Think of Kathakali, and it’s sure to evoke imagery of vibrancy, opulence, flamboyant Kathakali costume and an expressive Kathakali dance performance.
But for me, apart from the imageries, it has always rekindled memories of my school days when working on projects related to classical dance forms of India, I was enchanted by the very colourful mask and costume of Kathakali dancers.
For as long as I can remember, I had concluded that the Kathakali dancers wore a mask for their performances, until one fine evening in the bylanes of Cochin(Ernakulam), this myth was demystified.
Kathakali – A flamboyant classical dance form of India
India is a vibrant and rich land of varied cultures, art forms and languages. Thus, a traveller is bound to experience a variety of changes that are both interesting and inquisitive in this country where the landscape changes every few kilometres, especially if it is God’s Own Country, Kerala.
The culturally rich Fort Cochin in Kerala houses the oldest active Jewish Synagogue in the yesteryear colonies and offers simple yet elaborate vegetarian food served with warmth.
The state of Kerala is dotted with ornate temples and churches. Travellers can enjoy slow boat rides along the canals of the backwaters, and the ever-present rain distinguishes the state of Kerala from its neighbouring states.
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.
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.
Read a foreign traveller’s account of the Kerala backwater trip on their blog
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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