Kathakali: History, Evolution, and Features

Kathakali: History, Evolution, and Features
Posted on 29-07-2023

Kathakali: History, Evolution, and Features

Kathakali is a classical dance form that originates primarily from the Indian state of Kerala. Its basic components and distinct features can be traced back to ancient Sanskrit Hindu texts like the 'Natya Shastra.' Kathakali also finds textual sanction from Balarama Bharatam and Hastalakshana Deepika. The dance-drama art forms of 'Krishnanattam' and 'Ramanattam,' based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana, serve as precursors to Kathakali.

Features of Kathakali:

  1. Dance, Music, and Acting: Kathakali is a blend of dance, music, and acting. It dramatizes stories adapted from Indian epics, making use of four aspects of abhinaya - Angika (body), Aharya (costume), Vachika (vocal), and Satvika (emotions). The dance form seamlessly combines Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (expressive dance), and Natya (dramatic performance).

  2. Expressive Gestures: The dancers use codified hastamudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions to convey the narrative. The movements closely follow the verses (padams) sung during the performance.

  3. Influence from Martial Arts: The body movements and choreography draw inspiration from various martial arts practiced in Kerala.

  4. Selection of Stories: Kathakali stories, known as attakkathas, are chosen from epics and myths and are written in a highly Sanskritized verse form in Malayalam. Many Malayalam writers have contributed to the vast repertoire of Kathakali literature.

  5. Characterization: Characters in a Kathakali performance are broadly divided into three categories - satvika (noble), rajasika (courageous with an evil streak), and tamasika (evil characters represented with beards of different colors).

  6. Color Codes: Different colors of facial makeup are used to signify different character types. For example, Krishna and Rama wear green makeup (pacha), anti-heroes like Ravana bear red (tati) makeup, and characters with beards have distinct color-coded representations.

  7. Kalasams: These are pure dance sequences where the actor has the liberty to showcase their skills through leaps, turns, jumps, and rhythmic coordination.

Costumes and Music:

Kathakali is a visual art where costumes and makeup are tailored to suit the characters. A mixture of rice paste and lime is applied to make the chutti (facial makeup) prominent. Kathakali music follows the traditional sopana sangeet of Kerala, which also includes the use of Carnatic ragas and talas, in line with the emotions and dance patterns.

Major Exponents:

Kathakali has been enriched by the talent of numerous performers. Some of the major exponents include Kavungal Chathunni Panicker, a veteran performer from the famous Kavungal family, and Kalamandalam Gopi, a renowned representative of the Kalluvazhi School of Kerala. Other eminent Kathakali performers include Kalamandalam Krishna Prasad, Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody, Kalamandalam Kesavan Namboodiri, Kalanilayam Balakrishnan, Kottakal Sivaraman, and Rita Ganguly.

Kathakali is a captivating classical dance form that beautifully weaves together storytelling, music, and expressive movements. Rooted in ancient tradition, it continues to be cherished as an important cultural heritage of Kerala and India as a whole.

Kathakali is a highly stylized classical Indian dance-drama form that originated in the southern state of Kerala. It is one of the oldest theater art forms in the world and has a history of over 400 years. Kathakali combines dance, music, and acting, making it a complete theatrical experience. The word "Kathakali" is derived from two Malayalam words - "Katha" (meaning story) and "Kali" (meaning performance).

Key features of Kathakali:

  1. Elaborate Makeup: One of the most distinctive aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate makeup, called "Chutti." The makeup is applied to the performers' faces using natural colors to represent various characters, such as gods, demons, kings, and heroines. The makeup helps in identifying the characters and their nature.

  2. Vibrant Costumes: Kathakali performers wear colorful and ornate costumes that are designed to complement the characters they portray. The costumes are adorned with traditional jewelry and accessories.

  3. Hand Gestures and Facial Expressions: The dance movements of Kathakali involve a combination of intricate hand gestures, known as "Mudras," and facial expressions, known as "Rasa Abhinaya." These expressive elements are crucial in conveying emotions and narrating the story.

  4. Storytelling: Kathakali performances typically depict stories from ancient Indian epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as other mythological tales and folklore. The performances are narrated through a mix of dance, gestures, expressions, and vocalizations.

  5. Music and Instruments: Kathakali performances are accompanied by a traditional orchestra known as "Percussion Ensemble" or "Chenda Melam," which includes instruments like chenda (a cylindrical drum), maddalam (a barrel-shaped drum), and cymbals. The music adds depth and rhythm to the performances.

  6. Training and Tradition: Kathakali is taught in traditional schools called "Kathakali Kalamandalam." The training is rigorous and requires years of practice to perfect the intricate movements, expressions, and techniques involved.

Kathakali performances are not just entertainment but also considered a sacred and spiritual experience in Kerala's culture. The dancers and actors, known as "Kathakali artists," are highly respected for their skills and dedication to preserving this ancient art form.

Kathakali has gained international recognition and continues to be performed and appreciated by audiences worldwide for its rich cultural heritage and artistic brilliance.

Thank You