Are you curious about the Kathakali dance? Want to know Kathakali is the dance form of which state? Are you on a lookout for more information on the Kathakali dance costume and Kathakali makeup? Want to indulge in come cultural experiences on your Kochi trip?
Then, you have come to the right place, as we have you all covered in this detailed post on the dance form of Kathakali.
Think of Kathakali, and it’s sure to often evoke an imagery of vibrancy, opulence, flamboyant Kathakali costume and an expressive Kathakali dance performance, isn’t it?
However, for me, apart from the vivid imagery that it evokes, the word Kathakali also always rekindles memories of my school days : when working on projects related to classical dance forms of India, I was enchanted by the very colourful masks and costumes of Kathakali dancers.
For as long as I can remember, I had concluded that Kathakali dancers wore a mask for their performances.
Until one fine evening in the bylane of Cochin ( Ernakulam), this myth was demystified.
1. Watch a Kathakali performance, and end your day with a tasty local fare.
2. Club a heritage tour of Fort Kochi with a Kathakali performance.
3. Why restricting yourself to just cultural things in Kochi? Indulge in an interesting tuk-tuk tour of Kochi as well.
4. Looking for Kerala-based non-fiction books. Then, you should read Anita Nair’s Where The Rain Is Born: Writings About Kerala , and my favourite Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore by Manu Pillai.
5. Want to know more about Indian history and Kerala. Then the Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal is a must.
Kathakali – A flamboyant classical dance form of India
India is a vibrant and rich land of varied cultures, art forms and languages. And, a traveller is bound to experience a variety of cultural changes – both interesting and inquisitive in this country, where the landscape alters every few kilometres, especially if it is God’s Own Country, Kerala.
The state of Kerala in southern India is dotted with ornate temples and churches. Travellers can enjoy slow boat rides along the canals of the backwaters, while the ever-present rain distinguishes Kerala from its neighbouring states.
The culturally rich Fort Cochin in Kerala, also houses the oldest active Jewish Synagogue in the yesteryear colonies and offers simple yet elaborate vegetarian food served with warmth.
Apart from these aspects, what brings back fond memories of my trip to Cochin is a Kathakali dance show that we witnessed a day, after our trip to the backwaters of Kerala.
The after-effects of watching a Kathakali dance show
While exploring Cochin and Ernakulum on foot, we had chanced upon the Cochin Cultural Centre in Ernakulam. We were asked to attend the Kathakali make-up session if interested, and this was 2 hours prior to the actual performance.
Should you consider other places to watch a Kathakali performance, do check out the below options
A sense of realization dawned upon me that the process of demystification has indeed started while watching the elaborate process of a Kathakali makeup session.
After all, this classical dance of Kerala is all about the colourful Kathakali costumes, expressions and elaborate make-up!
And, it is this Kathakali dance show that I witnessed, that compelled me into reading further about the dying art form of Kathakali dance.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I conclude, that indeed dance forms like Kathakali requires an immediate revival. I felt the same when watching the Ramayana based Kecak dance in Bali, and Ramakein in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
All about the classical dance of Kerala — Kathakali
Based on this further reading after watching the Kathakali dance show, I compiled this post of mine about the classical dance of Kerala called Kathakali.
Let us first know a bit about this Kerala dance’s history.
Know the history of Kathakali dance
Kathakali is a dance-drama(dance play), that is practised, performed and widely associated with God’s Own Country—Kerala in India.
It has its origins in the 2000-year-old classical dance form of Kuttiyatam that used to be performed in temples. A picture of the same has been provided below.
The Kathakali dance makes use of nritya (dance) in combination with abhinaya (expressions) that forms the crux and the USP of this dance form as well as Natya Shastra.
The importance of Navarasa in a Kathakali dance
Most of the classical dance forms of India make ample use of the navarasa, and the Kathakali dance is no different. Navarasa are the nine emotions that are emoted throughout the performance.
A dance with no mask gives ample scope to express the emotions beautifully without words. This, combined with the mudras (gestures) form the basis of this colourful dance drama called Kathakali.
What is the purpose of Kathakali?
