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Jyothi Venkatachalam

Kerala has a rich verity of folk dances. They are highly developed and reflected and the temperaments and moods of the localities in music and costume. Nature silently and unobtrusively has molded these dances just as the lives of people who dance them.

Religious coloring is seen in almost all of these folk dances, even in those performed in connection with harvests, sowing of seeds, festivals, etc., so much so that their secular nature is always at doubt. There is difficulty in classifying these dances as social, religious and martial. Many of these dances are performed by men alone, some exclusively by women. There are also dances in which men and women perform together.

Most of folk dances are performed to the accompaniment of songs, which are sung by the dancers themselves or occasionally by a group of musicians. Some dances performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments only. There are more than 50 well-known folk dances in Kerela. Of them the Kaliyattom, or Theyyam, Mudiyettu, Kolam,Ottan Thullal,Padayani, Kolkali, Parichamuttukali, Thappukali, Kaikotikali and Oppana are the most popular.

Kaikottikali, also known as thiruvathirakali, is a popular, graceful and symmetric group-dance of the women of Kerala often performed during festive seasons such as Thiruvathira and Onam. It is a simple and gentle dance with the lasya element predominating, even though the thandava part also is brought in occasionally, when men also participate as seen in some parts of the Malabar area. Typically dressed in Kerala style with mandu (dhoti) and upper cloth and the hair bun bedecked with jasmine garlands, the women dance in gay abandon, singing melodious Thiruvathira songs, which are well-reputed for their literary flourish. One of the performers sings the first line of a song while the rest repeat it in chorus, clapping their hands in unison. Moving in a circle, clockwise and at time anticlockwise, at every step they gracefully bend sideways, the arms coming together in beautiful gestures, upward and downward and to either side, to clap.

Theyyam, otherwise known as kaliyattom, is an ancient socio-religious ceremony performed in Kerala since remote times. As the word kaliyattom denotes, this is a sacred dance performance for kali. Kaliyattom is sometimes called Theyyattom because every thera or village was duly bound to perform it. In ancient times, every village of Kerala has its own common shrine called Kavu and it was imperative to have kaliyattom performed in front of it. As the word kali has also the meaning of safety in Malayalam, Kaliyattom may have the significance of a sacred dance for social or family safety.

Of all the Thullal dances, the Ottan Thullal is the most popular. The costume is peculiar and impressive. A long tape of cloth of white and red color is hooked around a waist string to form a knee-length skirt. A chest plate adorned with various types of colored beads, glass and tinsel and ornaments is used. Gaudily painted wooden ornaments are worn at the wrist, and on the shoulders. Tinkling bells are tied to the legs just above the calf. The face is painted green, the lips are reddened and the eyes are emphasized with black paint. The head dress is colorfully decorated. The metre and rhyme of the Ottam Thullal songs are fast, and the dance as such has a high tempo.

Oppana is a dance form essential to the wedding entertainment and festivities of Muslims in Kerala. Maidens and young female relatives sing and dance around the bride, clapping their hands. Both men and women participate in it. In marriages, the women move in a circle and receive the bride while men stand aside singing songs and receive the bridegroom. The themes are often teasing comments about the bride and bridegrooms martial bliss.

These folk and tribal dances are living art forms that speak volumes about our culture and tradition. These dances add color and verve to life and link the past and the present. They sustain the long continuity of our ancient traditions. We shall learn more about the folk dances of the north and east in our next issue.

Jyothi Venkatachalam, director of Abhyasa School Of Dance, Club Tampa Palms, offers classes in Bharat Natyam, traditional folk dances, Indian percussion instruments (Mridangam, Dholak, Ghatam, Kanjira, Morsingh and Konakol). She can be reached at (813) 977-9039 or (813) 404-7899 or via e-mail at

Nalini Vinayak and Haiqiong Deng perform in Tallahassee.
Story provided by Srinivas Kishore

Nalini Vinayak, veteran sitarist and tabla player from India, and Haiqiong Deng, Zheng player from China, recently performed a “Stringing Echoes” recital in Tallahassee. The four compositions in the Hindustani classical style of music attracted music enthusiasts and professors, and students to the Opperman Music Hall at Florida State University. Though similar in looks, the two instruments are quite different. The sitar is a precursor to instruments such as the guitar and the mandolin, whereas the Zheng is related to the piano.

