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Facts about India

Surface area: 3 287 590 km2

Capital: New Delhi

Population: 1 148 million

Ethnic structure: Indo Aryans 72%, Dravidians 25%, and other groups

Languages: Official languages English and Hindi 30%, others: Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmir, Sindhi, and several other languages

Religions: Hinduism 83%, Islam 12%, Christianity 2.3%, Sikhism 1.9%, and others, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Parseeism etc. all together 2.5%

The Indian subcontinent forms a huge cultural sphere and its influence has radiated around almost the whole of Asia. India’s cultural heritage is enormous, and includes archaeological evidence of some 10 000 years, as well a four-thousand-year-old literary tradition. Two Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well the sacred language, Sanskrit, cosmology and architectural and other artistic prototypes gradually spread to other parts Asia.

This is also partly true with the theatrical traditions. The grand epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for example, together with Hinduism, spread to various parts of Asia, where they are still enacted in various styles. The theory and dance-like acting technique of Indian theatre were also adapted and gradually localised in those regions with long-lasting contacts with the Indian subcontinent.

The Historical Outline

The Roots

The earliest known permanent settlements in India appeared approx. 9 000 years ago. They gradually developed into one of the earliest pre-urban civilisations in the world, the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation, which flourished in approx. 2700–1800 BC. Its centres were Harappa and Mohenjodaro in the Indus River Valley, in present-day Pakistan. In their ground plans these well-organised, city-like settlements already reflect clearly differentiated social classes or castes.

The Indus Culture had its own writing system, which served religion, trade and administration. However, it has not yet been deciphered. It is believed that many features of the later Indian religions can be traced back to this early culture. Two small sculptures give some information about dance of the period.

The Indus Civilisation was followed by the arrival of Aryans from the west and the Vedic Period (1600–550 BC), when the four Veda books were compiled. They formed the basis for the present form of India’s main religion, so-called Hinduism.

Brahmanism, the early form of Hinduism, was dominated the priestly brahman caste, which had the prerogative for religious rites. The other three castes were ksatriyas or the warriors and nobles, vaisyas or the peasants, and sudras, the serfs.

The Age of the Buddha and the Classical Period

Slowly the cultural focus moved eastwards, to the Ganges Valley, where, among other preachers and religious reformers, Gautama Buddha also started his career as a spiritual teacher in the 5th century BC, which led to the birth of Buddhism. It flourished in India until the 12th century AD and spread to Southeast Asia and East Asia, thus becoming one of the great world religions.

In the 3rd century BC most of the subcontinent was united into the Mauryan Empire by a Buddhist king, Chandragupta Maurya or Ashoka the Great. India’s “golden” or “classical” period was the Gupta period in approximately the 4th–7th centuries, when much of the earlier orally transmitted literary heritage was written down.

The Medieval South

India can roughly be divided into two large cultural areas, the northern and the southern one. Most of the discussion above has been about the northern area. Empires in southern India included the Chalukya, the Chola and the Vijayanagara Empires. These highly civilised dynasties belong to the Indian Medieval Period, which started in the 7th century and lasted until the 16th century.

The Spread of Islam

In the north, following invasions from Central Asia in the 9th–12th centuries, large areas came under the rule of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate and, later in the 15th century, the Mughal Empire. Thus North India received influences from Islamic and, particularly, Persian culture.

Under the rule of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, India enjoyed cultural and economic progress while different religions lived relatively harmoniously side by side. The Mughal Empire gradually expanded to cover large parts of the subcontinent.

Some kingdoms had been able to resist the Mughal subjugation, which was seriously threatened for the first time by a Rajput king in the 14th century and later by the Maratha Confederacy that dominated much of India in the mid-18th century.

The Colonial Period

European powers, such as Portugal, the Netherlands, France and the British started to establish their trading posts in India as early as the 16th century. Taking advantage of internal conflicts, the Western powers gradually started to colonise the country.

By 1856 most of India was under the control of the British East India Company. A year later, a nationwide revolt, the Sepoy Mutiny, also known as “India’s First War of Independence”, challenged the Company’s control. As a result, however, India was brought under direct British colonial rule.


In the 20th century, the Indian National Congress and other organisations launched a nationwide struggle for independence. Mahatma Gandhi led millions of people in national campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience.

India gained its independence in 1947. At the same time, however, Muslim-majority areas were apportioned to form the separate state of Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). In January 1950 India became a republic.

Early Literature and Theatre

Theatre and dance, which are inseparable art forms in Indian culture, are present even in the earliest works of Indian literature. The Veda literature, or the four Vedas, which forms the basis of early Brahmanism and later Hinduism, mentions dance and open-air theatrical performance. Otherwise, the Vedas mainly include invocations and hymns to the gods, ritual formulas, and short stories.

The Vedic tradition evolved orally through the centuries and received its written form much later in the post-Vedic period. Towards the end of the Vedic period, various gods, which were originally rather simple personifications of aspects of nature, began to acquire complicated mythologies, which personalised them. These mythologies were further elaborated in the early centuries AD by the Purana literature, while at the same these mythical stories became the main theme for much of the Indian theatrical arts.

Sanskrit, The Classical Language

The classical language of Indian civilisation is Sanskrit. The four Vedas were written in Sanskrit, and later an enormous corpus of literary works of various kinds, including the so-called Sanskrit Dramas, which will be discussed later, were written in Sanskrit. Panini, the great grammarian of Sanskrit, mentions a short text on acting in the 5th century BC.

Sanskrit remained the language of the educated elite until the Indian Medieval Period. The way people informally spoke Sanskrit, however, changed through the centuries. Thus Sanskrit ceased to be a natural, spoken language, a process similar to the fate of Latin in Medieval Europe.

The opposite of standard Sanskrit is Prakrit, varieties of dialects, which evolved from Sanskrit. For example, one revolutionary aspect of the Buddha’s career as a teacher was that he preached in Prakrit, which was understood by ordinary people too. Prakrit became an important element in classical Sanskrit Drama, since the clown and many minor characters spoke vernacular Prakrit.

India now has dozens of languages, including English, which, alongside Hindi, is a kind of universal language throughout the country. Sanskrit, however, remains an important key to understanding India’s religions and philosophy, as well as classical literature and theatre.

Theatre and Buddhism

Buddhist literature indicates that early Buddhism also created a rich theatrical tradition. For example, the Pali Suttas (c. 5th–2nd centuries BC) mention theatre groups and various kinds of performers. It was by no means forbidden to portray the Buddha himself on stage, as has been sometimes the case later.

The Buddhist theatrical tradition spread later via the caravan route network, or the “Northern Silk Road”, to East Asia, and influenced the development of early theatre in Central Asia, China, Korea and even Japan. Another wave of influence spread to the regions of the Himalayas, where a rich tradition of monastery dramas evolved.

The Indian cultural sphere was the source of important Buddhist literature, which has been employed by numerous theatrical traditions both in ancient India and present-day Southeast Asia. The Buddhist Jataka or Birth Stories are morally instructive stories that came about at different times, in which the main character is an animal, a human being or a superhuman being seeking to do good.

They were gathered into a collection of 547 (or 550) stories in the Pali language, the sacred language of Buddhism. The main characters were described as early incarnations of the Buddha. The Jatakas give much valuable information about various theatrical practices from the period they were written, i.e. c. 600–200 BC.

