Come December, a non-descript shed in a house near the Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna Temple becomes the stamping ground of hundreds of male artistes, between the ages of six and 35, who practise the steps of a stylised form of martial arts-cum-dance called Velakali, offered as a ritual in many temples in Central Kerala.

The scintillating display of martial vigour and synchronised movements almost faded into obscurity when employment and education took away many of the veteran performers of Ambalapuzha to different places in Kerala and India. That is when the late Mohanankunju Panicker, a member of the Mathoor Panicker family, hereditary commanders-in-chief of the Chempakasserri Raja, the then rulers of Ambalapazha, decided to revive the art with missionary zeal. Putting aside caste considerations of training only men belonging to a particular caste, he invited smart young boys to learn the graceful steps of Velakali.

“Initially, it was tough going. There was no money in it and parents were not keen on sending their sons during working days. But it is a ritual of the Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna Temple and performances there are mandatory. So Velakali continued to be performed there, in spite of the puacity of performers. However, when devotees and viewers saw the grand spectacle that a Velakali is, we began receiving invitations from other temples in Kerala. Enthused by the experience of the performers, eventually, students began trickling in and now it has become a deluge,” says Ambalapuzha Rajiv Panicker, Mohanankunju Panicker’s son.

Clad in the traditional apparel and head gear of the Nair soldiers of yore and bearing swords or long sticks and shields, the artistes perform to the rhythm of the maddalam, thavil, ilathalam, kombu and kuzhal. There are no lyrics and the men move to the rhythm of the percussion instruments. The late exponent of the art form had won accolades for his unstinting devotion to reviving Velakali and was a recipient of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi Award and the Kerala Folklore Academy award. He was also invited to Delhi for staging it. As a result of his passion and sincerity towards Velakali, the art form became much sought after, especially in temples in Central Kerala during the festival season in temples.

Although Rajiv was trained by his father, he performed as and when his father wanted a performer. “However, it was only after my father passed away that I realised his place on the cultural map of India, as an upholder of a traditional folk art. Condolences poured in from all over India and his admirers came from different places in Kerala to offer their respects. Before I knew it, I was following in his footsteps, training students and performing all over India,” says Rajiv, who is also an entrepreneur.

“Different movements in a Velakali are known as Pidichikali (single and double) and Padakali. We conclude with a Vela Ottam. Bhava has no place in Velakali. The importance is on tala. Many of the temples in Kerala that we perform in have a local belief or tradition that is woven around mythology and folklore,” explains Rajiv.

Their spectacular performance has won them invitations from all over India, especially from places where there are active Malayali organisations. As a result, the performers are hardly ever at home during the festive season. Fortunately, the change in the fortune of Velakali has seen the number of performers increase manifold. “Now I accept only 20 freshers in a year and that is filled months before the season begins. Some of them regard it as an offering to Lord Krishna and then I cannot turn them down. But I ensure that the number of debutants do not go above 20. We also conduct classes for the percussion that accompanies the performance. There are about 500 performers now. Although none of them is a professional, during the season all of them manage to get together and practise to get ready for the performances,” says Rajiv.

Finding a stage

Two years ago, after a gap of 40 years, Velakali was revived at the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. In 2011, on account of the initiative of the Sri Chithira Thirunal Memorial, an organisation of street vendors, the Velakali was performed in connection with the Painguni festival. “A team of 101 artistes performed below the huge effigies representing the Pandavas that are put up during the festival at the eastern entrance of the temple. We represent the Kauravas and the Velakali is believed to represent the battle between the cousins. So the performance stops and beats a retreat once it reaches the effigy of Yudhishtra,” says Rajiv.

The legend

Legend has it that once saint Narada chanced upon Lord Krishna and his friends staging a mock battle on the banks of the Kalindi using stalks and leaves of the water lily as swords and shields. He requested Saint Villumangalam to capture this playful display of martial vigour into a ritualistic performance for Krishna. Accordingly, it is believed that Villumangalam requested the Ambalapuzha rulers to teach the young men to perform this and so the Chempakasseri Raja told Mathoor Panicker and Velloor Kurup, his army chieftains, to get ready a troupe of Velakali performers. Since they were warriors, the choreography, posture, steps, footwork and movements bear a close resemblance to Kalaripayattu.