Yatrakali is differently known as Samghakkali, Chattira Ankam, Sastramkam, Kshatramkam, Panemkali. It is an art of the Nambootiris which had socio-political aspects at the time when it was conceived and later evolved as a performance form. It is believed that the formation of the art was related to a period when the Nambootiris were persecuted under the rule of one of the Cheraman Perumals who accepted the Buddhist faith.
This art had been conceived as a loosely knit dramatic form in which many dance, music and dramatic pieces were woven together. It was a mirror held against the artistic and social sense of the region and the times. Elements of many popular forms of dance and music were incorporated into this art either in their transformed or real forms. The boat songs, Tiruvathira songs and dance, Kurathiattam, Mohinipurappadu are some of the musical and dance pieces adapted for this.
There are many rituals in this ritualistic pseudo dramatic form like 'Kottichakam pookal' (the arrival of the participants), 'Kazhchakkottu' (playing of percussion instruments during the meals at noon), 'Nalupadam' (a song consisting of four sections or stanzas) sung in the performance space in front of an oil lamp with four lighted wicks (its purpose being the success of the performance), 'Pana' (a ritual reminiscent of the wide defence preparations in the country against enemies by establishing many Kalaris in which martial training was imported) and 'Ayudhameduppu' (a performance showing the preparation for war to instigate the people to join the militia).
Pana, the most important event is the dramatic entry of a character named 'Ittikkandappan'. He is supposed to be a sycophant of the ruler responsible for giving all wrong advice. This character is a butt of ridicule in the play and is portrayed as a feudal chief of notoriety and wickedness. He makes his entry by singing and dancing as in the case of any traditional Indian folk play. Then the musicians ask questions and he replies. The lengthy opening dialogues reveal the feudal arrogance of the character and the popular contempt for his demeanour.
The talented Nambootiris were the artists who enacted this play and it is used to be performed in feudal household ceremonies like marriage, death anniversary etc. The most significant aspect of the art is its reference to the emergence of the Nambootiris as a military community at least for some time in the cultural scene of Kerala.
Yatrakali represents the victory of the Nambootiris. The word Yatra probably signifies this march. The name Chattira Ankam also was attributed to this art only due to its relation to the Ankam or fight. The fight was displayed as part of the performance of Yatrakali and this part was the Ayudhameduppu or assuming of weapons. The Sangham or group also signifies according to the scholars, the warrior group of the feudal period. 'Kali' or the play came in only when the old ankam was re-enacted as a mock performance.