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Kathakali (Malayalam: കഥകളി, kathakaḷi) is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance. It is another "story play" genre of art, but one distinguished by its elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and face masks wearing actor-dancers, who have traditionally been all males. Kathakali primarily developed as a Hindu performance art in the Malayalam-speaking southwestern region of India (Kerala).


Kathakali's roots are unclear. The fully developed style of Kathakali originated around the 17th century, but its roots are in temple and folk arts such as Kutiyattam and religious drama of southwestern Indian peninsula, which are traceable to at least the 1st millennium CE. A Kathakali performance, like all classical dance arts of India, includes music, vocal performers, hand and facial gestures to express ideas, and footwork. However, Kathakali differs in its style and incorporates movements from the ancient martial arts and athletic traditions of south India. Kathakali is also different in that the structure and details of its art developed in the courts and theatres of Hindu principalities, unlike other classical Indian dances which primarily developed in Hindu temples and monastic schools.

The traditional themes of the Kathakali are folk mythologies, religious legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu epics and the Puranas. The vocal performance has traditionally been Sanskritised Malayalam. In modern compositions, Indian Kathakali troupes have included women artists, as well as adapted Western stories and plays such as those by Shakespeare and from Christianity.

Etymology and nomenclature

The term Kathakali is derived from Katha (Sanskrit: "कथा") which means "story, or a conversation, or a traditional tale", and Kali (from Kala, "कला") which means "performance and art".


According to Phillip Zarrilli, elements and aspects of Kathakali can be found in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra is attributed to sage Bharata, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.

The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances including Kathakali. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient Hindu text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures.

The roots of Kathakali are unclear. Jones and Ryan state it is more than 500 years old. According to Phillip Zarrilli, Kathakali emerged as a distinct genre of performance art during the 16th and 17th centuries in a coastal population of south India that spoke Malayalam (now Kerala). The roots of Kathakali, states Mahinder Singh, are more ancient and some 1500 years old.

According to Farley Richmond and other scholars, Kathakali shares many elements such as costumes with ancient Indian performance arts such as Kutiyattam (classical Sanskrit drama) and medieval era Krishnanattam, even though a detailed examination shows differences. The Kutiyattam, adds Richmond, is "one of the oldest continuously performed theatre forms in India, and it may well be the oldest surviving art form of the ancient world". Kutiyattam, traditionally, was performed in theatres specially designed and attached to Hindu temples, particularly dedicated to the older Shiva tradition and later to Krishna. The theatre design matches the dimensions and architecture recommended as "ideal" in the ancient Natya Shastra, and some of them can house 500 viewers.

Krishnanattam is the likely immediate precursor of Kathakali, states Zarrilli. Krishnanattam is dance-drama art form about the life and activities of Hindu god Krishna, that developed under the sponsorship of Sri Manavedan Raja, the ruler of Calicut (1585-1658 AD). The traditional legend states that Kottarakkara Thampuran (also known as Vira Kerala Varma) requested the services of a Krishnanattam troupe, but his request was denied. So Kottarakkara Thampuran created another art form based on Krishnanattam, called it Ramanattam because the early plays were based on the Hindu epic Ramayana, which over time diversified beyond Ramayana and became popular as 'Kathakali'.

Another related performance art is Ashtapadiyattom, a dance drama based on the Gita Govinda of the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva, told the story of Krishna embodied as a humble cowherd, his consort Radha, and three cow girls. Kathakali also incorporates several elements from other traditional and ritualistic art forms like Mudiyettu, Teyyam and Padayani besides folk arts such as Porattunatakam that shares ideas with the Tamil Terukkuthu tradition. The south Indian martial art of Kalarippayattu has influenced Kathakali.

Despite the links, Kathakali is different from temple-driven arts such as "Krishnanattam", Kutiyattam and others because unlike the older arts where the dancer-actor also had to be the vocal artist, Kathakali separated these roles allowing the dancer-actor to excel in and focus on choreography while the vocal artists focused on delivering their lines. Kathakali also expanded the performance repertoire, style and standardized the costume making it easier for the audience to understand the various performances and new plays.


Kathakali is structured around plays called Attakatha (literally, "enacted story"), written in Sanskritized Malayalam. These plays are written in a particular format that helps identify the "action" and the "dialogue" parts of the performance. The Shloka part is the metrical verse, written in third person – often entirely in Sanskrit, and these describe the action part of the choreography. The Pada part contains the dialogue part. These Attakatha texts grant considerable flexibility to the actors to improvise, and historically all these plays were derived from Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana.

