Folk Forms of Karnataka


Drishti has been a dedicated endeavour in promoting and documenting some of the finest forms of dance and music.

Apart from possessing a great legacy of classical dance and classical music, Karnataka is home to innumerable and exquisite folk forms. Spread across the state, these distinctly unique forms continue to evolve and represent the cultural identity and regional flavour of their origin. The reforms that swept through the classical styles in the early 19th century did not affect these indigenous folk styles which have essentially remained the same.

Sadly though, without enough patronage and media exposure, many forms are on their way to extinction today. Fewer and fewer youngsters are interested in learning or propagating these very native styles. If you were to ask a youngster today to name a few folk styles, they would probably answer Dandiya or Bhangra (thanks to the film fraternity!) but very few can think of anything beyond Kolaata. This is heartbreaking as Karnataka has over thirty main styles and innumerable variations – one of the largest variety of folk styles in India.

Geographical and cultural variety has found representation in Karnataka’s amazing variety and range of folk styles and forms. The state has plains, valleys, a coastal belt and hilly terrain. Such natural resources inspire a variety of cultural developments.

Historically, the region has been a cradle for several flourishing religions. Religious ceremonies have been the starting point of most styles. Various social, religious, economical and geographical factors have blended harmoniously to create a haven of folk forms. The practitioners, today, face extreme difficulties in earning their living. They need encouragement and support in terms of infrastructure, finance and patronage.

This series of articles is an earnest effort to familiarize and popularize some of the folk forms. The articles will provide a brief insight into the origin of the forms, their attire and music and highlight the artistry and how generation have been preserving and passing on their identity.

This article gives a general introduction to the variety of styles found in Karnataka.


It is rather difficult to arrive at a distinct definition of folk forms. Sociologists and anthropologists define a folk form as a “evolved practice or presentation that could be dance, music, theatre or ritual based. It depicts the social, religious and economical status of the selected population. Folk forms are inspired by their geographical features, natural history and the evolution of their culture, be it written or unwritten.”

Folk forms are passed on orally, from generation to generation, and are very rarely documented on paper. Most folk artists are unlettered but the magic is in their brilliant, raw and energetic skills. The presentations can involve a group of performers, or several groups of performers. One man may lead a group, but solo performers are seldom seen.


On a broad basis, folk forms are a celebration of three main aspects: prosperity, fertility and the triumph of good over evil. For instance, Suggi Kunitha celebrates the harvest season. The dancers thank the Lord, seek his protection for the bounty and for ensuring prosperity for all. Karaga and Umatatta are symbolic worship of women, that is, worship of fertility. The victory of Lord Shiva over evil is celebrated by recounting the episode of Veera-bhadra in Veeragaase.

Many folk forms started as a result of religious and social practices. Bhootha Kunitha is religious in nature, as it is a salutation to celestial spirits. It is done to please and win over their favour (good crops) and wealth.

Most folk forms are always performed around or with fire. As the discovery of fire was a milestone in the evolution of man, it became mandatory to respect this phenomenon. Such causes are not relevant today, but in lighting the lamp during poojas and festivals, a symbolic representation assuring prosperity is made.

Over a period of time, the values attached to these forms were lost and the art forms began to evolve and flourish. On the other hand some forms started as a revolt against traditional establishments.


As very little work has been done in terms of codification, there are few references available to base these classifications on. These divisions apply to Indian forms in general too. On a very broad scale there are only two divisions – Dhaarmika or Loukika, Dhaarmika when it is ritualistic or based on social circumstances, and Loukika when it is professional and entertaining in nature.

They can be however classified on several bases; some are mentioned here briefly.

Based on content

  1. Ritualistic
  2. Religious
  3. Moralistic/didactic
  4. Martial
  5. Tribal
  6. Theatre-based
  7. Entertainment Based
  8. Agriculture-based
  9. Professional
  10. Nomadic

Based on prominence

  1. Dance
  2. Song
  3. Instruments
  4. Performance

Janapada Nrutya, Vaadya Sangeetha and Kale are interwoven. It is just that in a given style, one aspect becomes important. For instance, in Chit Mela, the music of the folk instruments is the soul of the folk form, not movement or attire.

