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Krishnattam – A Performing Art that Stood the Test of Time

We bring you an outline of the story behind Krishnattam or the dance of Krishna.

The Guruvayoor temple in Kerala is one of the most revered places of worship for Lord Krishna devotees in Kerala and outside. A widely worshipped deity in Hinduism, Krishna is the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Lord Mahavishnu and is known for his compassion and love to devotees. There are many ritualistic traditions followed by the Guruvayoor temple of which a popular votive offering is that of Krishnanattam. Krishnanattam or Krishnattam is a dance drama performed by trained artists within the Guruvayoor temple and depicts the story of Krishna in a series of eight plays. Each part of the series portrays a phase of Krishna’s life.

Krishnattam performances are a daily routine at the temple every evening. The eight parts are spread out over a span of 8 days and start from the birth of Lord Krishna to his departure from this world. Avatharam, Kaliyamardhanam, Rasakreeda, Kamsavadham, Swayamvaram, Banayudham, Vividavadham and Swargarohanam – these parts can be easily remembered through the mnemocic Akaraka Swabhaviswa. Following the eighth day, it is a tradition to re-enact Avataram or the birth of Krishna on the ninth day as an ending act. Each part is believed to address different instances that a human being faces in his lifetime.

Avatharam – Birth of a child.

Kaliyamardhanam – Eliminate the effect of poison.

Rasakreeda – The well-being of unmarried girls and to end disputes between couples.

Kamsavadham - Remove the enemy.

Swayamvaram – For a blissful matrimony.

Banayudham - Victory over tough challenges.

Vividavadham - Remove impoverishment and for good agricultural produce.

Swargarohanam - Peace of the departed soul

Devotees can choose an offering that brings them good fortune at these deciding points in life or as a thanksgiving to the Lord for their blessings.

The Legend of Manaveda and Vilwamangalam

Krishnattam started out as a court art under the patronage of the Zamornin of Calicut Manaveda. A connoisseur of art, Manaveda is credited as the author of the Sanskrit text Krishnagiti on which Krishnattam is based. This was written by him in praise of Lord Krishna in 1652 and is derived from the 10th and 11th skandhas or cantos of Bhagavata Purana. It is also believed to be inspired from the Bengali Vaishnaviite poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam. Legend has it that Manaveda approached Vilwamangalam who was well-known as a devotee of Krishna. Vilwamangalam’s bhakti (devotion) was so great that he was often blessed with visions of the Lord himself. Wanting to see the Lord at least once, Manaveda asked for Vilwamangalam’s help. When Krishna finally appeared before him, Manaveda was so elated that he rushed to Krishna’s side and tried to embrace him. Krishna was taken aback by this gesture and vanished leaving behind a peacock feather, saying that Vilwamangalam had not told him this would happen. After this incident, Manaveda is said to have penned down the story of Krishna in the form of Krishnagiti. This was soon devised into the dance form Krishnattam which was performed in the Zamorin’s courts and in neighboring palaces.It continued as a court art dedicated to royal audiences for over three centuries. It was only when the royal family started finding it difficult to maintain the team that the troupe was passed on to the Guruvayoor Devaswam (temple trust) in 1958.

Standing by the Old Norms of Performance

Even today, the choreography and rituals for Krishnattam mostly adheres to 125 year old traditions. Manaveda had devised the play in such a way that it does not exceed eight units of time, eight being considered an auspicious number. However, this cannot be followed nowadays by the Devaswam due to other rituals like the Chuttuvilakku scheduled within the temple. Due to this, the Kirishnattam performances are timed to end before 2.30 am. However, other traditions such as using 8 ounces of oil and 8 children are still followed. The artists use instruments like Maddalam (a type of drum), Elathalam (cymbals), Chengila (gong) and Shankh (conch). The Shankh is used only for specific points in the play such as Krishna’s appearance or during auspicious occasions like weddings.

The makeup and costumes of Krishnattam is a distinctive feature of the art form – particularly the use of masks for some characters. Some scholars say that this can be traced back to art forms from northern Kerala like Thirayattom and Theyyam. All the characters are played by male performers. The first masks used in Krishnattam during the Manaveda period were said to be made from the trunk of the Eranji tree where he saw Lord Krishna. Natural ingredients like mamola (arsenic sulphide), chayilyam (mercuric oxide), neelam (from indigopera plant), charcoal, turmeric and quicklime were used as coloring substances. Jambavan, Poothana, Vividha, Gandakarna and other Thaadi (demonic) characters use masks to present themselves on stage. Today, the masks are made from the kumizhu(Gmelina arborea) wood which is lightweight and easy to carve. The colors used for facial makeup are pazhuppu (a shade of orange with red mixed more than yellow), minukku (a shade of orange with yellow mixed more than red) and paccha (a shade of green with yellow mixed more than blue).

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