Porattukali: Defying the Language of ‘High Art’

in Overview
Published on: 21 November 2020

Haritha Vijayakumaran

Haritha is Assistant Professor of English (on contract), SN College, Alathur, Palakkad. Her areas of interest include indigenous literature and native cultures. She has published papers on subjects like culture, feminism and film studies in several UGC-approved journals. She is also a JRF holder and plans to pursue a PhD in the near future.

Porattukali or porattunadakam is an art form that originated in the Palakkad district of Kerala and is performed by the Panar community which is an underprivileged caste. It has been in existence for around 170 years and yet is unfamiliar to the best part of the state’s population in a state where the caste system still determines the boundaries of people’s lives to a large extent, a segregation that extends to even their art forms. A satirical form of theatre, porattukali is believed to have laid foundation for many better-known art forms of Kerala.

The Panars along with communities like Cheruma, Chakiliyar, and Kurava were labelled as ‘untouchables’ and kept out of the mainstream society; they were denied access not only to the resources necessary for a dignified life and sometimes survival itself , but also to the art forms of the privileged society which were closely associated with the activities of temple where the underprivileged castes were not allowed to enterSince the people were kept out of the temple premises, they were called puram janam (outsiders) from which the term puramattam/kali, another name of porattukali, is believed to have been derived; puram means outside and attam means an act or performance. 

Porattukali represents the different ‘untouchable’ communities of the region and the joys and sorrows of their day-to-day life. Each community is represented, celebrated and criticised through separate acts known as porattu. About 200 porattukali artists still live in and around the district and they perform separately in 10 troupes. It is believed that porattu in its present form was developed by Polpully Mayan, who is venerated as the father of the art form; his praises are sung at the beginning of each act.

The Genesis and the Poetics
As Kerala was once a part of the Madras Province, an administrative subdivision of colonial India which covered most of south India, Tamil influence is evident in porattu, just as it is in the daily lives of the people of the Palakkad district. Porattu seems to have borrowed abundantly from Tamil theatre traditions like therukoothu, which can be considered the proto form of porattukaliPorattukali’s stage, accompaniments and performance are very similar to therukoothu; for instance, both the art forms are accompanied by a musical orchestra, songs and speech overlap in both, and there is the common presence of the jester, chodyakaran in porattukali and kattiyakaran in therukoothu. 

A notable aspect about porattukali is that it has no written script, rules or prescribed methodology, except the ones passed down organically through repetitions; the success of the show depends solely on the performers’ skill to improvise and compose songs spontaneously depending on context. It is laudable that despite being denied education, hence any means to record the art, the practitioners were able to create an art form which is rich both in finer details and in its general treatment of life (characterised by simultaneous use of poignancy and both ironic and base humour) and have successfully passed on the art to succeeding generations.

In all the plays, each act is designed and performed the perspective and in the specific dialects of the caste that it represents, and is separate and whole on its own. The performers employ satire, songs, dance, gimmicks and slapstick comedy to reveal to the audience the origin, history and ways of life of each community and also explain the difficulties that they face in day to day life. Before each act, hymns are sung in praise of the ‘lower’ gods exclusive to each underprivileged community, which includes Kali, Kooli, Kandakarnan, Mookan, Chaathan, who are generally not worshipped by the upper-caste people in the district..  

The communities represented are the DevadasiPookari (flower lady)Chaklyirar (cobblers)Mannan (washerman),Thotti (manual scavengers)Cheruma (field hands)Kavara (basket weavers)Ezhava (tree climbers)Kushava (potters)Mappila (a sub-caste in Islam, mostly traders), etc.; this includes not only the people who are natives of the region but also the people who migrate to the region during different seasons of the year for trade and in search of odd jobs. The Devadasis, who are from Tanjore, are shown to have come to the town to enthral the audience with their dance and songs and earn what they can in the form of gifts. The pookaris come from the distant land of Thirupathoor, and the charactersthotiyan and thotichi (male and female manual scavengers) and chakliyar and chakilichi ( male and female cobblers) are shown to have arrived from Sivakasi looking for work. The migrant characters reveal the forgotten common history of Kerala and Tamil Nadu; other characters like the mannan and mannathi, cheruman and cherumikavara and kavarachi, and the chodyakaran are locals and representatives of Palakkad.[1] Over time, different troupes have also included contemporary and relevant social issues as a part of their performance, for instance, the building of Malampuzha Dam, which is a landmark in the history of the state and the devastating floods of 2018.

