Krishnanattam - The Performance

The actors dance and act behind the Kali Vilakku while the singers sing standing behind - this is the general nature of the play. The lead singer sings, playing the gong, the second singer repeats playing the cymbals. Accompanied by suddha maddalam, toppi maddalam and edakka, both singers sing the slokas and padams of Krishnagiti one by one, once. Some padams and slokas are sung more than once. For example, slokas starting with Atha thou datha thou, Ghora thara kopa bhara (Swayamvaram) , Dharani Ramaneeya (Vividavadham). All the slokas and padams of Krishnagiti are not used for the play. By tradition many are omitted.

In the performance space, between the singers and Kali Vilakku, the actors dance and act wearing multicoloured costumes. Dancing and acting in general, do not confirm to the 'text' being sung, but are according to ragas (tunes) and talas (beats).

In Krishnanattam, five types of facial make ups, Paccha (Green), Pazhuppu (Orange), Kathi (Knife), Minukku and Kari (Black) and masks are used. A Paccha facial make up is used for Krishna, Vasudeva, Kamsa, Nandgopa, Uddhava, Muchukunda, Dandavakthra, Rukmi, Arjuna, Jarasandha etc. A Kathi facial make up is used for bad but kingly characters ( Sankhachuda in Rasakrida, Sisupala in Vividavadham, Bana in Banayudhham ). Incidentally, in Swayamvaram, Sisupala appears as Paccha. Pazhuppu is for Balarama, Siva and Bhima. Minukku is for all women, Narada, Sandipani, Yavana, Kucela, etc. There is no facial make up for Toddy Tapper and Kucela ( Vividavadham ). For Yasoda, Bhoomidevi, Radha and Satyabhama green colour is applied on the face and a chutti is provided. In earlier days, Devaki and Rukmini used to have chutti on their face. These were converted to Minukku during the time of A.C.G. Raja. Kari is for Putana ( mask - Avataram ) and the hunter Jara (Swargarohanam ).

In some plays, the same actor appears in different roles. For example, in Swayamvaram the same actor appears as Sandipani and Rukmini. The roles of Dhantavakthra and Satrajit are played by the same actor. The roles of Uddhava, Muchukunda, Sisupala and Rukmi are also played by one actor.

Masks in Krishnanattam

Colourful masks are used in Krishnanattam.

Play - Masks
Avataram- Brahma ( 4 face ) , Putana ( Black )
Kaliyamardanam - Bakasura ( Bird ) , Brahma ( 4 face )
Rasakrida - No mask
Kamsavadham - No mask
Swayamvaram - Dharmaraja (Green ), Jambavan (white monkey face)
Banayudham - Murasura ( 5 faces, all different ), Narakasura ( Red Beard ),
Ghantakarna ( two different black ), Sivabhutas ( Black )
Vividavadham - Vividha ( Black )
Swargarohanam- Brahma ( 4 face )


Besides bow, arrow, mace, sword, shield, lance and chakra, Krishnanattam uses many items and props for the performance. To beat the child Krishna, Yasoda takes a real stick! A blue doll for the new born baby (Avataram, Swargarohanam), Kaliya in Kaliyamardanam (doll of snake), Anantha of Swargarohanam (doll of seven hooded snake), branch of a real tree (Kaliyamardanam, Vividavadham and Swargarohanam) are some of the props. Brahma, Vishnu, Siva and Bana have artificial arms. Bakasura and Garuda have painted wings. Jambavan, tired by fighting with Krishna, uses a walking stick! Kucela carries a palm leaf umbrella and walks using a walking stick. In Vividavadham, Yudhishtira washes the feet of Krishna actually with water! Later, Krishna washes the feet of Kucela. In Swayamvaram, Jambavan and Krishna fight using branches of trees. In Vividhavadham, Vivida and Balarama does the same. In Vividavadham, the toddy tapper brings a pot of toddy and packet of pickles to Balarama. Krishna gives a signal to Bhima to kill Jarasandha by tearing a leaf in two halves.


In Krishnanattam, there are some beautiful tableau. As the play Banayuddham begins with lowering of screen halfway, a three level tableau is revealed, showing Garuda with green face, red beaks and wings on the ground level. Above Garuda, on middle level Satyabhama is seen with green face bordered with chutti. On top level, Krishna is seen holding a conch. Alavattoms are held at the back of Krishna's head. This spectacular scene depicts Krishna riding on Garuda with Satyabhama on his way to Pragjyotishapura, the city of Narakasura.

Kailasa in Banayuddham

Vaikunta in Swargarohanam

Kailasa in Banayuddham is another beautiful scene. Krishna goes to Kailasa to meet Siva. As the screen is removed, Siva, Parvati, Subrahmanya and Ganapathi are seen. Two tiny Sivabhootas sit on the floor.

In Swargarohanam, there are two breathtaking scenes of Vaikunta. In the first scene, Krishna and Arjuna visit Vaikunta. Vishnu stands with the seven hooded Anantha hovering over his crown, along with Sri Devi, Bhoomi Devi, Siva, Brahma and Narada.

In the last scene of Swargarohanam, Vishnu reclines on Anantha. Sri Devi, Bhhomi Devi, Brahma and Narada are present. Siva and Garuda are on either side. Daruka sits on one side and a parshada on the other. The singers and drummers sit on either side. Several oil lamps are lit in front. Fumes from the burning incense rise up creating an ethereal atmosphere.

Special Dance Compositions

Mullappoo chuttal Rasakrida

Mullappoo Chuttal (Adorning garland of Jasmine) is the most famous special dance composition of Krishnanattam [1]. This is performed in Avataram by Krishna, Balarama, Yashoda and Rohini and in Rasakrida by Krishna and gopis. Kutti Etuttu Attam (dance holding the baby) in Avataram by Krishna, Balarama, Yashoda and Rohini and Kuvalayapida dance in Kamsavadham by Krishna and Balarama, are other dance forms special to Krishnanattam [2].