Now that we know the history of Kathakali as well as the importance of Navarasa, we could very well define the purpose of a Kathakali dance.
Kathakali is a way of story-telling through agencies or actors who express their emotions and dialogues with the help of just mudras(hand gestures), Navarasa and music.
The varied make-up or Kathakali veshangal as well as costume, help in the identification of the characters in a Kathakali dance performance.
Deconstructing a Kathakali Dance
Natyashastra is the Sanskrit text on performing arts and it has put forth various aspects when it comes to drama and dance. Remember the six elements of drama according to Aristotle? Well, the latter is something similar to the former.
I have tried to describe the dance form of Kathakali under various elements as follows:
Get to know the characters in a Kathakali dance performance
Both the masculine and feminine characters in a Kathakali performance are essayed by only men. The female character is known as Minukku.
Up close with the training of Kathakali dancers
Students of Kathakali undergo rigorous training that includes oil massages and separate exercises for eyes, lips, cheeks, mouth and neck.
One of the special features of Kathakali training is – the teacher, holding to a bar, massages the student with his feet and toes, working gingelly oil into every joint and muscle. The process is painful, but it does create the required fitness and flexibility of the body that is required to execute the extremely demanding dance of Kathakali.
Abhinaya or expression is of prime importance in a Kathakali performance as is nritya or dance and geetham or singing.
Take a glimpse of my Kathakali Painting
I managed to paint a Kathakali dancer’s face on canvas, during this lockdown. Something that I had been intending to do for long. I used acrylic paints on canvas board to add colours to this expressive Kathakali face.
Embedded here is a snapshot of my Instagram account, where I had shared the Kathakali painting, capturing the intricacies of Kathakali makeup, also known in Malayalam as Kathakali Veshangal.
I hope to paint one soon bringing forth the beauty of the Kathakali costume!
View this post on Instagram
The first of the painting series I’ve planned around the ancient dance and art forms of India. Kathakali had been on my ‘palette-list’ for long! The Kathakali make-up falls under five categories, and, the one I have painted is the Paccha, that symbolises the protagonist in a Kathakali classical performance. The protagonist is often the one who displays divinity, heroic character and valour in this dance form. . In Paccha, the face is painted in green, with a vermillion mark on the forehead symbolising Vishnu. You may want to read more about the dance form , process of make-up and the importance of the various colours of Kathakali in my well-received blog-post 🍿🍿https://polkajunction.com/kathakali-classical-dance-kerala/🍿🍿 . This painting should’ve been done for RamNavami, nevertheless, here it is- an amateur’s attempt after waiting for over a decade! . #PolkaBrush #hobby #Kerala #Kathakali #art #artwork #amateurartist #painting #acrylicpainting #acrylic #sketching #stilllifepainting #dancepainting #classical #classicaldance #classicalart #costume #makeup #makeuplooks #agameoftones #agameofportraits #agameoftone #colour #colouring #indianartist #indianartists
Learn about the eco-friendly Kathakali makeup and its stages
The colours and materials used in the Kathakali makeup are eco-friendly, natural sans chemicals. These Kathakali makeup materials are either extracted from various stones, herbs or natural powders that are then mixed with water or coconut oil. This mixture is then ground into a fine paste and used for makeup.
I was told that the actors place a small seed in each eye which helps in turning their eyes red. This is not painful but the redness supposedly lasts up to five to six hours and greatly enhances the facial expressions of the actors.
The eye-catching Kathakali makeup is an elaborate process with many stages and I have tried to explain it below.
Theppu: First stage of Kathakali Veshangal
The first stage that we witnessed during the Kathakali makeup session or Kathakali veshangal, is the Theppu. In this, the Kathakali artist applies the basic paints on his face by himself, without any help.
The second stage of a Kathakali dance makeup: Chutti
The second stage in a Kathakali makeup process is the application of Chutti. The white makeup or Chutti is the very prominent white ridge that is built up from the chin to the cheeks on either side. It is the chutti that distinguishes a Kathakali dance from other dance forms.
Originally, the application of Kathakali chutti itself used to take many hours, as a mixture of rice paste and lime was used to build the ridges. But, nowadays, only the base is made of the paste and the ridges are of paper.
