Kathakali – The Grand Spectacle of Kerala

Kathakali – The Grand Spectacle of Kerala

Kathakali is a highly stylised classical dance-drama characterised by its attractive make-up of its characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and accompanying percussion. It originated in the state of Kerala during the 16th century AD, approximately between 1555 and 1605. Kathakali has undergone rapid updation & improvements over the years.

The basic prerogatives of a successful Kathakali performer are his skills of concentration and physical stamina. Requisite stamina to last a whole night of rigorous performance is gained from regimented training based on Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala. This training prepares an actor for his demanding role. The training can often last for 8-10 years, and is intensive. The intense Kalaripayattu training has also subconsciously influenced the body language of Kathakali characters.


The name Kathakali derives from the Malayalam words “katha” (story) and “kali” (meaning: play or performance).

Brief History:

According to legends, Kathakali originated from a precursor dance-drama form called Ramanattam and owes many of its performances to Krishnanattam. In short, these two forerunning forms to Kathakali dealt with presenting stories of the Hindu Gods Rama and Krishna (both are earthly manifestations of the Preserver among the Hindu trinity-Vishnu).

Legend has it that Kottarakkara Thampuran (1555-1605) (ruler of the south Kerala province of Kottarakkara) composed most plays based on the Ramayana that eventually led to the evolution of Kathakali. Though Ramanattam as an art form is extinct, its stories continue to live as a part of Kathakali.

Kathakali is the result of successful amalgamation from various art forms. It shares similarities with Krishnanattam, Koodiyattam (a Sanskrit drama performance of Kerala) and Ashtapadiyattam (an adaptation of 12th-century musical called Gitagovindam). It also incorporates several elements from other traditional ritualistic art forms like Mudiyettu, Thiyyattu, Theyyam and Padayani besides a minor share of folk arts like Porattunatakam.

Kathakali songs are rendered in Manipravalam- which is a mix of the classical language Sanskrit and local language Malayalam. Even though most of the songs are set in ragas based on the microtone-heavy Carnatic music, there is a distinct style of plain-note rendition, which is known as the Sopanam style. This typically Kerala style of rendition takes its roots from the temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at several temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.

The characters of Kathakali appear with heavily painted faces and elaborate costumes. The choreography is highly advanced (primarily developed Kaplingad Narayanan Namboodiri – 1739-1789) and enacts stories predominantly from the Hindu epics. Though Kathakali was traditionally been performed in temples and palaces, over the past century it has also found venues in post-harvest paddy fields as well as proscenium stages of public halls/auditoria. Kathakali is a visual treat and its green painted performer has become synonymous with the elevated culture of Kerala.

Prominent features of Kathakali:

Kathakali consists of five classical elements of fine art:

Expressions (Natyam, the component with emphasis on facial expressions)
Dance (Nritham, the component of dance with emphasis on rhythm and movement of hands, legs and body)
Enactment (Nrithyam, the element of drama with emphasis on “mudras”, which are hand gestures)
Song/vocal accompaniment (Geetha)
Instrument accompaniment (Vadyam)
Kathakali plays
Traditionally there are 101 classical Kathakali stories. The most commonly staged stories among them might be around 30-40. In those days when entertainment media was extremely limited, Kathakali performances were meant to last a whole night. We may say it may have evoked the response of a contemporary rock concert.


Kathakali in its purest form is performed in front of the huge Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance or performance & vilakku meaning lamp). The lamp was lighted with a thick wick fuelled by coconut oil. This lamp was the single source of illumination when the plays used to be performed inside temples, palaces or abodes of nobles and aristocrats. This helped in creating a sense of awe & mystery and helped the performer exaggerate the characters he played. It was possibly one of the first effective uses of illumination to accentuate the characters and create a spectacle.

Kathakali is enacted with the accompaniment of music (geetha) and instruments (vadyam). The percussion instruments used are Chenda, Maddhalam and Edakka. The lead singer is called “Ponnani” and his follower is called “Shingidi”. The lead singer uses the “Changala” (gong made of bell metal, which can be struck with a wooden stick) to conduct the Vadyam and Geetha components, just as a conductor uses his wand in western classical music and the Shingidi uses the “Elathalam” (a pair of cymbals) to add a variation to the music. Most music is traditionally formed in groups of up to 14 people. But usually the songs are composed with over 20 people.