The Great Epics, The Mahabharata and the Ramayana

The great Hindu epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are of enormous importance for the whole culture, not only of India but also of other parts of Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. They were originally conveyed orally, but they received their written forms in the early centuries AD. Since that time numerous variations have been written in India and other parts of Asia and, for example, the Ramayana has been set in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia in a Buddhist context, while in Malaysia it is set in an Islamic context.

The epics are of crucial importance to the theatrical arts, in two ways. Firstly, they give different kinds of information about theatrical practices from the periods in which they were formulated. Secondly, they provide plots for hundreds of different kinds of theatrical traditions, from simple storytelling to shadow theatre, classical Sanskrit dramas, various forms of dance-dramas, pilgrimage plays, and hundreds of folk traditions.

The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata (Synopsis of the Mahabharata) could be regarded as the national epic of India. It is the world’s largest epic poem, consisting of some 100,000 double verses. Like other great epics, the Mahabharata, written in Sanskrit, is a collective work, and its author is unknown. It has been generally assumed that the poem relates events that happened during a period of tribal warfare in Northern India in approximately the ninth century BC. The epic contains elements of the ancient, holy Veda texts, but its final form evolved over the centuries as it was sung by local “bards” or “troubadours”, who added new details and emphases to it.

The ethic norms of the priestly Brahman class were added to the story, and the Mahabharata gradually became a cornerstone of Hindu thinking. In its richness and diversity of levels, the Mahabharata is not only an ageless description of ancient clan disputes and bloody warfare, but also an image of an ultimately Indian way of conceiving the world and man’s duty in it. The Mahabharata is an immense work with numerous subplots, and hundreds of characters and episodes, from which independent literary works have arisen.

The Ramayana

The Ramayana, which is probably the world’s most popular epic, tells of the struggle of Prince Rama with the demon-king Ravana. Like Krishna in the Mahabharata, Prince Rama is presented as the avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu (synopsis of the Ramayana). The Ramayana may have originally been composed collectively, but the legendary author Valmiki is mentioned in connection with it. The epic is less extensive than the Mahabharata, consisting of 12,000 double verses.

The Shastras, The Treatises

Indian literary heritage includes several shastras or manuals (also code, theory, treatise) covering a vast range of subjects from cooking, elephant and horse breeding, and lovemaking, as well as several art forms, such as poetics, music, theatre, and dance. The earliest treatise for theatre and dance is the Natyashastra or the Drama Manual, which will be discussed in detail later.

Other shastra manuals also give information about theatrical practices, each according to their own specific viewpoint. The Kamashastra (Kamasutra), the treatise on love, informs us about the kind of role that theatrical performances had in the life of the upper class educated male citizen.

The Arthashastra, the treatise on politics and administration, on the other hand, gives detailed information about the role of different kinds of performers in the ideal, yet highly hierarchical, society described in this manual written in the 4th century BC.

The Rich Panorama of the Theatrical Arts

The information scattered in the early literature discussed above offers an enlightening and multifaceted panorama of the theatrical forms and practices of early India. There were, for example, various kinds of places where performances took place, from simple open arenas to large cave theatres, and brick-built amphitheatres, as well as several kinds of wooden theatre buildings.

The early genres of performance included, among others, different kinds of rituals, and storytelling, as well as “picture showmen”, who employed either picture scrolls or panels to visualise their narration. Pure dances were popular, as were mimetic solo performances by a singe actor-dancer. The more literary forms of drama could involve a large cast of both male and female actors, while all-male and all-female troupes are also known to have existed.

In the early centuries AD the theory and the various practices of this rich and already mature theatrical tradition were formulated in the form of a shastra treatise, the Natyashastra or the Drama Manual.

Bharata and his Natyashastra

The myth of the origin of theatre in India, told at the very beginning of the Natyashastra, or the Drama Manual, shows the central role of theatre and dance in Indian culture. Natya, the art of theatre (including dance), was the work of God Brahma, the creator, who was asked to give mankind a fifth Veda, which, unlike the four earlier Vedas, could be understood by everyone, even those who did not know Sanskrit (i.e., the two lowest casts). Thus Brahma created the Natya Veda, with the assistance of other gods.

Natya was then taught by God Brahma to the mythic sage Bharata, who is said to have recorded this teaching in the Natyashastra. The origin of the book is thus shrouded in mythology, but the work itself is indeed living reality. The Natyashastra is probably the world’s largest and most comprehensive theatre and dance manual, and it still forms the foundation of the classical forms of theatre and dance in India.

The instructions of the Natyashastra became established through centuries of practical theatre work. The compilation of this treatise dates back most probably to the second century AD, although the tradition formulated in it was older. Most probably it preserves information and practices that for generations had already originally been conveyed orally.

Natyashastra’s 36 chapters give instructions on almost all aspects of theatre and dance: the theatre building, the stage, the theory of poetry, the use of the voice, make-up, costume, acting styles, dance techniques, and even theatre criticism.

The Theory of Rasa

The Natyashastra introduced the theory of bhava and rasa, so central to Indian aesthetics. It had a profound effect on most of the traditional art forms of India. Bhava means an emotional state or mood, portrayed by the dancer-actor.

Rasa, “taste” or “essence”, refers to the sentiment that the bhava, manifested by the actor, should evoke in the audience. The rasas were originally eight in number, but the post-Natyashastra tradition added a ninth one.

  1. The Erotic (srngara)
  2. The Comic (hasya)
  3. The Pathetic (karuna)
  4. The Furious (raudra)
  5. The Heroic (vira)
  6. The Terrible (bhayanaka)
  7. The Odious (bibhatsa)
  8. The Marvellous (abhuta) and 
  9. The Tranquil (santa)

According to this theory, one of these permanent sentiments should govern any good work of art.

According to Bharata, the actor-dancer should be able to elicit the rasa experience in the audience through the stahyi bhava or permanent emotion, which is supported by the determinants (vibhava) and stimulants (anubhava). These are further elaborated upon through different transitory states of mind.

If all goes well, the spectator then receives these various signals, which awake the particular sentiment in question in his or her mind. However, not everyone is able to experience it. In order to be able to recognise or receive the rasa, or the “essence”, the spectator should be a sensitive and cultivated person, a rasika.

The Textual Level

Bharata points out that the word or text is the basis of theatre. The Natyashastra thus gives much space to the construction of a play. Its chief protagonist is usually a hero, often a king or a prince, and the five stages of the play are seen from his point of view. They are (1) the beginning, (2) the effort, (3) the possibility of attainment, (4) the possibility of resolution still overshadowed by conflicts and/or obstacles and, finally, (5) the fruition.

The Natyashastra gives four different styles of natya or stylised acting: (1) the graceful, (2) the energetic, (3) the grand, and (4) the verbal. The last one is probably is the nearest equivalent to Western spoken theatre.

Body Language and its Sub-techniques

There are two main styles of conveying drama, the stylised or symbolic one, natya, and the realistic one, loka. The stylised way, natya, combines dance or dance-like movements with facial expression. Dance was an integral part of stylised acting, while later it also became an independent form of art, as described in several post-Natyashastra treatises.

The classical Indian dance technique described in the Natyashastra is one of the most detailed and complex in the world. It includes 108 karanas or basic dance units, four ways of standing, 32 movements of the feet and hips, nine neck movements, seven movements for eyebrows, 36 types of gaze, and symbolic hand gestures, 24 for one hand and 13 for both hands etc.

