Kathakali – an Exotic Form of Indian Dance-Drama

Kathakali – an Exotic Form of Indian Dance-Drama

Kathakali is one of India’s oldest and the highly evolved form of dance-drama. It originated in India’s southwestern state of Kerala during the 16th century. In the local Malayalam language ‘katha’ means story and ‘kali’ means performance.


A Highly Stylized and a Distinctive Art Form

It is a highly stylized dance form and is specially known for its bright makeup and elaborate costumes. In addition, the dance is characterized by detailed hand gestures, and sublime facial and body movements. The performance is accompanied by the loud and rhythmic beatings of percussion instruments along with playback music of instrumentalists and the sonorous chanting of vocalists.


The distinctiveness of Kathakali dance lies in the fact that it rarely uses words to tell the story. The actors communicate the story element and convey the emotions through the use of hand-gestures, body and eye movements, and detailed facial expressions. Thus the vivid form of dance-drama fully brings to life the ancient legends and the stories from classical epics without the use of words.


Traditionally Kathakali performances were conducted in temple courtyards or in royal palaces.   The performances used to start in the evening and used to continue until dawn, lighted by a typical South Indian Lamp.


These days this trend has been modified to suit the fast-paced modern times. The Kathakali performances are now held in plush, well-lighted auditoriums and do not last more than a couple of hours. In rural areas the stages are built on open grounds for Kathakali and the practice of nightlong performances still prevails.


Also, the traditional performances still continue to be held during festivals seasons on the elevated stages set up for the purpose in the premises of some popular temples at Thiruvattur, Thiruparappu, Ponmana, Neyyoor etc.


Elaborate Makeup and Costumes

The elaborate make up code of characters has not much changed during the years. Noble characters representing divine heroes and virtuous rulers sport green faces, whereas villainous characters have red marks on cheeks. The tribal people and forest dwellers are painted black. Female characters are usually represented by golden yellow faces.


The colours are extracted from herbs and natural substances. Moulded lime is used to give smooth shape to the facial contours. It takes nearly 3 to 4 hours to complete the complex make up.


The costume includes primarily a massive and intricate headgear prepared from lightweight wood. It is embellished with shining mirror pieces, metal plates and colourful stones. Layers of skirts in vivid colours worn by the performers give a sense of buoyancy to their vibrant movements. In addition the dancers wear loads of jewellery such as big rings, huge shin caps, bracelets and anklets.


Rigorous Training

The Kathakali performers have to undergo extremely intensive training which takes about 8 to 10 years.  The artistes have to master the finer nuances of the art that include control of the movements of eyeballs, eyebrows, eyelids, lips, neck and shoulders. They also have to build up a tremendous amount of stamina to endure the elaborate makeup and the strain of nightlong performance. They also have to acquire a thorough knowledge of ancient epics and Hindu mythology both in Sanskrit and in Malayalam.


Appreciating Kathakali Dance

Kathakali is a highly evolved Indian classical dance. In order to appreciate its true meaning and significance the audience need to have a basic understanding of its background and origin. Since the narrative mode is scantily used, the audience can have a fuller appreciation of the dance-drama if they have a good knowledge of legends and mythology on which these performances are based.



If you are planning your travel to India, do not forget to witness an ancient tradition. Watch an exotic dance-drama performed by Kathakali dancers in Kerala.




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