The theater art in Kerela developed in the late nineteenth century. In its earliest form, the theater saw the development of famous arts of Kootiyattam and Kakkarissi Natakam. Kootiyattam was meant for the learned people while Kakkarissi was a major folk art of the state. Theater in Kerela also flourished with the advent of Christian theaters which were popularized by the Kerela Christians. The plays that were played at that time were based on Christian themes like the Old Testament, Charlemagne's History, and lives of numerous saints.
Attention to the theater art was drawn by the Malayalam translation of the famous Kalidasa epic "Shakuntala" by Vaila Koyil. This first translation led to an array of other translation works from Sanskrit and soon the theater in Kerela flourished with the countless number of acts, dramas and plays that attracted the audience by their classical appeal. The period also saw the adaptation of a number of English lays, particularly that of Shakespeare. Varghese Mappilai borrowed the theme of Taming of the Shrew, a renowned Shakespearean play. The dramas of Sheridan found their manifestation in the plays of the novelist Raman Pillai. The satirical works of Krishna Pillai paved the way for the further development of theater in many forms.
With the advent of modern theater movement, works of several progressive writers found a way to penetrate in Kerela's artistic culture. As the play Ningalenne Kammunistakki opened in Malayalam theaters, a new era of theater in Kerela was heralded. The popular modernist plays like Crime 27 and Avan Vintum Varunnu saw the light of the day by the efforts of C. Thomas. Further adaptations of the plays by Krishna Pillai in Bhagnaa Bhavanam and others paved the way for future translation works.
The next phase of theater development in Kerela saw the popularization of touring companies. With the strenuous efforts of N.N.Pillai, Thoppil Bhasi, and Muhammad, this new form gained significance. The psychological thrillers became the call of the day and soon the theaters were flooded with dramas based on unique themes. With the commercialization of the Malayalam Theater, the ethnic art forms of drama and plays failed to attract the audience. This new wave of 60s saw the brilliant performances by a number of professional groups as well as amateur companies. Among the most famous ones, the plays by Kalnilayam and Alleppey groups were highly appreciated by people.
In the seventies, there was the development of a drama school called Thanathu Nataka which tried to revive the ethnic arts of the state. Later years of theater in Kerela became famous for road shows and street plays. These were the new elements that played a major role in developing awareness among masses regarding the fields of science and technology. Other prominent names that are associated with the development of theater companies are Kainikkara Pillai, Ponkunnam Varkey, Thikodeyan, and C.L. Jose.
In last hundred years, Kerela's theater has undergone sea changes in its form, structure as well as content. Recognizing the potential of the progressive dramas, a number of playwrights wrote works like Pattabakki, Koottukrishi, Ruthumathi etc. Most of these dramas aimed at social reforms and tried to awaken the society the harm created by shedding superstitions and irrational practices. A number of sensible productions were produced during this time. It aided in creation of an enlightened class of Kerelites that had rational outlook. Soon the theater in Kerela flourished with the run of the mill creations that had become characteristic of that period. A pleasant change was brought about by Sreekantan Nair whose plays were different from their Malayalam contemporaries.
A new type of school, based on theater, was opened at Trichur. Theater workshops were opened by Sankara Pillai; these workshops were called Nataka Kalaries. A number of productions were made by S. Ramanujam and Kumar Verma in several parts of Kerela. Later, as the aesthetic and performance standards were raised, the state saw brilliant productions like Avanavan Kadamaba, Karutha Daivathe Thedi and Karimkutty.
In the modern era, a number of theater competitions are organized; these introduce experimental theater to the villagers. Meaningful productions take place at several parts of the state these days. Efforts have been made to revitalize the theater art and take it to the next level of progress. Numerous groups are working together to impart training the folks; some of these groups include Lokadharmi Thrippunithura and Abhinaya Thiruvanathapuram. The encouraging works have been done by people like Desaposhini Kozhikodu, Annor, and Janaanayana Vadanappalli. The theater in Kerela is ready to face the new challenges of the modern world and is going to fight all odds that have previously put obstacle in its path.