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Kathakali : The classical Dance Drama of Kerala

Kathakali is truly the classical dance drama of Kerala, south India . Literally, the word Kathakali means ‘enacted story’ or ‘story play’. The special charectoristic of the art form of Kathakali is its elaborate and colorful costumes. This has now even been used an icon of Kerala itself.

Origin of Kathakali

The origin of Kathakali can be traced back to the tantric (ritualistic ) period of the Vedic Age. It is believed that Kathakali had its earlier trait in Krishnanaattam, the dance drama on Lord Krishna developed by the Zamorins of Kozhikode. It is said that long back the king of Kottarakkara (a regional province), Kottarakkara Thampuran who was fascinated by seeing Krishnanaattam asked the Zamorin for sending some krishnanattom performers on some festival occasion in his place. However, the Zamorin refused and insulted the king by saying: ”It is of no use to send the troupe, as Kottarakkara Thespian’s court would neither be able to understand nor appreciate anything in Krishnanaattam performance”.

From this point, the rivalry between the two kings culminated. From this time, the KottarakkaraKrishna : Kathakali Thampuran initiated a parallel art form, called Raamanaattam which was later changed into Aattakatha, and years laterthis gave birth to Kathakali As Krishnanaattam is based on the story of Lord Krishna, Raamanaattam enacted the complete story of Lord Rama. The language of Krishnanaattam was Sanskrit,. Raamanaattam was however in Malayalam, the language of the common people. In the late seventeenth century, ramanattam became refined and started being performed as Kathakali.

The costume of Kathakali has much resemblance to that of Chaakkyaar koothu and Koodiyattam. The whole style of Abhinaya (acting) and the Mudras (hand poses) were bodily taken in Kathakali from these older art forms along with the facial make-up style and costumes. After its introduction, Kathakali outshined Chaakkyaar koothu and Koodiyattam in terms of popularity. Moreover, it was not limited to the precincts of the temples. The golden period of Kathakali was from 1665 AD and 1743 AD.

Contributions made by Kaartika Thirunal, the king of Travancore, to Malayalam literature, dance and art is truly admirable. He also took efforts for popularising Kathakali among the common people.

The Art of Kathakali

Kathakali uses the four types of abhinayas, being: Sattvika, expression of thoughts by the efforts of the mind (Rasa and Bhaava). Aangika, delivery of ideas by the movements of body parts which includes gestures., Vaacika, which represents spoken words, songs, shouts, etc., and Aharya, the dress and the presentation.

Prince Vettathu Thampuran, introduced a few basic innovations in Kathakali. He provided separate singers and introduced chenda, the percussion instrument, to announce the commencement of a performance. This powerful and shrill sound of chenda elevated the acting of supernatural forms appearing on the stage.

Symbols shown by hands , mudras have an important role in Kathakali. With the help of Mudras, a whole literary piece is presented as elementary notions. There are basically sixty-four basic hand poses which represent five hundred words, while the movements of the eyes shows various emotions. The simultaneous use of both of these system can be used to convey any meanings requiring elaboration of the story being enacted

According to the mode of the theme, a Kathakali song expresses different Bhaava and Rasa (aesthetic delights)

Characterization in Kathakali is achieved by virtue of difference in makeup and presentation. There are good and negative characters, demons and gods, wordly and unwordly role-types according to their castes, quality and nature.

Make-up of Kathakali

The make-up of Kathakali character is peculiarly native to the Kerala folk-art. The green colour in face makeups shows Saattvika bhava or godliness, white represents spirituality. Red color shows Rajasic or violence nature. Black color in Kathakali shows Tamasic or evil. Yellow color represents the combined nature of Saatvika and Rajasic rasas. Thus Kathakali characters are mainly categorised into five major types. These role types are Minukku, Paccha, Katti,taadi (has three varieties like Velupputaadi, Chuvannataadi and Karupputtadi) and Kari.


Minukku is the polished type of facial make-up which includes smoothening the face with a coating of a mixture of yellow and red colors. This givesa natural skin color. It is used for the characters like Brahmins, Rishis and Virtuous women etc.. The lips are reddened as usual for other charectors in Kathakali. Women charectors are given delicate touches of the make-up.


Charectors in Kathakali with Paccha or dark green face are usually celebrated heroes, and virtuous men who are icons of heroism and moral values. Charecters represented by pacha includes Indra, Krishna , Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Satrugnan, Harischandra and Nala. Their face is given smooth dark green base and on this chuttis (white rice-paste curves) are made covering the chin on both sides of the face.