The dancer-actor’s whole body, from the soles of his or her feet to the eyelids and fingertips, are trained to be a versatile means of expression through years of work in order to be able the express the rasa.

Mudras, Symbolic Hand Gestures

The use of mudra (also hasta), the symbolic hand gestures, is especially characteristic of Indian dance and theatrical expression. The mudras most probably developed from the magic gestures of the ancient Veda rituals. In Indian theatre and dance, various combinations of mudras permit the dancer-actor to express himself or herself with distinct and nuanced language of gestures.

The need for such a form of expression appears to have been based on the fact that the early drama texts were in often in Sanskrit, which was understood only by the two higher casts, while the gesture language could be, at least in principle, comprehended by all.

In South-East Asia, symbolic hand gestures are also an essential feature of dance, but they did not develop into a specific gesture language. For example, Javanese, classical dance involves only four gestures of the hands, which have different meanings in various contexts or no specific literary meaning at all.

Abstract and Expressive Dance

In the Natyashastra the dance is divided into two basic categories; they are nrtta or the abstract, “pure” dance, which does not convey any story or specific mood, and nritya or dance with rasa moods, often serving as a medium to convey a story. Nritya is also often called abhinaya and this term will also be used here.

The nrtta is constructed of the technique of rendering the rhythm (tala) through movements that do not have any specific meaning, and the skill of projecting frozen, sculptural poses within a given rhythmic cycle.

In the present dance traditions a dance number or a whole recital often combine nrtta dances and abhinaya numbers. Abhinaya technique in itself is a complicated “science” of body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions culminating in the eye movements. The term abhinaya indicates all that which “brings the thing to the audience”.

Lasya and Tandava, the Feminine and Masculine Style

The Natyashastra mentions two different dance styles. They are lasya and tandava. Tandava is related to the powerful creative and destructive cosmic dance of God Shiva, while lasya is said to have been created by Shiva’s spouse, Goddess Parvati.

Traditionally these terms are used to indicate the style of dance, i.e. lasya is a soft and graceful style, while tandava is strong, even aggressive, in style. Both styles can be performed by either male or female dancers. Lasya also indicates a performance style in which a solo performer enacts a text sung by a singer by means of gestures and mime.

Abhinaya, the Physical Storytelling

The facial muscles, eyes, eyebrows, etc., are trained and developed as consistently as the body, hands, and feet. Facial technique is central to the expression of the rasa mood, and it can even be developed to the level where the actor can express joy with one half of his face and sorrow with the other.

In fact, the culmination of the whole acting happens in the eyes of the performer. His or her gaze must follow the hand movements, while the facial expression then gives meaning to the gesture. Thus, when a dancer, with his or her hand movements, depicts, for example, the opening of a lotus flower, his or her eyes are able to give different emphases to the gesture.

For example, if the flower is especially beautiful, the facial expression and the eyes may express the sentiment of wonder. However, if there is a poisonous snake in it, the actor’s eyes and face may express horror. Thus the eye and facial movements in general, with their ability to convey a mood, are able to give almost endlessly different meanings to the symbolic hand gestures.

If it is compared with the traditional Western acting technique, the natya differs from it in one particular aspect. In the West the focus is on the action manifested by the actor while in classical Indian acting technique the focus is on the character’s reactions to that action.

The whole complicated process of conveying the rasa through the natya technique is crystallised in the famous dictum:

Where the hand goes, eyes follow.
Where the eye goes, there the mood follows.
Where the mind goes, there arises the sentiment.

The Construction of Rasa

The rasa theory has been discussed above only in simplified outlines. In fact, the process of creating the rasa sentiment is more complicated. An often used example is the creation of rasa of love on the stage.

When a character on stage is in love, the sentiment of love is the ruling and continuing emotional state or stahyibhava manifested by the actor. The context for this emotional state is provided by text describing the lovers, appropriate music, costumes, make-up system etc. The emotion of love is further manifested by facial expressions, such as amorous glances, smiles, flirting etc. These physical actions are called anubhavas.

The manifestation of love needs to be elaborated. Accessory feelings, such as hope, doubt, jealousy, longing etc. are intermingled with the basic emotion of love. These rising and falling supporting emotions are called vyabhicaribhavas and they are 37 in number. All these leading and accessory emotions, as well as voluntary and involuntary actions, aim to create the sentiment of love in the audience.

The Actor’s Tools

According to the Natyashastra the actor has four principal “toolboxes” to aid the acting process. They are

  1. aharya or costumes and make-up
  2. vacika or spoken or sung words,
  3. angika or the various aspects of the actual body language, and
  4. sattvika or the expression of inner emotions.

The natya acting technique described above relies thoroughly on the angika body language and the aharya expression of inner moods. This acting/dancing technique can be regarded as the margi style, meaning the classical tradition, still represented by the present classical styles, such as bharatanatyam, odissi, kutiyattan, kathakali etc, all discussed later.

The opposite to the margi style is the desi style, indicating “regional” or “lesser” styles, not so closely connected to the Natyashastra tradition. This classification into the “classical” and “folk” styles is not found in the Natyashastra but was created later when several dance manuals concentrated on regional styles.

The Natyashastra clearly indicates that there were already several styles of theatre as well as different acting techniques during the time of its compilation. This is also very true at the moment. The way in which the four “toolboxes” are used in each tradition varies greatly. For example, in some traditions the actor speaks or recites his lines, while in another style the actor only embodies the role character while a singer or a narrator takes care of the vacika or verbal aspect of the performance.

The same is also the case with the aharya or the outer aspect of the acting, i.e. costumes, make-up etc. In some tradition the actor wears standard make-up and a standard costume regardless of what role he or she is acting, while in some traditions there are clear role types with their characteristic costumes, make-up or masks.

Dance in the Visual Arts

Besides the early literature, the visual arts, such as early sculptures, reliefs, and later paintings, also give extremely valuable information about theatre and dance. In India the whole phenomenon of the interrelation of dance and the visual arts, and indeed of other art forms as well, is a most crucial one.

The question is not merely of borrowing and exchanging materials and ideas from one art form to another. In Indian thought, dance, and all art, is basically a religious sacrifice (yajna). Art is also regarded as a form of yoga and a discipline (sadhana). Through the creation of a work of art the artist/craftsman strives to evoke a state of pure joy or bliss (ananda).

The human body was seen as a vehicle of worship and thus performances become acts of invoking the divine. By 200 AD at the latest, as stated above, the complicated techniques of dance-like acting, as well as the rasa system, were codified in the Natyashastra.

It is significant that in the Indian tradition it is dance, a temporal and corporal form of art, which is regarded as the ascendant art form. It set the measure for other forms of art, since they adopted the theory rasa from the tradition of the Natyashastra.

Dance and Sculpture

Dance has been so predominant in its position that some textual sources stress that sculptors and painters cannot succeed in their work without a basic knowledge of it. The Natyashastra sets the physical and dramatic tools for evoking the rasa or the emotional state appropriate to worship. On the other hand, the Silpashastras, manuals of iconography and sculpture, were intended to help in producing the corresponding figurative representations.

Consequently, the principles of movement, however complicated they may be, are the same for both a dancer and a sculptor. The final goal of this intricate science of movements, measurements, poses, gestures etc. is to create the rasa, the actual object of presentation and, finally, to reach even further in evoking the state in which transcendental bliss can be experienced.

