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Kathakali dance is perhaps one of the most popular and favorite dances during Onam festival. Kathakali dance shows are organized across Kerala at places such as Kovalam and Shoranur but the most famous is the one hosted at Cheruthuruthy.

What is the Kathakali?

Kathakali is classical style drama based dance. The word Kathakali comes from two words – ‘Katha’ meaning story and ‘Kali’ meaning dance. It is unique combination of the five art forms Nritham (dance), Natyam (acting/drama), Chithram (painting) and Sangeetham (music).

Kathakali Performance in Kerala

This drama based dance is performed without any words and the performers communicate only with gestures and mudras. This distinguished feature makes the dance universally appealing. There is no language barrier to understand this dance drama. Another peculiar feature of this dance is the bright and elaborate makeup. The attire and costumes of the artists are vividly colorful and even their faces are painted in bright shades.


Kathakali Origin and Theme

This dance is said to have originated some 400 years ago in a town called Travancore in southwest Kerala. It is inspired from ancient dance forms such as Krishnanattam, Theyyam, Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattam among others. The dance movements and mudras of Kathakali are very similar to Bharatha Natya shastra and are modified to suit this dance. The dramas and stories enacted in Kathakali are based on the mythological themes of Ramayana and Mahabharata. This tough dance was performed by only men but nowadays even women are making their mark in this field.

The Music for Kathakali

Kathakali is mime form of dance. The conversation and communication between the artists is only through the gestures and facial expressions. The story is narrated and sung by two vocalists (Bhagavathar) in the background. The lyrics are sun loudly and this style of singing is called Soopaanam. The musical instruments include chenda, maddalam, cymbals and other percussions instruments.

The Costume for Kathakali

A prominent face mask is the most important part of the dance costume. It is made of light weight wood. It is adorned with colorful stones, shiny metal pieces and mirrors. The bright mark is complemented with a skirt with equally vivid colors. The costume is complete with additional jewelry including, bracelets, anklets, big claw like nails and beards.

The Practice for Kathakali

A person who wishes to perform a Kathakali dance needs to undergo vigorous and strenuous training. The multifaceted dance required rigorous lessons in art forms. These lessons are particularly exhaustive in the training of facial and upper body muscles such as eye brows, eye lids, lips, neck and shoulder. This is essential as only facial expressions are used to communicate and convey emotions in this dance.

The stories and themes depicted in this art form are based on mythological epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata and an artist must be thorough with these epics and other Malayalam and Sanskrit literature. It usually takes years for an artist to master this dance form as perfection in body movements, facial expressions and subtle nuances are an integral part of this art.

The Make up for Kathakali

The makeup in Kathakali is native to the folk art of Kerala. The elaborate make up takes up to ten hours and the artists are trained to apply their own makeup. This painstaking makeup is integral to the dance form as the different colors define the artist’s role in the drama. The different colors, shades, streaks and lines distinguish one character from the other. The paints are prepared by mixing rice powder with the various colors. To extend the contours of face, molded lime is used.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of the various color shades:

  • Pacha Vehsam or a green makeup means that the artist is portraying a positive, noble character like Lord Rama.
  • Knife Vesham or Kathi is green makeup with red streaks on the cheeks. This makeup is used to portray characters that are evil and vile such as Ravana.
  • Minukku Vesham or bright yellow makeup is used to portray a woman character.
  • Kari Vesham of black makeup is used to portray she-demons.
  • Thadi Vesham or a beard is used portray bearded characters like Hanuman and other monkey warriors.
  • Chuvanna Thadi or red beards is given portray hideous characters Dussasana and Baali. These characters are excessively evil and their faces are painted red with black lines around the eyes, lips and chin.
  • Karutha Thadi or black beard is used to portray a character that lives in forest or is a hunter.
  • Vella Thadi or white beard is used to portray a superior character such as Hanuman.

Kathakali Performace

Before the start of the performance there is a loud thumping of drums in the background. The performance usually begins with a love scene with a musical note called Thiranottam.

The most distinguishing factor about this dance is that conversation and communication between the artists is done with the use of gestures and facial expressions and no words or dialogues are used. The mythological tales are brought to life with the elegant and brilliant performances of the trained artists. The vocalists who sing and play instruments in the background also play an important role in this performance.

The Kathakali performers follow the mudras (hand gestures) listed in the book ‘Hastalakshana Deepika’. The book contains 24 basic mudras and over 470 symbols can be created using these mudras. The people who have a basic understanding of this dance and are knowledgeable about the mythological legends can better appreciate this performance.

Kathakali Trends

The traditional Kathakali dances are lengthy and usually start in the evening and last the entire night and early dawn. However, modern day performances last for 2-3 hours.
The traditional performances were held in the palaces of Kings and temple courtyards but nowadays they are held in auditoriums. However traditional performances during Onam festival still take place in temple courtyards across Kerala.