When compared with paccha, the Katti characters are very much different. The term Kathi means knife inKathakali performer Malayalam. This type of makeup got its name because of its resemblance to sharp knife edges. Kathi in kathakali is often charaters which are evil, demoniac and fierce. Villains in Kathakali such as Asuras (the enemies of the God’s) and arrogant forms of charectors like Dussaasana , Raavana, Keechaka and Kamsa are distinctively given this make-up. Two white knob like whitish decorative items, called chuttippuvus, are placed on the face. These may vary in size with the degree of the negative appearance of some demoniac characters like Raavana and Dussaasana. Also two long protruding fierce canine teeth(dhamshtras)are made use of on either side of the mouth.

Taadi (Beard)

Those who have the taadi make-upin Kathakali may be either, good godly or evil-demoniac. To differentiate one from the other, there are three forms of thadi makeup in Kathakali . They are : Veluppu taadi (white beard), Chuvanna taadi (red beard) and Karuppu taadi (black beard).

Veluppu taadi

This style consists of a white beard and a fur coat for the body. It is a make-up used in kathakali for characters like Hanumaan, the and other monkey sages and warriors. The upper half of the face, both eye region, and lips are given with a black color. On the tip of the nose and the forehead there are two oval-shaped spots in red.

Chuvanna taadi

This type of make-up in Kathakali is given to hideous characters. The entire face is painted red, with black lines round the eyes, lips and the chin. The face is given black lines. Around the eyes, also deep black colour is given to give to the eyes an evil look. Lips are also painted in black. Chuttippuvus (white blobs) on the tip of the nose and the fore-head are much bigger in size than those used in kathi characters. It is said to be the most impressive of all make-ups in Kathakali.

Karuppu taadi

This type of bearded characters make-up is with a black beard and coat. These characters include Kali, Kaattaalan (hunter), brigands and robber chieftains. In their make-up, the face is first painted black . sLips are in red. The tip of the nose bears a chuttippuuvu.


This make-up is used for evil characters like Suurpanakha and Simhika. Their faces are painted in black and the cheeks have a red crescent in the middle. There is also a pair of damshtraas. Shiva in the form of Kiraata (hunter) in Kiraatam is also given this type of the make-up.

Themost noted feature of the Kathakali make-up is the reddening of the of the eyes of characters by using a few young seeds of chunda puuvu (sollanum pubescence) This is to give a contrast to the eye color , when identified with the face make up .

Make-up in the ‘Green room’

Kathakali make-up is a process tat consumes much time and effort. This elaborate process takes over three hours to complete. Paints used in Kathakali make-up are often freshly prepared and then applied precision.

The make-up of the male characters are tedious. The proposed actor lies flat on a carpeted floor and the expert starts drawing ‘the face designs’ on the face with a thin rod. After completing the face makeup, he stands up for putting on the costume. The main costume is a frilled garment. Before putting on the skirt (Uduthuketu) the actor ties 25 to 45 strips of cloth around his so as to give the skirt a round and perfect shape. The head-dresses in Kathakali (Kireedam) are huge for the male charactors.These are often tied by an attendant.

A complete Kathakali performance in its true sense has the following elements in it:

1. Todayam- the basic beginning performance;

2. Purappaadu- Introduction of the main virtuous character;

3. Tirano’kku- ‘curtain look’ by negative characters and demons;

4. Kummi- intro to the female character’s appearance

5. Kathakali- the main play

6. Kalaasham- fast and vigorous dance which connects two pieces of play

7. The concluding dance

Kerala Kalamandalam

The premiere training institution for Kathakali in Kerala is the Kerala Kalamandalam located at Cheruthuruthy in Thrissur District. Kalamandalam was founded in 1930 by famous Malayalam poet Padmabhooshan Vallathol Narayana Menon . Kalamandalam is ideally situated on the banks of the river Nila (Bharatappuzha) . Kalamandalam has now become a synonym to the cultural tradition of Kerala and India . Kalamandalam is wholly a residential institution for art learning.

Here at Kerala Kalamandalam, Classes start in   the kalaries as early as 4.30 in the morning and continue till evening. Students of all streams stay in the campus itself as this is strictly a residential University. The main part of training in Kathakali here is the traditional body-massage. There are pre-massage and post-massage exercises. The students are smeared with oil on their face, body and limbs . This is succeeded by the student lying down on the carpeted floor of the kalari and the instructors massage their body and limbs with feet. The face is also then massaged with hands to facilitate the free movement of face muscles. Once the student is physically and mentally ready to start learning, proper initiation is given to start the learning process.

characters in Kathakali and their costume sample

karikrishnan kathakalibhadra kali
vella thadiminukkusudaama
karkotakanarasimhamroudra bheeman

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