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Esplanade presents Kalaa Utsavam 2015: Indian Festival of Arts

" Krishnattam at Kalaa Utsavam"

by Kalanilayam of Guruvayur Devaswom in association with Soorya (Singapore)

Venue: Outdoor Theatre at Esplanade

Date: 20, 21 and 22 November 2015

Time: 20th & 21st (Friday & Saturday) - 07:30 PM and 09:00 PM
22nd (Sunday) - 07:00 PM and 08:30 PM
(Every performance is 1 hour duration)

Admission: Free



Krishnattam (Dance of Lord Krishna) is a sacred dance-theatre form of the 17th century from Kerala, India. It is a temple art performed at the famous Guruvayur Temple portraying the story of Lord Krishna.

Krishnattam, in a series of 8 plays indicating the 8 main stages of Lord Krishna's life was created by Manaveda, the Zamorin Raja (King) of Calicut, Kerala in 1653. He authored Krishnagiti (Songs of Krishna) a poetic text of padams (songs) and shlokas (verses) in Sanskrit in 8 parts and this is the dramatic text of Krishnattam.

Lord Krishna's life as described in detail in the Hindu scriptures of Srimad Bhagavatam, Mahabharatam and Harivamsam is presented as song, dance and acting with musical accompaniments (chengila, ilattalam (metallic sounds) , shuddha maddalam, toppi maddalam, idakka ( percussion) in a cycle of eight plays in eight days.

The eight plays are: Avataram (his birth as an avatar), Kaliyamardanam (Killing of Kaliya snake), Rasakrida (Dancing with gopikas), Kamsavadham (Slaying of Kamsa), Swayamvaram (Choosing the groom), Banayuddham (War with Bana), Vividavadham (Slaying of Vivida) and Swargarohanam (Ascent to Heaven). On the ninth day, Avataram is repeated.

The plays are presented as a votive offering to the presiding deity by devotees: Avataram for a birth of a child; Kaliyamardhanam to remove the effect of poison, Rasakrida wellbeing of unmarried girls, to end disputes between couples; Kamsavadham to remove enemies and so on.

In imposing costumes, ornate embellishments and facial make up that takes long hours to paint the performers present the dance drama with elaborate gestures and body movements. The music for dance is sung by singers and each line is repeated several times to give the artists enough time to express themselves as vividly as they can. The singers follow Carnatic (Indian classical) and Sopanam (temple) style of music.

This all-male dance-drama precursor to Kathakali uses masks in the performance.

The troupe engaged in this art, the only one of its kind is maintained by the Temple and gives the performers systematic training from a young age.

It is the first time Krishnattam is being performed in Singapore, earlier a troupe has travelled to Europe and US.

Plays to be performed. None of the plays are repeated.

Day 1 - 20th November 2015


Kamsa prepares to kill Vasudeva. Narada prevents this
Akroora Stuthi
Ranga Nireekshanam. Kamsa & Wrestlers
At the second show time
Killing Kuvalayapeedam, court Elephant
Krishna's and Balaram's fight with court wrestlers of Kamsa
Krishna killing Kamsa
Release of Krishna's parents

Day 2 - 21st November 2015


Venuganam - Playing the flute by Sri Krishna
Story of Kalayavanan
Muchukunda Sthuthi
Wedding of Balaraman and Revathi
At the second show time
Rukmini Syamwaram
Syamanthakam jewel Story
Satyabhama Sri Krishna wedding

Day 3 - 22nd November 2015

Banayuddham and Rasakreeda

Purappad - Sri Krishna, Sathyabhama, Garuda
Narakasura Vadham (from Banayuddham)
At the second show time
Kuchelavrtham (from Vividavadham)
And Mullapoochuttal (from Rasakrida)

More details



Krishnattam is an extraordinary form of Sanskrit theatre in India. The word Krishnattam or Krishnanattam mainly means 'Krishna enactment'. Its forerunner was the 'Ashtapadiyattam' dance-drama in which local dance and music had a happy blending. This was based on the Krishna lore and ashtapadis (eight-verse songs) of Jayadeva`s Sanskrit work Gitagovinda. This was mainly done in the twelfth century. This form became extinct, transfiguring its legacy into the new Krishnattam. In 1653, Manaveda Samutiri, the Zamorin or ruler of Kozhikode, composed Krishnagiti (Krishna lyrics) in Sanskrit. This was inspired by Jayadeva, depicting Krishna`s whole story in eight parts, with many more characters. The stage rendition of this poem became known as Krishnattam, the votive dance-drama affiliated to the famous Guruvayur temple in central Kerala.