After a brief introduction by Dr. Dale Olsen, director of Ethnomusicology (FSU), two pieces were presented in the first half of the recital. The first, a composition in Raga Hamsadhwani was titled “Om Namashivaya.” The piece began with a traditional alaap by both artists. Nikhil Bandodkar enhanced the composition with a vocal rendition of the shloka, “Nagendrahaya.”The second piece, “Expressions,” in Sri Ragam (a traditional Carnatic scale) enthralled the audience. Deviprasad added excellent tabla support.

Post intermission, a slow piece, “In search of peace,” was presented. With Udu as the percussion of choice, the melodious “Mantra Pushpam” from the Sama Veda was skillfully introduced into the piece.

During the finale, “Memories,” each audience member was asked to visualize a color and what that color symbolized while listening to the piece. The evening ended with Vinayak introducing co-artists Haiqiong, Deviprasad and Nikhil to a huge round of applause from the audience.



Legend has it that when the wandering minstrel Baiju sang in the court of emperor Akbar, even a stone melted. That when Mian Tansen sang the Deepak raag, lamps lit up on their own and that his raag Malhar brought showers. Indeed, these are hyperbolic stories meant to convey the power of music as well as the magical touch that a great musician can bring to it. Reality is that we still have amid us music, which can melt, if not stone, at least hearts. In India, the confluence of diverse musical genres has evolved into two main schools of music – the rich traditions of Hindustani and Karnatic. These two schools are the products of one philosophy, one outlook. The exploratory, expansive Hindustani genre, and the stylized Karnatic genre have flourished together enriching each other. Somewhere along the way, there was discord, and ignorance aggravated prejudice. But along came a remedy in the form of the Jugalbandi.

Jugal derived from the Sanskrit yugala means jodi or a pair and thus Jugalbandi is the pairing of any two aspects.

The Jugalbandi as a concept in music was received with open arms by audiences and musicians alike. But there were some purists who sneered at the very idea of two musicians of equal caliber performing together. In spite of initial setback, the Jugalbandi has gained immense popularity with an ever-increasing mass appeal in the present times. It has built bridges between Hindustani and Karnatic music.

In the Vedic period, tuneful chanting of hymns from the Samaveda was the norm. The medieval times saw the emergence of the Jugalbandi as we know it today. At a time when for maestros and court musicians, music was the be-all and end-all of life, the Jugalbandi was a form of tough competition and deadly rivalry. It is said well-known exponents challenged each other to a musical combat and history has instances of the vanquished living the rest of their lives as slaves. The legendary tales of rivalry between 16th century musical geniuses Tansen and Baiju Bawra have been etched into our psyche and immortalized in books and films. Thankfully, such trying trysts are a thing of the past. These days, a Jugalbandi is a friendly battle of wits, aesthetically often absorbing.

Jugalbandi presents itself to us in many forms. The Qawwali, which grew under Muslim patronage, is indeed a form of Jugalbandi with its mode of Sawal-Jawab (question and answer). Jugalbandis can happen between vocalists and instrumentalists of North Indian and South Indian classical music. They facilitate musicians to draw inspiration from each other. Audiences who might otherwise have an ear only for one kind of music are exposed to and are able to appreciate the nuances of the other style and perhaps the basic unity of the two.

In present times, experimentation has taken hold of all forms of Indian music resulting in the emergence of fusion music, new age music and blending of Western, Middle-Eastern, African and Asian music with traditional Indian styles. Jugalbandis have fired the imagination of musicians and fascinated music buffs. Legendary music duos include Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sitar-sarod), late Ustad Alla Rakha and Pandit Kishan Maharaj (tabla-tabla), Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (bansuri-santoor), Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Dr. Balamurali Krishna (vocal), Pandit Joshi and Kishori Amonkar (vocal) and Pandit Jasraj and Dr. Balamuralikrishna (vocal).

Our own Tampa Bay area has experienced a few Jugalbandis – Pandit Vishwamohan Bhat (guitar) and Ravikiran (vichitra veena), Pandit Ronu Majumdar (bansuri) and Tarun Bhattacharya (santoor), Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri) and Rahul Sharma (santoor) among others.

Lavanya Dinesh is an accomplished performer and teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music. She has worked as a music critic and feature writer for The Times of India and Deccan Herald. She can be reached at

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