Book on Kerala Cults & Arts Traces Curious Gaps & Bridges

Much to the interest of heritage-loving Malayalis, ‘The Arts of Kshetram’ authored by veteran Kapila Vatsyayan scans a range of myths across their south-Indian state. It particularly seeks to fix the logic behind the Bhagavati cult missing in classical forms such as Krishnanattam, Kathakali, Koodiyatttam and even Mohiniyattam even as folk performing-arts celebrate the female goddess.

For the grand cult of Bhagavati that Kerala boasts of over centuries, the south Indian state has traditionally faced an interesting dichotomy.

It’s this: even while the archetypal Hindu goddess is a popular figure in temples and allied rituals as well as folk forms, she is practically unknown in classical performing art forms. Thus, the region’s rustic dances, music and theatre celebrate Bhagavati even as this female icon is next to non-existent in more evolved arts such as Krishnanattam, Kathakali, Koodiyatttam and even Mohiniyattam.


A probe into this curious subject is a highlight of a book that has been re-released amid thrills in academic circles. ‘The Arts of Kerala Kshetram’, brought out by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), has its author Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan noting that Kerala’s age-old matriarchal society may have played a role in identifying Kali as an archetypal image to convey valid and meaningful messages for all strata of society—high and low, here and now. “Historical time is of little consequence,” she says in the 74-page work that saw its second edition launched in Delhi recently.

1. Book- The art of Kerala Kshetram
The Arts of Kerala Kshetram re-released on April 21

First brought out in 1989, the hard-bound book in multi-colour dwells on the social connotations and various Kerala forms of oral, ritual and visual arts ranging from paintings, murals and sculptures to the region’s performing arts belonging to the folk as well as classical traditions.

Interestingly for the Malayali, the book has another Kerala connection. Its content is largely developed from a lecture Dr. Vatsyayan gave in a small town south of Kochi. It was in 1988 that the Delhiite researcher delivered the (inaugural) Parikshit Thampuran memorial lecture in Tripunithura—at the Government Sanskrit College. The printed version, not coincidentally, is edited by scholar Prof. K.G. Paulose, then the principal of the frontline educational institution in Ernakulam district.

Today, 28 years later, the long essay has again become accessible as a major study that throws light onto the varied cults and allied traditional arts of Kerala, courtesy the second edition by IGNCA in its bid to facilitating a new generation of culture-lovers to drill deep into the fascinating socio-ethnic fabric of God’s Own Country.

Curious Connections

The monograph is backed by intense research about popular myths and archetypal images of mythological Bhagavati (in her varied names), besides Shiva and Bhima. It speaks of a range of related art forms, often termed as “little” and “great” traditions, and goes on to show how the state’s sophisticated art forms such as Kathakali and Krishnanattam serve as a link between them.

“The most important ‘bridge’ is the entry of the Rama theme,” notes Dr. Vatsyayan, now 88 years old and for long a renowned art historian known as an authority on India’s classical dance, art, culture and overall heritage. For more than a quarter century, she had helmed the 1985-founded IGNCA, a premier autonomous institution under the Union Ministry promoting diverse as well as interdisciplinary programmes of research, publication, training, creative activities and performance in the field of arts and culture.


The ‘Rama theme’ enters Kerala through a detour, the Rs 250 book notes. “The legend of the performance of Kamban’s Ramayana (predating Ezhuthachan’s Ramayana—Adhyatma Ramayana) in the precincts of the Kali temple is of great significance. It is believed that since Kali did not witness the Rama-Ravana battle, it was performed for her through a shadow puppet performance of Tolpavakuthu.

“The legitimization of a new entry of a Tamil text and a new myth of Rama is achieved by assimilating it into the Kali temple. On the surface, Tolpavakuthu is a rural art form of the humble Pulavars, but in fact, it is the carrier of a sophisticated chiseled text of Kamban,” she notes about medieval Tamil poet from Tiruvaluntur off Tanjavur in the Cauvery belt.

“Once Rama enters the scene, he penetrates both the forms, which revolve around Kali and so we have a Sita—Teyyam also, and continues its independent existence,” the author notes. Tolpavakuthu, the shadow puppet form, serves that bridge between the earlier Teyyam and Tirayattams as well as for forms recognized as classical—namely Krishnanattam and Ramanattam, the book infers.


Thus, from the folksy Teyyams, Tirayattams and even Mutiyettu when one moves to the much-stylised Krishnanattam and Kathakali (or its prototype called Ramanattam), “it is evident that although the forms employ the formal elements of the Bhagavati cult and ancestor commemoration forms (that is, the make-up and the mask) the archetypes and the myths undergo radical transformation. The approach also undergoes a mutation.”

Substantiating, Dr. Vatysayan points out that in the actual dance-drama forms, the performer-actor is transformed, thus becoming the deity. “The character archetype in the dance-drama forms of the temple courtyard continues to be the narrator-actor of the archetype. Those who have looked at all Kerala art forms and have listed varieties have missed the subtle and meaningful differences of the attitude and approach at varying levels and contexts which speak of both the perennial continuities as well as the changes.”