A Kathakali repertoire is an operatic performance where an ancient story is playfully dramatized. Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is long, starting at dusk and continuing through dawn, with interludes and breaks for the performers and audience. Some plays continued over several nights, starting at dusk everyday. Modern performances are shorter. The stage with seating typically in open grounds outside a temple, but in some places special theatres called Kuttampalam built inside the temple compounds have been in use.

The stage is mostly bare, or with a few drama-related items. One item found on Kathakali stage has links to Kuttiyattam. In both, the performance is in the front of a huge Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance; vilakku meaning lamp) with its thick wick sunk in coconut oil, burning with a yellow light. Traditionally, before the advent of electricity, this special large lamp provided light during the night, as the play progressed and the actor-dancers would gather around this lamp so that audience could see what they are expressing.

The team performance involves actor-dancers in the front, supported by musicians in the background stage on right (audience's left) and with vocalists in the front of the stage so they could be heard by the audience before the age of microphone and speakers. Typically all the actor-dancers are males who get dressed up as woman or man depending on the role, but in modern performances women have been welcomed into the Kathakali tradition.


Of all classical Indian dances, Kathakali has the most elaborate make-up code, head dress, face masks and vividly painted faces. It typically takes several evening hours to prepare a Kathakali troupe to get ready for a play. Costumes have made Kathakali's popularity extend beyond adults, with children absorbed by the colors, makeup, light and sound of the performance.

The makeup follows an accepted code, that helps the audience easily identify the archetypical characters such as gods, goddesses, demons, demonesses, saints, animals and characters of a story. Seven basic makeups are used in Kathakali, namely Pacca (green), Payuppu (ripe), Katti(knife), Kari, Tati, Minukku and Teppu. These vary with the styles and the predominant colours made from rice paste and vegetable colors that are applied on the face. Pachcha (green) with lips painted brilliant coral red portrays noble characters and sages such as Krishna, Vishnu, Rama, Shiva, Surya, Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Nala and philosopher-kings.

Tati (red) is the code for someone with an evil streak such as Ravana, Dushasana and Hiranyakashipu. Some characters have green face (representing heroic or excellences as a warrior) with red dots or lines on their cheeks or red colored mustache or red streaked beard (representing evil inner nature), while others have full face and beard colored red, the latter implying excessively evil characters. Kari (black) is the code for forest dwellers, hunters, and middle ground character. Demonesses and treacherous characters are also painted black but with streaks or patches of red.

Yellow is the code for monks, mendicants and women. Minukka (radiant, shining) with a warm yellow, orange or saffron typifies noble, virtuous feminine characters such as Sita, Panchali and Mohini. Men who act the roles of women also add a false top knot to their left and decorate it in a style common to the region. Vella Thadi (white beard) represents a divine being, someone with virtuous inner state and consciousness such as Hanuman. Teppu are for special characters found in Hindu mythologies, such as Garuda, Jatayu and Hamsa who act as messengers or carriers, but do not fit the other categories. Face masks and head gear is added to accentuate the inner nature of the characters. The garments colors have a similar community accepted code of silent communication.

The character types, states Zarrilli, reflect the Guṇa theory of personalities in the ancient Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy. There are three Guṇas, according to this philosophy, that have always been and continue to be present in all things and beings in the world. These three Guṇas are sattva (goodness, constructive, harmonious, virtuous), rajas (passion, aimless action, dynamic, egoistic), and tamas (darkness, destructive, chaotic, viciousness). All of these three gunas (good, evil, active) are present in everyone and everything, it is the proportion that is different, according to Hindu worldview. The interplay of these gunas defines the character of someone or something, and the costumes and face coloring in Kathakali often combines the various color codes to give complexity and depth to the actor-dancers.


Like many classical Indian arts, Kathakali is a dance as well as acting. It is said to be one of the most difficult acts to execute on stage, with young artists preparing for their roles for several years before they get a chance to do it on stage. The actors speak a "sign language", where the word part of the character's dialogue are expressed through "hand signs (mudras)", while emotions and mood is expressed through "facial and eye" movements. In parallel, vocalists in the background sing rhythmically the play, matching the beats of the orchestra playing, thus unifying the ensemble into a resonant oneness.

Several ancient Sanskrit texts such as Natya Shastra and Hastha Lakshanadeepika discuss hand gestures or mudras. Kathakali follows the Hastha Lakshanadeepika most closely, unlike other classical dances of India.