All the three Indian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, share the same theoretical basis for dance and the visual arts. And so most of the margi or “classical” dance techniques, in spite of their local stylistic variations, bear strong similarities in all of these three traditions. Consequently, their imagery shares common aesthetic norms and iconographic features.

Dancing Gods

As early as from the Vedic period (1600–550 BC) onwards, Indian literature and mythological narrative created characters which were depicted in the visual arts as dancing or in easily recognisable dance-derived poses, reflecting the prevalent dance techniques.

During the classical Gupta age from the fourth to the sixth century AD the repertoire of the dance images expanded further, while the Puranas or mythological stories of the early centuries AD provided more dance-related imagery. Along with dancing human beings and semi-gods of older periods appeared dancing gods, the first of them being the dancing Shiva.

Shiva Nataraja, Shiva as the King of Dance

The sculpture-type called Shiva Nataraja can be regarded as one of the trademarks of Indian art. The iconography of the Shiva Nataraja, literally meaning the King of Dance, developed over the centuries and reached its crystallised form in Tamil Nadu during the Chola period in approximately the 10th–12th centuries AD. It was the very period when the art of bronze casting reached its apogee. The Chola sculptors were able to reproduce, in metal, the exact proportions laid down by the Silpashastras and even the tiniest details of the gestures and movements dictated by the Natyashastra.

The Shiva Nataraja represents Shiva as the destroyer/creator as described by devotional poetry dedicated to him. In the Hindu cyclical view of time Shiva’s role is to destroy one era in order to create the next one, and this is what Shiva Nataraja statues portray. When he executes his cosmic tandava dance of destruction and creation he is surrounded by an arch of glory fringed by flames.

The flame that he is holding in his upper left hand hints at the aspect of destruction, while the drum, symbol of the pulse of life, which Shiva holds in his upper right hand, refers to the aspect of creation. The lower left hand points to his lifted foot, while the lower right hand is shown in pataka mudra. Multi-handedness, a feature typical of many nrttamurtis, is a practical way to manifest the deity’s different aspects simultaneously. It also enables the sculptor to capture several frozen moments of a movement sequence in a static sculpture.

The main characteristic of Shiva’s dance in the Chola iconography is the uplifted leg. His right leg is firmly planted on a dwarfish creature, which personifies one of the six enemies of enlightenment. The sculpture is full of symbolism. Shiva’s braided hair is often decorated with his attributes: a laughing skull, a crescent moon and a cobra, and also often Ganga, the personification of the Ganges. The rasa, which Shiva’s dance always evokes, is raudra, the Furious.

Dance Images in Temples

Many of the early Buddhist reliefs with their dance-related images and the early dance images of Hindu cave temples are still in their original architectural contexts. The earliest surviving free-standing stone temples were built in the Gupta period. Gradually their plain outer walls were decorated with narrative panels as well as dancing divinities. This was the beginning of a development that was to lead to the flourishing of dance images in Hindu temple architecture during the so-called “medieval” period, approximately from the 7th to the 16th century.

The most abundant representations of dance images can be seen in the Hindu temples of South India, in the Bhubaneshwar temples in East India, and in the temples of Khajuraho in Central India. The West Indian Jain temples of Mt. Abu are also famous for their dance imagery. The styles of sculpture differ and local schools can easily be recognised, but the fundamental portrayal of the movement is mostly rooted in the tradition of the Natyashastra.

Dance Manuals in Stone

Series of dance reliefs directly related to the Natyashastra can be found in some medieval temple complexes in South India. The most famous of them are those carved on the towering 9th century gateways of the Shiva temple in Chidambaram. They include ninety-three of the 108 karanas described in the Natyashastra.

These small relief panels, together with other similar series and contemporaneous murals depicting dancers, constitute an important source material when one is trying to reconstruct the karana movement cadences of the Natyashastra. What makes these Chidambaram karana reliefs so particular is that they are accompanied by inscriptions of Sanskrit verses from the Natyashastra. Thus they form a kind of an illustrated dance manual carved in stone.

Since the karanas have practically disappeared from the present Indian dance styles it is understandable that the academic study focusing on these reliefs has already had a long tradition. By means of these reliefs and their inscriptions scholars and dancers have tried to reconstruct the ancient karanas since the early 20th century.

Each panel shows one dancer in one frozen moment of a movement pattern. This led the early scholars to believe that karanas were actually static poses, an assumption which later research has renounced. The debate focusing on these panels has been very lively and has led to several attempts to reconstruct the karanas.

The Drama Proper

As mentioned already earlier, the Natyashastra regards the text as the basis of theatre. How the text is then employed and constructed varies greatly in different styles of theatre. It can be, for example, written as a drama script with dialogue combining prose and verse or it can be recited or sung by singers while the actors mainly mime the actions and reactions described in the text etc.

The plots of the plays are regularly supplied by the Puranas, or the mythological stories, and the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, already described above. These corner stones of Indian thinking and imagery served the culture more or less similarly as the ancient Greek literature and mythology did in the Western world. They have been recycled and reinterpreted again and again for over two millennia.

Bhakti, Ecstatic Love

During medieval times a new literary genre became a popular subject particularly for lasya (soft, feminine) style narrative solo dance forms. It was the ecstatic bhakti poetry. Bhakti was, and still is, an extremely popular form of Hinduism in which the complicated rituals, yoga systems etc. are replaced by loving devotion towards a god which is seen as the personal lover of the devotee, a bhakti poet, and the dancer enacting a bhakti poem.

Among numerous poets it was the 12th century Jayadeva who was the definite trendsetter for the whole bhakti movement. His Song of the Dark Lord or Gita Govinda (also Geeta Govinda) has enjoyed phenomenal popularity and influenced all genres of bhakti art all over the subcontinent.

The most popular gods of the bhakti worship are Shiva and Krishna, the flute-playing dark, dancing youth who, in fact, is an avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Jayadeva wrote his poetic work, Gita Govinda, structured in 12 poems or cantos, in Sanskrit. It describes the passionate and stormy love life of Krishna and his main beloved, Radha. It is known that Jayadeva wrote it to be danced as a kind of offering to Lord Krishna.

Bhakti poems are most often simply sung while a solo dancer enacts the poem and assumes both the roles of the devotee and the beloved god. These abhinaya, or mimetic sections, often alternate with pure nrtta dances, as will be discussed later in connection with the famous lasya- style dance genres, such as baharatanatyam, mohiniattam, and orissi.

Bhakti poetry, however, also inspired actual drama literature, for example, in the case of the krishnanatam of Kerala. It also served as a vital source for popular forms of pilgrimage theatre, such as krishnalila and ramlila, both discussed later.

Sanskrit Dramas

India also has an old and long-lasting tradition of full-length poetic plays, which are called Sanskrit Dramas because they were written mainly in Sanskrit. In fact, however, they combine both classical Sanskrit with Prakrit or different forms of vernacular languages.

The tradition was maintained for nearly 1 200 years, which makes it the longest continuous performing tradition of any drama texts in the world. The tradition of performing Greek tragedies, for example, lasted only about half a millennium, while the continuous performing tradition of Shakespearean dramas lasted less than a century.

