Indian Classical Dance: Kathakali

Kathakali is one of the eight major classical dance forms as recognised by the Sangeet Natak Academy. Other dance forms that Sangeet Natak Academy recognises are, Kathak, Manipuri, Sattriya, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam

Kathakali is a narrative dance form, from the state of Kerela. Kathakali is the amalgamation of two words, ‘Katha’ which means story, and ‘kali’ means a dance or a performance, in Malayalam. The dance form is based on the stories from Ramyana, Mahabharata and stories from Shaiva literature. Although not clearly traceable, it be believed that this classical dance from originated in the late 16th and early 17th century India.

Distinct features

The art form developed in courts and theatres of Kerala’s dynasties, that is, it was an outcome of a long line of theatrical practices, contrary to other Indian classical dances which predominantly developed in Hindu Temples and monastic schools. Another distinct features was, unlike other classical dance forms, Kathakali is traditionally performed by only male performers, who play the role of both males and females.

Kathakali involves the use of intricate make-up code, costume, face masks, head dresses and brightly painted faces. The colourful make-up of Kathakali performers is quite complicated and unique among all the other classical dance forms. The intricate make-up is called vesham, which is based on the psychology of colour. The costumes consists of full skirts, a heavy jacket, numerous garland and necklaces, and headgears.

Five main roles

Kathakali is a highly expressive dance form and requires vigorous trainings to be able to deliver such precision and mastery. In order to deliver such performances, make-up plays an important role in classifying the character in Kathakali. Thus, there are five important character veshams (make-up) in Kathakali, they are;

  • Pacha vesham– It is a green coloured make up on the face that is used to portray noble male characters like kings and divine beings.
  • Kathi– It denotes arrogant and evil character. The make is basically green showcasing that they are high born, but a red mark like an upturned moustached or knife (Kathi) is painted on the cheeks to show they are evil.
  • Kari vesham– This is the colour black,  and it is used for demonic characters, playing the most heinous figures on the stage.
  • Minukku vesham– It symbolizes gentleness and high spiritual qualities, denoted by using radiant lighter colours.
  • Thadi vesham– This refers to the beard, it can vary in length and colours, depending on the gravity of the character.

Apart from these five character veshams, there are eighteen other special characters that cannot be fitted into any particular category.

Kathakali in the present times

Traditionally Kathakali dances revolved around themes from religious sagas, legends, mythologies, folklores and spiritual tales, derived from the ‘Puranas’ and the Hindu epics. However, apart from such traditional themes, the modern day Kathakali troupes have also incorporated themes based on legends from Christianity and also adapted themes based on stories of renowned western authors such as William Shakespeare and more.

Another development that can be seen in present day Kathakali is the inclusion of women in the troupes. Traditionally Kathakali was performed by an all-men troupe who played the parts of both men and women. But now, this seems to be changing, as there has been a growing number of women participating in performing the dance form. This new changes have been welcoming, and viewers are accepting and appreciating these changes to an extent.

                    However, certain things remain the same such as beginning the performance by lighting a lamp and playing orchestra music, and the voiceover continues to be in Sanskritised Malayalam. Kathakali as a dance form not only entertains us but also provides a window to have a glimpse into the past and an opportunity to comprehend the ancient heritage that has been preserved for centuries through Kathakali performances.