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Kathakali : The Great Indian Classical Dance

Updated on April 17, 2020
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Kumar Paral is a writer, a culture enthusiast, and a bibliophile.


KATHAKALI : Indian Classical Dance Drama

Kathakali, a classical dance drama of India, is one of the oldest theater forms in the world. Kathakali means “story-play“ as katha means story and kali means play. It is very fascinating due to harmonious combination of a number of fine arts, classical arts, and the fusing of the elements of Indian mythology, and culture in it. The most amazing fact about Kathakali is that without any knowledge of the language of Kathakali literature, one can enjoy the amazing art form as the actors use stylized gestures and facial and expressions and a specially systematized vigorous dance movements. It is evolved from folk arts and other earlier classical dances existed in Kerala.

Kathakali | Source

Kathakali : A Great Classical Dance from Kerala

Though it is a dance drama, the actors do not use any language on the stage. They use mudras (hand signs), Rasas (expressions and gestures), and rhythmic body movements for communication. It shows remarkable use of eye expression also. A chorus who sings the attakatha supports and supplements the acting on the stage in Kathakali. The characters enact the padas and lyrics that are sung by the singers, using hand signs, facial expressions and bodily movements. It shows superficial thematic resemblances with morality plays in which the characters represent types rather than individuals. Kathakali presents the eternal conflict of virtues and vices in the world.

Origin of Kathakali

Kathakali had its origin in the period of feudalism in seventeenth century. It is evolved from Ramanattam which was introduced by Kottarakkara Thampuran in the early seventeenth century. Ramanattam was based on the stories from Ramayana, the earliest Indian epic. Ramanattam came into existence to rival Krishnanattam, a classical dance drama used to perform in the court of Zamorin of Kozhikode, the ruler of erstwhile Calicut Kingdom.

It was the ruler of Kottayam, who prepared four Attakathas (Kathakali Literature for enacting the dance drama in the stage ) and introduced the new art form using many elements from existing art forms of that period. It was based on the puranas and Hindu mythology. It was performed in the courts of the rulers and in temples in special occasions. But it has become more or less secular in character now and themes from the Bible and other religious sources have been taken up for Attakathas. The Kathakali performance has also come out of the temples and courts of the kings to popular stages outside.


Kathakali – The Stage and Settings

The performance of Kathakali does not need an elaborate stage craft or settings. In earlier times, it was performed in halls and courts of kings as well as open fields after harvesting. It does not need sophisticated lightning or a number of curtains. A big kuthuvilaku (a big traditional brass lamp with more than four feet in height in which vegetable oils and cotton threads are used for lighting), a Thiraseela (curtain ) to use as front curtain and a wooden stool are the main properties on the stage.

Make up and Costume of Kathakali

The most alluring feature of Kathakali is its elaborate make up and costumes. The dancers use the elaborate make up which takes several hours to apply. The make up materials are mainly from natural and herbal extracts which are locally available like rice paste, charcoal, and vegetable oils. The basic costume consists of a full skirt, a heavy long- sleeved jacket, a number of necklaces and a headgear.

The characters of Kathakali are grouped into five basic types depending up on the basic passion, behavior, and roles. The make up has very important role in indicating the mental state and character. The basic character types share symbolic meaning which decides the make up and costume of the actor. The division of characters are related with the three levels of analysis of characters as good, middle and bad. The characters are more or less types than individuals.

The basic character types are

1. Pachcha (Green)

2. Kathi (Knife)

3. Kari (Black )

4. Thadi (Beard)

5. Minukku (Polished)

Kathakali Makeup Green

Kathakali Makeup Green
Kathakali Makeup Green | Source

Pachcha (green)

Pachcha is the most significant character type of Kathakali. The name Pachcha denotes green color which is the color used to paint the face of such characters. It indicates nobility, divinity and virtue. This make up is used for gods, kings, virtuous persons who are of exemplary moral character. Heroes like Krishna, Rama, Indra, Harichandra, and Nala appear in Pachcha make up. The front of their faces is given deep green color and sides white by rice paste. The eyes and eye lashes are in black and lips bright red. There are two types of Pachcha; dark green and light green. which is differentiated by a little change in the make up and costumes.

Kathi (Knife)

Kathi, which means “knife”, is also a very appealing make up in Kathakali. The painting on the face of Kathi characters resemble that of Knife. It is also a very complicated make up. This make up is used for proud, snobbish and evil persons who are the villain or antagonist. Ravana, Keechaka, Dussasana, and Kamsa appear in this make up.

Kurum kathi and Nedum Kathi are two sub types of Kathi. Kings and noble characters come in the make up of Kurum Kathi, while characters in whom both the heroic and vices are combined enter in Nedum Kathi appearance.

Kathakali Vesham - Red Beard

Kathakali Vesham - Red Beard
Kathakali Vesham - Red Beard | Source

Thaadi (Beard)

Thaadi make up is for rakshasas, asuras, very cruel and evil persons. It has three sub types; red beard, white beard and black beard depending up on the beard used for the characters. Veluppu thaadi (White beard ) is for virtuous characters especially for non human characters like Hanuman ( a virtuous monkey man). It consisted of a white beard and a fur coat. The Chuvanna Thaadi (Red beard ) is for some asuras, rakshas and kings. Their face is painted red, with black contour lines drawn round the eyes, lips, and chin. Baali, Sugreeva and Dussasana are treated with in this make up. The most cruel persons are treated with Karutha Thaadi (Black Beard). Their make up is consisted of a black beard and a coat. Kattalan, Kali, and robbers appear in this make up.

Kari (black)

It is used for the most incorrigible and inherently evil persons. Ann Kari (male ) and Pen Kari (Female) are to sub types of it. Their faces are painted in black and cheeks have a red crescent in the middle. Kari Characters show high level of energy in their animated dance movements. Surpanakha and Simhika are treated with Pen Kari and Kirata is treated with Ann Kari.

Kathakali Female.

Kathakali Female.
Kathakali Female. | Source

Minukku (Polished)

Minukku make up is for virtuous characters, brahmins,sages, women, messengers, carpenters and other supporting actors. The make up and costume of Minukku is simple compared to others. It is a polished variety of facial make up.

Navarasas in Kathakali

The nine basic rasas (facial expressions) are used in the Kathakali. They are known as Navarasas.

  1. Sringaram (amour)

  2. Hasyam (Humour)

  3. Bhayanakam (Fear)

  4. Karunam (Pathos)

  5. Roudram (Anger/ wrath)

  6. Veeram (Valour)

  7. Beebhalsam (Disgust)

  8. Adbhudam (Wonder)

  9. Shantam (peace / contentment)

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    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      6 years ago from New Delhi, India

      This is such a wonderful and detailed information about Kathakali, a dance form, which I admire and am proud of.

      Although I have watched it Live, I was not aware of many details, which you have mentioned here.

      Thanks for sharing! Voted up!


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