Kathakali – an Evening of Traditional Kerala Dance


Kathakali – “dance story” – ‘Katha’ means story and ‘Kali’ means dance, is the traditional Kerala dance form. The brightly painted faces of the actors are for most people THE  image of Kerala. It is presented (in modern short form) at Varkala Beach, as well as many other places visited by tourists. We had the pleasure of watching a performance, as well as the preparations (face painting and costuming) of the dancers, and want to share these with you in this post.

Kathakali has roots that are over 1500 years old, with the present form starting to evolve in the 1600s.

History (from wikipedia):

Kathakali is a highly 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 had its cradle in Vettattnad. Here Vettathu Thampuran, Kottayathu Thampuran (This Kottayam is in Malabar [see Kottayam (Malabar)] and many dedicated artists like Chathu Panicker laid foundations for what is known as Kathakali now. Their efforts were concentrated on the rituals, classical details and scriptural perfection. The Kottaythu Thampuran composed four great works, …viz. Kirmeeravadham, Bakavadham, Nivathakavacha Kalakeyavadham and Kalyanasaugandhikam. After this the most important changes in Kathakali were brought about through the efforts of a single person namely, Kaplingad Narayanan Nambudiri (1739–1789). He was from the Northern Kerala, but after basic instructions in various faculties of the art in Vettathu Kalari he shifted to Travancore. In the capital and many other centres he found many willing to co-operate with him in bringing about the reformations.

In its original form, a Kathakali dance performance would usually last through the night. Now, more often it is much shorter, with the performance lasting from one to three hours. It is common now to be able to watch the performers for another hour or so as they apply paint to their faces and don the elaborate costumes. Most traditional works are from epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, or the Puranas. The shorter contemporary works are extracted from these traditional works.

The story in a Kathakali performance is told by Mudras, hand expressions, and Navarasam, facial expressions. There are 24 basic Mudras and 8 Navarasams used in this dance form. The mudras are one hand or two handed. This increases the vocabulary. All together there are 470 different Mudras, where each gesture can have multiple meanings. An expert in this form of dance will be able to ‘read’ the mudras and follow the story closely. In addition, the dancers are expert in giving even more meanings with their faces, beyond the 8 Navarasam, enough so that even Westerners like us can kind of follow the story.  

The dancers wear elaborate and heavy costumes, large head gear, and chutty (face paint). The chutty looks almost like a mask, but has the advantage over a mask in that it shows the expressions on the faces of the dancers, and in Kathakali these expressions are vitally important, since there is no dialog. 

From CyberKerala:

Characters and their attire:
Unlike in most performing arts, the make up and costumes in Kathakali are not exclusive to each character. It is divided into four groups based on the general nature and behavioural aspects of the characters.

Thus noble and heroic persons with only exemplary virtues fall into one category, named Pacha (Green). The main feature of this class is the predominant green paint on the face, fringed with paper flanges. Sreekrishna, Sreerama, Pandavas, Karna etc belong to this category. A subtle variation of this can be seen in Pazhuppu (Ripe). For characters like Lord Shiva, Agni, Balarama who are known for their wrath in addition to noble qualities, the green paint is replaced by saffron.

The second category is called Kathi (Knife). Named so due to the knifelike design close to the nose, painted in red in most cases and in black for Yama the god of death, indicative of Thamoguna (Black disposition). Depending on the characteristic disposition, there is another variation in Kathi. For a character of romantic disposition superimposed on inherent daring the design is short (Kurumkathi). Ravana, Duryodhana, Sisupala, Narakasura and Keechaka fall into this category. For those who are to act only as a “strongman” the design is bigger and is called Nedumkathi. Yama is an example.

Minukku is the plain make-up without chutty employed for female characters and Brahmins.

Chuvanna Thadi (Red beard) is a term used for demon-like make up for extremely villainous characters with fierce nature. The chutty and facial paintings are quite intricate. The headgear is very large in size. A large beard, red in colour is attached to the chin. Dussasan, Jarasandh, Bali & Sugriv appear in this make-up.

