Nanniar Koothu is a dance form conducted in some prominent Kerala temples purely as a ceremonial ritual, presented by women only. The Nanniars, who are the womenfolk of the Nambiar community, stage the Nanniar Koothu in a hereditary tradition. The plot of the Nanniar Koothu staged by Nanniars is the story of Srikrishna. It is presented in solo dance style for twelve consecutive days. The nirvahanam by the cheti is performed as Nanniar koothu.
On the first day of the performance of a Nanniar Koothu, nritta (pure dance) is given more importance than abhinaya (acting). The performance begins with a dance called Purvaranga nritta in which many artistic and harmonized movements of the feet and body are shown. No less than 64 charis (rhythmic gaits) were in use in this art form. The Nanniar copy the Maravil Kriya (ritual behind the curtain) dance of Chakyar, who was a veteran acharya of Koothu and add a few charis as an encore for the Purvaranga (preliminary ritual). In the manuscript copy of Nanniar Koothu known as Attaprakaram, there are 208 slokas with details of their acting pattern.
Among the danseuses of ancient Kerala names such as Nangai, Nannai, Nannacci and Talinamma were very common. So it is reasonable to assume that Nanniars were descended from the families of these danseuses or perhaps the Nanniars were descended from the community of the Devadasis of Kerala.
It is in Trichur Vadakkumnatha temple, Ambalapuzha Srikrishna temple, Irinjalakuda Kootalmanikyam temple, Trippunittura Purnatrayeswara temple and Kottayam Kumaranellore Bhagavati temple that Nanniar Koothu is still conducted as a ritual offering though on a nominal scale. In the Vadakkumnatha temple at Trichur and in the Ambalapuzha temple Nanniar Koothu is begun on the day preceding Ashtamirohini day i.e. Sri Krishna's birth day. In the Koodalmanikyam temple at Iringalakuda this Koothu starts in the month of 'Medam' on the star-day 'Uttram' and continues for twelve consecutive days. In the Trippunithura temple this Koothu starts on the Utsava (Festival) day in Chingam month and continues for eight days. Usually the Koothu is held during day time. But on Astami Rohini day the Nanniar Koothu is held at midnight to coincide with the birth. It is also enjoined by the rules of the temple that Krishnavatara must be enacted at that time and not any other story. This custom is not strictly followed now.
Nanniar Koothu is staged in the Koottambalam of temples. But in case of temples having no Koottambalam's, Nanniar Koothu could be conducted in the Oottupura (dining hall). Only on one special occasion can this Koothu be conducted outside the temple precincts. When an Akkittiri (a Brahmin who has Qualified himself to perform yagas) dies and is cremated, Nanniar Koothu is conducted in a temporary shed put up near the burial ground, to ensure purification for the soul of the dead at the place of his cremation and is called Chudala (cremation ground) Koothu. This Koothu is conducted with special care to avoid any blunders for it is widely believed that any short comings would cost the danseuses her life.
In the families known as Villuvattam, Kosampilli, Melatt and Edatt (Nambiar families) there are Nanniras who can conduct Nanniar Koothu. Most of the Nanniars who can handle this art-form now are past sixty years of age. Even among them there is none who can do the whole performance. Most of them can only demonstrate the art from as a ritual. The fact is that for the last many years there has not been any strict training in the art form for lack of encouragement and patronage from temple authorities. This art form with its unique artistic value is on the brink of extinction. The fees for performing Nanniar Koothu is very low and it is a pitiable plight for the artistes engaged in this art form.