Home Arts KATHAKALI – the classical dance drama of Kerala

KATHAKALI – the classical dance drama of Kerala


It is Kerala’s very own, much celebrated dance drama. Kathakali was, evolved in the 8th century, from ‘Ramanattam’ a dance drama created by Kottarakkara Thampuran, a great admirer and promoter of traditional art forms. Kathakali draws its theme from the wealth of Indian mythology and folklore. Kathakali strictly addresses the fundamentals and axioms laid down by Bharata Muni, the legendary figure considered to be the father of Indian Classical Dances. The performance calls for a high degree of command over body and muscle movements and facial expressions. The performer is assisted by vocal and percussion accompaniments while the theme is expounded by the dancer through ‘hasta mudras’ or hand gestures.

The ‘mudras‘ are 25 in number, while the ‘upa mudras’ are 700 in number. Expressions of face and eyes hold the key to perfection. The best way to appreciate a Kathakali performance is to have that particular dance-drama explained to you in advance. Today Kathakali is a highly stylised but extraordinarily evocative art which combines chant, drama, dance, make-up, dress and gesture into a package that weaves a compelling spell.

Unique among the Indian dance forms, Kathakali is the classical dance – drama of Kerala. Vivid and eloquent in its characteristics mudras (hand signs), natural and impressive in gesture, graceful and rhythmic in movement, pleasing in choreography and above all delightful in wealth of imagery, Kathakali ranks high among the Indian dance forms.

For themes Kathakali draws upon the inexhaustible treasure trove of the ancient puranas chronicling the lives, loves and conflicts of the gods and supermen of Indian mythology.

Noted for its archaic costumes, weird make up and grand head gears, Kathakali is perhaps the only dance form in India in which the masculine aspect of the dance is preserved in its elemental vigour.

Kathakali as it is known today is not more than three to four hundred years old, even though its actual roots can be traced to at least 1500 years earlier. Kathakali marks the culmination of a long process of evolution during which the various histrionic arts of Kerala had their birth and development and paved the way for the eventual emergence of this composite art. Kathakali also symbolises a blending of the Aryan and Dravidian cultures, for in shaping its technique this dance form assimilated various elements which it borrowed freely from the dances, dramas and ritual performances associated with these cultures.

In reconstructing the history of Kathakali it is necessary to take into consideration practically every type of formalised dance, drama and dance – drama that existed in Kerala prior to the genesis of this art. Such a study should include the earliest types of stylised dance and drama in Kerala such as Chakiayarkoothu and Koodiyattom, various ritual dances associated with the cult of Bhagavathy, such as the Mudiyattu, thiyyattom and Theyyattom, the socio-religious and material dances such as the Sastrakali and Ezhamattukali and the laterly evolved dance – dramas such as the Krishnanattom and Ramanattom. The art of Kathakali incorporates the characteristic features of many of the dances and dramas and it is safe to surmise that Kathakali evolved out of these earlier forms. Props, Rituals and Customs

Kathakali is a complete art constituting three fine arts – Abhinaya (acting), and Nrithya (dancing) and Geetha (music). It is pantomime in which the actors do not speak or sing, but interpret their emotions through highly sensitive medium of appropriate gestures, picturesque hand – poses and vivid facial expression perfectly intelligible even to the uninitiated. Kathakali is both dramatic and a dance art. But primarily it is the former. Histrionics or Abhinaya predominates and that too is of a far profounder type than ordinary dramatic acting. It is not realistic art but belongs to the imaginative type spoken of in Bharatha’s Natya shastra.

Every feeling is idealised and expressed on the face with an intense vividness, which more than compensates for the absence of the spoken work. And every shade of such expression on the face is made to harmonise with the rhythm of the dance and melody of the music acting in Kathakali is not merely the expression of the subjective emotions of the human heart, but also an objective realisation of the person, scenes, creatures and things around. It actually involves impersonation through the medium of art and here in consists the essential expansiveness of Kathakali, its pictorial splendour and its poetic sublimity.

Music is an important and essential element in Kathakali. The orchestra in it is composed of two vocal musician, one keeping time with a resounding gong called chegala and the other with a pair of clanking cymbals called elethalam, a chenda player and maddalam player. The chenda is a cylindrical drum with a loud but sweet sound while the maddalam has the appearance of a big mridangam.

Kathakali music has developed into a distinctive type of singing known as the sopana style which is very slow tempo. There is neither raga, ragaalapana as such nor are there elaborations like niraval and swaral singing. Preventing the broad features of the ragas and adhering meticulously to the talas they sing the songs in such a manner as to give the actors full scope for abhinaya. There are two vocal musicians in Kathakali of whom the main one is known as ponani and the minor partner as sinkidi. The Kathakali songs couched in rich poetic diction are among the germs of Malayalam literature.

The mudras (hand gestures) used as a substitute for spoken language are as much suited, if not more, for the purpose of dance and drama. To the accompaniment of the chenda, the maddalam, the chengala and the elethalam the musicians sing the words of a dialogue from behind, the meaning of which is vividly translated by the actors into the silent language of facial expressions, bodily attitudes and poses and figurations of the hands. As these songs proceed, the actors mute of word but eloquent of expression recreate the epic and bring to life a dream world to sheer fantsay. The actors act and dance in harmony with the rhythm as well as with the sense of the songs. The mudras form and inseparable part of the nrithya and abhinaya.

The characters in kathakali are all mythological and so the question of their make-up cannot be settled on a realistic basis. They all have set modes of make-up and attire and adornment and are reduced to five main types, according to their real character or qualities. These types are usually known by the predominant colour applied to the face or its pattern. All the Spiritually inclined characters of Kathakali are mythological and have different modes of makeup.

Adornment & attire are reduced to 5 types. They are
1) Pacha ( Green ) representing Noble & virtuous characters 
2) Kathi ( Knife )  Unrighteous characters 
3) Thadi ( Beard ) Demoniac characters  
4) Kari ( Black )     Agressors 
5) Minukku ( Polished )

Virtuous and noble characters are in pacha. Proud aggressive and unrighteous characters belong to the kathi type. The bearded type known as thadi are of three varieties. The most aggressive and demoniac are known as chuvanna thadi (red beard), mythical and fabulous beings like the monkey-gods are known as vellathadi (white beard); aboriginals, forest-men and cave-dwellers are known as karutha thadi (black beards). The lowest type of beings like the aggressor are classed as kari (black). The gentle and spiritually inclined characters (like women, sages, Brahmins etc.) come under the type known as minukku (polished).

The costume and ornamentation are elaborate and designed to heighten the superman effect. The large overcoats, the flowing scarves, the bulging skirts, the antique ornaments, the strikingly opulent head dresses with streaming hair flowing down to the waist and covering the back – all create enlarged figures well befitting the sculptured facial features and produce tremendously impressive impersonations.
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