Katha Kali-an over view

Kathakali: the Classical Dance of God's Own Country

Kathakali, literally means `story-play', is a dance-drama originated in the 17th century in Kerala, one of the smallest and most beautiful states in India lying on the west coast of the Indian peninsula. It was given its present form by Mahakavi Vallathol Narayan Menon, who was the founder of the Kerala Kala Mandalam. Elements of music, dance , painting, poetry and drama beautyfuly blended in a unique way to make this art form stand out amongst other classical dance forms. Kathakali has evolved from classical dance forms such as Koodiyattam and also imbibed elements of several folk art forms that existed in Kerala. The many aspects of traditional rituals and ceremonies that Kathakali picked up on its evolutionary course from various folk arts, has since then become its integral part. Kathakali is known for its large, elaborate makeup and costumes. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. The elaborate costumes of Kathakali have become the most recognised icon for Kerala

It was one of the Rajas (Chieftain) of Kottarakkara, who wrote the first play intended for Kathakali performance. They form a cycle of eight stories based on Ramayana. The performance for each story was designed to last for six to eight hours and the performed stories were then known as Ramanattom (play pertaining to Rama), which later came to be called as Kathakali. Stories based on other epics and puranas were added to its repertoire in later period. A vivid picture of the nature of performance of Kathakali in the past is not known. However, it is said that in the beginning the actors themselves used to sing the text while performing. Masks were elaborately used for some characters and percussion was limited to a Chenda, Shuddha Maddalam (two headed barrel shaped drum), a Chengila (metal gong) and Elathalam (a pair of cymbals). Among the better known Kathakali play writes are Kottarakara Thampuran, the author of the above mentioned Ramayana Stories; Kottayam Thampuran, who wrote four stories based on Mahabharatha; Irayamman Thampi, who was both a good poet and composer, accredited three stories; Unnayi Warrier, the author of Nalacharitham (Story of King Nala); and Vayaskara Moosad who wrote one of the popular stories - Duryodhana Vadham.

The themes of the Kathakali are religious in nature. They typically deal with the Mahabarat, the Ramayana and the ancient scriptures known as the Puranas. This is performed in a text which is generally Sanskritised Malayalam. A Kathakali performance is a major social event. They generally start at dusk and go through out the night. Kathakali is usually performed only by men. Female characters are portrayed by men dressed in women's costume. However, in recent years, women have started to become Kathakali dancers


  1. Vettathu Sampradayam
  2. Kalluvazhi Sampradayam
  3. Kaplingadu Sampradayam.

The latest Sampradyam is Kalluvazhy Sampradayam which is implemented in Kerala kalamandalam, Sadanam and Kottakkal. By selecting attractive attams from the Kaplingadu Sampradayam(Thekkan styles) and Kalladikkodan Sampradayam (old Vadakkan styles) and named as Kalluvazhi Sampradayam. Now Kalluvazhi Sampradayam is known as vadakkan style and Kalladikkodan Sampradayam is vanished. In Kalamandalam thekkan style of Kathakali training also included.

Unique Features

The three unique and striking features that make Kathakali an unparalleled form of performing art are

1. Sophisticated language of Mudras : with 24 basic Mudras (hand and finger gestures ) Kathakali h as a total sophisticated language. When the drama is enacted on the stage, Kathakali characters communicate with each other through this sophisticated language, body movements and facial express ions. 600 to 700 gestures are there in common use.

2. Complete control of the eye balls and the different muscles in the face, so that the different emotions could be expressed and exhibited in a superb manner. (For instance the Kathakali artistes can rotate the eyeballs clockwise or anti-clockwise from corner to corner both ways etc.)

3. Flexibility and complete control of all part of the body. This is achieved by intensive physical training and oil massaging (Uzhichil) of the body. It takes years for a Kathakali artist to master the above said features.


The name Kathakali derives from the Malayalam words "katha" (meaning story) and "kali" (meaning play)

Classical elements of Kathakali

Kathakali is considered to be a combination of five elements of fine art:
1. Natyam
................(Expressions, the component with emphasis on facial expressions)
2. Nritham
................(Dance, the component of dance with emphasis on rhythm and movement of hands, legs and body)
3. Nrithyam
...............(Enactment, the element of drama with emphasis on "mudras", which are hand gestures)
...............(Song/Vocal accompaniment)
..............(Instrument accompaniment)

Even though the lyrics/literature would qualify as another independent element called "Sahithyam", it is considered as a component of Geetha, as it plays only a supplementary role to Nritham, Nrithyam and Natyam.