This chutti in a Kathakali makeup is applied by a Chuttikaaran(makeup man) onto the actor’s face.
Five main defining classes or roles of a Kathakali makeup
The kathakali makeup defines the characterisation in this dance drama. Thus, we need to know that the basic Kathakali makeup falls into five main classes that in turn define five roles in a Kathakali performance:
- Kari and
Kathakali makeup of Paccha (means green colour)
The colour green is painted on an actor’s face whose role is heroic, kingly and divine in a Kathakali dance. It is known as Paccha makeup.
The Kathakali dancers donning a Paccha makeup are also painted with large black markings around their eyes and eyebrows, with the sacred mark of Vishnu on their foreheads, and Vermilion/kumkum colour around their mouths.
They wear a chutti without fail. A golden crown called the kesabharam kirita ( commonly referred to as kirita) adorns their head. Lord Rama is the Paccha character in a Kathakali performance based on the Ramayana.
The role of Kathakali makeup of Katthi (means knife)
The paccha makeup and kirita in a Kathakali performance are used for a character who is full of valour though evil and arrogant. A distinction is made from the protagonist’s character of Paccha, by applying a red mark on each cheek that looks like an upturned moustache.
These characters have white knobs on the tips of their noses and on their foreheads to show that they are evil. Ravana is often depicted in a Katthi role.
Thaadi (means beard) in Kathakali
Chuvanna Thaadi (red beard), Vella Thaadi (white beard) and Karuttha Thaadi (black beard) are three different coloured artificial beards that cover just the neck of the characters in a Kathakali performance.
- Chuvanna Thaadi is used in Kathakali to depict the vicious and wicked characters. The Kathakali dancer’s face is painted mainly black on the top half and red on the lower in this sort of makeup.
- Vella Thaadi is usually used to represent Hanuman, a divine being in a Kathakali performance. His make-up suggests that of a monkey, with its complicated white, red and black face patterns.
- The hunters and the people of the forests are represented with the help of the Karuttha Thaadi in a Kathakali performance.
Significance of Kari (means black) in a Kathakali dance
In the character-defining Kathakali makeup of Kari, a Kathakali dancer’s face is painted black, the costumes are in black and the head-gear is old styled. Thus, we can say that ‘Kari’ is an all-black costume.
Characters portrayed through this costume and Kathakali makeup are demonesses and evil beings of ‘paathala lok’ or the underworld.
Kathakali’s Minukku (means glitter or radiance)
The Minukku class of Kathakali makeup is used to represent women, messengers, sages and Brahmin characters of a Kathakali dance performance. The colour used for make-up is orangish-yellow sans the chutti. Also, the costume is not elaborate.
The flamboyant Kathakali dance costume
Once the make-up is applied, the male characters in a Kathakali dance performance except for the ones with Minukku, wear an elaborate 55 yards skirt before which they drape 20-30 pieces of short cloth, to give an oval shape to the Kathakali costume.
The Kathakali skirt is diligently starched and pressed to make the frills look prominent and on top of this, a thick woollen jacket is draped. Though the costume looks a bit cumbersome, it actually provides the required space for leg movement owing to its volume and shape.
Describing the flamboyance of a Kathakali costume reminds me of the effort we used to take while dressing up a Kathakali bommai (doll) in our Navrathri Golu festival, also known as the doll festival of southern-India.
Accessories used in a Kathakali dance
The headgear or kirita, used by the Kathakali dancers are specially made from a type of softwood and cane. These are designed and carved intricately by the artisans belonging to a heritage village named Vellinezhi in Palakkad district. A full headgear ideally weighs around 400-450gms.
Also, the elaborate costumes, bracelets and other accessories worn by the Kathakali artists are also made by the artisans of Vellinezhi.
The stage setting for a Kathakali dance performance
The stage set-up for a Kathakali performance is simple, with no scenery as a backdrop. A large traditional lamp is lighted with two wicks at the front of the stage before the performance starts and the radiance from the lamp illuminates and compliments the colours on stage.
