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Kerala Kutiyattam and Chinese Opera; By Vithiyapathy Purushothaman

Image courtesy: Chinese opera/Kutiyattam

Article No. 020/2018

The dance and drama have been evolved through the ages and ages of mankind. There are three oldest dramatic forms of the world namely, Indian Sanskrit Opera, Chinese Opera and Greece-tragic comedy still exists with greatest credentials which also holds UNESCO recognition. There are also different forms of dances and dramas around the world which are influenced by the traditional literature and practices of the region yet these three dramatic forms are recognized for its traditional emergence. China located in the Eastern Asia and Kerala which is located in South-western Indian Peninsular have almost identical art forms of the world.

Among the other oldest recognized dramatic forms Kutiyattam is a popular dance-drama from the South-western Indian state of Kerala. The word Kutiyattam literally means “Drama Play”. Kuti– “Story” and attam– “Dance/Play”. The epics of Mahabharata, Ramayana and the ancient scripts which are called as Bhagavati Puranas was the main themes of the Kutiyattam. Kutiyattam is performed in the temples of Kerala. Chinese Opera on the other side is a famous art form of the world that represents the culture and tradition of Chinese and it conveys the traditional values of Chinese Culture.  Chinese Opera has evolved through ages, the traditional Chinese Opera is called as 戲曲(Xìqǔ). Notably, both art forms are recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by United Nations Education, scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  In this paper, we will understand the art forms of Chinese Opera and Kerala Kutiyattam.


Kerala is situated in the South-western state of India in the slopes of West-Ghats bordering State of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Kerala is also referred by the phrase ‘God’s Own Country’. Traditions and culture of Kerala as well as 44 rivers that flow in Kerala makes the state very rich in fertile agriculture which makes the region more beautiful. Kerala is one of the famous rich cultural heritage regions of the world. The region is filled with unique culture and tradition in many forms, from daily life to dramatic arts. One among that traditional dance and dramatic form is ‘Kutiyattam’. Kutiyattam/Koodiyatam (കൂടിയാട്ടം) portrays the ancient epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavathi Purana and other regional ethical stories that have been performed in Koothambalams (Drama Stage) of the temples.

Kutiyattam is a wonderful art form which contains the music, performer with unique hand gestures, eye movements and dance with traditional dramatic dressing styles. The dance style of Kutiyattam was seen in the temple architectures of Kerala which dates back to 2nd century BC. References of Kutiyattam/Koodiyatam is also seen in the Sangam (3rd Century BC) literature of ancient Tamilakam (தமிழகம்) (modern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala) which is ruled by Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava holds the recorded evidence for the evolution of Kutiyattam. Regional people claim that Kutiyattam was dated beyond ages and it ties with the traditional practice of the state. Kerala Kutiyattam has different levels of evolution. Evidently, during the period of Chera King Kulasekhara Varman (குலசேகர வர்மன்) has reformed the dramatic art form through the language and literature to evolve as a well-defined dramatic form.[1] The level of the reach is derived from the determination of the cultural values of the region. The face mask of Kutiyattam makes it unique from other dance forms of the region. The face masks are used to describe the character in the play. The actors of Kutiyattam interpret their emotions through impressive gestures such as mudras (hand symbols) and rhythmic eye movements. These gestures have a trace of ‘Bharata’s Natya Shastra’ (the gesture movements of Bharatanatyam).  The orchestra of Kutiyattam performance includes two types Chenda and Maddalam accompanied by Elathalam (means cymbals) and Chengila (means gong). Usually, two singers render vocal support with songs who sung in a style known as Sopanam.

According to South Indian people understanding and references, Kutiyattam is also have some similarities and combination of Krishnanattam, Ramanattom Ashtapadiyattom, Tamil Therukoothu (Means Street Cultural Story play), Kalarippayattu (South Indian Martial Arts), Natya Sastra, Sloka (Prayer Lyrics), Pada, and Attakatha of the southern regional dance and cultural art forms.  There are also other traces that depicts some styles of Mudiyattu (ritual Theatre drama and dance), Theeyyattom (fire dance), Sastrakali and Ezhamattukali which is also a socio-religious dance of the region. [2]

Image Courtesy: The Armchair Lounge[3]

Kutiyattam is one of the major traditional dance-drama forms. The dance form has the influence of Sanskrit tradition as well as the Dravidian culture of South India. Dravidian culture art forms have a strong influence on the Kutiyattam such as Kalarippayattu, dancing and singing. Nayars who belongs to the warrior who are highly disciplined and guardians of the temples, do perform Kalari the martial arts of Dravidian culture. Notably, Kutiyattam was the only surviving traditional art for presenting Sanskrit drama in India. Further, the styles of Kutiyattam has also emerged into a theatrical form in the 17th century which is called as Kathakali.  Thus, Kutiyattam is the only Sanskrit Opera that survived till now beyond the evolution of advanced theaters.


The traditional Chinese Opera called 戲曲 (Xìqǔ). The art form comprises of singing, acting, martial arts, acrobatics, literature and dialogue. Interestingly, these skills were performed live on stage with a beautiful combination. Since time immemorial this historical drama has emerged. The art form is said to be evolved over a period of thousands of years.

