Art Forms of Karnataka

Art Forms of Karnataka

The southern Indian state of Karnataka  has a rich heritage of art and culture. From time immemorial, the region has been the origin and the culmination ground of Indian classical music and other art forms.

Folk culture has its roots in this state and the art forms have heavily borrowed from them. By utilizing the medium of performing arts artistes, convey the various traditions and customs of a particular community. Narratives and stories from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are also portrayed on stage. The performances are eye-catching because of the colourful and vibrant costumes and associated make up. The narrators also forms an indispensable part of these performances. Further, performing arts have always been a medium to educate people whereby through these art-forms the twin purpose of education and entertainment is achieved.



Yakshagana is a kind of art form that traces its roots in mythology. In Hindu mythology, Yakshas are depicted as demi gods who attend to Kubera. This dance drama elaborately portrays the stories from Holy texts. Yakshagana is a unique combination of dance, drama, dialogues, songs, music and resplendent costumes. This dance drama is performed in open-air theatres where audiences are seated on three sides of the stage. Uttara Kannada District, Shimoga District, Udupi District, Dakshina Kannada District are the places where this dance drama is performed.



TogaluBombeaata is a puppet show that is quite popular in Karnataka. In this ancient art form of Karnataka, leather puppets are used to enact popular scenes from epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. In a world where puppet shows are disappearing fast, this age old art form is quite popular in this southern Indian state. Such shows are performed to ward off the evil powers that bring diseases, epidemics and destroyed crops.



BhoothaAradhane is a ritualistic dance in Karnataka. The origin of this art form can be traced to the coastal parts of Karnataka and Kerala. This is a way of Tulu worship. This form of folk dance is unique to Karnataka. Bhootha in India refers to ghost. The references to these creatures are found in legends and myths. These creatures are Lord Shiva’s attendants and known as BhutaGanas. BhoothaAradhane is an extension of this worship.



Snakes have always mystified people. In India snake is mystically associated with Lord Shiva and is thus considered holy enough to worship. Nagamandala is a folk art of worshipping snakes and is prevalent in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. The beats and movements of the dance are quite attention grabbing. While worshipping the serpent, the dancers try to depict the slithering movement of the snake. This exotic performance is a treat to watch as the dancers are dressed up like serpents. Fear and ignorance about snakes also play a major part in their worship.


Krishna Parijatha

Krishna Parijatha is a folk theatre that illustrates the legends revolving around Lord Krishna and Lord Indra. However, there are many mythological stories connected to Krishna Parijatha but the most popular one is that of Krishna waging war over Indra. This traditional folk theater form revolves around Lord Krishna, and his fight with Indira over the Parijatha treethat came out of existence from the ocean. The entire chain of events is depicted and performed through this dance drama.

Known for their frequent witticisms, they are mostly open-air performances. Simple plots and dialogues, spontaneity of the performers and impromptu improvisations make Krishna Parijata a great attraction to the audiences.



This is a drum dance that is quite popular in Karnataka. DolluKunitha is accompanied by singing. Men of the shepherd community, Kuruba, perform this. Strong acrobatic movements, drumming and synchronization are the features of this performing art. Other than this, there is another ritualistic dance called the Puja Kunitha whereby there are only instruments accompanying very few dancers. Puja Kunitha is, thus, unique in its own way.










BeesuKamsale is a vigorous dance form closely associated with the rituals of MalleMahadeswara worship and employs a great blend of aesthetic sublimity and martial  agility. A cymbal-like disc, the ‘Kamsale’ is played in rhythm with the songs exalting the  glory of the Lord Mahadeswara.


SomanaKunita is a religious, ritualistic dance performed by two or three artists with  elaborate masks. Known as Somas, they were entrusted with the task of guarding the  village deities and also worshipping them. The stories related to the birth of the Somas forms the crux of the performance.



The devotees of Yellama, the patron goddess of the rural folk of North Karnataka, perform ChowdikeMela. ‘Chowdike’, a unique stringed instrument, partners their mesmerizing praise of the Goddess. The singers usually dedicate their entire lives solely to singing the heavenly glory.



