A Centre of excellence for Kathakali and other traditional arts

Kathakali is a name always remembered with Kerala and connects with an institution, Kerala Kala Mandalam, now a deemed university. Read below a description of that unique center of excellence for several traditional art forms of Kerala which was started in 1930 by certain Kathakali enthusiasts, led by great poet Vallathol.


Kerala, though a small State, has a very rich tradition of art and literature. Various art forms got developed based on the tastes and culture of the people in that locality. Kathakali (the word means 'story play') was one among them, which has a tradition lasting for more than three and a half century. It got originated from various art forms prevalent in those days, related to religious and social rituals, such as Mohiniyattam, Sastra kali, Kootiyattam, Ashtapadiyattam, Krishnanattam, etc. Among them Kootiyattam has influenced Kathakali relatively more.

However, a famous story is there regarding the origin of Kathakali which relates to the quarrel between two kings. During the second half of seventeenth century, the King of Kottarakkara wanted the Krishnanattam to be played in his place as part of a festival there. He contacted the team of players at Guruvayur for this purpose. Guruvayur temple and related activities are controlled by the King Samoothiri, who denied the request stating that there would not be anybody in Kottarakkara who could appreciate this particular art form. This hurt the King of Kottarakkara who decided to develop a similar art form there under the name 'Ramanattam'. This Ramanattam was later developed as 'Kathakali', the legend goes like that.

Actually Kathakali combines naatyam (pretension), nrutham (dance) and nruthyam (dance drama) presented through the media of gestures (aamgikam), characterization (sathvikam) and acting with suitable dresses (aaharyam). Actor in Kathakali will not speak, instead uses gestures using hands and eyes mainly and with body also. Musicians will be singing in the back ground depicting the story enacted by the actor, and dance will be supported by suitable drum beatings.

A brief history of Kalamandalam

It took several years for transforming this art form into the present form. This art form was patronized by certain land lords or royal families till the end of 19th century, since the maintenance of the set up and providing the necessary training to the artists were somewhat costly. Because of this Kathakali became a part of their pass time hobby. Certain temples also provided venue for this play during temple festivals.

This situation led some of the lovers of Kathakali to think in terms of bringing up this as a popular art form so that everybody could see and enjoy this classical form of art. In addition to that social changes also led to such a move. As a consequence the popularity of English education the above patrons started loosing interest in this old art form (new pass times started to enter their life) and it suffered a set back. The great Malayalam poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, himself a ardent lover of Kathakali, was staying at Kunnamkulam, near Guruvayur used to visit a Kathakali training center there. The center belonged to the Royal family of Manakkulam Rajas. The Senior member of the family, Kunhunni Valiya Thampuran was an enthusiast of this art form and hence held discussions with Vallathol about the future of it. His younger brother Mukunda Raja was also very much interested in the art and hence joined them. Poet took initiative to contact several Kathakali lovers all over the State and constituted a committee. It planned to organize programs with entrance ticket, with an aim to raise fund, at different centers with the help of known Kathakali artists. This showed positive results and hence extended to other places also, though all were not fully successful.

Formation of Kalamandalam

These enthusiasts felt that a permanent set up for training and organizing programs was needed , which resulted in the formation of society called 'Kerala Kala Mandalam' at Kozhikkode and got registered under the Societies Act in 1927. There were 18 members in that society. The first patron of the Society was Nilambur Manavedan Valiya Raja. Vallathol and Mukunda Raja were respectively President and Secretary. They could organize Kathakali at Adayar in Tamil Nadu, the first venue outside Kerala.

The Committee got permission to raise fund through a lottery which was a successful venture and could collect about seventy five thousand rupees as balance after deducting all expenses related to its publicity, travel inside and outside India and also a four day Kathakali programme held in connection with the lottery draw function at Guruvayur. The committee decided to start a training centre for Kathakali with this balance amount and also to publish a book depicting the hand gestures with photographs.

The training center (school) of Kerala Kalamandalam was formally inaugurated at Kunnamkulam by the Manakkulam Raja at the training center at his palace in 1930. The Raja handed over all the dresses, head dresses and ornaments possessed by the palace center to this new training center free of cost. There were seven students in the first batch. The teachers were Guru Kunchukuruppu, Kariyattil Kesavan Nair and Pulappatta Raman Moothan Bhagavathar. This was registered as per Kochi Societies Act in 1930. The head quarters of this was proposed at Trichur and the aim was to protect and reform the traditional art forms of Kerala, which included Kathakali, drama, chakyar koothu, Ottam thullal and such other art forms by establishing training centers for each and providing systematic training in them.
Mukunda Raja provided space for setting up this center at Ambalapuram, ten km north of Trichur.

Residential facilities also were provided there to teachers and students, which helped attract more students to the center. Attention was given to Kathakali in the beginning. Those who studied during this period include Guru Gopinath, Ananda Sivaram, P.Haridasan (Viswabharathy), M.Kelu Nair (Kolkotha), Vellinezhi Nanu Nair, Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and such others who became very famous in the field later. Teachers included famous Pattikkam thodi Ravunni Menon, Kavalappara Narayanan Nair and Kadambur Gopalan Nair in addition to those mentioned above.

Moving to Cheruthuruthy/Vettikkattiri Campus

Later on request the Maharaja of Kochi provided about one hectare of land near Bharathapuzha for setting up a full fledged campus. Shortage of fund was again the main hindrance for the organizers which they tried to overcome by collecting funds from different sources inside and outside the State. The balance amount they had saved from the lottery was also available with them. Making use of all this construction of the minimum buildings in the newly acquired land at Cheruthuruthy. In 1938 Kalamandalam was shifted from Ambalapuram to Cheruthuruthy. Training in Kathakali and Mohiniyattam was taken up . Kochi Government started giving a monthly grant of Rs. 200/- supporting the activities there.

In 1940 the then Government of Kochi State held discussions with the President of Kalamandalam, Vallathol, on the issue of taking over the institution by the Government. The Secretary, Mukunda Raja was not happy about this move and hence resigned from the post as well as from the membership. His stand was that an institution built up with people's support belonged to them, which if handed over to Government would loose its independence and its progress would be negatively affected. However the Government went ahead and in 1943 it was taken over by Kochi Devaswam Department. In 1958 a Managing Committee was nominated by the Government replacing the Advisory committee which was looking after the affairs after taking over by the Government. In 1962 Kalamandalam was raised as 'Kerala Arts Academy'.

After the poet Vallathol, Komattil Achutha Menon and Dr. K.N. Pisharoti took up the Chairman's post. Dr. K.N. Pisharoti was the first Chairman when it became the Academy. In 1967 Sri. M.K.K. Nair took over as Chairman. Later several personalities came to this position. The institution started developing and training in different courses was started. Gradually a new campus at Vettikkatiri, close to Cheruthuruthy was purchased and after completing necessary constructions moved over there in 1972.
now more than hundred students are getting trained there, most of the students are given stipend also. All art forms connected with Kathakali – acting, percussion, song and make up -, Kootiyattam – acting and percussion, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi, Bharatha natyam, Ottan thullal and other percussion instruments are taught there with course durations varying. Students get coaching for regular schooling also.

Kerala kalamandalam was raised to the status of a Deemed University of Art and Culture in the year 2006. University Grants Commission (India) has given 'A' category status for this Deemed University of Art and Culture. The first Vice Chancellor of this University was Dr. K.G. Poulose.


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