Since they use elements of kalarippayattu in everyday actor training and in stage choreography, the best-known performing arts connected with the martial art are, among others: kathakali, krishnattam, kutiyattam, types of folk games which are less known outside of Kerala, and plays like kolkali, porkali and velakali.
It came into being around the 16th century AD. There were many kalaris where warriors used to train, and owing to their special psychophysical skills, the first performers of the “played stories” (from Malayalam katha – story, kali – play) were recruited from among such warriors. Also nowadays the place for the kathakali training is called a kalari.By that time forms such as kutiyattam or krishnattam already existed, but they functioned as temple rituals. The community also needed a more accessible, simple form for performing stories. Kathakali quickly became a popular entertainment, presenting stories known from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
An additional innovation in kathakali arose from the fact that the actor did not speak the words of the drama on stage – he was accompanied by singers and musicians. Since the actor does not sing, he could focus more on his corporeal expression, which was considerably influenced by elements of kalarippayattu training – jumps, twists, kicks and many other exercises which developed the actor’s fitness, improved his concentration and enabled him to work many hours on stage.
Traditional performances lasted all night, or even a few nights. Currently however, they are often shortened to few hours. Many fighting scenes were created under the direct influence of the martial art, but the steps and movements of actors are more aesthetic and graceful.
Performers of the ritual dance krishnattam also originate from the Nayar caste. Krishnattam tells stories from Krishna’s life according to the Krishna Giti songs which were written in the 17th century AD. The form of krishnattam connect the rules of classical Sanskrit drama with the influence of Keralite folk forms of theatre and dance.
Similarly to kathakali, actors do not sing – this is performed by singers accompanied by musicians. Just as in kathakali, there are a few types of characters who wear specific costume and make-up. The most important means of expression is dance, and its dynamic elements are inspired by kalarippayattu, so a dancer’s traning requires self-discipline and perseverance in order that the body can become flexible and agile. The audience believes that the dance is way to communicate with the gods and win their favour.
Kutiyattam is form of a temple theatre which was created on the basis of classical Sanskrit drama probably around 2000 years ago, and which has existed in an unchanged form up to today. Traditionally both actors and spectators had to originate from the high castes of Keralite aristocracy. In the last few decades though this rule has been abandoned in order to save this theatre from extinction.
The acting work of a kutiyattam actor is very difficult and complicated. In the repertory of elements that he uses, for example, there are many more mudras than in katahakli, and also actor alone speaks the text of the dramas to music accompaniment (it never follows the rhythm of actor’s recitation). Even though the acting style is usually calm, sophisticated and elegant, sometimes more dynamic scenes also appear and elements of kalarippayattu help in their preparation.
Kolkali is a dance for 12 to 24 men who dance in a circle around a holy oil lamp, beating half-metre sized sticks and beating out with their feet a rhythm that changes all the time. The way of using the sticks, some of the steps and the choreography based on them draw directly form the Northern style of kalarippajattu, and the dancers – like students of this style – put natural herbal oils on their bodies to make them more flexible before dancing.
Porkali is a dance ritual performed by a group of men in the Bhagavati temples in the North of Kerala during the Poram holiday. Men dress themselves up as lions – animals ridden by the Goddess when travelling around the World – and dance around a huge metal lamp, nilavillaku. The only accompaniment for dancers who perform dynamic movements, acrobatics and war steps, is the clapped, beaten out and sung rhythm of the other performers who do not dance at that moment.
Velakali literally means play (kali) with a sword (vel). It is also a folk dance performed by men wearing traditional white dress and colourful head attire which are said used to be worn by the medieval Nayar warriors, who dance dynamically and show off their skills in using a sword. This dance comes from the central Kerala, and it is accompanied by traditional Keralite percussion and wind instruments.
Another form of a combative dance play is parisakali – play with shields. Boys perform a duel with short sticks and straw shields painted in red.