Kathakali Dance in Kerala

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Kathakali is a highly stylized classical kerala dance performance noted for its attractive make-up of characters, their elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion. (R7SGMD6RYBHG ) Kathakali is nearly a 300 year old classical dance form, said to have evolved from other performing arts like Kootiyattam (a classical Sanskrit drama existing in Kerala), Krishnanattam and Kalarippayattu. Kathakali explicates ideas and stories from the Indian epics and Puranas.


Kathakali is considered to be a combination of five elements of fine art:

  1. Expressions (Natyam, the component with emphasis on facial expressions)
  2. Dance (Nritham, the component of dance with emphasis on rhythm and movement of hands, legs and body)
  3. Enactment (Nrithyam, the element of drama with emphasis on “mudras”, which are hand gestures)
  4. Song/ vocal accompaniment (Geetha)
  5. Instrument accompaniment (Vadyam)

The role of each of these art forms is very vital in the making of Kathakali what it is, the King of performing arts, particularly theatre.

Kathakali Plays

Traditionally there are 101 classical Kathakali stories, though the commonly staged among them these days total less than one-third that number. Almost all of them were initially composed to last a whole night. Nowadays, there is increasing popularity for concise, or oftener select, versions of stories so as the performance lasts not more than three to four hours from evening.

The most popular stories enacted are Nalacharitam (a story from the Mahabharata), Duryodhana Vadham (focusing on the Mahabharata war after profiling the build-up to it), Kalyanasougandhikam, (the story of Bhima going to get flowers for his wife Panchali), Keechakavadham (another story of Bhima and Panchali, but this time during their stint in disguise), Kiratham (Arjuna and Lord Shiva’s fight, from the Mahabharata), Karnashapatham (another story from the Mahabharata), Nizhalkuthu and Bhadrakalivijayam authored by Pannisseri Nanu Pillai. Also staged frequently include stories like Kuchelavrittam, Santanagopalam, Balivijayam, Dakshayagam, Rugminiswayamvaram, Kalakeyavadham, Kirmeeravadham, Bakavadham, Poothanamoksham, Subhadraharanam, Balivadham, Rugmangadacharitam, Ravanolbhavam, Narakasuravadham, Uttaraswayamvaram, Harishchandracharitam, Kacha-Devayani and Kamsavadham.


The headgear worn by the various    characters in Kathakali are excellent  specimen of intricate wood carving, an  ancient speciality of the region. Even the shiny finishing with trinkets take hours of painstaking labour by expert craftsmen. Most of the ornaments donning each character are made in this fashion too.

Make-up of Kathakali

The make-up, called Chutty in the bibliography of Kathakali, is also an art form in itself. The colourful faces are the results of hours of painstaking handiwork by expert artists. The basic materials used for the make up are very crude items like raw amorphous Sulphur, Indigo, Rice paste, Lime, Coconut oil etc.
Colour symbolism reflect certain categories of emotions and gunas. The green colour represents Saattvika reveals godliness, white represents spirituality. Red represents Rajasic reveals violence. Black represents Tamasic reveals evil. Yellow represents the combined character of Saatvika and Rajasic.

Thus Kathakali characters are grouped into five major role-types, each having a specific make-up and costume. These role types are Minukku, Paccha, Katti,taadi (has three varieties viz. Velupputaadi, Chuvannataadi and Karupputtadi) and Kari.A successful Kathakali performer is not just required to master the stylistic elements of the dance but also build his/her endurance and stamina. On many occasions, they need to be able to last a whole night’s performance. This is gained by following a regimented training that has its base in an ancient martial art form of Kerala, Kalaripayattu. Training for Kathakali goes on for 8-10 years, and is extremely intensive.

female character in Kathakali

One of the major distinguishing features of Kathakali is the absence of oral communication. A considerable part of the script is in the form of lyrics, sung by vocalists. The only accompaniments are percussion instruments. Chenda(Drum played with sticks) Maddalam(Drum played with fingers), Chengila(Gong) and Ilathalam(Cymbals). The style of music traditionally accepted is Sopana, where the range is limited to one and half octaves. However, the influence of Karnataka Style of Classical Music has been irresistible, and the singers often take liberty with the style. It is not unusual that a Kathakali performance take the form of a Jugalbandi (Duet) of singing and acting.

Drumming especially of Chenda is the salient feature of Kathakali. Formerly considered an “Asura Vadyam” meaning one that cannot go in harmony, Chena has become the most important feature. Artists are capable of producing a range of sounds varying from the gentle rattle of dry leaves in a breeze to reverberating thunder on Chenda.

