Prof. Vayala Vasudevan Pillai

University of Kerala

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Kathakali is, literally, story-play, a vibrant dance drama of the classical tradition in Kerala, the southern most state in India.  At the deepest level it is ritualistic.  It has all the elements of folk dance, music, elaborate make-up and costume.  All these formative factors evolved gradually to become what we have today one of the best, scientifically codified performances of the Classical Theatre of the world.  It is said to have originated from Ramanattam, a modified and a more enriched form of Krishnanattam with the creative initiative of the local political chieftain, Kottarakkara Thampuran.  Krishnanattam was a narrative performance in Sanskrit while Ramanattam was written in Malayalam, thereby making it popular and accessible to larger audience.  Krishnanattam was the story of Lord Krishna, while Ramanattam was based on the life of Lord Sri Rama, another incarnation of Mahavishnu.

Song, dance and percussion.

The stories of Kathakali are mainly based on the epics, The Mahabharatha and the Ramayana.  Kathakali in Malayalam language is Katha (meaning story) and Kali (meaning plays).  It is a happy blending of Natyam (dance with emphasis on facial expression), Nritham (Rhythmic dance), Nrithyam (dramatic Enactment with hand gestures), Geetha (Vocal accompaniment / Song) and finally, Vadyam (Instrumental accompaniment).  This combination is called Touryatrikam (Song, Dance and percussion).

All this springs from a highly developed branch of literature with classical roots in plot, characters, vision and in metric expression.  Thus there are more than 101 stories (AttaKathas) written by well-known poets and artists like Kottarakkara Thampuran, Irayimmen Thampi, Unnayi Varier, Karthika Thirunal and others.


The actor requires rigorous training at least for six years consecutively to present a performance.  He would be trained in all fine arts, especially in classical (epic) literature, acting of different types, music, movement, costume, make up etc.  The training starts at a very young age of the actor, mostly between the age of 11 and 14.


Kathakali follows mainly the Indian classical concepts of acting in the Natyasasthra, elaborated and embellished by later acting manuals.  The four types of Abhinaya detailed in the ancient Natyasashtra are adhered to in the Kathakali performance.  The Aharya (dress and deportment), Vachika (Spoken words, sounds, singing etc), Angika (Movements, physical acting, gestures, use of the whole body etc.) and the Sattvika (mental, spiritual and creative acting expressing various emotions and sentiments) are the four types of Acting.


Another very striking and attractive elements of Kathakali its elaborate make up depicting different kinds of characters.  The make-up has many strands, typically native of the folk traditions of Kerala, a region blessed by greenery, valleys mountains and waters.  The colours used in the Kathakali make up are the original natural contributions of the country. This traditional colour combination symbolises various traits of characters, emotions and their motif. The make up (or roles) is mainly divided in to five types.

1.     Pacha – deep green face and chutty is fixed on it – for Gods, righteous heroes of moral excellence, noble characters like Krishna, Rama, Nala, etc. 

2.     Katti – (literally, knife) Green face, sides of the noses in red, shapes of their colour positions resemble sharply bent daggers – for anti-heroes, Asuras, villainous, arrogant like Ravana, Dussasana, Kamsa etc.

3.       Kari – Black faces for vile and evil characters – for Suurpanaka, Simhika etc.

4.       Minukku – A smoothening make up with yellow and red pigments – for Brahmins, saints and noble women.

5.      Taadi – (Beard) Vella (White for Hanuman), Karuppu (Black for Kali, Kattalan),Chuvanna (Red for Bali, Sugriva), depending upon the traits of the characters.

Kathakali is the model of Total Theatre.  It is acclaimed and accepted by world renowned theatre personalities like Grotovski,  Eugino Barba and others.

Elegance and aesthetics.

It is a vigorous classical performance, colourful and other-worldly with different layers of cultural and aesthetic codes.  The characters are super natural and larger than the real in their religio-theatrical appearance. Enlarged make up, costume, codified mudras for communication etc make it very distinct. The use of Chenda (percussion instruments) and symbols highlights the depth of the classical dimension of the strenuous physical acting and the equally powerful singing of the musicians from behind.  The hand gestures of the actors numbering sixty-four basic poses communicate about five hundred words.

Normally Kathakali is an over night performance starting at about 6 pm and ending at 6 am next day.   It is performed in and around the temple premises and in general public performance spaces as well.  The KeliKottu, the invocation on the percussion (Chenda) is a kind of announcement and the people around from all walks of life flock to the performance spot, ready to spend the whole night seeing Kathakali.  It is performed in front of a large bronze lamp lit by coconut oil.  Behind the lamp is the half curtain held by two persons on either side, when required.  There is no other property except a stool, to be used for some characters to stand on it or for others to rest on it if needed.

Different sequences.

The performance has usually seven – Sequences or stages :

1.                  Purappadu (first appearance of a character on the stage),

2.                  Todayam (the basic Nritt or Dance),

3.             Tira nottam (curtain look, by heroes and kings on their appearance),

4.                  Kummi (dancing entry of the female characters),

5.                  Kathakali  (the enactment of the main story),

6.               Kalaasham (a passage of vigorous dance in between two pieces of verse – play) and

7.                  Finally, the Benediction Dance.



Most of the stories of Kathakali are highly dramatic with characters of conflicting nature and intense emotional development.  The process is gradual, enabling the spectators to go deeper and deeper in one’s relationship with the entire universe.  The purpose is to ennoble the audience and to have a better system of moral and spiritual life. For instance, the story of Dussasana vadham presents mainly Bhima and Dussasana at logger heads with each other with the former killing the latter by way of vengeance for denuding Droupati (the wife of the five Pandava Princes including Bhima).  Their encounter is shown on the stage and the rest of the events in their improvisations (Manodharmabhinaya).  Similarly, Kiratham is another story presenting Lord Siva and his spouse Parvathi in the roles of Kattalan (Hunter) and his wife, testing his disciple Arjuna’s devotion and ability and finally bestowing on the latter all blessings.