Among the classical performing arts of Kerala, Thullal is distinct with its simplicity of presentation and its frank, outspoken wit and humour. The songs are in simple Malayalam and the techniques employed in this art are not rigid, though they are based on the classical principles of Naatya Saastra, a treatise on art originating in the 2nd century B.C. it is said to have been a modification of Koothu.  
The word Thullal belongs to the Dravidian family of languages and literally means jumping, this however can be extended to mean to ‘to leap about’ or to ‘cut a caper’.
Thullal is also a genre of poetry in Malayalam. It is significant that the work is composed in metres that later became the norm for Thullal poetry. This seems to indicate that the songs for Thullal dance, at least in their structure, took their inspiration from a model that was already available. Though the Thullal dance, as we know it, came into existence less than 200years ago, the roots of its verbal component can well be traced to at least one century earlier.
Thullal is said to have been organized by Kunjan Nambiar, a veritable genius and one of the foremost poets of Kerala. Oral history records that Kunjan Nambiar accompanied the Chaakiaars on the drums when they performed their heredictary occupation of dance and drama. One day, during a temple festival, when Kunjan Nambiar was playing the drum for a Chaakiaar, he made a mistake. This incensed the Chaakiaar so much that he publicly took him to task. Crestfallen, Nambiar quietly left. Seething inwardly with anger however, he returned the following day when the same Chaakiaar was performing. Altired in a manner that itself was enough to attract attention, he presently began to sing and dance. In no time the audience turned around only to lose itself in Nambiar’s antics, leaving the Chaakiaar without spectators.
The story Kunjan Nambiar presented was a familiar one, the Kalyaanasaugandhikam from the Mahabhaaratha, but he clothed it with his own words. The Chaakiaar momentarity defeated, was silent, but later took his revenge by persuading the ruler, the Raja of Ambalapuzha, to forbid Kunjan Nambiar from performing or visiting there again.
There are three different types of Thullal, classified according to the metre and rhythm of the songs sung in each one and the differences in constume and dance. They are Ottan Thullal, Seethankan Thullal and Parayan Thullal.
The precise interpretation of the labels Seethankan, Parayan and Ottan is not clear, but the difference in the styles relates mainly to the metre of the poetry, the place of the singing, and the costume and adornment of the performer.
Kunjan Nambiar, for his inspiration, turned to legend and mythology but gave to each story or episode a totally contemporary slant. He took figures from the Raamaayana and Mahabhaarata, the Bhaagavatham and other Puraanas and exposed them to the modes and mores of the society of his time. He was a poet of the soil who, through the expedient of wit and satire, ruthlessly laid bare the hypocrisy that he saw around him in everyday life. Making no effort to deliver a message or spell out a moral, he was content to present the picture as he saw it, and left it to his audience to react as they wished. He excelled in fusing reality with fantasy and made his characters appear totally valid to the scenario of his time. To this day, Nambiar remains the unquestioned master of the this art.
Thullal is conceived as a solo dance. The dancers is supported by two musicians, who stand a little behind him. One of them plays the maddalam, a drum, and the other, small cymbals. Both musicians are also expected to sing along with the dancer. No stage or any other from of formal arrangement is required for the performance, which can be held with equal facility in the compound of a temple or the coutyard of a house. Unlike Kathakali and Koodiyaattam, Thullal uses no curtain for entries, exists or scenes, nor is there a formal seating arrangement. As is the practice with all of Kerala’s performing arts a lighted bell metal lamp is installed in the front of the dancer, even if the performance is held during the day. Though not strictly observed now, Parayan Thullal was generally presented in the forenoon, Seethankan in the afternoon, and Ottan after dusk.
The player sings a verse and while the lines are repeated by his musical assistant, he brings out the meaning through facial expressions, hand gestures and bodily postures. The roler of the raconteur and actor are perpetually interchanged with tremendous aesthetic effect. In one moment he is the narrator, but in the next he completely identifies himself with the narration.
In Thullal the primary importance is attributed to dance. Thoughout the performance the dance element predominates but lacks variety. In order to avoid monotony, the dancer executes some vigorous foot steps and rhythmic movement of the body.