Based on region

  1. Coastal belt (Karavali)
  2. Hilly terrain (Malenadu)
  3. Plains (Bayalu Seeme)

Dance forms from these regions are very distinct, characteristic of the region they are from. Costumes are colourful in hilly terrains, but loud instruments are found in the plains and so on.


One of the most striking features in our folk dances is that men and women do not mingle and dance together, especially in the plains. Although some hilly terrain styles, particularly of the tribal sects such as Kudiyas, Yaravas, Siddhis and Kunabhis, allow the genders to mix, few such forms are surviving today. Folk forms performed exclusively by women are scanty compared to the large number of styles performed by men. Most of the women-based forms have musical orientation than dance as such.


A rich tapestry of colours and a wide variety of textures wrap the folk styles. The costumes again are inspired by nature and are, sometimes, drastically opposite to their natural setting to break the monotony of the geographical surroundings. The Hallaki Vokkaligas from Uttara Karnataka wear a multi-colored flower-like headgear to mimic the local scenery that is rich with flora. Bhootha Kunitha from Mangalore uses elaborate and massive attire made entirely of coconut leaves abundantly available there.

Unlike classical dances, there is no established code that most dancers adhere to. Here the same form can have many variations depending upon the local conditions.


Colourful texture, rhythm and patterns may be found in other states too. But what sets Karnataka apart is the brilliant range of properties that are used here. No other state can claim all these variations – be it the long poles of Patada Kunitha, the mesmerizing drums of Dollu Kunitha, the huge masks of Somana Kunitha, or the pooje of the Pooje Kunitha and the kalashas of Karaga.


The rhythm patterns are foot tapping and get the adrenalin pumping. Most folk forms use the Tamate – a percussion instrument made of animal skin. Be it the Chande or the Kanjira, each instrument is unique and adds to the overall presentation.

The concept of Taala as in classical music is ignored; the beats are repetitive sets for 8, 12, 16 or, sometimes, 17 counts. In fact the music will change according to the lead performer who takes the whole group through the performance.

The hilly terrain folk use pleasant, soothing instruments, while in the plains loud drums and fierce trumpets are used. The quick turns and twirls that are typical of Coorgi (Kodavas) dance imitate the uneven mountain terrain; their quick patterns are based on animal movements. The songs and rhythms of the Karavali dances are like the sounds of the ocean, sometimes soft and soothing, sometimes harsh and violent.

Most forms have instruments for percussion and melody. Folk instruments are unique too. They are made by the artists themselves, often passed on from generation to generation. Mukha Veene, Maddale and group singing are common in the plains. Chande, Maddale and solo singers are seen in the Karavali forms.


There are several theatre-based forms found only in Karnataka. They are very elaborate and form a complete genre by themselves. Yakshagaana, Togalu Bombeyatta and Bayalaata are some theatre-based forms performed overnight.

Be it the Patada Kunitha, Somana Kunitha, Jade Kolaata, Pooje Kunitha, Goravara Kunitha, Kamsale, Veeragaase, Umatatta, Dollu Kunitha, Suggi Kunitha, or Bhootha Kunitha, these dances are unique visual treats. The folk dancers of our country are not recognized and glorified like other dancers. But to this day they continue to perform, for they simply have to. To them, art is a part of their daily life. They do it for the love of it.


Karnataka Janapada Kalegala Kosha. Compiled by H. G. Borlingaya, Kannada University, Hampi.

Folk Dances. Ashish Mohan Khokar

About the author

Sneha Nandagopal who is a counselling psychologist by vocation has been trained in Bharatanatyam by Guru Bhanumathi. An accomplished dancer and choreographer, she has choreographed several dances for reputed institutes and cultural festivals in the state. She has the distinction of training in several folk forms directly from various regional artists. She is working for the promotion and conservation of folk dance forms.