The month of Dhanu in the Malayalam almanac has always been synonymous with Thiruvathirakali, Kerala’s traditional folk dance form performed by women. Believed to owe its origins to the festival of Thiruvathira that falls in the month of Dhanu, Thiruvathirakali is one of the earliest forms of group dances performed by women in Kerala.
For Guru Nirmala Paniker, the month of Dhanu in the Malayalam almanac has great significance. The eminent Guru of Mohiniyattam who has made considerable contributions to the advancement of Kerala’s indigenous dance form, Nirmala has also delved into the origins of Thiruvathirakali as part of her quest on women’s dance forms in Kerala.
“Thiruvathirakali, also known as Kaikottikali, is one of the most primal dance forms of Kerala, as it is performed in a circle with a lit lamp placed in the middle,” she points out. The very notion of performance had started with prehistoric people dancing around the fire, moving in a circle and all the primordial dance movements have similar patterns, according to her. Kaikottikali, another name for the dance form, refers to the clapping of hands performed by dancers during a recital of Thiruvathirakali.
Her childhood, spent in the village of Piravam in Ernakulam district, was resplendent with the steps and rhythms of Thiruvathirakali. “We were taught Thiruvathirakali from a young age. Male teachers (ashaan) of Thiruvathirakali were summoned to teach the dance form to the girls in aristocratic households,” she remembers. These teachers never performed, but were well-known and authentic gurus of Thiruvathirakali. It was through them that the unique aspects of this dance form were preserved and transmitted from generation to generation.
The ritualistic performance of Thiruvathirakali on the day of Thiruvathira (as per the Malayalam calendar) was one of the rare occasions that allowed women to socialise and celebrate without being restricted by social taboos. Women were allowed to go out at midnight to village ponds for a bath and other rituals associated with the festival. Since these women were supposed to stay awake at night as part of the ritual, the group dance was naturally the easiest form of entertainment to keep themselves engaged.
Thiruvathirakali has very different styles in South and North Kerala. The Southern style has more evolved and complicated variations such as Kolaattam in which women hold small sticks in their hands and the sticks are struck against each other, Thalam Vechattam, where women dance with small brass plates (thalam) in their hands, Kudam Vechattam, in which the performers carry a small pot (kudam) on their heads while dancing and Pinnalaattam, performed either in specially constructed sheds or under trees if it is performed in the open air.
In this form, strings are tied from the pole of the shed or from the branch of the tree and are held by the performers. Beautiful patterns are woven with the strings as the women move in tandem, holding the strings in their hands.
The roots of this ancient dance form as well as the ritual of Thiruvathira could be traced to the Sangham period even, points out Nirmala.
Many literary works from the Sangham period contain references to similar rituals observed by women and young girls, accompanied by dance and music. Nirmala, who had conducted extensive research into the historical evolution of Kerala’s indigenous dance forms like Mohiniyattam and Thiruvathirakali, is of the opinion that stylised footwork and gait (chari) of Mohiniyattam can be traced back to Thiruvathirakali.
However, the art form has moved away from its original context in contemporary society, with the disappearance of joint families and the agrarian life style. Thiruvathirakali now survives mainly because of the competitions in school and college youth festival circuits.
Nirmala had conducted many workshops to encourage the study and research on this art form. The late Savithri Brahmani Amma and Bhanu Ashaan, two master teachers of Thiruvathirakali from the north and south of Kerala, had shared their experience and expertise in these workshops organised by Natanakairali, the cultural organisation based at Irinjalakuda. Thiruvathira falls on January 2, 2018.