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Kathakali: The Classical Dance Drama

Kerala, the paradise of the world. WHY? It’s a long list of peculiar culture and tradition, its mesmerizing beauty of beaches and weather has no competition. And one such exception of their culture is the dance form through which one portrays the story without uttering a word. All of us in real life cannot imagine storytelling without speaking. Hence, this classical dance has crossed its boundaries with its bold makeup and bolder emotions, colorful and bright costumes, and a breathless storyline. Its name is KATHAKALI. Katha means story and Kali means to play (an act of performing). Altogether, the art of storytelling.


Kathakali is a story, a dancing tale woven in a classical format. Acts are based on ancient Hindu texts like ‘Bhagavata Purana’, ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’. In the 17th century, the King of Kottaraka was fascinated by the power of the Krishnattam (dance of stories based on lord Krishna) performers. Therefore, he invited the Krishnanattam Troupe to perform in the temple in south Kerala. But, the King of Calicut refused his invitation. According to him, it was not for the common man to see. Above all, the performance was restricted to those of high caste and royalty.


Kathakali dance form

As a result, Kottarakara Thampuran, the king of the south Kerala province of Kottarakkara, wrote several plays in response to the king of Calicut. These plays were based on the various incidents of the Indian epic RAMAYANA (the life story of Lord Rama) and called the artform Ramanattam. Further, both Krishnattam and Ramanattam led to the evolution of KATHAKALI. The word “attam” means enactment. Hence, Kathakali is also called The Dance of Gods.



The story in ‘Kathakali’ is presented to the audience through excellent footwork and impressive gestures of face and hands complimented with music and vocal performance. It is an impressive melodrama of emotions that is conveyed very neatly mixed with a combination of dance, drama, music, costumes, and makeup to highlight their characters.

Elements Of Kathkali

It takes its resources and literature from the Natya Shastra – ‘nrita’ and nritya’, the ancient composition on dance, written by Sage Bharata. Kathakali is a combination of five elements of fine art:

  • Natyam (Acting), the use of facial expressions or bhava to convey an emotion
  • Nrithyam,” Kathakali build on Hasthalakshana Deepika, the use of hand gestures “mudras to convey meaning and emotion
  • Nritham (Dance), the use of rhythm and movement of hands, legs, and body
  • Sangeetham (Music): Song/Vocal accompaniment (Geeta), and instrumental accompaniment (Vadyam)
  • Chutti: Painting or makeup, white facial border to focus attention on the inner face and eyes

Facial makeup

The color of the main makeup is of particular importance. They symbolize different types of characters in the Kathakali dance.

  • Pacha – features bright, coral/red lips to depict gods, nobles, and sages
  • Katti – a mixture of green and red with an upturned mustache to represent evil
  • Kari – uses black makeup to depict forest dwellers or hunters, or even demonesses when used with streaks of red
  • Taadi – uses red, white, or black beards to depict godly or demonic characters
  • Minukku – uses orange, yellow, or saffron to depict virtuous female characters

Some characters adorn their left fingers with long steel or silver nails to enhance the clarity of the hand gestures.


Kathakali dance uses music to guide the choreography and tone of each scene. Most importantly, the songs play a huge role because it helps in storytelling from the background. The vocalists sing the story, told through verse. The text of Kathakali songs naming Attakkatha. Instruments used with Kathakali music are Chenda, Maddalam, Chengila, and Elaththalam. The lyrics are a component of Geetha which qualify as literature (Sahithyam). It plays a supplementary role to Nritham, Nrithyam, and Natyam. Kathakali songs, phrased in rich poetic diction, are among the gems of Malayalam literature.

Someone has beautifully mentioned that; ‘Kathakali brought humanity into Hinduism to express emotions that go beyond words.
The temple rituals, first performed in secret, evolved into a vibrant drama that embraces the essence of what it is to be human.’


kathakali dance

Kathakali’s performance has different components or steps. They are Keli, Arangu Keli, Thodayam, Vandana slokam, Purappadu, Melappadam, Kathabhinayam and Dhanaashi. It needs 6 to 8 hours to present the complete version of a Kathakali play. Kathakali has always been a male art form. The training starts at the age of ten and the student staytouru for seven or eight years in order to learn from him how to master the basic techniques. Traditionally, there are 101 classical Kathakali stories and 24 basic mudras.

Kottarakara Kathkali Museaum


The Kottarakkara Thampuran Memorial Museum of Classical Arts is in honor of the creator of Kathakali, Kottarakkara Thampuran. The museum contains life-size figures of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam characters in their original costumes; hastha mudras (hand gestures) used in Kathakali and Mohiniyattam and the books, ornaments, costumes used by great masters in this field.

Famous Artists

Kavungal Chathunni Panicker, – veteran performer of this field, is a scion of the famous Kavungal family associated with ‘Kathakali’ for six generations.

Kalamandalam Gopi, a renowned name in ‘Kathakali’ with a career of over 30 years, is one of the most eminent representatives of the Kalluvazhi School of Kerala.

Kottakkal Sivaraman, who portrays feminine characters emotes different nayika bhavas such as lasya nayika and vasakasajjika with great élan.

Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair is a seasoned ‘Kathakali’ performer who not only earned fame for portraying negative characters like Ravana and Duryodhana but also proved his mettle in characterizing Lord Hanuman.

Other imminent ‘Kathakali’ performers include Kalamandalam Krishna Prasad, Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody, Kalamandalam Kesavan Namboodiri, and Kalanilayam Balakrishnan to name a few.

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