In olden days Kathakali pe rformance mostly took place on a temple premises or at the house of a local land lord. For a typical performance, a simple temporary pandal (canopy made of thatched roof) at a height of 101/2 feet will be erected. A minimum of 12 feet-square (144 sq. feet) is needed for the acting area. A green room will also be located close to the stage. The stage will be decorated with coconut leaves, bunches of areca nuts etc. The only source of light is a big bell metal lamp placed down the center stage called "Aatta Vilakku or Kali Vilakku"(“kali”= dance; “vilakku”= lamp). Traditionally, the lamp used to provide light when the plays used to be performed. The level of the stage used to be the same as that of the ground where people used to squat while witnessing the performance.

Kelikottu at about 6 `o clock in the evening will announce the performance of the evening. Kelikottu is a brief passage of drumming involving Chenda, Maddalam, Chengila and Elathalam. The actual performance will begin only between 9:00 - 10:00 PM. Arrangukeli will announce the beginning of the performance. This is a passage of drumming, which is followed by Thodayam, a piece of abstract dance at the same time are invocatory in nature. Thodayam is performed by junior actors in the group with simple make-up. Recitation of Vandanaslokam (Prayer Song), followed by Purappad - traditionally a preliminary item introducing the main character of the story in full costume and make-up. However, now-a-days it is mostly Krishna and Balarama who are presented, sometime with their spouses in this introductory dance. Next is the Melappadam, which is a musical piece where vocalists and the drum mers are given opportunity to show their skill without depending on the actors. Then the story or part of the stories proposed are enacted which may last till dawn. The end of the performance is marked by a piece of pure dance called Dhanasi.


Kathakali is a dance-drama in which a high degree of stylization is seen in the method of acting, presentation, make-up and costuming. Realism is limited only to certain characters. The acting mod e of Kathakali in its totality can be better understood in terms of four fold scheme of historic representation given in Natyasastra. They are:

1. Angika - pertaining to the body and its limbs.
2. Vachika - relating to the vocal including proper pronunciation, modulation of voice accents and percussion.

3. Satvika - representation of psychic condition.

4. Ahraya - costume, make-up, stage props etc.

Angika Abhinaya: This involves the whole body of the actor and included an elaborate scheme of facial expression, mime, gestures, accompanied by their appropriate movements, poses and attitudes. Dance passages known as Kalasams have an important role to play in Kathakali. While sustaining as a pure dance, it is also meant to enhance the appropriate bhavas. Hand gestures is another integral part of Angika since the interpretation of the text is mainly conveyed through this. Hastalakshna Deepika is the regional text on the Hastas (hand gestures) mainly used in Kathakali.

Vachika Abh inaya: One of the distinguishing characteristic of Kathakali is that the actors do not speak. Vachika (drama text in the form of verses and songs) are recited and sung by vocalists. These songs are explained and interpreted in details by actors through an elaborate method of angikabhinaya which consists of highly codified gestures, facial expression, and body movements. The vocal music in Kathakali although based on the Karnatic (South Indian) system has developed a distinct regional style called Sopanasangeetham. Its main aim is the evocation of the appropriate, dramatic mood and sentiments.

Satvika Abhinaya: A highly stylized technique in the invocation of bhava has been developed in Kathakali. This is called Rasabhinava. Indian dramatic theory explain 9 kinds of basic sentiments, Rasa with a corresponding sthayi bhava (emotional stayi mood). They are:

Sringaaram (amour), Haasyam (ridicule, humour), Bhayam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Rowdram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valour), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutham (wonder, amazement), Saantham (tranquility, peace). The link at the end of the page gives more details on Navarasas.
Sthayi Bhava