The Krishnagiti

It is the lyrical and devotional poem composed by Manaveda, Zamorin of Kozhikode The poem composed in Sanskrit celebrates the life of Krishna from his incarnations (avatara) to his ascent to Heaven (svargarohana).Composed in eight chapters and perhaps modelled on Jayadeva's Gitagovinda and written in the form of a monologue addressed to Krishna, the poem is suffused with the sentiment of spiritual devotion (bhakti). It enumerates the story of the Lord and eulogises His leelas on the earth. It is the source-text for Krishnattam.

Historical Significance & Origin

Krishnagiti was written between 1653 A.D. and 1658 A.D by the then Zamorin Raja of Calicut, Manavedan Raja. During this period, both Vilwamangalam Swamiyar and the Zamorin Manavedan Raja were staying at Guruvayur. Vilwamangalam Swamiyar was such an ardent devotee of lord Guruvayurappan (Lord Krishna) that he could see the Lord in flesh and blood whenever he wanted. One day the Zamorin requested the Swamiyar to help him and show him the Lord. Swamiyar replied that before committing anything he will have to consult Guruvayurappan and get his consent. The next day the Swamiyar told him that Guruvayurappan has given his consent and the Zamorin can see Guruvayurappan playing in the early hours of the morning at the platform of the Elanji tree. When as per this agreement, the Zamorin saw the real Guruvayurappan, he was so excited that he forgot all the environment and decorum, rushed to the Elanji tree and embraced the Lord. The Lord immediately disappeared saying ' "Vilwamangalam did not tell me that this will happen". However, during the melee, the Zamorin got one peacock feather from the head gear of Lord Krishna. Then probably to atone for the inadvertent discourtesy shown by him to the Lord, he immediately went to the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Guruvayurappan and pledged that with that feather of peacock, he will make a headgear, compose Krishnagiti in the form of a dance drama and dedicate it to Lord Guruvayurappan. Accordingly with single minded application, he wrote Krishnagiti in eight cantos, and without any assistance did the choreography, all the costume, make up including Krishna's headgear, facial make up, details of instruments for the background music and prepared the list of all and sundry articles required for staging the dance drama. He himself selected the artistes for the Arangetam (debut performance) and trained them to perform the dance drama. It is to be noted that the Arangetam of all the eight plays viz., Avatharam, Kaliyamardanam, Rasakrida, Kamsavadham, Swayamvaram, Banayuddham, Vividavadham and Swargarohanam were performed near the sanctum sanctorum of the Guruvayur Temple. On the ninth day, Avatharam (Incarnation) was repeated as the Zamorin felt that it was not auspicious to end the series with the demise of Lord Krishna. This practice of performing Avatharam after Swargarohanam is being continued to this day.

The Zamorin adopted in Krishnattam many features from the dance dramas which were prevalent in Kerala at the time of introduction of Krishnattam. These were Koodiyattam and Ashtapadiyattam. Of this Koodiyattam is most important and is still prevalent in Kerala.

The Performance

Krishna's story as described in detail in the Tenth and Eleventh Cantos of Srimad Bhagavatha, Mahabharata and Harivamsa is presented as song, dance and acting in a cycle of eight plays in eight days. The poem composed in Sanskrit celebrates the life of Krishna from his incarnations (avatara) to his ascent to Heaven (svargarohana). The eight stories on Krishna`s life can be mentioned as Avataram or his birth as an avatar, Kaliyamardanam:Kaliya Crushed, Rasakrida:Ras Sport, Kamsavadham :Slaying of Kamsa, Svayamvaram: Choice of Groom, Banayud-dham: War with Bana, Vividavadham: Slaying of Vivida, and Svargarohanam: Ascent to Heaven. These are each presented over several hours on eight nights in the precincts of the famous Srikrishna temple at Guruvayur, Malappuram district, as a votive offering to the presiding deity by pilgrims. All performers are males.