This religious dance is performed by the devotees of Shiva, the Hindu God. Attired in fur cap made of bearskin and black and yellow clothing, they sway to the esoteric tunes of the flute and the ‘Damaruga’, a hand-held drum. Accompanying their trance-like movements, are songs handed down through generations, replete with deep mystic meanings.



Veeragase gets its name from the Hindu legendary warrior, Veerabhadra, where dancers narrate the story of Daksha Yajna. Attired in colourful garb and traditional headgear, the dancers carry a wooden plaque of Veerabhadra in their left hand and a sword in their right. The dance sometimes involves a ritualistic piercing of a needle across the tongue.



Ummaattaattu is the traditional dance form of Coorg made famous by the beautiful Kodava women. Adorned in the traditional red brocade Sari, jewellery and red vermilion on the forehead, they dance in circles to the rhythms of hand-held brass cymbals. Accompanied by singing, the dance form – performed to appease Goddess Cauvery – is usually part of festivals, weddings, etc. 


A large percussion instrument made from the wheels of a bullock cart, wrapped with buffalo hides called ‘Jagghalige’ is largely used in this folk art. Usually involving about 15 people, the dancers march to the pulsating beat of the giant drums. JagghaligeKunita is performed during festivals like Ugadi and Holi.

Art Forms of Karnataka


A Harvest festival dance, SuggiKunita is performed mostly by the farming community. Artists in beautiful costumes and wooden headgear adorned with carved birds and flowers dance to the tune of drums with sticks and peacock feathers. They enhance the dance sometimes, by their own signing.

Classical Dance Forms in Karnataka

There are various forms of dances in Karnataka. Bharatanatyam (Mysore), Kuchipudi etc. are the main classical dances of the state of Karnataka. Most of these dances are still learnt by people with great zeal. All these dances have different music, beats, movements, themes and costumes. Some of the biggest names in Indian dance form hail from these schools of dancing.

Music in Karnataka

The main forms of music of Karnataka are Indian and Carnatic Music. Carnatic music traces its origin in Karnataka. The music in Karnataka initially flourished because of the royal patronages.

In the era of monarchy, the artistes received royal patronage and every possible step was taken to encourage and popularize music. At this point of time influences of other cultures led to the formation of Hindustani Classical Music in Modern India. Both these schools of music became equally famous. Today, Karnataka remains an important centre for learning Indian classical music.

The most well-known leaders of Bhakti Movement belonged to Karnataka. With the rise of Vaishnavism and Haridasa (14th century) movements, illustrious composers like PurandaraDasa, Vijaya Dasa, Kanakdasa and others came into being. Their songs had simple lyrics and melodious tunes. These were devotional in nature.

The traditional Guru-Shishya system dates back to ancient India. The teacher would impart musical lessons to its students through “abhyasa” or “riyaaz“. Songs or music was never penned down. It was taught orally. It was said that music is an art which needs aradhana i.e. complete dedication and practice. Only regular practice could make a singer perfect. According to historical sources, classical music began as abhyasa and at a later stage, it developed as shastras. In the 300 B.C. (age of Bharatmuni) the theories concerning music were for the first time written down. The first document was called ‘NaatyaShaastra.’

According to legends, Gopala Nayaka went to the court of Ala-ud-din Khilji, in the Northern India. He befriended the Persian musician, Amir Khusrau. Their discussion led to the development of new Ragas. The amalgamation of cultures led to the development of two ways of singing -Uttaradi and Dakshinadi or Hindustani Music (Hindustani Classical Music in Modern India) and Carnatic Music. The rich heritage of music also owes its development to the Vijayanagar Empire and Woodeyar kingdoms. Young talents were always encouraged by these dynasties.


The Carnatic music has a deep understanding of notes and their relations. Gamaka establishes this relation. To master this art it has to be slowly and steadily cultivated. One of the most popular names that is associated with Carnatic music in Karnataka is that of Tyagaraja, a renowned composer. His music scores viz. TyagarajaGana, ‘ValmikiyaKavana’ and ‘AgumbeyaAstamaya’ are widely known for their melody and excellent music.