The distinguishing feature of Kathakali is that the performers never speak but use hand gestures, expressions and rhythmic dancing instead of dialogue (but for a couple of rare characters). The story is enacted purely by the movements of the hands (called mudras or hand gestures) and by facial expressions (rasas) and bodily movements. The expressions are derived from Natya Shastra (the tome that deals with the science of expressions) and are classified into nine as in most Indian classical art forms. Dancers also undergo special practice sessions to learn control of their eye movements.

Kathakali performance revolves around 24 basic mudras — the permutation and combination of which would add up a chunk of the hand gestures in vogue today. Each can be broken down again can be classified into ‘Samaana-mudras'(one mudra symbolising two entities) or “Misra-mudras” (both the hands are used to show these mudras). The mudras are a form of sign language used to tell the story.

The main facial expressions of a Kathakali artist are the ‘Navarasams’ (Nine tastes or expressions). The Navarasams are: Sringaram (amour), Hasyam (ridicule, humor), Bhayanakam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Roudram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valor), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutam (wonder, amazement), Shantam (tranquility, peace).

Kathakali has an elaborate make-up code. The make-up may be classified into five basic sets namely Pachcha, Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, and Minukku. The differences between these sets lie in the predominant colors that are applied on the face. Pachcha (meaning green) has green as the dominant color and is used to portray noble male characters that are said to have a mixture of “Satvik” (pious) and “Rajasik” (royal) nature. Rajasik characters having an evil streak (“tamasic”= evil) — all the same they are anti-heroes in the play (such as the demon king Ravana) — and portrayed with streaks of red in a green-painted face. Excessively evil characters such as demons (totally tamasic) have a predominantly red make-up and a red beard. They are called Chuvanna Thaadi (Red Beard). Tamasic characters such as uncivilized hunters and woodsmen are represented with a predominantly black make-up base and a black beard and are called Kari/Karutha Thaadi (meaning black beard). Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces and this semi-realistic category forms the fifth class. In addition, there are modifications of the five basic sets described above such as Vella Thadi (white beard) used to depict Hanuman (the Monkey-God) and Pazhuppu, which is majorly used for Lord Shiva and Balabhadra.


Minukku is the polished variety of facial make-up consisting in smoothening the actor’s face with a coating of a mixture of yellow and red pigments. The composition obtains ‘a self’ (or natural skin) complexion color. It reflects the characters usually found in Brahmins, Ascetics and Virtuous women. The eyes and eye-lashes are painted and contours elongated with the black unguent and greasy collyrium. Sometimes the face is decorated with white or cream color dots, running from the cheeks to the fore-head in a bow-shape. The lips are reddened and the forehead is decorated with a caste mark. This colour scheme serves to give a symbolic glow of piety to a devotee character. Women role-types are given delicate touches of the make-up.


Pachcha depicts a deep green face. The prescribed roles are Gods, celebrated mythological heroes, and virtuous personages, symbolising inner refinement poise, heroism and moral excellence. This include heroes of a play and noble characters, Indra, Krishna, Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Sathrugnan, Harishchandra and Nala. The front part of their faces is given smooth deep green base on which chuttis (white rice-paste curves) run from the centre of the chin, covering the lower jaw, to either side of the face. The eyes and the eye-lashes are painted black and the lips bright red. It assumes the shape of a broad-blade saber or of a sweeping curve of a bow. The forehead, above the bow-tie shaped painted portion, is covered by a red ribbon of the gilded head gear.


As compared to Pachcha, the make-up of Katti role-types is complicated. This term literally means the knife, because in its make-up the shapes of colour positions resemble sharply bent daggers. They represent Evil, demoniac and fierce characters standing against the hero of a play. Pratinayakaas such as Asuras (the enemies of the God’s) ambitious and arrogant Ravana, Keechaka, Kamsa and Dussaasana are distinctively treated with this make-up. Their faces are given a foundation with green colour; the sides of their noses are painted in red. The red paint round the nose rises up to the forehead above the eye-brows. It is like a patch, an upturned moustache, covering the upper jaw. Its border lines are treated in white. On the green base of the rest of the face, a chutti runs along the jaw-bones from the middle of the cheek. Two white knobs, called chuttippuvus, are placed on the face. These vary in size with the degree of the fearsome appearance of some demoniac characters like Ravana and Dussaasana, two long protruding canine teeth (called dhamshtras) are perched on either side of the mouth. These drop over the lower lips. Katti make-up characters stand in a singular position.

