Kathakali- A vibrant dance drama from Kerala

Elaborate makeup, heavy costumes, intense facial expressions, drumming and cymbals to the rhythm of the lyrics of the music- this is what the whole crux of Kathakali is. The word in itself means, “dancing on a story”.


Kathakali was fully developed as a dance form by the 17th century in Kerala. It was traditionally performed in the courtyards of the temples, from dusk to dawn. The story lines of the performance were taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and other such religious texts.


The face is the epicenter of conveying the story, as eye movements and eyebrow movements are what holds the most importance. At the beginning of the performance, the drummers take the center stage to set the mood, followed by the singer. Till then a curtain is held over the performer to hide them for a further grand entry. It was traditionally performed only by men, including the female characters. With time, now even females learn and perform this dance. The hasta mudras, and foot movements are taken from Natyashastra and Abhinayadarpanam.

Music and Instruments

Soppan is the music system that is followed in Kathakali. Though the dance originated in Kerala, the language of the songs is not Malayalam, but Manipravalam. The instruments are few, which include Chenda that is a vertical drum, Shuddha Madalam which is a horizontal drum, Idakka which is an hour glass shaped drum, and manjira which is a metal instrument used to give tala.

Makeup and Costume

Now, we come the most time-consuming part of this dance, which is the makeup. It takes nothing less than 4-5 hours to get ready for a Kathakali performance. The face is typically painted in combinations of green, yellow, red and if black. A border of white paper is made a little above the jawline so as to keep maximum focus on the dancer’s face. The makeup is known as Vesham, and has 5 basic elements which are Pacha (green), Kathi (knife), Kari (black), Thaadi (beard), and Minukku (radiant). A silk skirt is worn on the waist, over some cushion paddings, and a velvet jacket-top is worn above. The head has a headgear, which can also be a king’s crown. A silk cloth is worn over the jacket to add more splendor to the costume. The dancer is covered in layers over layers of fabric, only the legs, the hands and the face are free to move. The colors of the costume too, are chosen according to the character the performer is playing. For example, to portray the character of Krishna, the dancer will wear a blue costume, to portray the character of Ravana the character wears a black costume, to depict a saint the dancer will choose a white costume.  It is interesting to note how the concept of color psychology comes into use of both costume and makeup of this dance form, which has been in existence since more than 5 centuries ago.

Kalamandalam Krishna Nair, his son Padmanabhan Krishna Nair, Ramankutty Nair, Vasudevan Namboodiri and Vadakke Manalath Govindan Nair are some of the most renowned and sought after Kathakali exponents who have had an immense contribution in this field to take it to where the art stands today.

–   Aditi Teredesai

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