The general colour of the costume for the upper body is red. All the red hue in this is replaced by black or blue for Karutha Thadi. Kali is an example.

Vellathadi (White beard), contrast is reserved for extremely good characters. The make-up is entirely different. The head gear resembles a large hat. Hanuman is the best example.

Kari (Black) is the make-up for rude and crude characters like Nishadas. The head gear is like an inverted cone with its apex chopped off.

The facial paint is made by grinding various colored stones and mixing them into a paste of rice flower, coconut oil, and maybe water. Some characters have actors with red eyes. The eyes are reddened, just before the performance, by inserting a “chundanga seed” (variety of eggplant which bears small fruits) under their lower eyelid. As you will see in the photos below, this red eye is an important part of the makeup.  

The stage setting is simple, consisting only of a curtain (usually hand-held), a lamp, and a stool. Music will be simple, usually consisting of two drums, the chenda and the maddalam. There may be cymbals and another percussion instrument, the ela taalam. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. (This was not the case with the performance we saw, we just had one drummer and a cymbal player.)

The actors go through extensive training, usually 12 years or more. Training of a Kathakali artist is extremely strenuous and rigorous. A performer needs to take exhaustive lessons in each and every aspect of this dance-drama. Toughest of all is the physical training which involves control of the muscles, mainly that of eyeballs, eyebrows, eye lids, lips, neck and shoulder. This is an extremely essential part of Kathakali training as in the absence of dialogues, expressions become the most vital aspect of communication in the performance.

When we arrived, about 1 1/2 hours before the performance was to start, the actors were applying the chutty.

This is the hero figure, Jayantha, the son of Indra. He will use green makeup, Pacha. 


Below is the villain, Nakrathundi, a demoness, and a servant of an Asura (demon) king, Narakasura, using Kari makeup.

In the performance we attended, she went to Devaloka to capture fair maidens to give to the demon king. On the way she saw Jayantha, fell in love with him and wanted to marry him.


This character below will be the beautiful girl that the demoness, Nakrathundi turns herself  into in an attempt to get Jayantha to marry her.  She (he) is at a costume rack, selecting pieces for his costume.


Nakrathundi is making faces for the audience. This actor likes to do this. Notice how the irises of the eyes are completely to one side, showing much white. These kinds of eye movements are very much used in this form of dance, I think to emphasize the facial expressions.


Nakrathundi helps Jayantha apply the chutty.


The man with the white beard is the drummer.


Jayantha continues to apply the chutty. The white structure around his jaw is made from paper, and is typical for these green-faced characters.


Now Nakrathundi starts Uduthukettu, the next stage in dressing. Stiff pieces of material, traditionally white cloth, are wound around the waist, with the assistance  of a helper. We will see in a later photo here what these actors use instead of the cloth. 


The pieces are wound tightly. Here it looks like a ballet dancer’s tutu.


This shows the facial make up of the ‘beautiful maiden’, an example of Minukku. 


Instead of white cloth, empty cement bags are used to make the stiff structure that will underlie the skirt. I was sure surprised to see this. I marvel at the ability of Indians to make use of everything.


Now the black skirt is being wrapped around the tutu structure.


And the next piece of cloth, the Kacha, is being wound around the actor.


Beads are being added.


Then two shirts, one under the other. Maybe two are used to help control the sweat from the strenuous performance to come.


The top shirt is being donned. Black for this character. You can really see the extended skirt, the Uduthukettu, black with red stripes.


Next shoulder pads are added. Bracelets have already been put on both arms.


The pretty girl character does not have the extended underskirt applied, just a simple one.


Here is Nakrathundi, almost fully dressed. He mugs for the cameras, with eyes to one side.


Closeup of the face paint.


The pretty girl puts on the skirt.


Now Jayantha gets ready to add the Uduthukettu.


A rope is around his waist, and bags are being added.


Wind everything tight.