Musical Instruments involved

As in Kathakali, two singers stand behind the acting area and the percussionists share space with them. The main vocalist has a gong-like chengila in his hand on which he keeps time with a stick. The chengila is a round alloy of brass, copper, and lead, specially combined to create the sound. The second vocalist uses the elatalim: a pair of heavy metal cymbals for timing. The accompanying percussion instruments are maddalams and edakka, drums that provide attractive patterns of rhythmic support to the flow of dance.

Costumes Involved

The artistes wear the costumes and ornaments in a similar fashion as that of Kathakali with the conspicuous difference only in the language and rhythmic pattern of the song written in chaste Sanskrit. The costumes are multicolored adorned with gold ornaments.

Each character in Krishnattam is identified with a particular type of costume and makeup. There are basically 5 types of makeup involved namely 'pachha,' 'kathi,' 'pazhuppu' and 'minukku & kari (black).' The 'pachha' (green) makeup is done on the main characters like 'Vasudeva,' 'Kamsa,' 'Nandagopa,' 'Uddhava,' 'Krishna,' 'Arjuna,' 'Jarasandha,' and 'Sisupala.' The 'kathi' makeup is done on the evil characters but kingly characters. The 'pazhuppu' (orange) makeup adorns Balarama, Bhima and Shiva. The female characters feature the 'minukku' makeup. The pachha, kathi makeup style along with the main female characters wear the 'chutti,' which is a rim made from rice flour, usually extending from the lower jaws to the forehead.

Krishnattam is marked by its extensive use of masks made from wood, each suiting a particular character. There is also use of props in the performance.


Kelikottu is the first event of the play. Kelikottu is carried out by playing drums (maddalams), gong (chengala) and cymbals (elathalam) in the evening at the East Nada of the temple. This is to inform the people in the neighborhood about the performance scheduled in the night. A lamp is lit in the makeup room at dusk. Actors (all males) put on their makeup, sitting on the floor, around another lamp lighted from the lamp in the makeup room.

As soon as the daily rituals of the temple are completed and the Sanctum Sanctorum is closed for the day (about 10 to 10.30 p.m.), the Kali Vilakku (An Oil Lamp of the Play) is kept in front of performance space in the Temple on the North side of the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Kali Vilakku is lit by a Brahmin from the lamp in the makeup room. Stage hands place the musical instruments (drums, gong and cymbals) on the ground behind the Kali Vilakku. The Maddalam players touch them respectfully, lift them up, play a couple of beats on both sides to regulate the sound and hang the instruments around their waists. Then Kelikkayyu is performed using Maddalams, Chengala and Elathalam.

After Kelikkayyu, a colourful rectangular screen is held behind Kali Vilakku by two stage hands. Then Totayam is performed behind the screen by the women characters appearing on that day's play. Totayam is a prayer dance performed by the dancers accompanied by music to invoke the blessings of the lord. Totayam is not for the spectators. For Totayam, the lines starting with Narayana Narakanthaka Narakaparayana in the fifth padam of the play Kaliyamardanam are sung.

All performances begin with the recital of the sloka starting with Souvarnatbhuta as the mangala sloka (auspicious beginning).

After Totayam it is time for Purappatu, a piece of pure dance choreography. Either Krishna or Balarama or both, or along with other characters, dance with gestures of hand and face and special steps. In Avataram, the first scene (Brahma and Bhoomidevi) is considered as Purappatu. In other plays, the scene in which either Krishna or Balarama or both appear first on stage is considered as Purappatu. In Kamsavadham, Purappatu is in the middle of the play. In Vividhavadham, there are two Purappatu, first in the beginning (Balarama and wives) and the other after some time (Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna). In Swargarohanam, there is no Purappatu.

In the performance the dancers use an elaborate set of gestures and movements. The dancer expresses himself through these elaborate movements and gestures. The dances are usually performed by a group of artistes instead of solo performers. The music is usually sung by singers and each line is repeated several times to give the artists ample time to express themselves as vividly as they can.

(Krishnattam art form happens inside the sanctum of Guruvayur temple so don't miss the rare opportunity when it is happening in Singapore)

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