From this point of view, the author adds, the evolution of Krishnanattam and Kathakali has significance beyond the legendary stories of Manavedan, the Zamorins of Malabar’s Kozhikode and Rajas of Kottarakara down the state. “Indeed it would appear that apart from dreams and visions, the creators of these forms were conscious of the fact that the introduction of new themes and literary content could or would receive acceptance and legitimacy only if other, more popular forms were adopted.

“The 17th century’s developments were also motivated by power. Krishnanattam and Kathakali today to me, after these forty years, stand as the most important bridges between all that is understood by, what have been called both foreign and Indian sociologists as the little tradition and the great tradition, now revisited,” concludes the former Rajya Sabha MP, who has been a secretary to the Government of India, a member of the Unesco Executive Board and president of India International Centre—a unique meeting place for the various cultural and intellectual offerings in the capital.

Starting Point

Earlier in the book, Dr. Vatysayan says that the belief goes that the primeval energy in the malevolent and benevolent forms of Bhagavati and Devi in Kerala permeates the coconut grooves, the backwaters and the arecanut forests.

“The history of the predominance of the Bhagavati cult and the Devi remains to be fully recreated but perhaps one should identify the work entitled Darika Vadham as one of the first clear articulations of the time in a literary composition. The category of composition called Tottampaattu appears to be the earliest Malayalam composition, which has shed all traces of Tamil influence. Judging from the fact that this is considered as the first genuinely Malayalam literary composition, it is not surprising that the theme is strongest at the level of tribal and rural culture. In its literary form known as Darika Vadham and Kalinatakam, it appears to dominate the collective performances of different groups. An enumeration of the type of Bhagavati-Kali worship rituals and temples would put even Bengal and Assam in a secondary position.


“In Bengal, Kali is seen in one form and in juxtaposition with Shiva. In Kerala, she is always the vanquisher of the demon. The Teyyam form of dance-drama in Kerala is largely around this theme and holds the power that has bewildered participators for centuries and has today attracted the attention of foreigners besides Indians for its spectacular headgears and masks, among other things.

“But let us pause to look at the essence of this dance, drama and ritual, be it at the level of the parayans, kurumans, kadars or the numerous Teyyams or Mudiyettu. In essence, it is reaffirmation of the power of the primeval energy and its potency for destruction as also restitution.

“Indeed the efficacy of the reenactment of the ‘cosmic’ balances through the Bhagavati theme is to recapitulate the incessant movement of evolution and devolution. Malevolence, greed, power, destruction and creation are central motifs of this elemental archetype. The message of the abuse of power and the control of power is given for the duration of the performance; the actor-performer is no longer acting, he has been transformed or transported. For that time and duration, all social structures are broken and there is immunity for the performer to be the voice of both dissent and transcendence. Thus, the ritual of the performance works at the levels of societal structure, religious ritual, and entertainment altogether.”

Other Subjects & Quotes

‘The Arts of Kerala Kshetram’ also looks at the role of sahitya (including Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda) in the state’s performing arts, the local music (including Sopanam) they employ, venues such as kavu (grove) and Koothambalam (temple-compound theatre auditorium), mural painting, the relation its figures have with the figures in the state’s performing arts, glimpses at abhinaya techniques and makeup-costume of certain arts and the architectural-sculptural splendor of temples.


Prof. Paulose, in his introductory note, points out that Kerala’s three major art-forms of Kali worship (narrating her killing of the demon Darika) are Tirayattu, Mudiyettu and Tiyyattu. The Kali symbol, though, “is not seen in stylized art forms like Kathakali and Mohiniyattam; new archetypes of Rama and Krishna emerge there instead. “Shiva as Kirata is common to folk and classical,” he adds.

Malayalam playwright Omchery N.N. Pillai, says sociological explanation of the Bhagavati cult in Kerala leads to the scrutiny of the social structure where matriarchal system became the norm. “An interesting question to study is whether the social system identified and installed Bhagavati as archetype to justify the practice or the matriarchal system came into being as an inspiration from the archetype. This may lead to the realm of history,” adds the Delhi-based nonagenarian in his introduction titled ‘Linking the past and the present: A scholar’s journey’.

Late litterateur U.R. Anantha Murthy, in his foreword, notes that Dr. Vatsyayan’s work is a detailed study of the different art forms of Kerala from Kathakali to mural painting.

IGNCA officiating member-secretary Veena Joshi notes that the book uses the word ‘Kshetram’ “in the widest sense to provide a paradigm for the study of regional relationship of inter-connectedness and symbiosis with the whole. “Totality of vision and diversity of forms go hand in hand, making this an ever-expanding field of enquiry,” she adds.

Chennai-based journalist-writer Sadanand Menon, who was present at the re-release of the book at IGNCA on April 21, said Kerala’s traditional arts straddle both the elite and the subaltern, and regretted that the trend of late has been to blur the identity of the latter.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi.)

Cover picture: Scholar Dr Kapila Vatsyayan holds her book ‘The Arts of Kerala Kshetram’ along with playwright Omchery N N Pillai at Delhi’s IGNCA, which re-released the work on April 21. Others seen (from left) IGNCA’s Sreekala Sivasankaran, Sanskrit scholar K G Paulose and journalist-critic Sadanand Menon.