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Kathakali, literally meaning 'story-play', is a dance-drama originated in the 17th century in Kerala, one of the smallest states in India lying on the west coast of the Indian peninsula. Scholars are of opinion that Kathakali is the result of a fusion between all Indian theater tradition represented by Koodiyattom and the indigenous tradition of folk dance forms. 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. 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. Among the better known Kathakali play writes are Kottarakara Thampuran, based on Ramayana Stories; Kottayam Thampuran, stories based on Mahabharatha; Irayamman Thampi, who was both a good poet and composer, Unnayi Warrier, the author of Nalacharitham (Story of King Nala); and Vayaskara Moosad who wrote one of the popular stories — Duryodhana Vadham.

Kathakali is a harmonious combination of five forms of fine art:

Literature (Sahithyam) | Music (Sangeetham) | Painting (Chithram) | Acting (Natyam) | Dance (Nritham)

The role of each of these art forms is very vital in the making of Kathakali what it is, the King of performing arts, particularly theatre.

Structure of the Performance

In olden days Kathakali performance mostly took place on temple premises or at the house of a local landlord. For a typical performance, a simple temporary pandal (canopy made of thatched roof) will be erected. 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. The level of the stage used to be the same as that of the ground where people used to squat while witnessing the performance.


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

Angika — pertaining to the body and its limbs | Vachika — relating to the vocal including proper pronunciation, modulation of voice accents and percussion | Satvika — representation of psychic condition | 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, and gestures, accompanied by their appropriate movements, poses and attitudes. Hand gestures are another integral part of Angika since the interpretation of the text is mainly conveyed through this. Vachika Abhinaya: One of the distinguishing characteristics 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. Satvika Abhinaya: A highly stylized technique in the invocation of bhava has been developed in Kathakali. This is called Rasabhinava. Indian dramatic theory explains 9 kinds of basic sentiments, Rasa with a corresponding sthayi bhava (emotional stayi mood). They are:

Rasabhinava Sthayi Bhava | Sringara (EROTIC) Rati (LOVE) | Hasya (COMIC, HUMOR) Hasa (LAUGHTER) | Karuna (PATHETIC) Soka (SORROW) | Raudra (FURIOUS) Krodha (ANGER) | Veera (HEROIC) Visaha (ENERGY, HEROISM) | Bhayanaka (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. 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.

Apart from the above sets of emotional moods Natyasastra lists another set of 8 moods, which is called Satvika Bhavas, compared to Angikabhinaya this 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

The actor himself does a major part of the face make-up. However, specially trained artists are entrusted to apply Chutty (framing the face with white paper and rice paste). Design varies according to the type of characters.


The communication among the characters and to the audience is through an intricate language of hand gestures, used in combination with facial expression and body movements. Kathakali follows the language of Mudras, as described in “Hasthalakshana Deepika”. the book of hand gestures.

There are 24 Basic Mudras (hand gestures) in the "Hasthalakshana Deepika", which Kathakali is followed. There are ‘Asamyutha Mudras’ (that is shown using single hand) and ‘Samyutha Mudras’ (mudras shown in double hands) in each Basic Mudras, to show different symbols. Considering all these Mudras and their seperations there are totally 470 symbols used in Kathakali.

There are two types of Mudras:

  • Samaana Mudras (Same Mudras):- That is, the same Mudra is used to show two different symbols. For example the Mudra "Karthareemukham" is used to show both the symbols 'Time' and 'Near'
  • Misra Mudras (Mixed Mudras): That is, some symbols are shown using two different Mudras in both hands. There are 68 Mixed Mudras. For example to show the symbol "Indra", the Mudra "Sikharam" in one hand and the Mudra "Mushti" in the other hand; for 'Sivan' the Mudras used are "Mrigaseersham" and "Hamsapaksham"; etc


The headgear worn by the various characters in Kathakali are excellent specimen of intricate woodcarving, an ancient speciality of the region. Even the shiny finishing with trinkets take hours of painstaking labour by expert craftsmen. Most of the ornaments donning each character are made in this fashion too.


The make-up, called Chutty in the bibliography of Kathakali, is also an art form in itself. The colourful faces are the results of hours of painstaking handiwork by expert artists. The basic materials used for the make up are very crude items like raw amorphous Sulphur, Indigo, Rice paste, Lime, Coconut oil etc.


One of the major distinguishing features of Kathakali is the absence of oral communication. A considerable part of the script is in the form of lyrics, sung by vocalists. The only accompaniments are percussion instruments. Chenda(Drum played with sticks) Maddalam(Drum played with fingers), Chengila(Gong) and Ilathalam(Cymbals). It is not unusual that a Kathakali performance take the form of a Jugalbandi (Duet) of singing and acting.

Drumming especially of Chenda is the salient feature of Kathakali. Formerly considered an “Asura Vadyam” meaning one that cannot go in harmony, Chena has become the most important feature. Artists are capable of producing a range of sounds varying from the gentle rattle of dry leaves in a breeze to reverberating thunder on Chenda.


Although dance is an important element in Kathakali, it is not the main feature. Pure dance sequences are limited to Kalasams, which punctuate acting segments. Female characters spontaneously breaking into "Sari" and "Kummi" dances can be seen in few dramas. The accent in Kathakali is more on the Thandava style of dancing than on Lasya style. Hence the movements are often explosive. Delicate movements are rare.