The evolution such as the addition of music, dance, acrobatic where incurred into Opera over a different period of times in the history of China. It is said that in the 13th century during Song dynasty the Chinese Opera attained its maturity in all forms. The history of Chinese Opera can be traced back from Song dynasty to Qing dynasty. Canjun Opera the comic drama of Zhao Dynasty(朝代) involves two performers. In Qi dynasty(齐朝)has reportedly has a masked dance called “Big face”, also known as King of Lanling was introduced. The context behind this dance was that the General named Gao Changgong(高长恭)was said to be very handsome so he decided to go to war with a mask to look more threatening.

Later during Tang dynasty, the importance of Opera had been realized which led to improvement of Opera from literature, music and methods and hence, Emperor Xuanzong (唐玄宗) founded “Pearl Garden” which is said to be the first opera with organized music, dancers and actors. Till date, the disciples of Pearl Garden continue the momentum of culture that originated during this period. During Song dynasty, Zaju and Nanxi have further matured. During Yuan Dynasty, innovations in the play were introduced such as Dan, Sheng, Hua and Chou. In Ming dynasty, the Nanxi form has emerged, play writers such as Gao Ming wrote the “Tale of Pipa” that produced the evolution and innovations in the scripts. The longer form of a play called as Chuanqi was evolved during Qing dynasty. The Kunqu form of art become A mother of more than thirty forms of Chinese Opera. The famous plays are “Peony Pavillion, the Peach Blossom fan, Journey of the West and Romance of Three Kingdom”.  The different types of Chinese Operas are

Among the list of famous Chinese Operas, Beijing Opera (京剧), Kunju Opera (昆曲)and Yueju Opera were recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Opera is an art of performing Singing, dancing along with music to depict the drama. The artwork that combines these arts to convey a story or a theme. The traditional story or a moral theme was explained to the audience in a dramatic way by reciting or performing through characters or with the combination of both associated with the music, dance and singing.

Interestingly, different masks have different color combinations and those color combinations will represent the character.  For example, White for sinister & evil, and Red for brave & loyal. The makeup process can take up to an hour to apply and it is mostly done by the performer himself. The acting is based on allusion, gestures, footwork, and other body movements that express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat or opening a door.

There are over 360 different forms of Opera in China.[4] Some of the most famous are Peking, Cantonese, Kunqu. Characters are stock or archetypes in most plays, much like Comedia or Kabuki. Once someone has seen the characters they will understand what the performers’ reactions mean. Costumes are passed down from teacher to student due to their high cost. Some people are still performing in costumes since from the 40’s. Performers in Cantonese Opera study one character for throughout their career. Men still often play female roles in comedic operas. Notably, from 1912 till present it is recorded that the Opera has remained the same with the addition of modern advanced stage effects. The theatres of Opera get technical and digital effects and backgrounds to make it more attractive for the young audience. Thus, the transformation of Chinese Opera is tremendous and it is visibly catching up the equilibrium of theatrical concepts of the contemporary world.


Interestingly, there are unique similarities that exist between aforementioned art forms. When we consider the maritime trade relation between Kollam in the State of Kerala (India) and Tang dynasty of China, we could understand possible cultural exchanges that would have shaped the understanding of Opera and establishment of the Pearl Garden.[5] The similarities of these two different opera forms of distant location are seen in all the descriptions of the dance, music, reciting and performances. Kutiyattam and the Chinese opera share similar essence of dance. The different ability of the art style matches with the Chinese Opera art form. Interestingly, Dramatists of both Kutiyattam and Chinese Opera had passed their traditional clothing to their junior artists whom they prepare for next generation. Imagining the history of these two opera we could understand the values that have been transferred through ages which helped the art to preserve itself in the contemporary digital world. The comparison of the Chinese Opera and Kerala Kutiyattam is in different levels.

At first, the facial makeup that makes one understand the similarities of the two distinct operas. In a first look one can acknowledge the similarities by looking at the

face masks of these two art forms, the lines and meaning of the traditional drama coincide with the meanings and methods of mask making. The major similarities of the face mask, the artist prepare their face mask in both the opera. The artists create the face mask in an average of 3-4 hours in both the opera. The admiration is that they paint their faces on their own based on the characters of the play. The program is varied in times, some plays can even be performed for 40 days in Kutiyattam and it is also the same factor in Chinese Opera.


The two UNESCO recognized cultural heritage has evolved through times. The significant similarity of Chinese Opera and Kutiyattam is that both have passed the time test and emerged as a modern form of art. The artists of the Opera and Kutiyattam preserves the cultural heritage of the region. Divided by distance yet the evolution of both the dramatic art was almost same of its kind. The cultural importance of the region and the ethical preaching was done through these dramas. Hence, through ages, the evolution of Chinese Opera and the Kutiyattam is proved. It is understood that these two-legendary dramatic forms will also adapt itself and survive upcoming centuries and continue to preach the ethics and tradition to the upcoming generations and visitors of the region. Whoever, watch these golden operas of India and China will surely wonder the efforts taken by the artist of both art forms. The transformation of the artistic skills to the next generation is remarkable. Their dedication needs a grant salute and support from both Government of India and People’s Republic of China.


[1] Koodiyattam Dance. Retrieved from

[2]  Folklore, politics, and the state: Kutiyattam theatre and national/global heritage in India. Retrieved from

[3] Kuttiyattam: The 2000 years old last surviving Sanskrit Theatre. Retrieved from

[4]  Traditional Chinese Opera. Retrieved from

[5] Maritime trade relations of Kollam and China. Retrieved from

(Vithiyapathy Purushothaman (李拯) is a PhD scholar at School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), Hefei, China. He is a former Research Officer, C3S. The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not reflect those of C3S. He could be reached at

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