Thaadi (Beard)

Those who have the thaadi make-up are again, good godly and evil-demoniac. To differentiate one from the other, three thaadi make-ups are in vogue: Veluppu thaadi (white beard), Chuvanna thaadi (red beard) and Karuppu thaadi (black beard). In these make-ups white chutti is not planted on the face.

Veluppu Thaadi

It consists of a white beard and a fur coat. It is a realistic make-up for characters like Hanuman, the son of God Vayu, and other monkey sages and warriors. The upper half of the face-the neither part of the eyes -and lips are treated with a black ointment. The chin at the middle is decorated with a white rosette, bearing a red dot within. Red paint is applied to the lower part of the lower lip, up to the chin. A thin coating of chutti decoratively encloses the black-end part of the face and meets the chuttinata – the hem of the head dress. Another white pattern develops on either side of the cheeks and circling the red spots, starting from the base of the green painted nose. On the tip of the nose and the forehead two oval-shaped spots are given in red.

Chuvanna Thaadi

This make-up is given to hideous characters. The face is painted red, with black contour lines drawn round the eyes, lips and chin. This adds to the ferocity of less evil characters like Bali, Sugriva, Kaalakeya and Dussaasana. The eye-brows and lashes are not elongated; no chutti is applied to the Chuvanna thaadi. The face is dubbed in red and treated with black lines. Around the eyes, almost a square patch of deep black colour is provided to give to the eyes a fiendish look of a evil designer. Lips painted in black, are given a hilly curve to give the role type a lucid image of a beastly character. Running from the upper lip are two white paste bristled rows throwing the black patch round the eyes in bold relief and adding ferocity to the fiery red eyes, and demarcating the black portion from the remaining nether part of the face is red. Chuttippuvus (white blobs) on the tip of the nose and the fore-head are bigger in size than those put on by Kathi characters. It is the most impressive of all make-ups in Kathakali.

Karuppu Thaadi

The third type of bearded characters make-up is with a black beard and coat. These characters include Kali, Kaattaalan (hunter), brigands and robber chieftains. In their make-up, the face is first coated with black unguent. The eyes are bracketed within oval-shaped white border lines, the area between two such lines being painted in red. Small white bristles adorn the ridges. Lips are in red. The tip of the nose bears a chuttippuuvu.


This make-up reveals the vile and evil characters, such as Surpanakha and Simhika. Their faces are painted in black and the cheeks have a red crescent in the middle. A pair of dhamshtras is provided. Shiva in the role of Kirata (hunter) is also given this type of the make-up.

A remarkable feature of the Kathakali make-up is the reddening of the white of the eyes of all characters by putting in a few young seeds of chunda puuv (sollanum pubescence) crimson eyes stand in contrast to the colour scheme of the face. The practice is usually followed in Pachcha and Minukku faces.

The face part being complete, the performer gives the finishing touches himself. Thereafter he stands up for putting on the costume. The skirt is a well starched and pressed into-frills garments. But before the skirt is put on, the actor ties 20 to 40 pieces of short cloth round his waist by the help of a long cloth twisted rope in order to give the skirt an oval shape. He then puts on the jacket, etc. The finishing touches to the costume are given by the costume attendant. The actor is profusely ornamented with garlands of beads, armlets, cupped mirrors etc. Fully decorated, the actor gives the last minute touches to his make-up with the help of the cupped mirror. His head-dresses are huge and often unwieldy.

With drastic shifts in social template, the popular versions of Kathakali are its concise versions that last between three to four hours. This severely limits the scope of performance. Most stories are presented in parts rather than in its grand totality. The selection of a performance is based on various criteria like chorographical beauty, thematic relevance, or the melodramatic elements. Despite Kathakali being a classical art form, it can be appreciated also by novices-all contributed by the elegant looks of its character, their abstract movement and its synchronicity with the accompanying musical notes and rhythmic beats. Kathakali continues to harbour folk elements within its repertoire. For better appreciation, perhaps, it is still good to have an idea of the story being enacted.

Recently, as part of attempts to further popularise this malleable art, stories from other cultures and mythologies, such as those of Mary Magdalene from the Bible, Homer’s Iliad, and William Shakespeare’s King Lear and Julius Caesar besides Goethe’s Faust too have been adapted into Kathakali scripts and on to its stage.

There is too much to write about Kathakali. I believe we have a clear wireframe in front of us to fill any voids driven by a desire to know more.

© Sanjai Velayudhan

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