The earliest Sanskrit plays were written in the early centuries AD and they gradually ceased to be performed at some time during the 15th century, when Sanskrit was no longer a living, spoken language, and the Muslims had invaded northern India, where the tradition had been thriving.

Playwrights and their Works

As has already been mentioned, the earliest Sanskrit dramas date from the early centuries AD. The problem, however, with this genre is that the plays are almost impossible to date accurately. This also means that very little is known about the lives of their authors. The use of the Sanskrit language of the learned upper castes indicates that most of the Sanskrit dramas represent court theatre, which was probably created and performed under royal patronage.

The Sanskrit dramas cover a wide range of subjects and types of play. They include full-length poetic love stories, political plays and palace intrigues, as well as shorter farces and one-act love monologues. The foremost drama genre centred on the character of a noble hero. These “heroic dramas”, often with plots derived from tradition, are called natakas. Another important type of drama is a kind of social play dealing with various kinds of human relationships. These plays, mostly invented by their authors, are called prakranas.

The earliest existing plays are attributed to Bhasa. The best known is a kind of political romance called The Vision of Vasavadatta. Other writers include the poet-king Sudraka, to whom three plays are attributed. The most famous of them is The Little Clay Cart, in which a love story and political intrigue intermingle.

Ratnavali is a complicated intrigue set in harem by the poet Harsha, while Bhavabhuti is known for his Ramayana-derived play, The Latter Story of Rama, and a love story, Malati and Madhava. The Minister’s Seal, the only existing complete play by Visakhadatta, with its ruthless political plot, is a kind of thriller of its time. The most famous of all Sanskrit playwrights, both in India and in the West, is, however, Kalidasa.


As is the case with most of the Sanskrit dramatists, very little is known about the life of Kalidasa, the most celebrated poet in the history of India. It is believed that he belonged to the priestly Brahman caste and that he lived in North India at some time during the late 4th to mid 5th centuries AD, that is, during the classical Gupta Period.

His known works include three lengthy narrative poems, and three plays: Malavika and Agnimitra, Urvasi Won by Valour, and the famous Shakuntala (also The Recognition of Shakuntala). Kalidasa’s poetry has been praised for its beauty and “limpidity” or a kind of transparency. It has been seen as reflecting the “ease and largeness of vision”, characteristics of the mature classical Gupta period.


The Recognition of Shakuntala, or more often just Shakuntala, is regarded as the epitome of Sanskrit dramas. The basic story of this lyric, fairytale-like play in seven acts is derived from the Mahabharata. It was certainly common practice to borrow and enhance elaborate characters and events from the epic literature.

Shakuntala tells about the love of King Dusyanta and a beautiful girl, Shakuntala, who is the foster daughter of a forest hermit (and, in fact, of semi-divine origin). They meet, make love, and engage in a secret marriage. As a token of his love, the king gives Shakuntala a ring. However, owing to a magic trick, the king forgets Shakuntala, and she is taken to the heavens, where she gives birth to the king’s son. Only when the king sees the ring he has given to the girl does he again remember their love. While visiting the heavens, the king meets Shakuntala and their son and they are finally reunited (synopsis of the play Shakuntala).

The play moves freely from the deep forest to the urban palace and from the earth to different levels of the heavens. Supernatural powers are at play, heavenly nymphs take part in the action, and the king is able to overthrow demons while flying with his airborne chariot.

This fantastic and complex world is described with poetic brilliance and concentrates on the themes of longing and rejection, while the main rasa of the play is love. On a deeper level the conflict is created by the opposing forces of desire (kama) and duty (dharma). Desire versus duty was the standard conflict in many of the Sanskrit dramas, as it has, indeed, been in many Western and Chinese dramas too.

The Languages

The language of Shakuntala, as well as other Sanskrit dramas, is characterised by the blending of classical Sanskrit with local Prakrit languages. The royal heroes and Brahman priests, ascetics and high officials use Sanskrit, while women, children and all low-caste characters speak Prakrit. Thus the plays, already at the level of language, reflect the social and gender hierarchies of their time. This intermingling of languages may also have been intended to make the plays understandable for those spectators who did not understand Sanskrit.

Another characteristic of the dramas is the blending of prose and verse. The verses are mainly in Sanskrit, although, for example, nine of Shakuntala’s 194 verses are in Prakrit. The alternation of languages as well as prose and verse widens the scale of linguistic expression from “high” to “low”, from noble to vulgar, and anything in between.

The Types of Character

The characters of the Sanskrit dramas are types rather than individuals. The main types of character include the noble hero, nayaka, often a prince or a king, and the heroine, nayika. The villain of the play is called pratinayaka.

The clown or jester character is called vidushaka. Surprisingly, he may even be a highborn Brahman. Although he is possibly intelligent, he is usually lazy, while his humour is spiced with eroticism. Because of his social background he is able to move freely in the social hierarchy. Thus he can be a close friend or a personal servant of the hero. However, only he is allowed to add social and even political criticism to the play and he translates the hero’s Sanskrit lines into vernacular language.

The troupes included various professionals, from minor actors to make-up assistants, stage technicians, musicians and the conductor of the orchestra. Music had a central role in the Sanskrit dramas, but it is not known what exactly the genre of music that accompanied the plays was.

The primus motor of a troupe, as well as the actual play, is sutradhara, or the theatre director. He was supposed to have expert knowledge of all aspects of theatre. He also took an active role in the actual performance by introducing the actors and the play to the audience, in the prologue, and often guiding and commenting upon the flow of the story.

Sanskrit Drama on the Stage

One of the main questions in recent studies of the Sanskrit dramas is how they were staged and performed. There seems to be a consensus that the acting technique corresponded to the stylised natya, described in the Drama Manual or the Natyashastra, as has already been discussed above. Thus the rasa or the sentiment was conveyed not only by word but also through facial expressions, symbolic gestures and other stylised body language.

It is possible, however, that different types of dramas employed different acting styles. For example, a heroic nataka play may have required a classical, Natyashastra-derived acting style, while a short farce may have been performed in a more realistic style etc.

It is believed that the theatre houses in which the Sanskrit dramas were performed were rather small because abhinaya, or the mimetic acting style, with its facial expressions and eye movements had to be seen close-up. It is also believed that the stage was bare, and just as on the stage of Shakespeare’s dramas, movements, gestures, and dialogue signalled the locations of actions.

Many of the Sanskrit dramas include stage directions, which seem to support the above hypothesis. They also indicate that some stage props may have been used. They may have included various weapons, chariots etc, although it is also possible that these could have been indicated by movements and symbolic hand gestures.

Sanskrit Dramas in the East and the West

Of all Sanskrit dramas it is Kalidasa’s Shakuntala that is best known outside India. A Shakuntala manuscript was found in a monastery in coastal China, indicating close cultural ties between China and India. It is even possible that the Sanskrit dramas influenced the development of Chinese theatre during the times when the contacts were most active.

Shakuntala was probably the first Asian drama translated into Western languages. It is also one of the very first Sanskrit works ever translated into English. The first translation was done by the famous orientalist, Sir William Jones, in 1789. Its publication was a sensation and it went into five editions during two decades. It was translated into German in 1791, and into French in 1803. Later it was translated into several other Western languages.