Add more cement bags.


Mugging for the camera.


Jayantha wears a white Uduthukettu. Red pieces of cloth are being added to both sides.


Now the shirts are added, red on top.



Shoulder pads on now. You can see the bracelets on one arm.


The drummer gets his drum ready.


Jayantha gets to mug for the cameras too.


Jayantha is almost completely dressed. He just has to put on his elaborate hat, which he is holding now.


The stage manager comes out and lights the lamp.


He gives us a bit of an orientation about what is to come.


We are shown stone pads used to grind and mix the face paints.


Then he has the pretty woman character actor come on stage and demonstrate for us some basics.

First are Navarasam, the standard facial expressions. I think this is Bhayanakam (Fear).


I think this is Sringaram (Amour, love).


I think this is Veeram (Valour).


Now mudras are being combined. The expression, is, I think, Bhayanakam (Fear). I think the mudra is Bhramaram (Beetle), done where the two hands are the same where the most likely meaning is also fear.


The expression below is, I think, Karunam (Pathos, sadness)


I think the expression is again, fear, with the mudra being Vardhamanakam (Seedling). I cannot make any sense out of the meaning.


All this is to the accompaniment of the drum.


I think the mudra HamsaPaksham (Swan’s wing), here, meaning fish, is being shown.


The audience tries it, too.


One last demonstration, of what I do not know.


Then on to the performance. Here is the curtain, the Tirassila.


Here is Nakrathundi performing a Tiranokku, a “curtain-look”. The character stands behind the Tirassila very close to the lamp and to the accompaniment of the drums and cymbals slowly brings the Tirassila down so that the audience can have a good look at the character and make-up for a few steady moments, before the dance and movement starts.


Scene I: Nakrathundi dances.


In this first part of the performance, she sees that she is not clean and tidy. She cleans herself.


She fixes her hair. She cleans her ears and puts on ornaments. She cleans her eyes and paints her eyebrows.



Notice her breasts, which are part of the story in the end.


Notice the red eyes, below.


She wants to play, but there is no one to play with, so she starts to play alone.





I think she now sees Jayantha, and the mudra she uses is Mudraakhyam, meaning desire. She is smitten by Jayantha. 


Before she goes off stage, she asks for someone from the audience to join her in the dance. Richard says that he will do it, and joins the dance.




Now it moves to Scene II. Nakrathundi is now in the form of a beautiful girl.


Here is Jayantha.


The beautiful girl approaches Jayantha.


She asks him plainly to marry her.


She is not getting the response she wants. Does this look like a man who wants to marry?


He points, as if to say, “Go!”


She is definitely not happy.


He stands firm, resolute.


He is not having any of it.


(Doesn’t he have a cool hat?)


She pleads with him.




To no avail.





Now she starts to be filled with rage …


And turns back into Nakrathundi.



She shows her charms.


She tries to use physical force to fulfill her desire.




She bares her breasts. Jayantha cannot take any more. He hides his face.


Aroused, but to action, not to love, he draws his sword.





And cuts off her nose, ears, and part of her breast.



She retreats from the scene.


Now Jayantha wipes off his sword.


And pranams the audience.


The actors come on stage for a bow.


The drummer keeps playing.


And finally people from the audience join the actors for photos.


There is Richard again. I think maybe Nakrathundi has desire for him, thwarted as she was by Jayantha.


Wow, what a night! Much more than expected. The actors are pretty amazing, with such mobile faces after years of training.

Description of tonight’s show was taken from the playbill given to us. The group was Kalanilayam Saseendran, of the Varkala Cultural Center.                                            


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One Response to “Kathakali – an Evening of Traditional Kerala Dance”

  1. pumdv Says:

    Dear Ric
    Great pictures and explanations given truly simple and informative
    I envy you that you have lots of time to spend and share it with others.

    If you come to Mahabalipuram you can stay in my guest house free as a token of appreciation for the efforts you are putting in and making others enjoy alongwith you

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