The Zamurin, Manavedan (1595-1658AD), after his darshan of the Lord Sri Guruvayurappan (Sreekrishna), composed his classic “KRISHANAGEETHI ” in eight chapters, in the style of Jayadeva’s (12th century Bengali poet ) GEETHAGOVINDAM. The Krishnanattam (a mosaic of folk and classic arts), a dance drama, has evolved from this Krishnageethi over 300 years ago. This work deals with the Krishna avatar – from Krishna’s birth to his final emancipation from worldly life and ascension to heaven. It is presented in 8 episodes namely ‘Avatharam’, ‘Kaliyamardhanam’, ‘Rasakreeda’, ‘Kamsavaddham’. ‘Swayamvaram’, ‘Banayuddham’, ‘Vividha vadham’, and “Swargarohana”. These episodes are presented on eight consecutive nights. Since the last story is considered inauspicious, the “Avathara ” always follows “Swargarohana” and it will be enacted on the ninth day.
To improve the art further and make it more spectator oriented, Koodiyattam, the oldest Sanskrit drama in Kerala was adopted to render the poem with ‘Abhinayam’ (drama gestures), and thus Krishnanattam evolved. It also used makeup and costumes of “Koodiyattam”.
The Krishnanattam is the only classical dance form in Kerala which makes use of colourful masks for evil characters. The mask usage is derived from folk rituals such as ‘Thirayattam’ and ‘Theyyam’ which is found in North Kerala. In Krishnanattam the actor does not narrate but gives attention to abhinayam (bodily gestures and expressions) and angya (hand gestures). Another artist does singing and thus there is a blend of sounds and sight. Kathakali which is now internationally known owes much to Koodiyattam and Krishnanattam. Kathakali adopted body movements and hand gestures from Koodiyattam. It borrowed the make up and costumes from Krishnanattam. The practice of having separate singers during play was also adopted from Krishnanattam instead. The Edakka, a soft and small drum, capable of deep resonance is used in Krishnanattam where as Chenda (Drum), which is a leading instrument in Kathakali. Suddha Maddhalam and cymbals , Gong, and Shankh (conch) and Thoppimaddalam are also used in Krishnanattam.
Oral traditions say that only Namboodiri Brahmins, Iyer Brahmin, Ambalavasi (temple resident) or Nairs can be dancers in Krishnanattam. The songs are set to Carnatic music but they are rendered in the Sopana style. Moods in a song determine the mode of the melody, what the singers sing is communicated by the actors. Kerala’s martial art , Kalaripayattu , has also definitely influenced Krishnanattam especially in the scenes of arguments and fights.