One of Shakuntala’s greatest admirers was Goethe, who was inspired by it while writing his Faust. He wrote a poem in praise of Shakuntala:

Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline,
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Shakuntala, and all at once is said.
(Translation by E. B. Eastwick)

Shakuntala became a kind of icon of the 19th century orientalistic movement. It inspired operas and ballets, among them Marius Petipa’s ballet La Bayadère. But most often Shakuntala’s story was very loosely referred to. It served merely as a source for various kinds of Eastern fantasies.

Shakuntala is probably the most frequently performed Asian play in the West. One of the most important 20th century interpretations was by the Polish theatre guru, Grotowski. Sanskrit dramas and their acting technique are now actively studied both in the East and in the West.

Present-day Traditions

India is home to hundreds of living theatrical traditions. Some of them are archaic rituals that have been cherished by small rural communities for several centuries, some are age-old classical traditions of dance-drama related to the Natyashastra, the ancient Drama Manual, and some of them are popular forms of folk entertainment reflecting the changing tastes of their audiences. It is natural that only some of these traditions can be discussed in a concise text like this.

The classification of the Indian traditions into “classical” and “folk” forms is somewhat problematic. “Classical” tends to be an extremely value-laden adjective, which easily places the tradition in question above others. According to Indian terminology, the different types of theatrical traditions fall broadly into two basic categories, margi or classical (Natyshastra-related) and desi or folk/regional styles.

During the 20th century it became established (although not all agree with this) that six major schools of dance were defined as “classical” styles. They are bharatanatyam (originally from Tamil Nadu), manipuri (Manipur), kathak (a Persian-influenced, originally North Indian style), kathakali (Kerala), kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), and odissi (Orissa).

Proclaiming styles as classical has often had historical and political reasons. The manipuri style of the eastern state of Manipur on the slopes of the Himalayas, for example, was raised to a classical style by the Indian writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore. He “found” the tradition and adopted it in order for it to be taught at his own university.

Kathakali, from the state of Kerala, was chosen to be included in the classical traditions by the local nationalistic poet Vallathol, whereas the much older form, kutiyattam, has risen to international fame only recently when it was included in Unesco’s List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage. Thus it is clear that one should be cautious when using the term “classical” although, to simplify things, the term will also be used in this text occasionally.

In this overview the genres of Indian theatrical arts are grouped according to their performance types. Thus mimetic solo dances are grouped together, as well as popular forms of sung and/or spoken theatre, communal pilgrimage plays etc. The following, first section is, however, an exception. It deals with the performing arts of one particular state of India, that of Kerala. This is because Kerala has a long and uninterrupted theatrical tradition, which gives an exceptional opportunity to observe how archaic rituals, Natyashastra-related “classical” forms and more popular forms have evolved, and have further been transformed into new forms.

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.

Teyyam, an Archaic Form of Ritual Theatre

In Kerala there live side by side very archaic forms of ritual theatre and forms of theatre closely related to classical theatre that clearly belongs to the Natyashastra tradition. One of the earliest forms of theatre found in Kerala is teyyam, a group of annual rituals or “festivals” lasting from one to seven days.

Its Roots

The Teyyam tradition belongs to the village and tribal context of the northern parts of Kerala. It reflects the construction of the local religious belief-system. It is a cult inseparable from local Hinduism, particularly the worship of the Mother Goddess, while, at the same time, it preserves beliefs and magical practices clearly preceding the arrival of Hinduism.

Some scholars believe that the origins of teyyam lie in the Neolithic Stone Age, as is indicated by the many archaic features that teyyam still preserves. Early textual sources mentioned teyyam approximately 1500 years ago. It seems that it has gone through several stages of development, and it is still doing it even today.

Although it is connected to Hindu tradition, teyyam has preserved elements of animistic spirit worship as well as ancient ancestor and hero worship. It often includes an element of trance, which also indicates its archaic roots. Teyyam is closely related to local village deities. Earlier, it is believed, there were nearly 400 different deities related to teyyam. Now they are reduced to 40.

The Dance Ritual

Hereditary families of teyyam dancers carry on the tradition. They preserve palm-leaf manuscripts on which tottams, or teyyam songs, are written. Teyyam is performed by men, although there is one exception, teyyam koothu, which is always carried out by women. Teyyam rituals are accompanied by local instruments, such as pipes, drums and cymbals. The rituals start with preliminary ceremonies, which are followed by the actual dance.

Teyyam dances are robust and powerful. They seem to preserve elements of early martial arts and archaic weapon worship. They may represent an early stage of development of the movement technique now seen, for example, in kathakali. On the other hand, the trend has recently been to mould the dance section according to the more classical styles.

Fantastic Visions

The costume and make-up, which vary greatly in each teyyam tradition, seem extremely old and authentic. The faces of the dancers are painted with bright colours to create the impression of a kind of animal spirit or a completely alien creature not belonging to this word.

The stylised costumes combine natural materials, such as coconut leaves with coloured cloth. In a similar way as the make-up and costume, the imposing headdresses also vary according to the tradition and the deity to whom the ritual is addressed. Teyyam, indeed, seems to offer a rare glimpse of the earliest forms of theatrical arts of the whole of mankind.

Kutiyattam, The Only Surviving Form of Sanskrit Drama

Kutiyattam (also Kootiattam, Kootiyattam, Koodiyattam) is an old form of theatre, which until recently has been performed solely in the temple theatres, kootampalas, 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.

Kutiyattam is a remarkable tradition in several ways. It is the sole example of an unbroken tradition of Sanskrit drama, which has already been discussed. It meticulously follows the instructions of the Natayashastra and the later, local acting manuals. In its relatively isolated performing milieu it has preserved its literary heritage, music, acting technique and costuming and make-up practices.

It was not well known in other parts of India or abroad until the latter half of the 20th century. It was included in the UNESCO List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage in 2001 for good reason.

Origins and History

Literary evidence suggests that kutiyattam may have a history of some 1800 years. From the 14th century onwards the references became more numerous, giving information on several of its aspects. For centuries, kutiyattam was very popular and greatly appreciated by the rulers of Kerala.

It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that kutiyattam emerged from the kootampalas or temple theatres, which non-Hindus are not allowed to enter. It was added to the curriculum of the state theatre school Kalamandalam, and, later, private kutiyattam associations started to do research into it and also promote it internationally. One of these institutions is Natana Kairali, led by Sri G. Venu, better known as Venuji.

The Plays and the Languages

As has been mentioned above, Kerala has an exceptionally strong Sanskrit tradition. Thus it is no wonder that the classical Sanskrit dramas found their way to Kerala. In the beginning the repertoire of kutiyattam consisted of Sanskrit dramas written by writers mainly from northern India, such as Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Harsha.

The first Malayali writer from Kerala, who wrote his own Sanskrit dramas, was Kulasekhara Varma (c. 11th century). He is said to have also written a Kutiyattam manual, the Aattaprakaram. He is sometimes regarded as the “founder” of the art of kutiyattam.

Numerous local writers after him wrote plays for kutiyattam. They include large-scale heroic plays as well as shorter farces. Many of them are elaborations of episodes from the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as was also the practice in Sanskrit dramas.

In a similar way to Sanskrit dramas, there is also a clear hierarchy of languages in kutiyattam plays. Priests and men of the ruling class speak Sanskrit, while women, children, and ordinary folk use the local vernacular, Malayalam. As in Sanskrit dramas, so also in kutiyattam, the clown character can break this social hierarchy by moving freely on every level of society and translate the Sanskrit verses of the heroes into local Malayalam.