There are 24 main mudras, and numerous more minor ones in Kathakali. There are nine facial expressions called Navarasas, which each actor masters through facial muscle control during his education, in order to express the emotional state of the character in the play. The theory behind the Navarasas is provided by classical Sanskrit texts such as Natya Shastra, but sometimes with different names, and these are found in other classical Indian dances as well. The nine Navarasas express nine Bhava (emotions) in Kathakali as follows: Sringara expresses Rati (love, pleasure, delight), Hasya expresses Hasa (comic, laugh, mocking), Karuna expresses Shoka (pathetic, sad), Raudra expresses Krodha (anger, fury), Vira expresses Utsaha (vigor, enthusiasm, heroic), Bhayanaka expresses Bhaya (fear, concern, worry), Bibhatsa expresses Jugupsa (disgust, repulsive), Adbhuta expresses Vismaya (wondrous, marvel, curious) and Shanta expresses Sama (peace, tranquility).


A Kathakali performance typically starts with artists tuning their equipment and warming up with beats, signaling the arriving audience that the artists are getting ready and the preparations are on. The repertoire includes a series of performances. First comes the Totayam and Puruppatu performances, which are preliminary 'pure' (abstract) dances that emphasize skill and pure motion. Totayam is performed behind a curtain and without all the costumes, while Puruppatu is the prelim when it is performed without the curtain and in full costumes.

The expressive part of the performance, which constitutes the play being choreographed as dance-drama, are four: Kalasam (major and most common), Iratti (special, used with battles-related Cempata rhythm), Tonkaram (similar to Iratti but different music), and Nalamiratti (used for exits or link between the chapters of the play).

The characters enter the Kathakali stage in ways that is not found in many major classical Indian dance traditions. Kathakali engages several methods: direct without special effects or curtain; through the audience, a method that engages the audience, led by torch bearers since Kathakali is typically a night performance; tease and suspense called nokku or tirassila or tiranokku, where the character is slowly revealed by the use of a curtain. The "tease" method is typically used for characters with hidden, dangerous intentions.

Songs and musical instruments

The play is in the form of verses that are metered and lyrical, sung by vocalists whose voice has been trained to various melodies (raga), music and synchronized with the dance-acting on the stage. The vocalists not only deliver the lines, but help set the context and express the inner state of the character by modulating their voice. For example, anger is expressed by the use of sharp high voice and pleading is expressed by the use of a tired tone for the verse.

Music is central to a Kathakali performance. It sets the mood and triggers emotions resonant with the nature of the scene. It also the beat speed with which the actors play their parts. Some major musical patterns, according to Clifford and Betty, that go with the moods and content of the scene are: Cempata (most common and default that applies to a range of moods, in battles and fights between good and evil, also to conclude a scene); Campa music (depict tension, dispute, disagreement between lovers or competing ideas); Pancari (for odious, preparatory such as sharpening a sword); Triputa (thought provoking, scenes involving sages and teachers); Atanta (scenes involving kings or divine beings); Muri Atanta musical style (for comic, light hearted, or fast moving scenes involving heroic or anger-driven activity).

Many musical instruments are used in Kathakali. Three major drums found are Maddalam (barrel shaped), Centa (cylindrical drum played with curved sticks) and Itaykka (Idakka, hourglass shaped drum with muted and melodious notes played when female characters perform).

Traditional plays

Over five hundred Kathakali plays (Aattakatha) exist, most of which were written before the 20th century. Of these, about four dozen are most actively performed. These plays are sophisticated literary works, states Zarrilli, and only five authors have written more than two plays. The late 17th century Unnayi Variyar, in his short life, produced four plays which are traditionally considered the most expressive of the Kathakali playwrights. Typically, his four plays are performed on four nights, and they relate to the mythical Hindu love story of Nala and Damayanti. The Nala-Damanyanti story has roots in the texts of 1st millennium BCE, and is found in the Mahabharata, but the Kathakali play version develops the characters, their inner states, the emotions and their circumstances far more than the older texts.

A tradition Kathakali play typically consists of two interconnected parts, the third-person Shlokas and first-person Padams. The Shlokas are in Sanskrit and describe the action in the scene, while Padams are dialogues in Malayalam (Sanskritized) for the actors to interpret and play. A Padam consists of three parts: a Pallavi (refrain), Anupallavi (subrefrain) and Caranam (foot), all of which are set to one of the ancient Ragas (musical mode), based on the mood and context as outlined in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra. In historic practice of a play performance, each Padam was enacted twice by the actor while the vocalists sang the lines repeatedly as the actor-dancer played his role out.

