A form of ritual performance involving dance and theatre, padayani is performed in Devi temples in the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta in Kerala, generally in honour of the goddess Kali. The performers take on the role of kolams (characters represented through masks or effigies) representing animals, ritual objects and supernatural entities. Performers wear painted masks, headdresses and breast shields except in the region of Neelamperoor, where effigies are used to represent characters instead. Padayani performances typically take place over about twenty-eight days in the months of January and February.
The term ‘padayani’ is possibly derived from the Malayalam word padeni, which refers to military formations. Various legends relate the origins of these performances, generally tied to the Puranic Darikavadham legend, the slaying of the demon Darika by Kali. Following the slaying, the rampaging Kali is said to have made her way to Mount Kailash, Shiva’s abode. In order to calm the goddess, a procession of kolams were supposedly performed before her. A different version of this myth credits Skanda or Kartikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati, with appeasing Kali by drawing humorous drawings (also known as kolams) on the ground. Both the kolam characters and the drawings figures are believed to be reflected in the elaborate masks and headdresses that characterise padayani performances. Another possible origin for padayani is from the ritualistic dance and exorcism called Kolam Thullal, performed by shamans from the Ganaka community in north Kerala.
Padayani performances typically draw participation from various caste groups within a village. The performances involve the use of a tappu (percussion instrument), accompanied by devotional songs in Malayalam. The dances involve either group or solo performances, and are highly energetic. Performers often collapse towards the end of their routines.
Padayani may be of different kinds depending on the character represented or on the area it is being performed in. Examples of these performances include Bhairavi padayani, Yaksha padayani, Sundara padayani, Pakshi padayani, and Ganapati padayani. Three days before the festival begins, a fire is ritually lit in the temple courtyard where the performance is to take place. The fire is believed to represent Kali, and stays lit throughout the festival. This is followed by dances such as the Kudampooja Kali, wherein the dancers move around the campfire in circles; Thotakali where two rows of performers weave a piece of white cloth during the dance; and Velakali which involves the dancers carrying velapiller (small human figures) while dancing to the songs.
Today, padayani is among Kerala’s most popular performance styles. Despite its association with long temple-related festivals, some contemporary performances take place within a day. In 2010, a padayani village was established at Kadammanitta, historically a major centre of padayani performances, with museums and tourist facilities to promote the form.
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