Anandan K. is a Theyyam performer and Kolam artist with over 30 years of experience in folk art performance. Thankamma is a Mudiyattam singer and performer who hails from the Kollam district.
Mudiyattam is a ritualistic art form in which women dance to songs in rhythmic movements while also moving their untied hair in swift motion. The word mudi means ‘hair’ and aattam means ‘to move’. The art form is known by the name Mudiyattam in South Travancore, whereas in South Malabar, it is known by the name Thalayattam.
Anandan K. (AK): This discussion intends to explore one of the strongest folk arts of Kerala, called Mudiyattam, and its music.
This ritual is performed by subaltern women in Kerala—from Thrissur in the north to Kollam in the south. It is an art form for entertainment. The ritual is closely related to their traditional occupation. Thus, it forms the subsistence of these women—their physical flexibility and their traditional legacy has been maintained by this art form. The most important aspect of this has to do with their ability to safeguard and sustain all living forms in nature, through agriculture and associated processes. Rivers, mountains, forests, seas and paddy fields were sustained and made fertile through these rituals and songs. For instance, the songs of Chengannurathi, in the mid-land style remind us of the same. Here, most people sang songs in the mid-land style of Chengannurathi.
(Anandan K. sings rhythmic notes)
Beyond the songs, Mudiyattam also denotes physical flexibility; especially from the head to the waist; they have to be very flexible to perform this dance, with the constant swinging of hair. This flexibility is also about their everyday life and physical exertions.
We have a respected elderly woman with us who will sing and talk to us about this in detail.
(Thankamma commences singing, beginning with rhythmic notes) The song describes a beautiful woman adorned with rings and chains. As the woman reaches the space where the performance is to take place, she seems shy and hesitant. She is encouraged to perform after praying to the four directions—east, west, north and south. She is asked to bow to the sea and the sunset. She is asked to look at Maveli who is arriving and dances voluptuously. The crowd is asked to give some water to the dancing woman. The song soon progresses into a dialogue. The woman is asked about her journeys across the length and breadth of the land in search of firewood—the journey through which she collected the imageries for the song. When she is asked about the movements of her dance, she responds that she had collected them from various elements in nature that were dancing in tandem, as pairs. There were male and female snakes, and peacock and peahen dancing together, and she learnt her hand and body movements from their dance. The song is interspersed with rhythmic notes.
Thankamma (T): What I sang now is the song of Kothiyattam. (She repeats a portion of the song once again)
AK: How did you dance Kothiyattam?
T: Without stopping, with steps and beats like these (hums the rhythmic notes); we danced like this. That is Kothiyattam.
AK: Okay, doesn’t it begin with invocations?
T: Yes, it does.
AK: You pray twice—once to the mother goddess and then the naaga daivam (serpent-god)—isn’t it?
AK to the viewer: They (the dancers) start after the prayer. They have the figure of Kali in their mind, then the snakes who live on the land. That inspires this dance as well. That is what I said earlier, they learn from and through nature. That is what enables them to turn fast like a spinning toy and dance like mating snakes.
AK: Amma, during your time, when you used to go to perform Mudiyattam, did you light a lamp?
T: Yes, we would.
AK: Do you pray before that?
T: Yes, we do.
AK: Whom do you pray to?
T: We pray to all the gods.
AK: Do you especially pray to the mother goddesses and serpent-gods?
T: Yes, all.
AK: Who sings while you perform?
T: My grandfather used to sing for us.
AK: Oh, so men sing?
T: Yes, men did. My grandfather would sing for us.
AK: What all instruments were used? Any leather instruments for percussion?
T: There was nothing like that, like nowadays.
AK: Was there chenda (a high-toned drum from Kerala, played with two sticks)?
Ajith Kumar A.S. (AKAS): No.
AK: Maddalam (a traditional two-sided percussion instrument from Kerala, which is hung around the waist to play)?
AK: Karu (a high-toned drum played with stick)?
T: No, just a ganchira (a South Indian frame drum).
AK: Oh, only ganchira. What about kaimani (hand-bell)?
T: Oh yeah, we would use that.
AK: When do you start dancing after the song and the prayer?
T: Our grandfather would pray for half an hour. We would stand in a circle around him. Then when they ask us to start, we would begin dancing.
AK: Okay, when you dance there, does anybody fall unconscious?
T: Yes, many do.
AK: Do you give them water?
T: Yes, we do. But the songs were meant for sleeping.
AK: So, you used to perform in front of your house during Onam, at kavu (sacred groves kept aside for serpent-gods). How many of you were there?
T: Three of us would dance.
AK: Would you get any money for this?
T: Yes, we would.
AK: Please tell us about the experience of the performance.
T: We feel happy and full of devotion. I used to go to a kavu nearby to perform. It got really late one day. They gave us presents and money. Lots of people gathered to see and listen to us performing Chuttiyattam and Kothiyattam. Our grandfather used to teach us and sing for us. And we used to perform.
AK: Did any of you perform on top of any utensil, pot or wooden plank?
T: No, no.
T: Once grandfather said we should dance standing on top of a plate. But he died before he could teach us that. He died at his son’s place.
AKAS: Does anyone perform Mudiyattam now?
AKAS: So, not many people perform it now, isn’t it?
T: I am the only one left. The other two passed away.
