Kathakali - All you need to know about this Indian classical dance form of Kerala
Updated: May 29
India has seen the birth of centuries-old classical dance forms. These classical dance forms of India were a mode of storytelling when oral history was passed through generations. Most of these dance forms were either performed in temples or on religious occasions to narrate mythological stories.
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One such Indian classical dance form is the Kathakali dance of Kerala.
Kathakali is a 300-years old art form practiced by skilled dancers who have undergone rigorous training in the residential Kathakali dance schools of Kerala for a minimum duration of seven years.
Today Kathakali has very few torchbearers owing to its intensive training, practice, and low employment prospects.
Where can you witness a performance of Kathakali in Kerala?
Many Kathakali centers exist around the tourist-centric locations of Kerala like Kochi, Munnar, Alleppy.
We attended an evening show of Kathakali at the Kerala Kathakali Centre of Fort Kochi.
You can book your tickets by calling the centre or just walk to the center for your tickets.
You can easily find a Kathakali center on Google maps along with their contact details..
Recommend calling a day before to secure your reservation, as they might get more audience during the tourist season.
We were informed to reach the center two hours before the performance, to witness the make-up process of the Kathakali dancers.
While most performances I have ever attended, expect their guests to arrive for the final act, this was a unique invitation to sit through the preparation of the act.
Also read - A visit to Fort Kochi in Kerala
When I reached the Kathakali center -
We reached an hour in advance and grabbed our seats. The hall decor replicated a traditional Kerala temple decor. The artists were seated on an elevated dais with a background of a wooden temple carved-door. A soothing Karnatic music filled the hall.
The two artists sat calmly applying face paint and makeup. We could only distinguish the male and female characters of the act once they had completed their eye makeup.
A couple of photographers seized every opportunity to capture the details of facial makeup through their large zoom lens.
Both artists completed their entire makeup with minimal help which I was surprised to see. 'Don't they have special make-up artists for every event?', I thought!
Only the male green-faced character required help for the final fixing of the white facial mask known as Chutti that covers the jawline of the artist. It is a ridge pasted around the lower part of the face stretching from the chin towards the cheeks on both sides. This ridge was earlier made out of rice paste but has been replaced by paper in recent times.
I got engrossed in their process. The mere enthusiasm to witness the most colorful and expressive dance form of Indian cultural heritage was turning into a much more elaborate and knowledgable process about Kathakali.
Sharing a few facts and snippets that you would love to know about Kathakali!
1) The facial paints are made of natural ingredients
The attractively painted faces that we see are all applications of colors made by rubbing natural stones. These colors are mixed with coconut oil which helps the paint last longer and gives a glossy look.
The artist demonstrated the preparation of every color before they started the performance.
2) Each facial color represents a different character
The facial colors are to distinguish various characters of the Kathakali performance.
Pachha (green face) - denotes a humble and godly character
Minukku (Yellow and Red color mix) - denotes Brahmins, Rishis or a virtuous woman
Katti (Green face with a red extension from the sides of the nose to ear) - denotes evil, fierce or demonic character.
Taadi (can be white or black or red) - denote various characters. For instance, white is for Hanuman, Red is for Sugreeva, Bali, and Black is for characters like chief of decoits, etc.
3) Kathakali dance is performed mostly by men
Both the male and female characters are performed by male artists only. Kathakali was a rather strenuous dance form with heavy costumes and hard footwork, thus it was mostly practiced by men. However, women too are seen practicing the dance form in the past few years.
4) Elaborate Costumes of Kathakali dancers -
Apart from the typical facial make-up, Kathakali dancers have the most elaborate and colorful attires of all Indian classical dances. The skirts of these dancers are oversized and shaped like a dome. Every dancer wears 20-30 layers of clothes underneath their large-sized skirts to give the voluminous look.
Once they get dressed, the artists get dolled-up with jewelry around their neck, wrists, upper arms, waist, and Ghungroos (beaded anklets) on their feet.
Another unique feature of the Kathakali dancers is their large designed crown, that adds the extra dimension to their costumes.
4) Kathakali dancers undergo a minimum of seven years of training
People who learn Kathakali enroll in Kathakali schools and stay as residents throughout the entire course. They undergo hours of practice for perfecting their eye movements, facial movements, expression, footwork, wrist movements (or mudras ).
Every student in the Kathakali school learns every aspect of the performance i.e. a dancer even knows how to play the musical instruments and sing the verses, how to apply their own makeup, how to set up the stage.
To perfect the art every student is expected to stay and learn for at least seven years at the school.
5) Kathakali, a form of storytelling -
Every Kathakali performance is an episode from the Indian Mythological tales. Thus every act is the narration of a story through graceful hand gestures, facial expressions, and footwork. Along with the dancers there are two or three singers who recite the verses in Sanskrit or Malayalam language.
Most centers where these performances are arranged will hand you a note about the scene which would be enacted for that evening so that the audience understands the performance well.
About the Kathakali performance -
Just before the performance began, a large brass oil-lamp was lit in the center of the dais, fumes from aromatic incense sticks filled the hall, a brass container filled with water and marigold flowers amplified the temple-like ambiance on the dais.
Musicians were bare-chested and a white cloth wrapped around their waist, a common south Indian attire for men. While the musicians took positions at the corners of the dais, one of the two artists took the center stage to demonstrate the facial expressions and the mudras (hand gestures).
He began with a little tutorial of how their facial paints were made from natural colored stones rubbed with coconut oil. The highlight of the tutorial was how Kathakali dancers reddened their eyes by placing little flower seed inside their eyelid, which would depict evil or angry characters.
He demonstrated expressions like anger, disgust, sadness, calmness, laughter, shyness, and much more, by twitching specific facial muscles and eye movements.
These demonstrations help the first time audience to grasp the little details of the performance.
As a pamphlet was handed to us with the English narration of the evening's act titled 'Narakasura Vadham - a scene from Jayantha and Narakathundi', we had an overview of the story being enacted through the dance.
As the mythological tale goes, a demoness named Narakathundi disguised as a beautiful woman named Lalitha tries to claim her love for Indra's son, Jayantha and almost vowes him to get married to her. Though Jayantha seems to be lured by Lalitha's beauty in the initial part of the story, he soon realizes that it is Narathundi in disguise. Having been falsely lured by Narakathundi, he expresses his anger, disgust and after a struggle between the two; Jayantha chops her nose, ears, and breasts.
Both the artists were on par with their skillful performances. The green-faced artist who portrayed Jayantha seemed like a calm godly figure throughout the act until he comes to terms with Narakathundi's reality. The artist who performed the role of Lalitha succeeds in disguising even the male artist behind the perfectly painted beautiful damsel. There was a beautiful womanly elegance throughout the character's Lalitha phase and a sudden transition to demonic Narakathundi with a burst of evil laughter. Though Narakathudi's character has some toughest transitions, it is Jayantha who wins the audience's hearts for being the righteous prince of Lord Indra, the God of heaven.
It was a complete 2.5 hours of entertainment through the evening and a performance that will remain in my memories forever.
The closest one can get to a place is through its art and culture. Kathakali, an ancient classical dance form is dying a slow death with very few successors willing to take it up. If you ever visit the south Indian state of Kerala, do not miss an opportunity to witness the grandeur of this art form.
Tip: If you are an art lover, you can also plan to indulge in a show of Kalaripattayu, a martial art form of Kerala and Theyyam, a folk dance practiced in the district of Kannur in North Kerala.
Also read: The Kerala Less Travelled - Vagamon