Kalamezhuthu and Thottam: In Conversation with Babu Mundekkad

Kalamezhuthu and Thottam: In Conversation with Babu Mundekkad

in Interview
Published on: 05 November 2018

Devakumar Thenchery

Devakumar Thenchery works as Assistant Professor in MES College of Architecture, Kakkodi, Kozhikode. His inclination towards traditional architecture made him pursue a PG Diploma in the subject and practice traditional and temple architecture along with conventional architecture. His PG thesis titled ‘Ritualistic Landscape of Kalamezhuthu Pattu of Kerala’ looked into the unexplored area of the ritualistic landscape of the art form. He recently completed his MArch in Conservation from School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal and is presently working on the concept of ritualistic landscape.

Devakumar Thenchery in conversation with Dr Babu Mundekkad, a folklore expert from Kerala on kalamezhuthu and thottam. December 21, 2017.


Dr Babu Mundekkad is a folklore expert from Kerala. His doctoral research was on the life, culture and education of the Kallatta Kurup community and the ritual art of kalamezhuthu pattu (a kind of floor painting practised in Kerala).


Devakumar Thenchery: India has a rich visual arts tradition. Each region has distinctive painting styles and techniques. How is kalamezhuthu pattu different from other art forms in this category?


Dr Babu Mundekkad: Floor painting is an art form that is practised across India. It is also called dhoolichithrarachana and can be seen in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and several other parts of the country. But in Kerala, it is unique in that it has evolved into three distinct categories. The first is the practice of floor painting as a rite within an organised system of worship. Various caste groups like Theyyampadi Kurup, Kallatta Kurup and Varanattu Kurup, etc., engage in this practice. The most important deities to which such kalamezhuthu pattu is dedicated include Bhadrakali, Ayyappan and Vettakkorumakan. The second category is kalamezhuthu pattu performed by the lower-caste communities—from Adivasi communities to other lower-caste groups—primarily associated with pregnancy. Pregnant women are made to sit within the kalam and rituals are performed. The third kind is practised by the upper caste—the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala. They draw the padma symbol (sacred lotus). They do not draw forms of deities, but instead invoke the presence of gods through padma. Thus, the tradition of floor painting in Kerala is highly evolved and diversified when compared to those in other parts of India.


D.K.: Can you tell us something about the origins of kalamezhuthu pattu as a form of worship?


B.M.: There is a story about the origins of kalamezhuthu in the Vishnudharmottara Purana, where Yogi Markandeya and Vraja, the Yadava king, discuss kalamezhuthu. One of the chapters in this text, titled Chithrasuthram, narrates an incident which is believed to mark the origin of this art form in detail, including measurements of the kalam. According to this story, the twin saints, Nara and Narayana, were doing penance at Badaryasrama. Indra sent female dancers to disrupt their penance; watching this, Narayana created an extremely beautiful woman by tapping on his thigh. Another version that exists is that Narayana drew the picture not on the thighs, but on the floor. The latter version is perhaps what might have been mostly followed in Kerala. This mythical story is interpreted as the starting point of kalamezhuthu in India. This text is believed to have been composed nearly 1,500 years ago.


D.K.: Could you please elaborate on the nature of the kalamezhuthu pattu as an art form? Would you classify it as a folk practice or as a classical form?


B.M.: Kalamezhuthu pattu is essentially a folk practice, as it is performed within a community which shares cultural beliefs, practices and experiences. Specific communities and caste groups, such as Theyyampadi Kurup and Kallatta Kurup, conduct this ritual in temples, the houses of Namboodiri Brahmins and in royal palaces of the region which are under their authority. The art form is not performed or taught by individuals from outside particular communities. Hence, this art form belongs, without a doubt, to the domain of folklore.


D.K.: Oral traditions typically play an important role in folk art forms. Is this true in the case of kalamezhuthu pattu?


B.M.: Oral traditions are vital in folklore, as knowledge of these art forms is transmitted from one generation to another orally. Transmission can be through songs or technical knowledge about drawing the kalam. Though they can also be learnt formally through textbooks, one tends to fail in preserving the authenticity of the practice.


D.K.: Could you shed some light on the oral transmission of the kalamezhuthu tradition?


B.M.: As discussed, folk rituals and art practices are transmitted exclusively through oral traditions. Often, this is achieved by means of a Gurukula system. While the guru passes on the knowledge to the shishya (disciple) or the next generation, the latter must be mentally prepared to receive and retain this knowledge, and be proud of the practice. This is the soul of the oral tradition; the very first step in the teaching process is to nurture the mind this way.


D.K.: Kalamezhuthu rituals are dedicated to different gods and goddesses like Bhadrakali, Ayyappan or Shasthav, Vettakkorumakan, and other deities. How is the kalamezhuthu pattu dedicated to Vettakkorumakan different from those which invoke other deities?


B.M.: Generally, kalamezhuthu pattu is dedicated to three deities—Bhadrakali, Ayyappan or Shasthav, and Vettakkorumakan. All three are Kerala’s primitive gods, and can be said to be Dravidian in their origins. It is from the concept of Amman (mother) that Bhadrakali originally developed. The concept of Ayyan (brother) is from where Ayyappan developed.


D.K.: So, the mother and the brother?


B.M.: No, it cannot be said that way. These are not literal translations. These deities represent primitive Dravidian gods. When we are referring to these primitive Dravidian deities, it is to be noted that all Dravidian deities are closely connected to hunting. It is from amongst the early people who lived by hunting that Vettakkorumakan originated. According to mythological texts, he was the son born to Lord Shiva and Parvathi when they had taken the form of hunters. Hence, older societies that hunted for food conceived Vettakkorumakan as a sort of heroic hunter or God figure. The present-day society in Kerala also considers this deity very important.


