The ritual dance form known by the name ‘Mudiyattam’ in South Travancore is known as Thalayattam in South Malabar. The word mudi means hair and aattam means ‘to move’. The ritual, primarily centred around women, involves women dancing to songs in rhythmic movements while also moving their untied hair in swift motion. Practised by the Pulaya, Paraya, Kurava, Vettuva, Ulladar and Nayadi communities (Ulladar and Nayadi are tribal communities), Mudiyattam is performed on various occasions according to local traditions. Even though it is mostly performed as part of rituals, one could also find Mudiyattam performances which do not have any direct association with rituals.
A lifestyle and culture that is rooted in dialogue is reflected in the Mudiyattam tradition. Mudiyatta Pattu (or Mudiyattam song) is sung in a dialogue format. Mudiyattam is also an expression of cultural memory and collective imagination. The art form, in particular, depicts the genesis of the community which practises it, and also connects the community with nature. For the community, which had its own knowledge systems different from modern educational systems, its visual and aural culture and experiences were integral to learning process.
If we search for the roots of Mudiyattam in the oral traditions, we can find its genesis in tribal and folk traditions. The dance symbolically conveys ideas which were otherwise difficult to directly express in a caste-ridden society. For instance, responses to caste oppression and exploitation were often symbolically illustrated in the dance form. One could also note that Mudiyattam continues to exist within the folds of Dalit and adivasi art and traditions, and is yet to find itself placed within mainstream or popular culture.
Mudiyattam is most often performed around a fire during the night or during the day. The reason for organising a Mudiyattam could vary from exorcising evil possessions to fulfillment of desires. It is from the dance floor that the history of Mudiyattam should be examined. The floor witnesses a unique confluence among the dancers, the singers and the drummers. Performers may hold hands and sway in a circle akin to building bonds of solidarity. There is a natural coming together of rhythm, music and dance, and each woman becomes a fundamental element of the performance. In certain magical moments, some dancers lose sense of their surroundings, forget about themselves and go into a state of trance. By viewing and cheering, the audience too become a part of this dance form. The rhythm of Mudiyattam allows a soulful interaction between the audience and women dancers. At times, the involvement of the audience even plays a crucial role in setting the rhythm and tone of the songs.
Language used for Mudiyatta Pattu is very simple in nature. Sung by both men and women, the dialect is rural and specific to the region. It gives the songs an archaic aesthetic appeal and makes them accessible to everybody in the community. The musical instruments used in this dance form are also traditional and simple. These include para (a small drum played by the Paraya community), maram and karu (played together, maram is a bass drum and karu is a high-toned drum played with stick), kuzhal (a small horn) and thudi (a small drum). It can be interpreted that the human body itself becomes the primary musical instrument in Mudiyattam. Mudiyattam performers represent the society in the performance and they re-create incidents detailed in the songs.
Mudiyattam is performed when the fields are ready to sow. It is believed that Mudiyattam would bring prosperity and a successful harvest. The art form may also have contributed to the feeling of collective power for these communities when performing agricultural labour. In earlier days, when slavery was in existence, these slave caste communities would sing and dance to create unity and solidarity among its members. Mudiyattam was surely one such dance form that inculcated energy, confidence and the feeling of oneness within the community.
Mudiyattam is also performed when girls from the Thandapulaya community—a subcategory of the Pulaya caste—attain puberty. This practice during Thirandukalyanam (the ritual conducted when girls attain puberty) stems from the belief that the dance form alone can render purity following menstruation. According to the tradition, a girl who attains puberty has to take a ritual bath on the 15th day since attaining puberty. She is then made to sit facing the east while manthravadis (sorcerers) and singers stand on her either sides. The latter then start to sing Mudiyatta Pattu. The singer and the girl then begin dancing to these songs. The belief held is that the girl should dance till she faints and falls down.
The art form is also performed alongside Kālakali (bull dance), which is a part of Koythulsavam or harvest festival in central Kerala. While Kālakali is performed by men, Mudiyattam is performed alongside by women from the Pulaya community. Mudiyattam is also performed alongside Malavazhiyattam—a ritual art form that is practised by the Paraya community in Thrissur—to appease Malavarathamma, a local deity.
During Onam, Chenganoorathi folk ballads are sung in places like Chengannur, Mavelikkara and Alappuzha. The Chengannooraathi folk ballads, about the martial art legend Chengannooraathi, depicts the lives of the subaltern castes. The folk legend goes that long ago, there were 21 athis (martial art masters) among the Parayas of South Kerala. Mudiayattam, Kaikottikali (a dance form, primarily performed by women while standing in a circle) and Vattakali (a dance form similar to Kaikottikali) are also performed during these occasions.