Sringara (EROTIC) Rati (LOVE) Hasya (COMIC, HUMOR) Hasa (LAUGHTER) Karuna (PATHETIC) Soka (SORROW) Raudra (FURIOUS) Krodha (ANGER) Veera (HEROIC) Visaha (ENERGY, HEROISM) Bhaya naka (TERRIBLE) Bhayam (FEAR) Atbhutam (MARVELOUS) Vismayam (ASTONISHMENT) Sandham (SERENE) Sama (TRANQUILLITY)

Through a systematic process of practice an actor gain a full control of the facial muscles which enables him to express the bhavas. Apart from the above sets of emotional moods Natyasastra lists another set of 8 moods which is called Satvika Bhavas compared to Angikabhinaya t his is more subtle and involuntary. Through an internal discipline an actor develops his ability in mastering this action technique. This will help the actor to go deeper into the characterization of the role in proper situation in the play.

Aharya Abhinaya:- The make-up and costuming is another important factor of the dance-drama. Such an elaborate system is rarely found elsewhere. The characters in Kathakali are types. As such characters are classified under 5 major types. According to their nature. They are: Pacca (Green), Kathi (Knife), Thaadi (Beard), Kari (Black), Munukku (Shining)

Kathakali plays

Traditionally there are 101 classical Kathakali stories. Most of them were initially composed to last a whole night. Nowadays the re is increasing popularity for concise versions of every story (lasting 2-4 hours instead of a whole night), which has been made by selecting the most dramatic or popular portions of individual stories. In spite of being a classical art form, Kathakali can be appreciated by novices and connoisseurs. This is because of the frequent use of “Lokadharmi” (or the elaboration of folk elements)which allows novices to gain a foothold when they start watching Kathakali. In contrast “Natyadharmi” (which is based on the Natyasastra-the science of Natya and is the more classical component of the art form) delights the experience of novices and connoisseurs alike. It is good to have an idea of the story being enacted. This will help the spectators to appreciate the “personalization” of characters by individual actors. In fact one of the major attractions for traditional Kathakali connoisseurs is their ability to distinguish and debate on the "personalizations" that each actor brings about in his depiction of the story. Often this is a challenging task as most the characters and stories are derived from Hindu epics, which are memorized for people from that region. Success/ failure of amateur Kathakali artistes is often decided by their sensibility to successfully personalize characters. The most popular stories enacted are Nala Charitam (a story from the Mahabharata, Duryodhana Vadham (a story from the Mahabharata), Kalyanasowgandhikam (the story of Bhima going to get flowers for Panchali, from the Mahabharata), Keechaka Vadham (another story of Bhima and Panchali, from the Mahabharata), Kiratham (Arjuna and Lord Shiva's fight, from the Mahabharata), Karna Shapadham (another story from Mahabharata). Recently, as part of an attempt at popularizing the art, stories from other cultures, such as the story of Mary Magdalene from the B ible, Homer's The Iliad, and Shakespeare's King Lear have also been adapted into Kathakali scripts.

Music (Sangeetham)

Music The language of the songs used for Kathakali is a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit. called Manipravaalam. Even though the songs are set for “ragas” based on South Indian Classical Music” (Karnatic Music), there is a distinct style of rendition, which is known as the “sopanam” style. The Sopanam style incorporates the moods of temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at some temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.

Enactment of a play by actors takes place to the accompaniment of music (geetha) a nd instruments (vadya). The percussion instruments used are Chenda, Maddalam and Edakka. In addition the singers (usually the lead singer is called “ponnani” and his follower is called “singidi”) use "Chengala" (a round disc made of bell metal, which can be struck with a wooden stick) and "Ilathaalom" (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 and use hand gestures, expressions and rhythmic dancing instead of dialogue.

Make-up ( Chutty)

The costume is the most distinctive characteristic of Kathakali. The makeup is very elaborate and the costumes are very large and heavy. 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 Pacha, Kathi, Kari, T haadi, and Minukku. The differences between these sets are the predominant colors that are applied on the face. Pacha (Pacha=green) has green as the dominant color and is used to portray noble heroic and devine male characters who is said to have a mixture of "Satvik" (pious)and "Rajasic" (kingly) nature, eg; Krishna, Arjuna etc. Kathi (Knife) is used to Rajasic characters having an evil streak ("tamasic"= evil), such as the demon king Ravana, Duryodhana are portrayed with red as the predominant color in a green background. These are heroic charecters but lustful with arogant in nature. Thaadi (Beard) is for excessively evil and villainous characters such as demons (totally tamasic) have a predominantly red make-up and a red beard. They are called Chuvanna Thaadi (Red Beard). Kari: Tamasic characters such as uncivilized hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base and a black beard and are called Kari/ Karutha Thaadi (meaning black beard).