D.K.: Is there any difference in rituals?


B.M.: Normally, there is not much difference in the structure of the ritual. But the process followed by different groups, for example those of Kallatta Kurup and Theyyampadi Kurup, exhibit slight variations. There are differences in the order of worship, the kalams drawn, etc. However, the basic concept of the deity and basic structure of the ritual remains the same.


D.K.: Thottam (songs) play a major role in kalamezhuthu pattu. Could you please explain this as it applies to Vettakkorumakan paatt?


B.M.: In Vettakkorumakan paatt, after drawing the kalam (which happens during uchapaatt, the first ritual of the kalamezhuthu pattu that takes place during mid-day), sthuthi (songs in praise of gods) is sung. These sthuthi (or thottam) are sung in praise of Ganapathi and Saraswathi, followed by those specifically in praise of Vettakkorumakan.


Another set of sthuthis are sung during the night, which could perhaps be referred to as anthipattu (night songs). This is done when the kalams are completed. Sthuthis sung during this time are more elaborate and detailed.


Mullakkal paatt comes in between these two. Sthuthis are sung during this as well.


D.K.: What are the contents of these thottams?


B.M.: These songs contain stories of how Shiva and Parvathi (who have both taken the form of hunters) sent their son Vettakkorumakan to the earth from Kailasa. Vettakkorumakan’s journey spanned across several parts of Kerala, including through Nambumala, and he eventually settled down at Balussery Kotta (the capital of the Kurumbranad kingdom and domicile of Vettakkorumakan). This vazhinada (path taken during the journey) forms an important part of thottams. Thottams contain mentions about places, people, culture and landscape of Kerala.


While singing thottam, the Kurup praises Vettakkorumakan, who reaches the paattumandapam (a pavilion to perform kalamezhuthu pattu) after journeying through these wonders.


D.K.: Does music have a role in thottam? What thalam (beats) and ragam (tune) are generally used in thottam paatt?


B.M.: It doesn’t have a very organized or structured musical system, as it is a ritual performed by common people. Yet, some influence of such organised music is perceptible in thottam paatt, especially that of the Carnatic music ragas like Sankarabharanam, Malahari and Madhyamavathi. However, it cannot be said that these are exactly the same since there are some variations. In folk forms, thalam has the upper hand. The community practising this art form also exhibit a clear rhythmic sense while presenting thottam. Some of the most-used thalams in composing thottams are thripuda (a three-beat system), ekam (single-beat system), chempada (eight-beat system), muthalam (another three-beat system) and adantha (a 16-beat system). The kaalam (pace) is often adjusted to express the bhava (expression) of the thottam. For example, while depicting fight sequences, the pace of the thottam is increased. Spectators appreciate these improvisations.  


D.K.: So manodharma (improvisation) has a role in thottam?


B.M.: Yes, of course, manodharma is extremely important in these types of thottams. A special characteristic of folklore is that viewers inevitably become part of the performance. In fact, it is the duty of the artist to draw the spectator into the ritual. It is only then that the art form brings about a confluence with the concept of God. There is no ‘audience’ in folklore, rather the spectator becomes a participant. For this, manodharma should be employed to attract the spectators into the performance.


D.K.: One more question regarding the concept of Vettakkorumakan. Vettakkorumakan is worshipped in different parts of Kerala, especially in North Malabar, where he is a favourite deity. Does the content of the thottam differ from art form to art form?


B.M.: It cannot be said that way. Though this deity is worshipped across Kerala, the rites of worship differ from region to region and art form to art form; and so does the content of the thottam. For example, there are thottams relating to Vettakkorumakan in theyyam (a popular folk art form of Malabar) in North Malabar. These thottams are different from those that are part of kalamezhuthu pattu. To elaborate, Vettakkorumakan is the protector of Kurumbranad swaroopam (local kingdom); the king and devotees believed they would be blessed when their deity attained power. Vettakkorumakan thus became embedded in various art forms—like kalamezhuthu pattu, theyyam, etc.—and worshipping practices across communities in North Malabar.


D.K.: What are the instruments the Kurup uses while singing thottam?


B.M.: The main Kurup uses a string instrument called nanthuni, which is made of kumizh (beech) or koovalam (Indian bael) wood. The string is fashioned from the trellis of chittamruth (heart-leaved moonseed). An indigenous method is used to treat this string in order to produce the saptaswaras (the seven basic notes of Indian classical music). The trellis of chittamruth is boiled along with paddy to soften it. This process enables the trellis to produce saptaswaras. The other instrument used is kuzhithalam, a small cymbal, which is played by the Kurup’s accompanist.


D.K.: What is the present status of this art form and the oral tradition associated with it?


B.M.: Sadly, the traditional knowledge of kalamezhuthu is no longer transferred from one generation to the next effectively. There are two reasons for this—one is the reluctance to make the effort to learn this tradition properly, and the other is the low remuneration offered for it. In fact, the latest generation of educated individuals from these communities are not proud of their heritage. This is what is observed in Kerala nowadays.


D.K.: So though the authenticity is getting lost, people are interested in conducting this art form these days?


B.M.: Yes. It is believed that conducting rituals and offerings—or vazhipaadu, as it is called in Kerala—to please the deities would bring upon us blessings. It is considered that the blessing received when conducting kalamezhuthu pattu is equivalent to that of building a temple. In fact, the number of vazhipadu performances have increased in temples. However, the communities involved in the ritual are struggling hard to continue this tradition, as I had mentioned earlier. To preserve such art forms, support from society and concerned authorities is essential.