AK to the viewer: When a baby is born in the tribal communities, paddy and oil is caressed on its head. The newborns are taught some songs. They are also taught the rhyme ‘ah, ah, ah . . .’ This is seen in the oral beats of Chengannurathi. Also, the songs in the language and the sounds of nature, those sounds and their beats are compiled. In their Meyyattam, we see the movements of nature. If they have to perform vigorously then it is Vattakkali. The speciality of Vattakkali is that you cannot have any inhibitions. There you learn directness and propriety. They perform in a semi-circle, facing one another. Like their grandfather who was also their guru had said, there were women who used to perform on pans, wooden planks, pots and logs. I have seen my mother performing on wooden planks. My mother belonged to this land. It shows that they are capable of overcoming any adverse life condition. Their strength and ability. Their internal organs are really strong. They have no medical issues even after giving birth to 10 children. None of them have visited hospitals. They have had no ailments unlike the women of today. Today, even women who have given birth to two children acquire so many ailments. Even monthly cycles can become irregular. However, in those days, the seven days of menstrual period happened correctly. These dance performances give a special energy to the body. That’s why they perform the various dances in nature, that of the male and female snakes, and male and female paddy. Ayyattam and Meyyattam embody this nature. These are also the habits we acquire. When we perform Kothiyattam, there are certain parts in the body that get stressed and receive more pressure. When we do the turns, our body gains vitality. This is how entertainment art forms are. Mudiyattam is their life. They starve at times. But even when they sit at home, they cannot think of anything else. However, their children—as I said there are women here who have given birth to 19 to 20 children. Such women are the ones who gave birth to humanity—this agricultural society has sustained such women. The rains also nurture all living beings. You know, right?
As far as this art form is concerned, all those who have learnt it, have treated it as their own. They haven't been able to impart it to others like in the case of other performance arts. Unlike Kathakali or Kudiyattam, no one has encouraged these performance arts. That is why, they have disappeared after a point in time. That is a very sad fact. The mother is the most important figure here. Mothers, mother goddesses and women are significant. Kali is predominantly present here. The figures of Kali—her different attributes, her hair, the serpents on her body. They tend to sing Kali’s songs as part of the ritual. Please sing, Amma.
(T sings) This song is in praise of goddess Kali. The singer prays to the goddess to save human beings from all evil. The goddess is portrayed as the omnipotent presence who can show immense compassion to her devotees. The singer offers kumkum, turmeric and certain leaves to the goddess, and repeatedly asks her to save all.
AK to the viewer: The Mannadi Bhagavathy Temple is a temple nearby. They perform a ritual using murikku (Indian coral tree). It takes place on the Tuesdays and Fridays in the month of Kumbha. Amma, please sing that song about the goddess of Mannadi.
T sings a song about the Mannadi Bhagavathy (goddess of Mannadi). In the song, Mannadi Bhagavathy is also praised as the Bhumi Devi, the goddess of Earth. This song also has rhythmic patterns throughout. This is a complex song with complex imageries. It talks about various elements in nature; it talks about the bird-mother and her babies, who are growing up. The mother prays to the goddess for the health and growth of her babies. These prayers are granted in the latter part of the song. By invoking the figures of the bird-mother and her babies, the song actually talks about all the mothers and their children. In the latter part of the song, the birds are shown to have gathered in the fields to harvest paddy. The birds are the labourers themselves here, who have come to harvest the fields.
AK to the viewer: This song also describes their life. Their real life. They offer their cattle and their farm-grown tubers to the goddess. Mudiyattam was considered to be the ritual for this offering. They talk about the directions and their connection to the sun and the moon. They bow down before the Maveli Hills on the northern side. They start their performance only after this prayer. They cannot sing without praising the four directions—east, south, west and north. When we say they cannot sing, think of that woman. She is a beauty. Silver rings on all ten fingers. Kumbidathali and Jeerakathali adorning her neck. The tribal women are spoken as being extremely beautiful here. What were the models for their performance, from nature? The swinging movements of the plants, trees, animals. They learnt to convert them into art forms.
She was not literate. Neither did she have favourable conditions like today. She learnt it all by observing. Their gods are the hill-deities. Everyone is scared of these gods. She has so many worries. All she has is the deity to talk to. It is a strong god. She would talk to the Shiva moorthi (idol of Shiva). That was the only way she could calm her mind. Her community used to be beaten up so often. Especially, the Pulaya women. They do not respond to this violence as it has become habitual. Then they express their anxiety and humiliation in front of these deities. They gain peace and calm from this. They would perform in the large fields in front of them. They want to sleep in peace, leaving all worries aside. No one can go beyond god. Pulaya women, Paraya women, Vetar women and Nayadis were amongst the ones who performed Mudiyattam. Pulaya women used to do it as a ritual and also for entertainment. In fact, it is their labour; what is represented is their occupation and life.
(T sings) The content of the song can be summarised as follows: When labour was needed at various stages of farming, it was always the labourers who were present. The landlord was always away, indulging in his comforts. But once the produce was harvested, the landlord would come and procure it fully. The contradiction between the ownership of the land and the labour that went into making it productive is laid out clearly in the song. It points towards issues like landlessness of the labourers and the exploitation that they suffer at the hands of the landlord. Its powerful metaphors emphasise the greed of the landlord.
 A legendary king, considered the most righteous king, who ruled the part of the world now known as Kerala; Onam is believed to be the celebration of Maveli’s visit to Kerala to meet his subjects.
 A month based on the Malayalam calendar; Kumbha overlaps with the second half of February and the first half of March in the Gregorian calendar.
 Necklaces of different kinds.