The Stage and the Music

Most of the kootampalas or the temple theatres, in which kutiyattam is performed, follow the instructions of the Natyashastra. Their ground plan is mostly rectangular and they are rather intimate in size, thus enabling the audience to enjoy the actors’ hand gestures and intricate facial expressions, which, without a doubt, form the highlight of the whole art form.

In front of the earthen stage there is always a big oil lamp. It is the focal point of all actions and it illuminates the actors’ faces and gestures. Behind the stage are two doors, which lead into the dressing room.

Important characters are introduced from behind a hand-held curtain carried by two stagehands. The characters then dramatically appear to make their mimetic self-introductions according to their specific temperaments. The curtain functions as a demarcation line between this world and the mythical world of fiction.

The dominant instrument is a huge copper drum, mizhavu, which is placed in its own wooden enclosure at the rear of the stage. Other instruments include cymbals, a small drum played with a stick, and a conch shell. Every now and then the actors utter their own lines in a most slow and stylised manner.

The Acting

Much of the brilliance of the acting lies in the body language, or the above discussed abhinaya style of acting. The acting is a very slow process, as almost every word is given a lengthy commentary by means of gestures and mime. Thus the performance of a single kutiyattam play usually takes several days. Some Sanskrit dramas may have taken up to 70 days to be enacted with the kutiyattam technique.

The actors often execute the long mimetic monologues while sitting on a wooden stool in front of the oil lamp. There also exists a solo form of kutiyattam called koothu, which is narrative in character. The female koothu, nangiarkuttu, will be discussed in the next chapter.

In the actual kutiyattam, in which several actors participate, the actor executing a long mimetic solo monologue is often left alone on the stage. When the monologue is finished, the other actors return to their places so that the dramatic action may again continue.

The actor’s mimetic skills are trained to such a high level that he is able, if the play demands, to simultaneously express different feelings with the right and left side of his face. He can also “mono act” a mimetic dialogue all by himself, for example, by indicating the change of role from God Shiva to his consort Parvati by changing the position of his shawl.

Because of the slow style of acting, which concentrates on elaborating the characters’ reactions, the enacting of a kutiyattam play in its entirety takes several days. That is why performances may start with kinds of flashback scenes in which the important events of the previous part are summarised.

Costumes and Make-up

Both in costuming and make-up kutiyattam is clearly an indigenous form of art. The actors’ wide, skirt-like lower garments are believed to have developed from archaic dance costumes made of leaves and other natural materials. A speciality of the cotton-made kutiyattam garment is that its back forms a kind of huge, intricate rosette constructed of tight draperies. The upper body and arms are covered with a long-sleeved jacket.

Heavy ornaments and headgear, mostly made of gilded wood, add to the kutiyattam’s exaggerated aesthetics, which bear clear, stylistic similarities to the 15th–17th century murals such as can be seen in the famous Mattancherry Palace in Kochi, in Central Kerala.

The make-up is usually non-naturalistic and brightly coloured. Some make-up types are characterised by a white frame-like ridge, made of thick rice paste (chutti). Although highly stylised, the make-up varies according to each specific role.

Later, this overall aesthetics was further developed in krishnanattan and particularly in kathakali, in which the make-up types were classified according to the specific character categories. The costuming and the ornaments took a further leap towards baroque abundance and reflected a fairytale-like mythical reality.

Nangiarkuttu, The Female Branch of Kutiyattam

Nangiarkuttu (also nangiar koothu) is a one-woman type of ritual theatre, originally performed in the temple theatres in Kerala. Just like kutiyattam and kathakali, it concentrates on mimetic abhinaya acting. Traditionally the stories cover the life cycle of the god Krishna. It is performed by Nangiars, women of the Nambiar families, while the accompanying music is played by Nambiars.


Nangiarkuttu clearly has a very long history, although it is not known in detail. Even the 2nd century AD Drama Manual, the Natyashastra, mentions similar kinds of female solo performance types.

Nangiarkuttu was performed solely in the temple theatres and during certain cremation ceremonies, although the last of such a kind of ceremony is known to have been held a century ago. Nangiarkuttu was slowly dying out until the early 1980s, when important gurus and actresses started its vigorous revival.

Nangiarkuttu is now also performed outside the temple theatres. Besides the Krishna’s story, which has traditionally been the content of nangiarkuttu, now other stories are also enacted. Nangiarkuttu has recently been added to the syllabus of the State Theatre School, Kerala Kalamandalam. The future of nangiarkuttu seems bright, both nationally and internationally.

The Text

Traditionally the text enacted by nagiarkuttu has been the Sree Krishna Charitam (Story of Krishna), which consists of 216 sloka verses. It describes Krishna’s life from his birth to the end of the story cycle. The Rama Charitam (Story of Rama) was also added to the repertory later, and recently a story cycle based on the life of Draupadi from the Mahabharata has been dramatised like nangiarkuttu. The sloka verses combine several languages. The narration is usually in Sanskrit while the characters’ direct spoken lines may be in Prakrit or in Malayalam.

Ritual Aspects

Nangiarkuttu was originally a form of temple offering and its full execution took 12 consecutive days. Complicated rituals precede the actual play, including purification ceremonies, worship of the deity of the temple, and a ritual dance performed behind a hand-held curtain. After the performer has done her make-up and put on her attire and the headgear she becomes a personification of the mother goddess Bhagavati.

The Performance

In many respects nangiarkuttu is related to kutiyattam, in which the Nangiar actresses take the female roles. The traditions are clearly related in their acting technique, make-up, and costuming. Nangiarkuttu, however, is a solo form, in which a single actress both acts as the mimetic narrator and assumes all the roles of the story. One could indeed talk about the art of “mono acting”.

On the floor of the stage, on the actress’s right hand side, sits a female singer who sings the slokas or verses, which the actor then gesticulates. The whole process of enacting the story focuses on the combination of hand gestures and the facial, particularly eye, expression.

As is often the case in kutiyattam, and also in nangiarkuttu, the actor frequently sits on a wooden stool facing the big oil lamp, the focal point of actions and originally the only source of light for the performance. Behind the small stage sits the drummer, who plays mizhavu, the large drum made of thin plates of copper. It is the chief musical instrument of nangiarkuttu in addition to the cymbals played by the singer.

The costume consists of a wide skirt-like lower garment and a red blouse. The high, red headgear is surrounded by a gold-coloured naga or snake motif. With its ochre base the make-up bears similarities to the make-up of the female characters in kutiyattam and the minukku characters of kathakali.

Krishnanattam, Praise to Lord Krishna

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 History

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 Plays

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.

Some Characteristics

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.

Kalaripayattu, the Body as a Weapon

In India there are many regional forms of martial arts. Some forms of dance and dance-theatre also employ their techniques. This is also the case with kalaripayattu, a tradition of “art of war” known in the regions of Taminadu and Kerala. Kalari indicates a “training centre” while payattu means “practices”.

Kalaripayattu was originally a secret method of the Nairs, the members of the warrior caste of Kerala, and it was practised only in specific kalari buildings. Martial arts have a very long history everywhere in Asia, often extending to prehistoric times. In South India literary evidence from around 200 AD exists, which indicates the existence of martial arts.

