by David Courtney, Ph.D.
- Kathakali is the most well known dance drama from the
south Indian state of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally
means "Story-Play". It is known for its large,
elaborate makeup and costumes. The elaborate costumes
of Kathakali have become the most recognised icon for
themes of the Kathakali are religious in nature. They
typically deal with the Mahabarat, the Ramayana and the
ancient scriptures known as the Puranas. This is performed
in a text which is generally Sanskritised Malayalam.
Kathakali performance is a major social event. They generally
start at dusk and go through out the night. Kathakali
is usually performed only by men. Female characters are
portrayed by men dressed in women's costume. However,
in recent years, women have started to become Kathakali
has a long tradition. It dates back to the 17th century.
It was given its present form by Mahakavi Vallathol Narayan
Menon, who was the founder of the Kerala Kala Mandalam.
actors rely very heavily on hand gesture to convey the
story. These hand gestures, known as mudra, are common
through out much of classical Indian dance.
COSTUME - The costume is the most distinctive characteristic
of Kathakali. The makeup is very elaborate and the costumes
are very large and heavy.
are several kinds of costume. There are: Sathwika (the
hero), Kathi (the villain), Minukku (females), and Thatti.
These basic divisions are further subdivided in a way
which is very well known to Malayali (Keralite) audiences.
Each character is instantly recognisable by their characteristic
makeup and costume.
makeup is very elaborate. It is so elaborate that it is
more like a mask than makeup in the usual sense. The materials
that comprise the makeup is all locally available. The
white is made from rice flour, the red is made from Vermilion
(a red earth such as cinnabar). The black is made from
soot. The colours are not merely decoration, but are also
a means of portraying characters. For instance, red on
the feet is used to symbolise evil character and evil
- The music of Kathakali has some similarity to the larger
body of South Indian classical music (Carnatic sangeet);
however the instrumentation is decidedly different. Its
local colour is strongly achieved by the use of instruments
such as chenda, idakka, and shuddha madalam.
- Is Kathakali classical? If we look at our benchmarks
to see if it is classical, it only scores modestly. It
is definitely old, but this is one of the least important
of the criteria. It is not necessarily something that
upper classes use to define their identity, indeed the
opposite is probably true. Its most glaring deficiency
is seen in its inability to transcend its attachments
to the Keralite community. The average Indian (non-Malayali)
has only a vague knowledge that it exists, and will live
their entire life without ever even seeing a Kathakali
performance. Therefore from a sociological standpoint
it is probably more correct to call Kathakali "traditional"
instead of classical.
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