Minukku (Shining): All female (ecepct Demoness in their orginal form) and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces and form the fifth class. For example Brahmins, Sage, Messangers, Charioteer etc.

Teppu (Special make-up): This costume is using for portraying Birds, Bheeru (Coward) etc.

In addition there are modifications of the five basic sets described above such as Vella Thaadi (white beard) used to depict Hanuman (the monkey god) and Pazhuppe, which is used for the Sun God.

The make up is made from various mineral ores and pigments. The materials that comprise the makeup is all locally available. The white is made from rice flour, the red is made from Vermilion (a red earth such as cinnabar). The black is made from soot. They are ground on a stone and mixed with coconut oil before being applied on the face. Some characters also have their features enhanced, such as an enlarged nose or an elaborate mustache. There are made using elaborately cut paper which is stuck to the face with a mixture of rice paste and calcium carbonate. Dancers also often place a "chundanga seed" (variety of eggplant which bears small fruits) under their lower eyelid before the performance to turn the white of their eyes red. In fact the "chundanga" is not really a seed and is prepared by removing the ovaries at the base of the flowers of this plant. The procedure used for preparing these seeds involves the rubbing of a bunch of these in your palm until they become black (starting from a white color) and nearly dehydrated. They often last long enough for a season (of around four months) in this condition. The colours are not merely decoration, but are also a means of portraying characters. For instance, red on the feet is used to symbolise evil character and evil intent.

A major part of the face make-up is done by the actor himself. However, specially trained artists are entrusted to apply Chutty (framing the face with white paper and rice paste). Design vary according to the type of a characters. A close observation on Aharya aspect of Kathakali would reveal the highest level of aesthetic imagination conceived by our predecessors.


A Kathakali actor uses immense concentration, skill and physical stamina, gained from training based on Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, to prepare for his demanding role. Training can often last for 8-10 years. The training programme 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 Natyasatra (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 main mudras and numerous other lesser mudras. Each can again can be classified into 'Samaana-mudras'(one mudra symbolizing 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 Sringaaram (amour), Haasyam (ridicule, humour), Bhayam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Rowdram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valour), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutham (wonder, amazement), Saantham (tranquility, peace). The link at the end of the page gives more details on Navarasas.


classical, it only scores modestly. It is definitely old, but this is one of the least important of the criteria. It is nIs Kathakali classical? If we look at our benchmarks to see if it isot necessarily something that upper classes use to define their identity, indeed the opposite is probably true. Its most glaring deficiency is seen in its inability to transcend its attachments to the Keralite community. The average Indian (non-Malayali) has only a vague knowledge that it exists, and will live their entire life without ever even seeing a Kathakali performance. Therefore from a sociological standpoint it is probably more correct to call Kathakali "traditional" instead of classical.

Renowned training centers for Kathakali

The most popular Kathakali artists have obtained their training from one the four centers below, which follow the traditional "gurukula" style. Moreover these four centers are the oldest ones with some of them present from pre-independent era of India.

Kerala Kalamandalam (located in Cheruthuruthy, near Shoranur, Kerala)

PSV Natya Sanghom (located in Kottakal, near Kozhikode, Kerala)

Gandhi Seva Sadan Kathakali and Classic Arts Academy (located in Perur, near Palakkad, Kerala)

Unnayi Varier Smaraka Kalanilayam (located in Iringalakuda, near Thrissur, Kerala)

There also several new centers, but they are relatively new compared to these old schools where masters of the art such as Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair (recipient of prestigious Kalidas award) and Keezhpadom Kumaran Nair (recipients of prestigious Padmashree award) and contemporaries trained their disciples.

Margi Kathakali Vidyalayam and Kalabharathi Kathakali Vidyalayam, FACT Kathakali School, RLV Kathakali vidyalayam, Trippunitura also conducting Kathakali classes.