Kerala culture has various exemplary and highly stylized art forms. One such spectacular and extremely colorful dance form is that of Kathakali. ‘Katha’ which means story and ‘Kali’ meaning play, Kathakali is a classical dance drama typical to the God’s own country. Originating in the 16th century, this dance form has its own elite following around the globe today.
Predominantly with male artists, Kathakali depicts through its group presentation various roles and stories from the Hindu mythology – the famous epics of that of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagvata purana. The dance typically emotes characters from three worlds, the Heaven with Devas or Gods, the Middle world with the mere Mortal Humans and the Nether world with Asuras or Demons. In the past the male artists used to make up as ladies for female roles, however today we find many ladies stepping up to learn and excel in Kathakali dance form.
A single performance of Kathakali lasts an entire night, where the ambience usually is that of a temple and with lamp as the only source of light. The Temple festivals are the place where the crowds sit through the night enjoying this dance form as the story unfolds. Even today, most temple festivals have this as the highlight. Apart from the temples today, one can catch glimpses of the dance form in brightly lit auditoriums & youth festivals which also includes the bright and vibrant makeup of the artists. And what with people barely having time and patience to sit through performances for 8-9 hours at a stretch, many a 3 hour performances are available.
The makeup of the artists is a lengthy affair and takes up around 2-3 hours depending on the character essayed by the artist. The artist does his/her basic make up before presenting himself / herself to the makeup man who then enhances the facial makeup in close depiction to the character being played. Only natural pigments and herbs are used with coconut oil as a base for all facial makeup. Finally the artist get into their elaborate dress of that of bulky skirts accompanied by accessories like anklets, ornate vests, jewellery and a huge headgear.
It is also of interest how one can guess the morality of various characters simply by looking at the makeup. The makeup can either be “Pacha” or green which represents dignified and noble characters or a Similar Green with streaks of Red representing Demons. Extremely evil and angry characters are denoted through Red makeup along with red flowing beard. One can identify the women characters through their attire and Yellow colored face.
The highly skilled and complicated dance form of Kathakali is performed using basic nine facial expressions and twenty four hand gestures. One can only imagine the challenges of rigorous dancing with visibly heavy attires. All the artists go through a strenuous training cycle of as long as 10-12 years along with special body massages for strength and flexibility.
Traditionally, Kathakali is performed with an orchestra comprising of two drummers with chenda and maddalam, along with cymbals while two singers provide the vocals. However, now most of the performances have reduced their orchestra to a basic minimum of two people – one drummer and one vocalist who also plays the cymbals. The style of singing typical to Kathakali is called Sopaanam while the language used is called Manipravalam (combination of Malayalam and Sanskrit).
When visiting Kerala, one must not miss watching this mesmerizing form of dance form, which, with its larger than life characters and its sheer colorful appearance transports its audience to a world of marvel.