Chavittu Natakam, the stamping musical drama of central Travancore

The classical musical drama style, that involves performers stamping their feet on the stage in step to the music beats

Chavittu Nadakam
Chavittu Natakam_Image source:Wikimedia(Vaikoovery)

Chavittu Natakam, is a Christian art form (originated during 16th century). It is a blend of music, dance, acting, dialogue delivery, and rhythm. The steps are heavy and vigorous which tests the martial art skills of artists. Usually the performance of this art form is on wooden plank basement. The story starts and progress with music, including the step sound of artists on the wooden plank.


The post 15th century saw flourishing Roman and Portuguese trade settlements and spread of Christianity and conversion under the initiative of the missionaries. When Vasco da Gama arrived in Kerala, a team of Christian warriors from Kodungallore went to greet him and offered loyalty to the Portuguese kingdom.

The origin of Chavittu Natakam is under these circumstances, primarily from missionaries. While focusing on conversion and religious charities, they developed an art tradition of their own mixing both the heritages and using the warriors as dancers. And thus, around the 16th century, Chavittu Natakam was born in the coastal belts from Kodungallore to Kollam. Elements of Kalarippayattu, Koodiyattom and several folk traditions contributes to display Christian stories in glittering Western attire.

‘Kalasham’ is the name of dance segments between verses in Chavittu Natakam, like in Kathakali. The idea was to stop Christians from attending Hindu arts traditions by showcasing before them an art of their own in the native language (then Tamil) and hailing the spirit of Christianity and Western dramatics tailored with ethnic ingredients. Stories were episodes from the Bible or about the adventures of Charlemagne or Alexander, or historical issues. Soon, the form became the evening entertainment of the Christians of the area. By the end of the 18th century, plays based on moral themes too adapted.

The music and performance:

Nevertheless, the form and its productions are fast changing. Earlier musical instruments such as Chenda, Ilathalam and Maddalam were in use and the actors themselves rendered the verses. During the past few decades, the instruments changed to tabla, organ, keyboard and the drums. Yes, the pastoral flavor of the music is now missing. Old fashioned classy boots have been are now canvas shoes and often, the vigor of the stamp (chavittu) is also missing in performances.

The artist must move his body, face, and especially eyes to the rhythm and music and place his steps to the accompaniment of music and dialogue. Unlike the other folk traditions of Kerala, Chavittu Natakam attributes great importance to the performance text (Malayalam: Chuvati). And the focus begins from the rituals performed from the beginning of rehearsals till the actual performance.

Image source:Wikimedia(Vaikoovery)

These performance texts have no records. Early plays are Karalman, Janova, Brasijina. Those sixteenth and seventeenth century play were on palm leaves in Vattezhuttu or Grandhaksara, which are the earliest scripts of Kerala. The plays mentioned above were probably recorded originally in Chentamil, for the texts in circulation at present show a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. Play texts are nowadays written in Malayalam, but writers still use the rhyme schemes found in the early texts written in Tamil.

A five-day Chuvadu fest at Gothuruthu in Muziris Heritage Area is also a part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and Kerala folk fore academy also promote this art, however it very little for this precious art form.

The art is nearing extinction with artists limiting to only very few groups that perform this art. We shall preserve this art form. There is an urgent need to do so, before it becomes part of folklore or history.

Chavittu Nadakam

Chavittu Natakam costumes_Image source:Wikimedia(Vaikoovery)

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Mayesh Babu