Traditionally, the music for a Kathakali performance was provided by two drummers and two singers on either side of the stage. However, in modern times technology too plays a role!
The singers recite the story of the play, verse by verse, in Sanskritized Malayalam and the actors interpret every word through their mudras and abhinaya. In this way, the whole story is narrated and displayed.
A Kathakali dance show in action
A Kathakali dance show elucidates ideas and stories from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as from Puranas.
On our evening of watching a Kathakali dance show, prior to the actual performance, we— the audience at the Cochin Cultural Centre, were given hand-outs with play details printed on it.
Also, at the beginning of the Kathakali dance show, the navarasas were enacted for the audience, to grasp the nuances of this traditional dance form as the play progressed.
The Kathakali dance performance is heralded by the beating of drums called Kelikottu accompanied by the sounds of the Chengila (gong).
From a calm start to an emotional and fiery exchange of mudras and dance moves to an eclectic end, the Kathakali dance performance that lasted for more than an hour was indeed an exhilarating experience.
The Kathakali dancers put their heart and soul into the performance so much so that they lived and emoted the characters.
The Kathakali show never looked superficial and this dedication is what makes these classical art forms like Kathakali, a class apart, and rooted in reality.
Finally, I not only got to know how the Kathakali dance is performed without a mask but also learnt the intricacies and hard work that goes behind the scenes.
From the elaborate Kathakali makeup to the accessories of the Kathakali costume, it indeed is a meditative process for the Kathakali artists.
A mention of the meditative process reminds me of my experience of watching a Bali Kecak dance, also known as the Kecak fire dance.
An amateur video of a Kathakali performance
Parting words on the classical dance form of Kathakali
Due to the advent of various entertainment avenues, in recent times, the cultural centres not just in Kerala but across India are seeing a rapid decline in people’s interest, especially in watching the Indian Classical art forms.
If we as Indians take interest in reviving these art forms by encouraging our children to tag along for an evening of classical dance or drama once in a while, these centres will not remain just a tourist attraction.
The children too will learn about our rich tradition and culture, festivals, apart from life lessons on the importance of fitness, hard work, dedication and perseverance.
The influx of spectators will surely encourage the authorities to provide varied and higher platforms for the artists that in turn will better their livelihood.
Hope you found my deconstruction of the Kathakali dance interesting and insightful. If you have already been a spectator to a Kathakali dance performance, feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section.
How did you like the Kathakali dance? Did you at any point find it too lengthy or boring?
I am putting forth these questions, as I remember, that although a majority of us in the audience loved the show and appreciated it without batting an eyelid, there were some who found the Kathakali performance slow and uninteresting!
Pay a visit to the cultural centres in Kerala when you visit the state and watch these opulent and colourful Kathakali artists in action.
Appreciate the hard work and efforts of Kathakali artists by being part of the make-up sessions and kindly encourage them during their Kathakali show. Ciao!
P.S: All the photos used in this blog-post barring the ones with the ‘Image Source’ mentioned, have been clicked by me.
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50 thoughts on “Kathakali dance – The colourful classical dance form of Kerala”
Nice detail of our Kathakali classical dance: one of the oldest and famous Indian dance form. We should promote it whenever and whatever means we have. Very very thanks for that.
I have never heard of Kathakali, but now I find it fascinating! It’s such an in-depth and authentic look at the dance. You included some great details. Who would’ve known that the dancers have different exercises for their hands, feet, lips and face! I also think it’s incredibly symbolic and their dances are full of intention. Every detail has significant meaning which makes the experience that much more captivating and interesting.
Kathakali is not known to me but I have seen similar dances in Indian culture in Indonesia. The make up looks intrinsic and complex. This speaks of dedication of the dancers and really deserves to be preserved and continued!
This is interesting. This is the first time I heard about it and would love to watch the performance live. It is such a beautiful form of art that must be revived and preserved.
I think I remember seeing a picture of the Kathakali dancer once. I wonder how long is the performance after all the preparation. Thank you for sharing information about the dance. I hope it will get its time back in Kerala.
