 hours and was known as Ramanattam. Later, stories from puranas and other Hindu epics and scriptures were included and Ramanattam evolved and became popularly known as Kathakali.

Kottayathu Thampuran

Kottayam Thampuran was a king of northern Kerala. He made many important contributions to Kathakali, introducing for the first time episodes from the Mahabharata. Until this point, all the plays were from the Ramayana. Thampuran added a depth and emotional complexity to his characters that was not there before and turned kathakali into a total theatre that blended all the elements of acting, dance, vocal music, and instrumental music. Thampuran was also instrumental in giving his female characters a multidimensionality of emotions. His plays offered new challenges to the actor in terms of further making facial expressions and expanding the musical and rhythmic possibilities.

Unnayi Warrier

Unnayi Warrier who lived during the 17th  century was highly proficient in the field of art and culture. A poet, writer, scholar and dramatist, he contributed immensely to the art of Kathakali, the classical dance-drama of Kerala. His ‘Nalacharitham attakatha’ combines acting, music and literature so aesthetically, that till date no new compositions in the Kathakali repertoire could ever replace it. Nalacharitham, is a complete Kathakali art form, divided into four parts/days and is a path breaking and pioneering effort. It has been penned in such a manner that each part can be presented independently.


Karthika Thirunnal Balarama Verma

Maharaja Karthika Thirunal Bala Rama Varma (1758-98 AD) Karthika Thirunal Maharaja was one of the greatest and most distinguished sovereigns of Kerala. The Maharaja was a great lover of culture and great was the name that he acquired as a patron of arts. He was a linguist and had mastery over four languages such as English, Persion, Tamil and Hindustani.Maharaja Bala Rama Varma composed a Treatise on Natya called ‘Bala Rama Bharatham”, which is a classic text for Kathakali and Mohiniattam.



Irayimman Thampi

Ravi Varman Thampi better known as Irayimman Thampi was a Carnatic musician as well as a music composer from Kerala, India. He was a vocalist in the court of Swathi Thirunal. His compositions include the famous Malayalam lullaby Omanathingal Kidavo.

Born as Ravi Varman Thampi in 1783 to Kerala Varma Thampuran of the Royal family of Travancore and Parvathi Pillai Thankachi of the Puthumana Ammaveedu Thampi family, daughter of Prince Makayiram Thirunal Ravi Varma and niece of the Maharajah Dharma Raja of Travancore. He wrote his first poem when he was fourteen

and dedicated it to Karthika Thirunal Dharmaraja of Travancore. Since then he occupied an   enviable   position  in  the  Travancore  court.

Maharajah Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma is known to have referred to Ravi Varman Thampi as Thampi maman (uncle Thampi). He had the occasion to write a lullaby for Swathi Thirunal and ironically also wrote a charama sloka (Obituary song) for Swathi in 1848.


Swati Tirunaal

Swati Tirunaaḷ was deeply interested in music right from childhood. Besides being an able ruler, he was a patron of music and was a musician himself. Researchers say that Swati Tirunaaḷ affixed his compositions    with    the     mudra Padmanabha, padumanabha,

sarasijanaabha, etc. and its synonyms. He encouraged both systems of Indian music, Hindustani and Carnatic music, though he was essentially a connoisseur of the Carnatic music tradition. He is credited with composing over 400 compositions in Carnatic and Hindustani

music. Swati Tirunaḷ was fluent in a number of languages including Malayalam, Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Hindustani, Bengali, Tamil, Oriy a and English. This was a period when music and art were thriving in many parts of south India.  The  Trinity  of  Carnatic  music, Tyagaraja (1767–1847), Syama  Sastri (1762–1827) and Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775–1835), lived and enriched music during this period.

The literary works of Maharajah Svāti Tirunāḷ include Bhakti Manjari’, Syanandurapuravarnana Prabandham, Padmanabhasatakam, Muhanaprasa Antyaprasa Vyavastha, Ajamila, Kuchela Upakhyanas and Utsava Varnana Prabandha


Kutty Kunji Thankachi


Kuttykunju Thankachi was born in 1820, daughter of Irayimman Thampi. She was then known as Kizhakke Madathil Kuttykunju Thankachi (Kuttykunju Thankachi of Kizhakke Matom).Her real name  was  Lakshmi  Pillai.  She  passed  away  in  1940.  Kuttykunju Thankachi had penned about eighteen works comprising three complete Attakkatha (literary work for Kathakali performance), a few kilippattu (song as told by a parrot), hymns, thiruvathira songs, Thullal (a kind of dance) literature etc. The influence of her father Irayimman Thampi was evident in her works include

K C Keshava Pillai

  1. C. Kesava Pillai  (1868–1914) was a composer of Carnatic  music,  Poet Laureate of Travancore and made contributions to Malayalam He was born in Paravur in Kollam (Quilon) District of Kerala in India in 1868. At the age of 15, he wrote his first attakadha. K. C. Kesava Pillai died in   1914,   aged   46   years.   On   account   of   his   musical   and   poetical achievements, he was awarded the title of Sarasa Gayaka Kavimani by Sangeethasahityakovda Kerala Varma Valiya Koyi Thampuran. His works


Sangeetha manjari and Sthavaratnavali: both contain kritis and bhajan songs, Sangeethamaalika and Eswarasthothranga, Sthavaratnamalika. Attakada like Prahlaada Charitham, later renamed, Hiranyasuravadham Soorapadmasuravadham, Sreekrishnavijayam

  Kavalam Narayana Panikkar

Kavalam Narayana Panicker is an Indian dramatist, theatre director and poet. He has written over 26 Malayalam plays, many adapted from classical Sanskrit drama and Shakespeare, notably Madhyamavyayogam (1979) Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasiyam (1981,

1996),  Shakuntalam  (1982),  Karnabharam  (1984,  2001),  Bhasa’s Uru  Bhangam  (1988),  Swapnavasavadattam  and  Dootavakyam (1996). He is the founder-director of theatre troupe, Sopanam, which led to the foundation of ‘Bhashabharati: Centre for Performing Arts, Training and Research, in Trivandrum.

Shri. Panikkar is a towering personality in the theatre scenario of Kerala as well as India as a whole. He has done intense research in the indigenous “music and tala (rhythm)” tradition of Kerala Sopana Sangeetam. Panikkar has penned 26 Malayalam plays, and has also translated English and Sanskrit plays into Malayalam.

He was the Secretary of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi from 1961 to 1971. He is the founder Director of ‘Sopanam,’ the theatre wing of Bhasabharati. Through ‘Sopanam’, he has tried to discover the basic principles of theatre through various dance and music forms like Sopana Sangeetam, Mohiniyattam, contemporary recreations of epics etc.

He was awarded the 1983 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Direction by Sangeet Natak Akademi, and Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2002. He was honoured with Padmabhushan by Government of India.