Velakali – the martial art-cum-dance from Kerala is an amazing spectacle where hundreds of male artistes perform some stunning body movements in sync with traditional drum beats.
Legend of Velakali
Just like Kalaripayattu, another famous martial art form of Kerala, Velakali is also an ancient art form. Traditionally it is performed at annual festivals in Lord Krishna temples. It represents the famous war of Mahabharata that happened between the cousins Pandavas and Kauravas.
According to a mythological legend, the famous sage Narada saw young Lord Krishna play mock war games with his friends using stalks and leaves as swords and shields. Narada got impressed and requested sage Vilvamangalam to create Krishna’s moves into a martial art form. Thus Velakali was created and passed down to the king of Chempakasseri. It eventually went to the family of the Chempakasseri army chieftain Mathoor Panicker.
The All-Male martial dance form
Velakali is all-male performance art and it requires rigorous training to become a performer. The martial art is performed in Krishna temples where the Velakali performers take role as warriors in war of Mahabharata. They dress up like a medieval soldier wearing traditional apparel and head gears. They sway to beats of local percussion instruments like maddalam, thavil, ilathalam, kombu and kuzhal. Velakali performers use long sticks and shields as they perform well-choreographed steps. The emphasis in the performance is on taal or the beats, as there are no lyrics of emotions or feelings to depict. The purpose of Velakali is to signify the victory of truth over dishonesty and betrayal. The Velakali warriors represent Kauravas, who are on path to destroy their righteous cousins Pandavas, but eventually have to face defeat.
Velakali is performed in many temples of Central Kerala. While the one at Ambalappuzha is most famous, it is also performed at the annual festival at the ancient Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. At the Padmanabahaswamy Temple effigies of the Pandava brothers are also built and the Velakali performers try to destroy it in vain. It is a spectacular sight when 50 to 100 Velakali performers stamp the sticks and shields synchronised with the drum beats. The performers mostly perform in the temple courtyards and sometimes participate in processions as well.
Keeping the Velakali art alive
Velakali requires that the performers be physically fit and undergo rigorous training. In bygone era, the martial art was performed by king’s soldiers mainly youth from the Nair community, but with the kingdoms gone, the art too started to lose its lustre.
The family of the army chieftain of Chempakasseri Mathoor Panicker has taken upon themselves to keep the art alive. In recent times late Mohanankunju Panicker brought in awareness about it and taught many young men to perform the martial art. Mohanankunju was a recipient of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi Award and the Kerala Folklore Academy award for his passion to revive the art form. Interestingly, in 2011 Velakali performance was staged at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple after a gap of 40 years.
Now Mohanankunju’s son Rajiv is carrying on the legacy forward. He conducts workshops for young men to learn Velakali throughout the year. During the festival season they undergo regular practice and perform in temples. Besides temple performances, Velakali performers are now also invited to perform on various other platforms to represent the culture of Kerala. The efforts of the Panicker family and the patronage of the people of Kerala is keeping Velakali alive and thriving.