Thullal presentations generally last for two hours and are rendered at a pitch and pace that keep on lookers thoroughly gripped. The dancer dances and sings simultaneously and this entails a long period of rigorous training, an agile body and a communicative voice. The dancer must also be gifted with a sharp memory, for he must remember long poems, some of which have over 1,000 couplets. Once memorized, it is left to the dancer’s discretion what to take from a poem, he must link lines and relate them to this theme in order to convey the literal meaning as well as his own interpretation of each poem.
The emotions pertain mainly to valour, humour, pathos, anger and devotion. Sringaara, the erotic element, is virtually absent, but is rarely missed, for the burden of the songs and the nature of the dance are hardly conducive to tender passions.
Whilst the style of dancing, singing and presentations is common to the three types of Thullal, each has its own distinctive costumes and ornaments.
The songs and dance in this form of thullal are slower than Ottan thullal in metre and rhythm and in tempo. The dancer uses a piece of black cloth tied tightly round the head and this is circled with a band of tender, palm leaves giving the impression of a crown. Ornaments representing the full-blown lotus, made once more of palm leaf, adorn the upper arms and wrists, ankle belts, and the feet. The chest is covered with a profusion of bead necklaces and over this is tied a cross-belt. A red cloth is draped round the waist and a long length of white cloth, rather like a bandage, is looped again and again around a waist-string and fixed above this.
Parayan Thullal
This is the slowest in tempo among the three thullals. Even the stance and posture of the performer is different from that of the two thullals. In this, the dancer stays erect and explains the meaning of the songs by gestures. There is very little dance element as well as action.
The dancer wears a conical crown that is topped with the hood of a serpent. The eyes are boldly coutlined in black to heighten their expression and the body is anointed with sandal paste. The legs are covered with a red cloth over which is tied a white cloth that falls down to the knees. Necklaces and ankle-bells, as in the case of Seethankan, complete the outfit.
Ottan Thullal
This is the most popular among the Thullals. In this performance, the actor wears a long tape of cloth of white and red colour looped around a waist – string to form a knee – length skirt. A chest plate adorned by various types of coloured beads, glass and tinsel, and other ornaments are used. Wooden bangles painted with bright colours are worn on the wrist and wooden ornaments are worn on the shoulders. Tinkling bells are tied to the legs just above the calf. A black cloth is tied round the head and over this is worn a very decorative crown representing a many- headed serpent. The real distinguishing feature of Ottan Thullal is the painting of the face. This is done as in the paccha type Kathakali make-up, and accentuated with a bold white line running around it. The lips are reddened, the eyes and eyebrows thickly blackened, and a caste mark is added to the centre of the brow. The metre and rhythm of Ottan thullal songs are fastpaced and the dance too has a high tempo.
In a presentation, the Thullal dancers abides by a set sequence of preliminaries before beginning the actual performance. These carry names such as Mannarang, Ganapathi, Pallivattam and Bhoopathi and are all items of decorative dance with a lot of footwork and no symbolic meaning to convey. The steps and movemnts are unique to each piece. The purpose is similar to the Todayam of Kathakali, but unlike the latter, singing is absent. The opening, Mannarang, is danced with the performer’s back to the audience, and it is only after completing this that he faces them. After this he begins the dance, prefaced with a Shloka from the scriptures. Another Shloka is offered at the conclusion of the performance.
The style of singing in Thullal follows the raga and tala prescribed by Kunjan Nambiaar. Though distinctive, employ Chaste Carnatic ragas. These include common ones like the Bilaahari, Shankaraabharanam Kaambhoji, Naattakurunji, Mohanam, Aanandabhairavi and Punnagavaraali, and also some rare and practically defunct modes like the Indisa and Indolam. The thaala, or rhythmic component, too, is varied and on occasions a single presentation may utilize a garland or medley of thaalams. All this indicates Kunjan Nambiar’s great facility and familiarity with the intricacies of music.
Being an art of commucation, Thullal too, makes use of the gesture –language. Hand gestures are employed to support facial expression, and though these follow the traditions of Koodiyaattam and Kathakali, they appear in a very elementary and sketchy manner. As in all of Kerala’s evolved theatre forms, these are taken from the Harsha Lakshanadeepika. It is however vaachika or the word – spoken or sung -that permeates Thullal.
After Kunjan Nambiaar, thullal poetry was attempted by some other poets and today there are over 100 pieces in the tradition. Inspite of this, no more than ten thullals, all of them by Kunjan Nambiar, can be said to have stood the test of time by continuing to be favourites with performers and audiences alike.