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Home / Onam Festival / Kerala Kathakali Dance | Ancient Folk Dance of Kerala

Kerala Kathakali Dance | Ancient Folk Dance of Kerala

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The festival of Onam is blessed with one very striking feather in its cap. The Onam carnival has several performances of unique and unparalleled Kathakali dance-drama. Amongst other places, Shoranur, Kovalam and most importantly Cheruthuruthy get the honour of hosting Kathakali shows. Kathakali in these places are mostly performed during the carnival of Onam.

Introduction to Kathakali:
‘Katha’ means story and ‘Kali’ means dance. As the name suggests, Kathakali is a beautiful amalgamation of dance and drama. More precisely, Kathakali is a harmonious blend of five forms of art. These include Sahithyam [Literature], Sangeetham [Music], Chithram [Painting], Natyam [acting] and Nritham [Dance]. ‘Total Theatre’ is the word often used to describe this highly evolved art.

Kerala Kathakali Dance

Kathakali dance-drama is described as visual art since the performers do not say any dialogues. Instead, the Kathakali dancers mime. Communication is made effective using the remarkable gestures and mudras that lend Kathakali its universal appeal. People living worldwide and of varied tastes, appreciate and admire the beauty of this distinguished art. A very distinct feature of Kathakali is its elaborate costume and make-up. Watching the Kathakali artistes performing in their traditional attires is a magical sight. The Kathakali artistes larger than life form transport the audience to a make believe wonderland.

Origin and Theme of Kathakali:
Kathakali is one of the most renowned and revered dance-forms of India. It originated in south-western state of Kerala in the town called Travancore some 400 years ago. In a short span, Kathakali has achieved remarkable heights. Kathakali is said to have been inspired from the ancient South Indian dances. These include Koodiyattam, Krishnanattam, Theyyam, Kalaripayattu and others. Movements of Kathakali are said to be adopted from Bharatha Natya Shastra with suitable modifications. The drama lends its theme from stories in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These are the two famous epics of Hindu mythology. Earlier, only men were supposed to perform this considerably tough classical dance. Nowadays, even women are making a foray and carving their niche in this male dominated field.

Kathakali Music and Narration:
Interestingly, there are no dialogues in Kathakali. Story narration and conversation between two characters is done mainly through gestures made by the performers. Kathakali songs are sung in the background by vocalists, usually two in number. Kathakali lyrics are mostly in the form of verse and sung loudly by Bhagavathar [vocalist]. This unique style of singing adopted for Kathakali is known as sopaanam. Kathakali music is provided by two drums known as the chenda and the maddalam. Cymbals and another percussion instruments, also Ela taalam are part of the orchestra.

Kathakali Kathakali Make-up or Aharya:
Most remarkable facet of Kathakali dance is its extraordinary and bewitching make-up code. It takes about 8-10 painstaking hours to carry out elaborate Aharya, [make-up] in all its detail. Artistes are trained to do the make-up on their own. There are various make-up colours for different shades of character like Pacha, Kathi, Minukku, Thadi etc.

Pacha Vehsam is green make-up. This is used to portray a noble or a divine character such as Lord Rama.

Kathi or Knife Vesham is green make-up with streaks of red on the cheeks. This is used to portray a character of high birth having shades of evil like Ravana.

Kari Vesham is black make-up that is used for she-demons.

Minukku Vesham is bright yellow make-up. This is used to portray the character of a woman or an ascetic.

Thadi [Beard] Veshams:
Chuvanna Thadi [red beards] is given to excessively evil characters.
Karutha Thadi [black beard] signifies the character of a forest dweller or a hunter.
Vella Thadi [white beard] is given to a superhuman like Hanuman.
Facial paints are prepared by treating rice powder with various colours. Moulded lime is used to extend the contours of the face.

Kathakali Costume:
A massive and intricate headgear is the most important part of Kathakali costume. The headgear is prepared from light weight wood. It is embellished with mirrors, colourful stones and pieces of shiny metal plates. Layers of skirts of vivid colours are also worn for buoyancy. Jewelleries including anklets, bracelets, big rings and huge chin cap are worn by the Kathakali dancer. Evil characters also sport talons [big claw like nails] and beards to depict their beastly nature.

Kathakali Training:
Training of a Kathakali artiste is extremely strenuous and rigorous. A performer needs to take exhaustive lessons in each and every aspect of this dance-drama. Toughest of all is the physical training that involves control of the muscles. This is mainly that of eye balls, eye brows, eye-lids, lips, neck and shoulder. This is extremely essential part of Kathakali training. In the absence of dialogues, expressions become the most vital aspect of communication in Kathakali dance.

It is required that the artiste should have a thorough knowledge of epics and mythology. In addition, he should train himself in both Malayalam and Sanskrit Literature. Thus, it takes several years for an artiste to attain mastery in dancing Kathakali. Getting perfection in body movements, footwork and nuances of make-up is also essential. A Kathakali dancer masters and synchronises Nritta [pure dance], Nritya [expression dance], and Natya [histrionics]. Others include Geeta [vocal music] and Vadya [percussion ensemble] besides literature and painting.

KathakaliKathakali Performance:
Kathakali performance begins with a musical note called Thiranottam. Before the beginning of the drama, a loud thumping of drums can be heard. Often a peaceful love scene is enacted at the beginning of the show.

The distinct feature of Kathakali dance is that the performers do not utter any sound. Instead, the performers communicate through other means. They use language of hand-gestures, body movements and facial expressions. Rigorously trained performers bring to life mythological tales with ease and élan. The supporting vocalist and instrumentalists play a significant role in the performance.

Kathakali dance follows hand gestures prescribed in the book called ‘Hasthalakshana Deepika’. This book consists of the knowledge on 24 basic mudras [hand gestures]. Over 470 symbols are derived from these basic hand gestures.

Audience should have basic understanding to appreciate Kathakali, most highly evolved Indian classical dance. They should be aware of the background and origin of the Kathakali. These are essential features to appreciate in addition to knowledge of legends and mythology.

Changing Trends in Kathakali Performance:
Traditional Kathakali performances are long. The performance starts from the evening, continues all night long and finishes at dawn. In modern age, people do not have much time so even Kathakali performances have got transformed. At present, performances are designed to last for maximum of two hours these days.

Earlier, performances were held in the courtyards of temples. Another was at palaces of Kings of Kerala. However, these days, Kathakali performances are held in plush auditoriums for the convenience of the audience.

Traditional Kathakali performances still take place during festivals in the raised courtyards of temples. These temples are at Thiruvattar, Thirparappu, Ponmana, Kuzhithurai, Neyyoor and Munchira in the Kanyakumari district.

Onam Dances:

Kummatti Kali | Pulikali / Kaduvakali | Kathakali | Thumbi Thullal | Kaikotti Kali

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