The traditional plays were long, many written to be performed all night, some such as those based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata written to be performed for many sequential nights. However, others such as the Prahlada Caritam were composed so that they can be performed within four hours. Modern productions have extracted parts of these legendary plays, to be typically performed within 3 to 4 hours.

Offshoots and modern adaptations

The Kathakali artists of India have been producing new plays based on not only traditional Hindu mythologies, but European classics and Shakespeare's plays. Recent productions have adapted stories from other cultures and mythologies, such as those of Christianity, Miguel de Cervantes, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare.

Styles: Sampradayam

Kathakali has lineages or distinctive styles of play interpretation and dance performance called Sampradayam. These developed in part because of the Gurukul system of its transmission from one generation to the next. By the 19th-century, many such styles were in vogue in Malayalam speaking communities of south India, of which two major styles have crystallized and survived into the modern age.

The Kidangoor style is one of the two, that developed in Travancore, and it is strongly influenced by Kutiyattam, while also drawing elements of Ramanattam and Kalladikkotan. It is traditionally attributed to Nalanunni, under the patronage of Utram Tirunal Maharaja (1815-1861).

The Kalluvayi style is second of the two, which developed in Palakkad (Olappamanna Mana) in central Kerala, and it is a synthesis of the older Kaplingadan and Kalladikkotan performance arts. It is traditionally attributed to Unniri Panikkar, in a Brahmin household (~1850), and became the dominant style established in Kerala Kalamandalam – a school of performance arts.

Training centers and awards

Kathakali has traditionally been an art that has continued from one generation to the next through a guru-disciples (gurukkula) based training system. Artist families tended to pick promising talent from within their own extended families, sometimes from outside the family, and the new budding artist typically stayed with his guru as a student and treated like a member of the family. The guru provided both the theoretical and practical training to the student, and the disciple would accompany the guru to formal performances. In modern times, professional schools train students of Kathakali, with some such as those in Trivandrum Margi school emphasizing a single teacher for various courses, while others such as the Kerala Kalamandalam school wherein students learn subjects from different teachers. Kathakali schools are now found all over India, as well as in parts of the Western Europe and the United States.

A typical Kathakali training center auditions for students, examining health and physical fitness necessary for the aerobic and active stage performance, the body flexibility, sense of rhythm and an interview to gauge how sincere the student is in performance arts. A typical course work in Kathakali emphasizes physical conditioning and daily exercises, yoga and body massage to tone the muscles and sculpt the growing body, along with studies and dance practice. Per ancient Indian tradition, young students continue to start their year by giving symbolic gifts to the guru, such as a few coins with betel leaves, while the teacher gives the student a loin cloth, a welcome and blessings.

Kathakali is still hugely a male domain but, since the 1970s, females too have made entry into the art form on a recognisable scale. The central Kerala temple town of Tripunithura has, in fact, a ladies troupe (with members belonging to several part of the state) that performs Kathakali, by and large in Travancore.

Awards for Kathakali artistes

  • Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardees - Kathakali (1956–2005)
  • Nambeesan Smaraka Awards — For artistic performances related kathakali (1992-2008)
  • International Centre for Kathakali Award
  • Relationship to other dance forms

    The theory and foundations of Kathakali are same as other major classical Indian dances, traceable to Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra, but the expression style in each is very different and distinctive. Kathakali is different from a similar-sounding Kathak, though both are Indian classical dance traditions of "story play" wherein the stories have been traditionally derived from the Hindu epics and the Puranas. Kathak is an ancient performance art that emerged in the northern India, with roots in traveling bards retelling mythical and spiritual stories through dance-acting. Kathak traditionally has included female actor-dancers, unlike Kathakali which has traditionally been performed by an all male troupe. Kathak deploys much simpler costumes, makeup and no face masks. Both dance forms employ choreography, face and hand gestures traceable to Natya Shastra, but Kathak generally moves around a straight leg and torso movements, with no martial art leaps and jumps like Kathakali. Kathak uses the stage space more, and does not typically include separate vocalists. Both deploy a host of similar traditional Indian musical instruments.

    Kathakali-style, costume rich, musical drama are found in other cultures. For example, the Japanese Noh (能) integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized gestures while the costumes communicate the nature of the characters in a Noh performance, as in Kathakali. In both, costumed men have traditionally performed all the roles including those of women in the play. The training regimen and initiation of the dance-actors in both cultures have many similarities.

    Kabuki, another Japanese art form, has similarities with Kathakali. Jīngjù, a Chinese art of dance-acting (zuo), like Kathakali presents artists with elaborate masks, costumes and colorfully painted faces.


    Kathakali Wikipedia