Kathakali – The colourful classical dance form of Kerala that requires a revival

The name ‘Kathakali’ usually unfolds imagery of vibrancy, opulence, flamboyant costume and expressive dance. But for me, it had always rekindled old memories of my school days when in one of the projects, we had to stick a chart on Classical Dance forms of India and I was captivated by the very colourful mask and costume of the Kathakali dancer. For as long as I remember, I had concluded that the dancers of Kathakali wore a mask for their performances until one fine evening in the bylanes of Cochin/Ernakulam, this myth was demystified.


Kathakali – A Flamboyant Dance Form of India

Classical Dance 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 a land where the landscape changes every few kilometres, especially if it is God’s Own Country -Kerala.

Apart from the culturally rich Fort Cochin that houses the oldest active Jewish Synagogue in the yesteryear colonies, the simple yet elaborate vegetarian food that is served with warmth, the ornated temples and churches, the slow boat rides along the canals of the backwaters and the ever-present rains that distinguishes the state of Kerala from its neighbouring states,  what brings back fond memories of my trip to Cochin is the Kathakali dance performance that we witnessed a day after our trip to the backwaters of Kerala . The performance also made me read a lot about this dying art form that requires immediate revival.

While exploring Cochin and Ernakulum on foot, we had chanced upon the Cochin Cultural Centre in Ernakulam. When we were asked if we would like to attend the Make-up session 2 hours prior to the actual event, a sense of realization dawned on me that the process of demystification has indeed started.  After all, Kathakali is all about the colourful costume, expressions and make-up!

Kathakali travel blog

All about Kathakali

Kathakali as a dance-drama 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 is below.

Polkajunction travel blog
Source: keralatourism.org

Kathakali makes use of nritya (dance) in combination with abhinaya (expressions) that forms the crux and the USP of this dance form. Most of the Classical Indian dance forms make ample use of the Navarasa and Kathakali 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.

Mudras Polkajunction Travel blog

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:


Both masculine and feminine characters in this dance form are performed by only men. The female character is known as Minukku.


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 the 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 as is nritya or dance and geetham or singing.

Eco-friendly makeup

The colours used in the Kathakali makeup are eco-friendly, natural sans chemicals. They 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 make-up is an elaborate process with many stages.

The first stage that we witnessed is the Theppu wherein the artist applies the basic paints on his face by himself without any help.

Kathakali make-up polkajunction travel blog
Source : keralatourism.org

The second stage 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 distinguish Kathakali from other dance forms. Originally, the application of 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 is applied by a Chuttikaaran(make-up man) onto the actor’s face.

kathakali make-up Source - polkajunction travel blog

We need to know that Kathakali make-up falls into five main classes:

  • Paccha
  • Katthi
  • Thaadi
  • Kari and
  • Minukku

Paccha (means green colour): This colour is painted on an actor’s face whose role is heroic, kingly and divine. They 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.

chutti kathakali make-up polkajunction

Katthi ( means knife): The paccha make-up and kirita are used for the character who is full of valour though evil and arrogant. The distinction is made from a protagonist’s character by the application of 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.

Source : Keralatourism.org

Thaadi ( means beard): 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. Chuvanna Thaadi is for vicious and wicked characters, whose faces are painted mainly black on the top half and red on the lower. Vella Thaadi is usually used to represent Hanuman, a divine being. 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.

Kari (means black): In this, the 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 in this costume are demonesses and evil beings of ‘paathala lok or the underworld.

Minukku ( means glitter or radiance): This class of make-up is used to represent women, messengers, sages and Brahmin characters. The colour used for make-up is orangish-yellow sans the chutti.  Also, the costume is not elaborate.

Kathakali make-up
A Minukku artist applying the make-up

The flamboyant Kathakali costume 

Once the make-up is applied, the male characters 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 costume.

Kathakali costume polkajunction
Original Source : keralatourism.org

The 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.


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 head gear ideally weighs around 400-450gms.

kathakali headgear polkajunction
Source : keralatourism.org

The elaborate costumes, bracelets and other accessories worn by the Kathakali artistes are also made by the artisans of Vellinezhi.

Stage Setting

The stage 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.

Kathakali stage


Traditionally, the music 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. 

The Kathakali Performance 

Kathakali elucidates the ideas and stories from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and Puranas.Prior to the actual performance, we were given hand-outs with play details printed on it. Also, at the beginning of the play, the navarasas were enacted for the audience to grasp the nuances of this traditional dance form as the play progressed.

Kathakali performance in progress

Kathakali 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 performance that lasted for more than an hour was indeed an exhilarating experience.

Classical dance form

The dancers put their heart and soul into the performance so much so that they lived and emoted the characters. It never looked superficial and this dedication is what makes these classical art forms a class apart and grounded in reality.

Finally, I not only got to know that Kathakali is performed without a mask but also learnt the intricacies and hard work that goes behind the scenes too. My kiddo too learnt these facts quite earlier in life than his mom !!

Parting words on Kathakali

In recent times, due to the advent of various entertainment avenues the cultural centres not just in Kerala but across India are seeing a rapid decline in people’s interest in 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 dramas once in a while, these centres will not remain just a tourist attraction. The children too will learn about our rich tradition and culture, 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 performers that in turn will better their livelihood.

Read a foreign traveller’s account of the Kerala backwater trip on their blog 

Kathakali and Polkajunction.com

Do pay a visit to the cultural centres in Kerala when you travel there and watch this opulent and colourful dance form called Kathakali in action. If you have already been a spectator to this art form, feel free to share your thoughts with me. How did you like the performance? Did you at any point find it too lengthy and boring? I am putting forth this question because, I remember that though the majority of us in the audience loved the show and appreciated it without blinking our eyelids, there were some who found it too slow and uninteresting!

Do share your thoughts…….

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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  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Kristy Bullard says:

    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!

  5. 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.

  6. Courtney Hopkins says:

    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 🙂

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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

  10. Patience is the only word that comes to me when I see Kathakali dancers. Great post Meenakshi

    MeenalSonal from AuraOfThoughts

  11. 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!

    1. Hey , much thanks for dropping by.And, yes, you should definitely witness this dance drama when you visit Kerala, again.

  12. Amrita says:

    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!

  13. Amrita says:

    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.

  14. Nice, detailed and informative post about Kathakali. Folk dances in India need revival in view of the western influence in Indian cinema and television.

  15. 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.

  16. I never had the chance to see Kathakali. Thanks to you for sharing such refined details. More respect to this art form. Great pics.

  17. 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!

    1. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. The costumes and makeup are gorgeous! What a detailed description of all of it. Thank you!

    1. Much thanks, Lynda. I am glad that you dropped by my blog 🙂

  20. Wow, what an extraordinary dance ritual. You are so fortunate to participate. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes.

  21. 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!


  22. 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!

  23. Gratitude !!
    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.

  24. 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!

  25. This is quite exhaustive information. Though being from Kerala, I was not knowing these nuances. Thanks Meenakshi.

  26. Absolutely, loved this article and the way you have handled such a complicated theme. Keep up the good work 🙂

    1. Thank you so much.Means a lot coming from you 🙂

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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 🙂

    1. Haha…Thanks a ton Keerthi. You should watch the performance and I am sure you will not be disappointed.

  30. 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

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