Kathakali Dance
Although dance is an important element in Kathakali, it is not the main feature. Pure dance sequences are limited to Kalasams, which punctuate acting segments. Female characters spontaneously breaking into “Sari” and “Kummi” dances can be seen in few dramas. The accent in Kathakali is more on the Thandava style of dancing than on Lasya style. Hence the movements are often explosive. Delicate movements are rare.

The communication among the characters and to the audience, is through an intricate language of hand gestures (Mudras), used in combination with facial expression and body movements. Kathakali follows the language of Mudras, as described in “Hasthalakshana Deepika”.

Kathakali Peformance

Kathakali performances are not confined to a temple’s courtyard; they are held in the open under the sky. Before a performance begins, chendakkaaran the instrumental musician, beats the drum to announce the news that a dance -drama will be held shortly. This nervous and insistent tattoo’ is called Ke’likottu. The village folk-men, women and children begin to assemble and crouches on the land in a circle around chendakkaaran.
In its indigenous form, Kathakali has no stage in the modern sense. The centre of the stadium is the stage provided with a huge brightly polished brass lamp of coconut oil. The audience sits in darkness.

There are no back-curtains, no stills, no sceneries. But behind the lamp there is a simply designed ‘tirasila’, a rectangular silk curtain, held by two members of the troupe. Actors who have to appear first stand hidden behind it. During scenes the curtain is dropped to the ground and removed by the two men.

Musicians stand in a half circle behind the actors. They number four to twelve. Musicians do not wear any special costume. They are normally bare-chested. The actors are profusely dressed mostly in billowing skirts, crowned with massive head-dresses and provided with the accessories of the face and finger nails. The ‘actresses’ are adolescent boys, for they are nearest to feminity and have simple dress.

In the repertoric of its technique Kathakali has seven items to be presented in the following sequence:

1. To’dayam- the basic nritt;
2. Purappaadu- debut of the hero and the virtuous character;
3. Tirano’kku- ‘curtain look’ by evil characters and demons;
4. Kummi- permeable for the female character’s appearance
5. Kathakali- the main play
6. Kalaasham- a passage of vigorous dance which serves as a hyphen between two pieces of verse-play and
7. The concluding benediction dance

The dance drama begins with the call of the drum which has rent the air at night. The audience is alerted.

Tirasiila is drawn by two men. Music begins. Drummers display their cleverness. Religious songs are sung. They purify the atmosphere. And dancers are behind the curtain. The preliminary dance behind the curtain is commonly refused to as Purva-ranga by Bharata in the Naatya saastra, in the language of Kathakali it is called To’dayam. The basic technique of Kathakali lies in To’dayam.

Purappaadu or the debut, signifies the first appearance of a character on the stage. It is a piece of a preliminary dance. It serves to announce the virtuous qualities of the hero. If a demon is to appear violent drumming of high pitch drums is incessant. The curtain is drawn as high as the arms of the attendants can stretch. The whole atmosphere is surcharged with earth-shaking and hair raising activities. The sound of quick and heavy foot steps can be heard from behind the curtain. Its synchronisation with the sound effect of the drums heightens the climax. The entire climate forebodes that a terrific personality is about to appear. Suddenly a coloured canopy appears over the curtain and a rumbling growling noise is heard. Drums burst into shattering sounds. Here is a shriek, and there a groan. But before the eyes can catch the character, fingers are seen rising in the centre of the curtain. The left hand fingers are covered with long thimbles. The two hands are kept about three feet apart. They clutch the curtain. Fingers glide across its top.

There is deafening drumming; but no singing.

To the accompaniment of the drums, the anti-hero shakes the curtain violently, and breathless the audience catches an occasional glimpse of the top of a glittering head-dress, which seems to be gyrating madly in some internal whirlwind. He pulls the curtain towards him; then plugs forward and fans flames. With gusto, the fire illuminates the character’s face and enables the audience to spot him out by his weird makeup.

The feverish pitch of excitement over, the curtain is dropped and the whole figure of the character emerges after a great deal of suspense. The curtain is pulled off the stage from its right wing. Thus develop tirano’kku or ‘curtain look’.

For male anti-heroes Tirano’kku is prescribed and for female characters there is another standard dance called Kummi. In it gestures and movements are modified and smoothened to lend gentleness and elegance. so much necessary for feminine characters. Paces are slow; roles are passive and subsidiary.

Kalaasams are pure dance passages performed in pure taandava style. They punctuate two verses; two scenes. It is here that in Kathakali an important role of nritta is discovered.

From the sequence detailed Kathakali’s basic characteristic of a dance-cum-drama is unfolded. How the various limbs of sangiitha have been synthesized to bring about an underlying unity of all Indian dramatic arts in Kathakali is unique. It is the only form of the histrionic arts in India, which adumbrates in principle, the three essentials of the Sanskrit drama, naatya, nritya and nritt.

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