Interestingly, all porattukali acts except that of Kushava and Ezhava are played by men dressed as both male and female representatives from the community, giving the audience a well-rounded perspective. A character central to all the acts is the chodyakaran, who can be compared to the Sanskrit vidusaka (a comic character in classical Sanskrit drama) and sootradara (the ‘string holder’, who determines the tone and interprets the actors’ moods). Parallels can be drawn with the ‘fools’ of Elizabethan English drama who under the guise of silly gibes and comical tirades utter profound truths. Most of the porattus are performed in pairs and in all porattus, it is the female character who appears first; her concerns revolve around love, separated spouses, lovers’ spats, etc. But concealed under the seemingly light topics are the ugly realities of their daily life: hunger, poverty, and the general indignity that pervades their lives. The female character is usually bemoaning  her separation from a lost lover or husband and turns to the chodyakaran for help. As soon as she leaves the stage, the male character enters, and his problems are more or less the same. In the next scene they meet with the help of the  chodyakaran; they talk more about their community, their history and day-to-day life in between fiery arguments that might turn violent, fuelled by the witty chodyakaran with his loaded comments and jokes. The act ends with the characters reconciling and leaving happily together.

Though such harsh reality of the lives of the underprivileged people conveyed through porattukali are diluted with humour, they do not fail to touch the hearts of the audience, which for a long time comprised of only the underprivileged castes. Back in the day, as also now, in the poignant renderings, the audiences found a way to laugh about their sufferings. It must be noted that not long back, talking about these struggles for these communities was out of question and would most certainly have proved fatal. 

The Challenges and the Future
Each porattukali troupe has a distinct style and the way they choose to represent the characters. The art form depends largely on the improvisational skills of the performer. Thus, based on how well they can engross the audience, the performance can go very well into the night or early hours of dawn. The skills needed to pull off such arduous performances and the toll it takes on the performers’ body prevents young people from taking interest in porattukalli.  On top of that, the misconceptions and stigma attached to both performing and watching porattukali has pushed it to near endangerment. The art form was naturally marginalised and boycotted by the upper-caste people and relegated to the realm of ‘low culture’.  As porattukali’s songs and dialogues were rendered in the colloquial, non- Sanskritised language of the underprivileged communities, they were considered raw and ‘vulgar’ by the Brahminical high art practitioners and enthusiasts. The lewd comments, sexually charged dialogues and heavy sexual undertones used have led to the branding of porattukali as an implicit or softer form of erotica. Such misconceptions prevent folk arts enthusiasts and academicians from noticing the art form and taking it seriously, says Porattukali artist Krishnan A, the chodyakaran and ashaan (master trainer) of a porattukali troupe from Kollengode in Palakkad.[2] He says that his troupe has made a lot of changes to make the shows less vulgar though it pains him greatly to deviate from what his own masters had taught him. This is a worrying tendency because the art form is losing its authenticity in trying to cater to the tastes of a supposedly sophisticated audience. [3]

Krishnan laments that even after making such drastic changes, the present generation has shown  little  interest in porattukali. The payment they receive for each performance is much less compared to what a kathakali or contemporary dance performer might make. Though Krishnan’s passion for his art has not waned with time, he  says he understands why other practitioners have turned away from porattukali: why go through the trials and tribulations of performing and practicing a stigmatised and dying art form when an afternoon’s worth of manual labour can feed their families? He emphasises that lack of financial motivation is one of the major reasons for the present generation’s disdain towards porattukali.

Despite all, Krishnan perseveres in his efforts to keep porattukali alive, and has trained many young girls in his area, thus commendably bringing in female actors into the art form which largely revolves around female characters without their actual presence. 

At a time when folk arts are being passionately revived in both commercial and academic platforms, backed by the support of cultural connoisseurs, porattukali is yet to come to the spotlight. Efforts should be made to bring it to the mainstream for young enthusiasts to notice it and engage with it. It could also be included in school and college events and competitions, which are popular in Kerala. Porattukali’s inclusion in academic curriculum, at least in the fine arts syllabus, could create an increased awareness about the art. The art form once understood in its full capacity and scope is a rich source of study in cultural studies, linguistics, sociology, history, and most other branches of humanities. It presents to us the unwritten, unrecorded history of people from the underprivileged castes, their origin and life in its fullness. A detailed study of porattukali could help us understand the origin and history of a large number of Dalit communities. Since porattukali lacks any written records or script, the only way to study it is through direct interaction with the precious few performers who still live in the region and analysis of the performance which is still an integral part of the Palakkad district’s culture.

 Vijayakumaran, ‘The Politics and Poetics of Porattukali.’ 

[2] Krishnan A, in conversation with the author, September 8, 2019.

[3] Vijayakumaran, ‘The Politics and Poetics of Porattukali.’


K, Vishwam. Panaporattukal. Thiruvanathapuram: Deshabimani Book House, 2000. 

Vijayakumaran, Haritha. ‘The Politics and Poetics of Porattukali.’ International Journal of Research in Social Sciences 9, no. 5 (May 2019): 74–76.