Kathakali is a dance which I haven’t heard before. It’s really good that we are promoting and trying to revive it. It’s nice to see traditions still evident despite the modernization. I find it very artistic and colorful. Hopefully, I can watch it live or even learn the dance.
I’ve never heard of Kathakali so it’s exciting to read about it on your post. This dance is surely a meaningful cultural performance. The makeup, costume, and accessories look really interesting. It’s great that the performance put their heart and soul and live the characters.
So when I was 9 or 10, I really wanted to learn this dance form. I did also for a few weeks but never continued. You have captured all the aspects so well in this post. I wasn’t aware that they put seeds in the eyes for the redness. What a lot of hard work goes into one performance. Great post!
wow how interesting. It is vital to take an interest in culture in order to preserve it. Whilst I have not seen a show I find it interesting that some were fascinated and some looked bored?! also very impressive that they apply their make up by themselves.
Never heard about Kathakali. Watching the dance looks like a very interesting cultural experience. Everything about it is so attractive: the face painting, the flamboyant costumes, the staging. Would love to attend a performance someday.
thanks for the information
Wow!! Loved reading this detaild post and learn the intricacies of tge dance form. Kathakali form has always fascinated me with the elaborate makeup, costume and head gear, but knowi g the different colors of makeup have significance is great to know. I am looking forward to seeing a prformance in my trip next month. Can u suggest some places to see the performances?
I went to the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, and it was very good.
So fascinating! I love watching traditional dance performances when I go to a new country, they provide such a unique glimpse into the history and culture of the place. I’ve never heard of Kathakali but it looks like a feast for the eyes! So colourful! I love how they use natural make up too. It’s so important to keep these traditional art forms alive, thank you for sharing.
Kathakali is always very interesting and beautiful, depicting all colorful costumes. Kathakali costume is very flamboyant and it takes hours and a lot of efforts to put all the makeup and all getup. Stage settings add authentic settings with Diya style of lighting. This whole setup is a beautiful and perfect example of Indian Classical Dance.
I love learning about other cultures and celebrations. There seems to be so much work and detail that goes into the dance, makeup, and costumes. I would love to see the Kathakali performance in person one day!
This is really informative, and loved reading this. Despite staying in India, I never managed to catch a live performance of Kathakali. This colourful classical dance definitely needs a revival and needs to be put out on the mainstream.
Wow this is very interesting to hear about! I had not heard of anything like this, especially the part about men dressing up as the women and painting their faces with the make up. The makeup itself looks to be a true art form in itself! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Wow! I love your description of the effort that the performers put into their training and makeup. Such dedication! I also appreciate the eco-friendly makeup that they use. I imagine that after all the preparation that the training requires, that the performance itself would be as mesmerizing for me as it was for you. The deeply embedded symbols of culture are beautiful! Thank you for the education on this dance!
I had no idea that this dance existed but loved learning about all the intricacies involved in such flamboyance! My favorite part is that they use eco-friendly make-up made with natural colors mixed with water or oil. I don’t think I could ever purposely put a seed in my eye to turn it red though. I know you claim it doesn’t hurt… but ouch!
This post is a gem. I live Indian classical dance so I was all the more intrigued. Just the sheer effort in the makeup . Did you notice the feet, the feet is always balanced on the edges almost throughout the dance. Unbelievable
Patience is the only word that comes to me when I see Kathakali dancers. Great post Meenakshi
MeenalSonal from AuraOfThoughts
Wow! I was in Kerala in 2010. Can’t believe I missed this! Will definitely be going back one day. Thanks for this fascinating and insightful post. You have a beautiful blog!
Hey , much thanks for dropping by.And, yes, you should definitely witness this dance drama when you visit Kerala, again.
Would you believe I trained for 3 years in Kathakali?But I was 5 when I started and didn’t like the strictness and drama of the dance form.It is a very artistic dance form which I appreciate more now!
Would you believe I trained for 3 years in Kathakali?But I was 5 when I started and didn’t like the strictness and drama of the dance form.It is a very artistic dance form which I appreciate more now.
Nice, detailed and informative post about Kathakali. Folk dances in India need revival in view of the western influence in Indian cinema and television.