Use of Screen (Curtain)

In the words of L.S. Rajagopalan [2], the half curtain is integral to the stage mechanism employed by Krishnanattam in its attempt to represent Krishna's divinity. In Krishnanattam, the curtain has specific and subtle functions that are often imbued with metaphysical significance. In Avataram, when Gods praise Krishna, while still in Devaki's womb, the stage hands hold the curtain at a lower level hiding the actor's legs, making them manifest figures! Religious traditions hold that the gods, even when they reveal themselves do not touch the earth with their feet. In Kaliyamardanam. Curtain is held at a lower level behind Krishna, suggesting the representation of the water surface and facilitating the occasional introduction of Kaliya. In the scene where Krishna steals the clothes of Gopis, the curtain is held at a lower level suggesting the Gopis standing in water upto their waist.

Rohini, Balarama, Krishna, Yashoda Avatara

The curtain also facilitates impressive thiranottam for Kamsa, Sankhachuda, Murasura and Narakasura.

In Swargarohanam, in the scene of Balarama's departure to heaven, the curtain is held half way suggesting two distinct spaces, earth and heaven. When Jara the hunter approaches Krishna, the curtain is held full to divide the stage in two parts. The front side depicts the forest where Jara wanders and the back side where Krishna sits under a tree. After Jara shoots an arrow hitting Krishna's toes projecting below the curtain, the curtain is lowered revealing Krishna in sitting posture.


Krishnagiti has 62 padas and 93 padyageethams (musical verses) with specific raga and tala. In addition, there are 321 verses and 2 Dhandakas to be rendered in ragas [2, 4].

Play - Slokas - Padams - Padyageethams
Avataram - 64 - 14 - Nil
Kaliyamardanam - 49 - 10 - 4
Rasakrida - 57 * - 10 - 27
Kamsavadham - 46 - 7 - 17
Swayamvaram - 30 - 5 - 15
Banayuddham - 28 - 7 - 7
Vividavadham - 23 - 3 - 15
Swargarohanam - 24 - 6 - 8

Total - 321 - 62 - 93

* two Dhandakas

Krishnagiti is the earliest (1654) composition in Kerala in which the composer prescribed both raga and tala. Venkatamakhin formulated the scheme of 72 melakartas around the same time. Thus Krishnagiti predates the trinity of Karnatic music [4, 5]. Manaveda is a noteworthy figure among the pre-Swati Tirunal composers of classical music. Manaveda brought several unfamiliar ragas like Kanakurunji, Indisa, Pantayiri and Kedarapantu into vogue in Krishnagiti [4].

L.S. Rajagopalan in his essay Krishnattathile Pattu [3] notes that about 30 padams are now sung in ragas different from those specified by Manaveda. Some of the ragas such as Indisa, Kedarapantu, Pantayiri, Samantamalahari and Ghandara Malavi are lost now.

The ragas used now in Krishnanattam are Ahari, Anantabhairavi, Kanakurunji, Kambhoji, Kalyani, Kedaragowlam, Ghantaram, Todi, Devagandaram, Dwijavanthi, Natta, Nattakurunji, Navarasam, Neelambari, Pantuvarali, Pati, Puraneer, Bilahari, Bowli, Bhoopalam, Bhairavi, Madhyamavati, Mayamalavagowlam, Mukhari, Mohanam, Ragamalika, Yadukula Kambhoji, Varali, Sankarabharanam, Saveri, Sarangam and Saurashtram.

The talas used now in Krishnanattam are Adanta, Chempa, Chempata and Panchari.

The ragas and talas used now for each padam and padyageetham are listed in [5] separately.

The mode of singing in Krishnanattam adheres to the sopana style practiced in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kavalam Narayana Panikker [6] notes that two line structure of Thyani in Kottipadi Seva is basic to the singing in Krishnanattam and Kathakali. Hand and facial gestures are most important in Kathakali for acting the meaning of the words of the text in detail. Thus each line has to be sung by the singer several times to allow the actor to express the meaning through Bhavibhinaya. Since this kind of acting is almost absent in Krishnanattam, the text needs to be sung only once by the lead singer and then repeated by the second singer. Devotion is the essence of Krishnanattam and the Sopana style suits it best.

[1] Krishnanattam, commentary in Malayalam, Prof. P.C. Vasudevan Elayath, Guruvayur Deveswom, Guruvayur, Kerala, India (1985).
[2] Review of Krishnagiti of Manaveda, (edited and translated by C.R.Swaminathan and Sudha Gopalakrisnan, Motilal Banarsidass (1997)) by L.S. Rajagopalan, Sangeet Natak Nos. 131-132, pp.44-50, (1999).
[3] Krishnattathile Pattu, L.S. Rajagopalan, Essay presented in the seminar held in Guruvayur on Krishnagiti day, 13th November 1989; Bhaktapriya, Guruvayur Devaswom, pp. 19-20, November 2001; Keli, Sangeet Natak Academy,
Thrissur, August- September 2004.
[4] Composers of Kerala, Dr. S. Venkitasubromonia Iyer, Journal of Music Academy, Madras, Vol LV, (1984).
[5] Krishnattathile Padangal, Ragavum Talavum, compiled by M. Vasudevan Namboodiri, 2004.
[6] Bhaktiyute Kala, Kavalam Narayana Panikker, Bhaktapriya, Guruvayur Devaswom, pp. 26-28, November 2001. English Translation

A. Harindranath, harindranath_a@yahoo.com
A. Purushothaman, purushothaman_avaroth@yahoo.com
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