Kerala developed its own characteristic folk arts from very early days. The primitive folk songs and dances practiced by the ancient people to the accompaniment of instrumental music praised the deities of the forest and hills. The ordinary activities of the people in the field of agriculture also formed the subject matter of early folk dances. With the rise of Hindu religion and culture, stories of Rama and Krishna also became themes of folk dances.
We have today in Kerala a rich variety of folk arts. Most of them come under the religious group and are ritualistic in character. The ritual dances are staged primarily in `Bhagavati temple’ with a view to propitiating the diety. The Theyyam Thullal or Theyyattam of the erstwhile North Malabar area is unique among the ritual dances of South India. The Tukkam which is performed as Vow in Bhagavati temples in the erstwhile Travancore area is a typical folk art which is ritualistic in character. The Bhadrakalipattu which commemorates the killing of Darika by Kali is performed in special temples or in the homes of Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Two highlights of this dance are `Kalamezhuttu’ and `Tiyyattam’. There serpent dance called Pampu Tullal in the south and `Nagakanni’ in the north is connected with the Naga cult -Snake worshiping cult. The Ayyappan Pattu which is performed during the season of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is also a typical folk art of Kerala. The Mudiyattam Kali’ is a kind of folk dance in which female participants unlock their hair and engage themselves in frantic dancing to the accompaniment of folk songs. There are also a variety of other Hindu folk art forms known by such different names as `Kumbha Nritham’, `Arjuna Nritham’, `Pampatti Nritham’, `Kuthottam’, `Gandhar van-paattu’, `Kakkarassi Natakam’ etc in different parts of Kerala.
The `Aravanakali’ of the Muslims seen in Kondotti – near Kozhikode – area was imported from the Persian Gulf area. The Duffu Muttu’ is another folk play of the Muslims which involves singing and beating of drums. Some of the peculiar folk arts developed by the lower castes is also unique. A dance called Kuravankali is prevalent among the Kuravas in the Central Travancore region.
There are certain typical festivities associated with temple festivals in Kerala which enables us to have an insight into the folkways. Some of these may appear rather unusual and strange, but have become an integral part of the folk culture of Kerala. Mavilamkavu near Kannur bears witness to two strange observances. One is `Ati or Tallu’ (beating) when specially trained people array themselves and engage themselves in a free exchange of blows. The other is `Tikkal or pushing which presents an unusual sight while Talappoli, (ceremonial carrying of lamps) in all other temples is a women’s affair, in the `Kottamkulangara’ temple at Karunagappally -near Kollam -men dressed as women are the actors in the show. A peculiar practice noticed among the pilgrims to Kottiyur is that they carry bamboo sticks with them on their return journey and keep them at home with a view to warding off evil spirits.