Patayani is a ritualistic dance, which literally means an array of common people. Patayani involves many powerful themes of esoteric appeal. The whole village activity corporate in this popular art. The figures in Patayani consists of Pisachu, Kali, Karakkura, Pillatini, Bhairavi, Kalan etc. The masks are painted with a grotesque surrealistic touch. The round eyes and the triangular ears and abnormal size of the head gear give a touch of super human dimension.
Pillatini literally means one who devours. In the song accompanying the dance a child is described as dwelling the blue mountains top from where she is invoked by the chanting of meaningless syllables and with burning torches (making them blaze by throwing of a powder). The spirit is supposed to descend from the heights and occupy the painted mask of sheath worn by the dancer. This Kolam is called 'Pillatini' because its main action is pouncing on a symbolic child with a cannibalistic hunger. This Kolam is danced as a ritual to ward off evil eye on a family or its off springs. Kalan Kolam is another variety in the Patayani with black colour predominating the facial make up of the dancer. Kalan is the god of death. The Kolam appears as the symbol of time and shows how the human soul (in the epic theme of Markandeya) is chased by Yamadharma. The narrative of the story tells about a Brahmin who had no children. He performed penance to Lord Shiva who asked the Brahmin whether he wanted a child with little intelligence who would live for a hundred years or one who was highly intelligent but would have a short life. The Brahmin asked for a great and glorious child. This is how Markandeya was born. He was destined to live for sixteen years only. When his sixteenth year came Markandeya started rigorous penance. When Yama visited him, he embraced the Sivalinga so that Yama could not take him away without involving the Sivalinga also. While Yama tried to take the life of the boy Shiva opened his third eye and Yama was turned to ashes. This drama is enacted in Kalan Kolam. The character of Shiva is not represented as such. The last moments of the pangs of death of the god of death form a dramatic sequence. The actor rushed into the crowd and creates in the congregation a sense of contact with the invisible world, people move away in awe. Sometimes the Kolam snatches away a boy from the crowd signifying the hunt of Markandeya. In a subtle way, the same actor enacts the chaser and the chased suggesting the unending drama of life and death. There also emerges a third concept of 'Kala Kala' the supreme custodian of time or the destroyer of the destroyer. The great cosmic dancer, Shiva is symbolized in the ritual and the Kolam is also known as 'Kalari' or the enemy of Kala.
Kala is defeated by Kala Kala who ultimately subjects himself to extreme suffering, struggles hard and collapses only to be awakened to resume the drama of chase. Lord Shiva again comes to bring back Yama to real life.
Patayani is associated with the Devi (goddess) temples of Central Travancore area. At least in a dozen village temples the art finds its existence, with the active corporation of the villagers who share the ritual experience and the responsibilities. The Velan (the sorcerer) plays on his percussion instrument 'Para' when the areca tree is uprooted and ceremoniously placed at the temple premises as the flagstaff of the festival for 28 days which has to conclude on the 'Bharani' day in the month of Meenam. The 'Velichappadu' who is from the Nayar caste gets possessed and dances to the rhythm of the Para and officiates the ritual of uprooting and placing the flagstaff with the help of the villagers. The Mannan (village washerman) who is also in charge of plucking coconuts supplies the areca sheaths and other materials with which the masks are made. The Kaniyan paints the masks. On the next day of the flag hosting ceremony, the villagers assemble in the temple around 10 in the night with lighted torches and go thrice around the shrine articulating meaningless syllables meant for invoking the subordinate spirits who pay homage to the main deity. This is technically called 'Chuttupatayani' or Patayani with torches. This process continue for 18 days. On the 19th day the villagers reach the temple in procession singing boat songs in group in a rhythm peculiar to the rowing of a country boat. In front of the temple before a lighted lamp the neighbouring villagers conduct a group dance called 'Kappoli' as a gesture of corporation to the celebrations. In dancing they show a number of acrobatic martial feat accompanied by singing. The first item proper in the series is 'Tavati' in which six to seven experts dance the basic rhythms of Patayani to the accompaniment of the drum called 'Tappu' a round wooden instrument covered with thick hide.