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For the 2016 Indian film, see Kathakali (film).
Kathakali performer

Kathakali (Malayalam: കഥകളി, kathakaḷi) is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance.[1] It primarily developed as a Hindu performance art in India's southwestern region, particularly the state of Kerala.[2][3][4] It is another "story play" form of art, but one distinguished by its elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and face masks wearing actor-dancers who traditionally have been all male.[2][3]

Kathakali's roots are unclear. The fully developed style of Kathakali originated around the 17th century, but its roots are in folk arts and religious drama of southwestern Indian peninsula such as Kutiyattam, which are traceable to at least the 1st millennium CE.[2][5] A Kathakali performance, like all classical dance arts of India, typically include music, vocal performers, hand and facial gestures to express ideas, and footwork. However, it also incorporates ancient martial arts and athletic movements.[2][3][4] Kathakali is also different from other major Indian performance arts, in that the structure and details of its art, unlike others, developed outside of Hindu temples and in the courts and theatres of Hindu principalities.[2][5]

The traditional themes of the Kathakali are mythologies, religious legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu epics and the Puranas.[6] The vocal performance has traditionally been Sanskritised Malayalam.[5] In modern compositions, Indian Kathakali troupes have included women artists, as well as adapted Western stories and plays such as those by Shakespeare and Christianity.[7]

Etymology and nomenclature[edit]

The term Kathakali is derived from Katha (Sanskrit: कथा) which means "story, conversation, traditional tale", and Kali (from Kala, कला) which means "performance, art".[8][9]


Kathakali performers

According to Phillip Zarrilli, elements and aspects of Kathakali can be found in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra.[10] The Natya Shastra is attributed to sage Bharata, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE,[11][12] but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.[13]

The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters.[11][14] 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.[10][11][15] Dance and performance arts, states this ancient Hindu text,[16] are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures.[17]

Kathakali has its origins almost 1500 years ago[citation needed] in the early ritual folk dances and dance dramas of Kerala, in southern India, such as the dances associated with the cult of Bhagavathy (Thiyyattom, Mudiyettu, and Theyyam), that were performed at religious festivals by actors wearing elaborate masks, colorful costumes and headdresses, and intricately painted faces.;[1] and socio-religious and material dances such as the Sastrakali and Ezhamattukali. 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.[citation needed]

In 1655, Manavedan, Sri Samoothiri Maharaja of Kozhikode, wrote Krishnagiti, a dance drama to be performed as Krishnattom (Krishnan; attom (enactment)) on eight consecutive nights, incorporating elements of Ashtapadiyattom and Koodiyattam, another form of Sanskrit ritual dance drama.[citation needed]

Links to older performance arts: Krishnanattam[edit]

Kathakali may have emerged from older performance arts and folk dances in Kerala. "Krishnanattam", for example, is one such precursor art and consists of dance drama on the life and activities of Lord Krishna created by Sri Manavedan Raja, the Zamorin of Calicut (1585-1658 AD). Once Kottarakkara Thampuran, the Raja of Kottarakkara who was attracted by Krishnanattam requested the Zamorin for the loan of a troupe of performers. Due to the political rivalry between the two, Zamorin did not allow this. So Kottarakkara Thampuran created another art form called Ramanattam which was later transformed into Aattakatha. Krishnanaattam was written in Sanskrit, and Ramanattam was in Malayalam. By the end of 17th century, Attakatha was presented to the world with the title 'Kathakali'.

Kathakali shares a lot of similarities with Krishnanattam, Koodiyattam (a classical Sanskrit drama existing in Kerala) and Ashtapadiyattam (an adaptation of 12th-century musical called Gitagovindam). It also incorporates several other elements from traditional and ritualistic art forms like Mudiyettu, Thiyyattu, Theyyam and Padayani besides a minor share of folk arts like Porattunatakam. All along, the martial art of Kalarippayattu has influenced the body language of Kathakali. The use of Malayalam, the local language (albeit as a mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam, called ), has also helped the literature of Kathakali sound more transparent for the average audience.



Kathakali is famed for its elaborate costumes and face masks.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Most often, the make-up can be classified into five basic sets namely Pachcha, Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, and Minukku. The differences between these sets lie in the predominant colours that are applied on the face. Pachcha (meaning green) has green as the dominant colour and is used to portray noble male characters who are said to have a mixture of "Satvik" (pious) and "Rajasik" (dark; Rajas = darkness) nature. Rajasik characters having an evil streak ("tamasic"= evil) -- all the same they are anti-heroes in the play (such as the demon king Ravana) -- and portrayed with streaks of red in a green-painted face. Excessively evil characters such as demons (totally tamasic) have a predominantly red make-up and a red beard. They are called Red Beard (Red Beard). Tamasic characters such as uncivilised hunters and woodsmen are represented with a predominantly black make-up base and a black beard and are called black beard (meaning black beard). Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces and this semi-realistic category forms the fifth class. In addition, there are modifications of the five basic sets described above such as Vella Thadi (white beard) used to depict Hanuman (the Monkey-God) and Pazhuppu, which is majorly used for Lord Shiva and Balabhadra.


A Kathakali actor uses immense concentration, skill and physical stamina, gained from regimented training based on Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, to prepare for his demanding role. The training can often last for 8–10 years, and is intensive. In Kathakali, the story is enacted purely by the movements of the hands (called mudras or hand gestures) and by facial expressions (rasas) and bodily movements. The expressions are derived from Natyashastra (the tome that deals with the science of expressions) and are classified into nine as in most Indian classical art forms. Dancers also undergo special practice sessions to learn control of their eye movements.