Besides him, another person who deserves a mention is Sri PurnadaraDasa. He was a prolific composer who created an epoch in music in Karnataka. Regarded as the Pitamaha of Carnatic music, he had composed about 475,000 compositions (Kirtanas, Uga-bhoga and Suladi) in Kannada language. The rich heritage of Kannada music has also enriched its language and literature.

Karnataka’s rich cultural heritage still continues today with one of the biggest names in classical music belonging to this land. The likes of Basavaraj Rajaguru, PanditMallikarjuna Mansur, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, GangubaiHangal etc. all hail from Karnataka.


Crafts of Karnataka


Crafts of Karnataka have passed on from one generation to the next and bear testimony to the skill, aesthetic sensibilities and decorative abilities of the craftsperson. They have received patronage from the royalty in the past. The crafts of the state include woodcarving, ivory craving, kasuti embroidery, durries, pottery and cheennapatna toys.

The traditional craftsmen in Karnataka includes inlaid rosewood and ebony with ivory work. The doors of Amba Vilas Palace in Mysore, Seringapatnam mausoleum bear ample testimony of this form of craft. The daily use items of the wood inlay item include furniture items, powder boxes, bowls, puja mandaps, wall hangings, etc. The tradition of crafts in Karnataka has been religiously followed through ages.


Traditional Crafts of Karnataka


One of the most popular types of crafts of Karnataka is wood carving. This state has successfully occupied a place of pride in the field of wood carving. Karnataka has a vast forest reserve that provides enough raw materials for this craft. The foremost specimen of wood carving in Karnataka is the ancient temple wood architecture, where wood has been carved finely into sculptures.

Wood carving is a traditional craft of Karnataka which is done on sandalwood and rosewood. This skill requires deftness, as any form of carving should be identified when viewed from any angle. All the items are artistically and realistically sculpted. Mysore’s Gudigar or the wood carving community of Karnataka is known for the carvings on fragrant close-grained Srigandha sandalwood of Karnataka. The designs include carved flowers, creepers, birds and animals etc. The best of sandalwood carving reflects the unique craftsmanship of the artists. The toys of Chennapatna bear ample testimony to the artistic skill of the craftsmen. The range of traditional Chennapatna toys include, cooking vessels although today planes, trams, trucks, rattle etc. are also made.

Khanpur in Belgaum district of Karnataka is known for pottery, which includes large sized containers and jars, for storing food items. The local clay is excellent and a thin variety of pottery has developed with designs embossed on it.



Weavingis a household craft of Karnataka. Cotton sarees are woven in dark earthy colours with heavy maroon or chocolate colours to mark the borders. There are sarees in mat design in white or yellow; or in the rudraksh pattern. The pallu is usually in alterations of white and red hands with mounts at the two ends, woven either in cotton or silk. Irkal is a special sari of the area that is made in rich colours like pomegranate, red, peacock blue, parrot green etc.


Kasuti embroidery

In the world of crafts, the kasuti embroidery of Karnataka has carved a niche for itself and has been widely acclaimed by the connoisseurs of crafts all over the world. The designs of kasuti embroidery can range from architecture to cradles and animal figures. The designs have a feminine angle and are mostly done in two stitches namely, the gavanti line or double running stitch and murgi or the zigzag stitch. Kasuti is essentially used for decorating sarees and blouses and is best when done on thick materials against dark Indian shades.



The durries are marked with intricate design and stunning colours. The designs are usually in geometrical juxtaposition. They are not only in demand within the country but outside as well. The durries are outlined in delicate floral motifs with an occasional bird or animal form added to it. Navalgund in Dharwad district of Karnataka is best known for its colourful durries.

A special type of durrie called sutada is made in the Bijapur district and Dharwad district. They have simple horizontal stripes in different colours. There are special designs, which lend significance to the object.


In the past, Ivory carving was another popular craft form of Karnataka. The different types of crafts of this state wonderfully reveal the royal delicacy as well as efficiency of the craftsmen.


Depending on where you are, you can trace the history of the place, learn about its art forms  and maybe even pick up a new skill. Karnataka has been very fastidious about preserving its heritage and thus has many museums, libraries and foundations dedicated to the art and art forms, which showcase and sustain the cultural heirlooms of this rather illustrious land.


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