Monday, February 13, 2012

Kathkali- Traditional Art Form of Kerla

Kathakali - Fine Art Elements 

Kathakali is an ancient and traditional dance form of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally means "Story-Play". Kathakali uses elaborate make-ups, costumes and background. Kathakali was originated in the 17th century and has its roots in Hindu mythology. Kathakali has a unique combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance. Kathakali is based on religious themes. They play is mostly based on the two epics 'Ramayana' and 'Mahabharata'.

Elements of Fine Art
Kathakali is a combination of five forms of fine art like :       
    1. Natyam (Acting or Expressions)
    2. Nritham (Dance)
    3. Nrithyam (Enactment)
    4. Sangeetham (Music)
    5. Vadyam (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.

  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.
Kathakali has a long tradition.  It dates back to the 17th century.  It was given its present form by Mahakavi Vallathol Narayan Menon, who was the founder of the Kerala Kala Mandalam.
The actors rely very heavily on hand gesture to convey the story.  These hand gestures, known as mudra, are common through out much of classical Indian dance

The costume is the most distinctive characteristic of Kathakali.  The makeup is very elaborate and the costumes are very large and heavy.
There are several kinds of costume.  There are: Sathwika (the hero), Kathi (the villain), Minukku (females), and Thatti.  These basic divisions are further subdivided in a way which is very well known to Malayali (Keralite) audiences.  Each character is instantly recognisable by their characteristic makeup and costume.
The makeup is very elaborate.  It is so elaborate that it is more like a mask than makeup in the usual sense.  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.  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.

Kathakali Plays
There are about 101 Kathakali stories. The stories were composed for the whole night in the old times. But due to the increasing demand for the concised versions, now the plays are composed for 2-4 hours instead of the whole night. It is good for one who watches Kathakali to have an idea of the story being played. Success or failure of amateur Kathakali artistes is often decided by their sensibility to successfully personalize characters.  

Important stories enacted in Kathakali are 'Nala Charitham' (Story from Mahabharatham about King Nala and his wife Damayanthi), 'Duryodhana Vadham' (Another story from Mahabharata about the killing of Duryodhana by the Pandava brother Bhima in Kurukshetra), 'Kalyanasowgandhikam' (Bheema's encounter with Hanuman when the former set out in search for the flower Kalyanasaugandhikam for his wife Draupadi), 'Keechaka Vadham'(Story of the killing of Keechaka by Bhima when the Panadavas were in disguise), 'Kiratham' (Story of Arjuna and Lord Shiva's fight),  and 'Karna Shapadham' (story of Karna from Mahabharata).

The music of Kathakali has some similarity to the larger body of South Indian classical music (Carnatic sangeet); however the instrumentation is decidedly different.  Its local colour is strongly achieved by the use of instruments such as chendaidakka, and shuddha madalam.

Is Kathakali classical?  If we look at our benchmarks to see if it is classical, it only scores modestly.  It is definitely old, but this is one of the least important of the criteria.  It is not 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.

Musical Instruments Used To Accompany Kathakali.
`Shuddha madalam,


  1. you have covered almost everything related to Kathakali dance. I really appreciate your blog. I like Kathakali dance very much. Your blog enhanced my knowledge regarding this dance. Thank you.
    Well done.

  2. I love reading about indian culture! its so bright and vibrant and oh man the stories! i am a christian who is interested in indian culture