Kalaripayattu technique focuses on energetic footwork, which is executed mainly with the outer edge of the soles. It consists of kicking movements and extremely high jumping. Kalaripayattu can be divided into unarmed techniques and several armed forms. The weapons include sticks, swords, a three-bladed knife, axes, spears, and other local types of weapons.

Many of the movement units of kalaripayattu are named after various animals and they clearly imitate animal movements. This is a common feature in many of the martial arts traditions in Asia. It seems to confirm the long roots of these traditions, extending back to pre-historical times, when contact with the animal world was intensively close.

Through years of practice and oil massage, the body is trained to become extremely elastic, quick and powerful. Many of kalaripapayattu’s elements, particularly the stamping on the outer edge of the sole and the jumping method were adopted later by the kathakali dance-drama.

Kathakali, Kerala’s Grandiose Dance-Drama

Kathakali (Story Play) is probably the best-known form of Indian dance-drama all over the world. It evolved in the 16th century out of the kutiyattam tradition, and krishnanattam took its energetic footwork from the kalaripayattu martial arts tradition, which has been discussed above. Gradually kathakali’s system of make-up and its costuming reached their present spectacular forms.

Kathakali was originally an art form practised by the Nair warrior caste. It is still generally performed by an all-male cast (although one female troupe also exists). Following the path opened up by kutiyattam, the actors do not speak or sing but concentrate on dance sequences and particularly on the intricate abhinaya acting.


Kathakali evolved in the late 16th century from older forms, such as kutiyattam, krishnattam, and kalaripayattu martial arts. Its direct forerunner was the form called ramanattam, which concentrated on the life of Prince Rama of the Ramayana epic. Ramanattam is now extinct but its heritage is carried on by kathakali.

Kathakali was gradually developed by master actors as well as art connoisseurs, including rulers and learned Brahmans. Its golden age was the latter half of the 18th century, when Maharaja Kartika Tirunal (1758–1798) wrote several plays for kathakali and a permanent palace troupe was formed.

The Plays

Some five hundred kathakali plays exist, of which some fifty have recently been actively performed. The playwrights came from the uppermost levels of society, and among them were several rulers and learned Brahmans. Originally, scenes from the Mahabharata epic were dramatised as kathakali plays. Later, the Ramayana and the Puranas also provided material for the plots. The language used in kathakali is “high” Malayalam, which combines Sanskrit with vernacular Malayalam.

The Space for the Performance

Kathakali was not limited to performances only in the kootampalam temple theatre houses, as were kutiyattam and krishnanattam. At the moment kathakali is performed in several kinds of spaces. The most common are open spaces in a village or a town, often in front of a temple. Just as in kutiyattam, the acting focuses on a large oil lamp, which is placed in the foreground of the stage.

The stage can be just earthen ground, but is now more often an elevated temporary structure. The oil lamp still serves as the focal point of the performance although electric lights are now commonly used.

No sets and very few stage props are used. A wooden stool can serve as a seat, a throne, a mountain etc. Just like kutiyattam, important characters are introduced from behind a hand-held curtain. These highly dramatic introductions are carried out according to the type of the character. A lyric character may simply be slowly revealed while an aggressive character may violently pull the curtain down himself.

The Music

The orchestra accompanying kathakali includes four musicians. The main instruments are two different types of drums and a gong, played by the leading singer. His assistant plays the cymbals. For special effects a third kind of drum and a conch shell are used. The musicians stand on the left side of the stage. An inseparable element of the auditory whole is the dynamic rattle of the small bells attached to the pads tied around the actors’ calves.

Long before the actual play starts the evening’s performance is announced with a powerful drumming, after which two dancers perform the blessings behind a raised curtain. Then follows a pure nrtta dance, after which lines of the Gita Govinda are sung. Then finally the actual play starts with the introduction of the leading characters.

Training and Technique

The kathakali actors come mainly from the ancient Nair warrior caste. The study and training to become a professional actor takes from 8 to 10 years. The training starts with vigorous physical exercises. During the years the body is made elastic by massage with medicated oils in order that the student will attain the right elastic basic stance, which includes a strongly bent back and a wide-open leg position, both derived from the kalaripayattu martial arts technique.

The basic training includes rehearsing of the eye movement in the early hours of the morning. The training of the facial expression also includes separate exercises for brows, lips, mouth, neck, and cheeks. In the daytime the students exercise body movements, gesture language and various combinations of steps and their co-ordination with the music.

The actual focus of the whole acting is on the execution of the mudras, the symbolic hand gestures, in perfect co-ordination with the facial expression, especially with the exaggerated eye movements.

The more physical aspects of the body language, such as vigorous stamping on the outer side of the sole, adapted from kalaripayattu, and the high jumps that this special foot technique enables the actors to perform, are partly hidden by the heavy skirt-like lower garments of the actors. They are rather sparsely used during an entire play, yet their dynamism always amazes the spectator.

Character Types and their Make-up and Costume

Unlike the situation in kutiyattam, where all characters tend to have their own individual make-up, in kathakali the characters are divided into clear role categories. They are basically four in number. All of them have their own basic make-up styles developed over the centuries from the make-up systems of kutiyattam, krishnanattam, and ramanattam.

  1. Paccha or the “green” types include heroes who are always good and brave. Their faces are painted green and the face is surrounded with a white frame-like ridge, made of thick rice paste (chutti). This white frame gives the face an idealised shape and underlines the expression of the eyes as well as the lips, which are painted so as to present a permanently pleasant smile.
  2. Katti or the “knife” types are usually the villains of the play. They have various make-up styles that combine the positive green colour with red, which represents aggressiveness and greed. Various chutti boards can be added to the make-up, as well as artificial bulbous extensions to the tip of the nose and even the forehead. The colour combination reveals the inner qualities of the characters.
  3. Tadi or the bearded role types wear a long, artificial beard made of wool. The tadi characters are divided into three groups.
    a. The white-bearded characters are generally good, superhuman beings, such as Hanuman.
    b. The red-bearded characters are evil and bloodthirsty characters.
    c. The black-bearded characters are hunters or primitive forest dwellers.
  4. Minukku (“shining”) characters include women and Brahmans, rishis, sages etc. Their ochre make-up is less stylised than that of the other character types.

(There are also some special characters with their own unique make-up types and some few characters even wear masks.)

The costuming and ornaments are more elaborated than those of kutiyattam. The skirt-like lower garment, used by all role categories except the minukku type, is voluminous and constructed of several layers of heavy cotton. The upper body and arms are covered with a loose, red jacket.

Heavy ornaments, mostly of gilded wood with coloured stones, are worn on the neck, ears, shoulders, wrists and forearms. Long, white and red scarves are worn around the neck. Most of the characters wear a heavy, gilded wooden crown with a round halo (kireetam), decorated with green and red stones. Silver nails are worn on the fingers on the left hand.

To Become a Character

To prepare the make-up of the main characters may take as long as three hours. The finishing touch is done by dyeing the eyeballs red with a seed of a certain plant. During the make-up process, the actor slowly becomes transformed into the character of the play.

When the make-up is ready, the actor puts the crown on his head. After that, he no longer speaks, because he is no longer his ordinary self but an embodiment of the character he is playing. It is said that an actor whose personality is discernible after the make-up has been applied is not a good kathakali actor.

The stylised, silent acting technique, the sudden powerful jumps and kicks, the overwhelming costuming with its glittering details, and the completely non-naturalistic make-up make the actors, indeed, look like visitors from another world.