Exploring the Feminine
Very swift dance movements, songs and rhythm that emulate war-cry, and hair moving in an arch like a rainbow—Mudiyattam is an ancient spectacle. It signifies the simplicity and fertility of rural life. The feminine that toils in the soil asserting her rights in a male dominated world forms the essence of this dance form. Mudiyattam can also be considered a celebration of the feminist urge to free her soul from the shackles of all forms of subjugation.
Performed from the full moon to the new moon (half a lunar month), Mudiyattam is inextricably linked with the phases of the moon. This connection can be attributed to how our ancestors, who had an intimate association with the nature, held the belief that phases of the moon were central to human behaviour. Women unburden their sorrows, sufferings, pain and frustrations through the dance ritual, and aspire for a calmer life. Young women and girls dance with a desire to fulfil their hopes and dreams. Mudiyattam is believed to facilitate the maturing of women’s bodies—like the development of hips and strengthening of the abdominal muscles—and ensure safe childbirth. Performing the ritual is also believed to improve mental well-being, in addition to nurturing humane qualities like sharing, endurance, sacrifice, etc.
In Mudiyattam, there are no walls or boundaries that restrict the women dancers, symbolising by their absence the walls that are built around feminine imagination. Instead, women sway unrestricted claiming their right to their own body. Though women comprise a considerable chunk of the workforce, they are often not acknowledged. This dance form can be considered as an articulation of the female physicality, where the female body establishes its presence which the society otherwise constantly fails to acknowledge.
Though there are many forms of Mudiyattams, they are the one and the same in essence. Some performances are aesthetically fine-tuned and are intended for entertainment. There are forms where, in addition to undone hair, the arms of the performers are adorned with neem leaves. There are readings that neem-tree leaves signify medicinal properties. There are also versions in which coconut palm leaves are attached to the arms. It is sometime inferred that coconut palm leaves represent the Goddess.
One can also find readings that link Mudiyattam and sexual desire. Minute movements and mannerisms evoke resemblance to the body and the language of desire. There are movements in this dance form that represent sexual union, enacted through the swinging of the tresses. The woman’s body transforms and communicates through her facial expression, make up and attire. Elderly women who have been practising Mudiyattam for decades communicate the subtle and minute expressions and feelings of a woman quite vividly during the performance. The dance form, thus, represents fulfilment of the female desire, and touches one’s emotional core and creative ethos. It celebrates the woman’s body and its free movements, challenging patriarchal notions. By acting as a space for women to express various desires—sexual, political, social and artistic—the female body refuses to cater to the male gaze. The public display of the free body challenges notions about women remaining within the domestic space.
Myths and Resistance
The Mudiyattam performers are subaltern women who experience oppression owing to their caste, class and gender locations. Ritualistic art forms like Mudiyattam can be looked at as a way for the subaltern woman to communicate with the divine.
One of the oral traditions associated with Mudiyattam indicates a passionate love story between a Pulaya girl and a landlord. The following is a Mudiyatta Pattu which narrates this love story. The protagonist is a Pulaya girl named Ayyapennu who hails from Ayyanadu.
(Five or more girls, please come for a work/
Girls from Ayyanadu, please come for work)
The thampuran (landlord) of the kovilakam (palace) is the male protagonist in the story. Although married, the thampuran is attracted to the beauty of Ayyapennu, and hence forgets the existing norms of untouchability. He allows certain concessions for the Pulaya woman. The song says that while the five Pulaya women had to work in the middle of the paddy field, Ayyapennu could work on the ridges. She would listen to the thampuaran's jokes, and they would exchange smiles and glances. The song narrates how the thampuran's wife comes to know about the love affair and tries to put an end to it. One day, when the landlord has left for a journey, the wife reaches the paddy fields with her servants. They tie up Ayyapennu and without any interrogation, kill and bury her in the paddy fields. When the thampuran finds her missing, he rushes to the paddy fields and cries loudly. There, he could only find her long hair waving in the wind alongside the paddy leaves. He jumps into the fields and pulls up Ayyapennu by her hair. Hugging her close to his heart, he lifts her up and walks to his house carrying her body. He makes a funeral pyre with sandalwood and cremates her. He then jumps into the pyre and ends his own life. Outraged by the incident, the women from the lower castes assemble at the place of Goddess Kodungalooramma. There, they dance in a way that resemble the swaying movement of Ayyapennu's hair when her body was found. Many believe that this story indicates the origin of Mudiyattam. Irrespective of whether this story is a true incident or a myth, it accounts for the history of resistance connected to the evolution of Mudiyattam. The tale, hence, is symbolic of this narrative of resistance.
Mudiyattam is a ritual art form that is an essential part of the life of the lower castes in south and central Kerala. The spiritual elements of the art form are as important as its physical and aesthetic aspects. The art form embodies several themes and dimensions—that of resistance, love, faith, worship, community identity, feminine power, sustainable living and respect for nature. Mudiyattam also re-establishes the fundamental relationship of these communities with nature and all life forms.