There are 24 basic mudras—the permutation and combination of which would add up a chunk of the hand gestures in vogue today. Each again can be classified into 'Samaana-mudras'(one mudra symbolising two entities) or misra-mudras (both the hands are used to show these mudras). The mudras are a form of sign language used to tell the story.

The main facial expressions of a Kathakali artist are the 'navarasams' (Navarasas in anglicised form) (literal translation: Nine Tastes, but more loosely translated as nine feelings or expressions) which are Sringaram (amour), Hasyam (ridicule, humour), Bhayanakam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Roudram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valour), Beebhatsam (disgust), Albhutam (wonder, amazement), Shantam (tranquility, peace).

Location and duration of performance[edit]

Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is usually conducted at night and ends in early morning. Nowadays it isn't difficult to see performances as short as three hours or fewer. Kathakali is usually performed in front of the huge Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance; vilakku meaning lamp) with its thick wick sunk till the neck in coconut oil. Traditionally, this lamp used to provide sole light when the plays used to be performed inside temples, palaces or abodes houses of nobles and aristocrats.[citation needed]

Songs and musical instruments[edit]

The language of the songs used for Kathakali is Manipravalam. Though most of the songs are set in ragas based on the microtone-heavy Carnatic music, there is a distinct style of plain-note rendition, which is known as the Sopanam style. This typically Kerala style of rendition takes its roots from the temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at several temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.[citation needed]

Kathakali is performed with music (geetha) and instruments (vadya). The percussion instruments used are chenda, maddalam (both of which underwent revolutionary changes in their aesthetics with the contributions of Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval) and, at times, edakka. In addition, the singers (the lead singer is called "ponnani" and his follower is called "singidi") use chengila (gong made of bell metal, which can be struck with a wooden stick) and ilathalam (a pair of cymbals). The lead singer in some sense uses the Chengala to conduct the Vadyam and Geetha components, just as a conductor uses his wand in western classical music. A distinguishing characteristic of this art form is that the actors never speak but use hand gestures, expressions and rhythmic dancing instead of dialogue (but for a couple of rare characters).[citation needed]


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. Northern style was largely developed by the legendary Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1881-1949). It 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.

Traditional plays[edit]

Further information: Aattakatha (performance)

According to tradition there are 101 classical Kathakali stories, though less than a third of these are commonly staged at present. Almost all of them were initially composed to last a whole night. Nowadays, there is increasing popularity for concise, or oftener select, versions of stories so as the performance lasts not more than three to four hours from evening. Thus, many stories find stage presentation in parts rather than totality. And the selection is based on criteria like choreographical beauty, thematic relevance/popularity or their melodramatic elements.[citation needed]

Relationship to other dance forms[edit]

Offshoots and modern adaptations[edit]

The International Centre for Kathakali at New Delhi has been producing new plays based on not only traditional Hindu mythologies, but European classics and Shakespeare's plays. Recently they produced Kathakali plays include those based on Shakespeare's Othello and Greek-Roman mythology of Psyche and Cupid.[citation needed]

Recent productions have adapted stories from other cultures and mythologies, such as those of Mary Magdalene from the Bible, Homer's Iliad, and William Shakespeare's King Lear and Julius Caesar besides Goethe's Faust into Kathakali productions.[citation needed]

Training centers and awards[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Awards for Kathakali artistes[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Williams 2004, pp. 83-84, the other nine are: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Cchau, Satriya, Yaksagana and Bhagavata Mela.
  2. ^ a b c d e James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 359. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8. 
  3. ^ a b c Peter J. Claus; Sarah Diamond; Margaret Ann Mills (2003). South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 332–333. ISBN 978-0-415-93919-5. 
  4. ^ a b Phillip B. Zarrilli (2000). Kathakali Dance-drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play. Routledge. pp. xi, 17–19. ISBN 978-0-415-13109-4. 
  5. ^ a b c Phillip B. Zarrilli (2000). Kathakali Dance-drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play. Routledge. pp. 22–25, 191. ISBN 978-0-415-13109-4. 
  6. ^ Phillip B. Zarrilli (2000). Kathakali Dance-drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play. Routledge. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-415-13109-4. , Quote: "Like most traditional modes of storytelling and performance in India, kathakali plays enact one or more episodes from regional versions of the pan-Indian religious epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and puranas."
  7. ^ Daugherty, Diane (2005). "The Pendulum of Intercultural Performance: Kathakali King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe". Asian Theatre Journal (Johns Hopkins University Press) 22 (1): 52–72. doi:10.1353/atj.2005.0004. 
  8. ^ James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. pp. 358–359. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8. 
  9. ^ Constance Jones; James D. Ryan (2006). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Infobase Publishing. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-8160-7564-5. 
  10. ^ a b Phillip B. Zarrilli (2000). Kathakali Dance-drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play. Routledge. p. 25-29, 37, 49-56, 68, 88-94, 133-134. ISBN 978-0-415-13109-4. 
  11. ^ a b c Natalia Lidova 2014.
  12. ^ Tarla Mehta 1995, pp. xxiv, 19–20.
  13. ^ Wallace Dace 1963, p. 249.
  14. ^ Emmie Te Nijenhuis 1974, pp. 1–25.
  15. ^ Kapila Vatsyayan 2001.
  16. ^ Guy L. Beck (2012). Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 138–139. ISBN 978-1-61117-108-2. Quote: "A summation of the signal importance of the Natyasastra for Hindu religion and culture has been provided by Susan Schwartz, "In short, the Natyasastra is an exhaustive encyclopedic dissertation of the arts, with an emphasis on performing arts as its central feature. It is also full of invocations to deities, acknowledging the divine origins of the arts and the central role of performance arts in achieving divine goals (...)". 
  17. ^ Coormaraswamy and Duggirala (1917). "The Mirror of Gesture". Harvard University Press. p. 4. ; Also see chapter 36