Before learning Bharatnatyam in school, I took some classes of Kathakali also. I must say it requires huge determination to get perfection in this beautiful dance form.
I never had the chance to see Kathakali. Thanks to you for sharing such refined details. More respect to this art form. Great pics.
I wonder how they got to start kathakali all together, it’s a very creative form of art to me. The dance the costume, the face paint. Maybe it deriviated from another temple tradition, older then 2000 years old? Ironically in Europe people are super curious and value these kind of Exotic to them art forms a lot. That’s why there is no reason why kathakali would be declining in India! I personally have not seen a proper kathakali dance yet but I am looking to watch one at some point soon. It’s very intriguing how the face is painted, and that combined with the smart costume, face makeup and expressions. It’s magical! Who makes the paint? Also what seed do they put into the eye? It’s so cool how they make the red eye effect!
Traditional art forms cannot survive solely on Tourist influx.I am an exponent of a traditional musical instrument ‘Veena’ but I can vouch that present generation has not even heard about it. We as Indians also need to work towards its survival and revival.
Coming to Kathakali…The artists themselves sit and mix the paints. I tried asking them about the seed but they were not too keen on sharing.
Thanks for a very interesting post.
The ‘seed’ is from the chundanga plant (it’s actually the ground up ovaries rather than a seed). What I’ve not been able to establish is whether the plant ‘dyes’ the eyes, or simply irritates them so they become bloodshot. I’m leaning towards the former from what I have read, but I’d love to know for certain.
Thank you so much for dropping by my blog, Christopher. Glad to know that you did attend the performance at Kathakali centre. The seed doesn’t dye the eye but irritates them as far as I am aware. Also, thanks for reminding me to update the post with this info 😀
I had the opportunity to see the Kathakali performance in Hyderabad. I spent hours looking at the artisans doing the makeup – following the process in a meditative rhythm – it was meditative even to watch them. The dance after that looked like a bonus.
I have a secret wish to wear this costume once although I am not sure if that is allowed as a non-dancer.
The costumes and makeup are gorgeous! What a detailed description of all of it. Thank you!
Much thanks, Lynda. I am glad that you dropped by my blog 🙂
Wow, what an extraordinary dance ritual. You are so fortunate to participate. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes.
I am nominating you for “The Mystery Blogger Award” under the category of Travel/Photography. Check out the link below for additional details. It was great to connect with you!
I am fascinated by the costumes, makeup and expressions of Kathakali dancers.I would love to watch them perform live some day but thanks for sharing a detailed post on this dance form. Love your pictures!
Such a wonderfully informative post, I got hooked to it reading everything in details. Had a vague idea about Kathakali as I learned this dance form during school days. But so much details … nah! Respect for this cultural heritage of our Country.
I was fortunate enough to watch a live Kathakali performance when in Kerala.
I was mesmerised but had no clue about all the behind the scenes details.
Thank for for sharing them with us, and for the stunning, as usual, pictures.
What a treat this post has been!
This is quite exhaustive information. Though being from Kerala, I was not knowing these nuances. Thanks Meenakshi.
Absolutely, loved this article and the way you have handled such a complicated theme. Keep up the good work 🙂
Thank you so much.Means a lot coming from you 🙂
Wow! What a lovely post! Didn’t know much about Kathakali. I always get fascinated by their costume and expressions. Good to know about this dance form in detail.
This is a really informative post! I remember seeing something similar called Yakshagaan performed in Karnataka. The costumes there aren’t so ornate but it is similar.
Wow! Great details you have provided in this post. I have heard that it indeed takes lot of patience by the dancers who spend hours for the makeup. It is my dream to witness all the dance forms but there are many in my list still not fulfilled. Hopefully i get to see the glory of kathakali dance form soon enough.
PS: The photos which did not include “Image source” were also very beautiful 🙂
Haha…Thanks a ton Keerthi. You should watch the performance and I am sure you will not be disappointed.
Thank you for sharing this in-depth information about Kathakali.
As rightly mentioned by you, in order to provide the boost to the continuance of such an art form, we must have more platforms for the performers and we should also visit them whenever the show is put up in our towns!
– Anagha From Team MocktailMommies