Kathakali, The Classical Dance form Kerala

Kathakali (Malayalam: കഥകളി, kathakaḷi; Sanskrit: कथाकळिः, kathākaḷiḥ) is a stylized classical Indian dance-drama noted for the attractive make-up of characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion. It originated in the country’s present day state of Kerala during the 17th century and has developed over the years with improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming

Kathakali is the classical dance form of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally means “Story-Play”. Kathakali is known for its heavy, elaborate makeup and costumes. In fact, the colorful and fascinating costumes of Kathakali have become the most recognized icon of Kerala. Kathakali is considered as one of the most magnificent theatres of imagination and creativity. Kathakali dance presents themes derived from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics, mythologies and legends.

The dance aspect of Kathakali consists of pure dance (nritya) as well as mime (abhinaya). Initially Kathakali was thought to be the sole domain of men but now women also perform the dance. Like all other dance forms Kathakali has also undergone changes over the time. In Kathakali emphasis is given more on aharya abhinaya, the use of costumes, ornaments and facial make-up. It is interesting to note that Kathakali is the only Indian dance form in which the entire body, both skeleton and muscles, down to even the smallest facial muscle are used to portray emotion. When Kathakali dance is being performed the text of the drama or the story is sung for the dancer and is the baseline for his/her interpretation.

In Kerala and some other south Indian states Kathakali performance is a major social event, which starts at dusk and continues all through the night. The Kathakali tradition dates back to the 17th century. It was Mahakavi Vallathol Narayan Menon, who gave Kathakali its present form. He was the founder of the Kerala Kala Mandalam.

Kathakali Costumes The most distinctive characteristic of Kathakali is its dance costume. In Kathakali the makeup is very intricate and the costumes are very large and heavy. There are several kinds of Kathakali costumes namely, Sathwika (the hero), Kathi (the villain), Minukku (females), and Thatti. Each character in Kathakali dance is immediately recognizable by characteristic makeup and costume. The Kathakali makeup is so heavy that it looks like a mask.

Kathakali styles

Known as Sampradäyaṃ(Malayalam: സമ്പ്രദായം); these are leading Kathakali styles that differ from each other in subtleties like choreographic profile, position of hand gestures and stress on dance than drama and vice versa. Some of the major original kathakali styles included:

  1. Vettathu Sampradayam
  2. Kalladikkodan Sampradyam
  3. Kaplingadu Sampradayam

Of late, these have narrowed down to the northern (Kalluvazhi) and southern (Thekkan) styles. It was largely developed by the legendary Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1881-1949) that is implemented in Kerala Kalamandalam (though it has also a department that teaches the southern style), Sadanam, RLV and Kottakkal. Margi has its training largely based on the Thekkan style, known for its stress on drama and part-realistic techniques. Kalanilayam, effectively, churns out students with a mix of both styles.