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Kathakali originated from Ramanattom (“Rama”= the Hindu god, Sri Rama; “nattom”= enactment”) and Krishnanattom ("Krishna"= the Hindu god, Krishna; “nattom”= enactment). History has it that Raja (ruler) of Kottarakkara (a province in Kerala) sculpted Ramanattom when the Zamorin (then ruler of Kozhikode, another province in Kerala) refused to allow a performance of Krishnanattom in the former’s palace. Subsequently, Kottayam Thampuran (ruler of Kottayam, another province in Kerala) composed several plays on Mahabharata thereby making these distinct from stories based on Ramanattom. Thus, Kathakali was born. Kathakali shares a lot of similarities to both Ramanattom and Krishnanattom. But it also incorporated several outside elements, which is thought to have contributed to its popularity. In particular, the increasing use of Malayalam, which is the local language (albeit as a mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam, called Manipravaalam) made it more popular among the masses. During its evolution, Kathakali also imbibed elements from folk and martial arts which existed at the time in Kerala. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Kathakali is featured in the award-winning Indo-French-German produced film Vaanaprastham. Kathakali has traditionally been performed in Hindu temples, but nowadays it may also be seen in theatres.

Kathakali is considered to be a combination of five elements of fine art:

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.

Traditionally there are 101 classical Kathakali stories. Most of them were initially composed to last a whole night. Nowadays there is increasing popularity for concise versions of every story (lasting 2-4 hours instead of a whole night), which has been made by selecting the most dramatic or popular portions of individual stories. In spite of being a classical art form, Kathakali can be appreciated by novices and connoisseurs. This is because of the frequent use of “Lokadharmi” (or the elaboration of folk elements)which allows novices to gain a foothold when they start watching Kathakali. In contrast “Natyadharmi” (which is based on the Natyasastra-the science of Natya and is the more classical component of the art form) delights the experience of novices and connoisseurs alike. It is good to have an idea of the story being enacted. This will help the spectators to appreciate the “personalization” of characters by individual actors. In fact one of the major attractions for traditional Kathakali connoisseurs is their ability to distinguish and debate on the "personalizations" that each actor brings about in his depiction of the story. Often this is a challenging task as most the characters and stories are derived from Hindu epics, which are memorized for people from that region. Success/ failure of amateur Kathakali artistes is often decided by their sensibility to successfully personalize characters.

The most popular stories enacted are Nala Charitam (a story from the Mahabharata, Duryodhana Vadham (a story from the Mahabharata), Kalyanasowgandhikam (the story of Bhima going to get flowers for Panchali, from the Mahabharata), Keechaka Vadham (another story of Bhima and Panchali, from the Mahabharata), Kiratham (Arjuna and Lord Shiva's fight, from the Mahabharata), Karna Shapadham (another story from Mahabharata).

Recently, as part of an attempt at popularizing the art, stories from other cultures, such as the story of Mary Magdalene from the Bible, Homer's The Iliad, and Shakespeare's King Lear have also been adapted into Kathakali scripts.

The language of the songs used for Kathakali is a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit. called Manipravaalam. Even though the songs are set for “ragas” based on South Indian Classical Music” (Karnatic Music), there is a distinct style of rendition, which is known as the “sopanam” style. The Sopanam style incorporates the moods of temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at some temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.

A Kathakali actor uses immense concentration, skill and physical stamina, gained from training based on Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, to prepare for his demanding role. Training can often last for 8-10 years. The training programme is intensive. In Kathakali, the story is enacted purely by the movements of the hands (called mudras or hand gestures) and by facial expressions (rasas) and bodily movements. The expressions are derived from Natyasatra (the science of expressions) and are classified into nine as in most Indian classical art forms. Dancers also undergo special practice sessions to learn control of their eye movements.

There are 24 main mudras and numerous other lesser mudras. Each can again can be classified into 'Samaana-mudras'(one mudra symbolizing two entities) or misra-mudras (both the hands are used to show these mudras). The mudras are a form of sign language used to tell the story.

The main facial expressions of a Kathakali artist are the 'navarasams' ( 'Navarasas' in anglicised form )(literal translation: Nine Tastes, but more loosely translated as nine feelings or expressions) which are Sringaaram (amour), Haasyam (ridicule, humour), Bhayam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Rowdram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valour), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutham (wonder, amazement), Saantham (tranquility, peace). The link at the end of the page gives more details on Navarasas

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Most often, the make-up can be classified into five basic sets namely Pacha, Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, and Minukku. The differences between these sets are the predominant colors that are applied on the face. Pacha (Pacha=green)has green as the dominant color and is used to portray noble male characters who is said to have a mixture of "Satvik" (pious)and "Rajasic" (kingly)nature. Rajasic characters having an evil streak ("tamasic"= evil), such as the demon king Ravana, are portrayed with red as the predominant color in a green background. Excessively evil characters such as demons (totally tamasic) have a predominantly red make-up and a red beard. They are called Chuvanna Thaadi(Red Beard). Tamasic characters such as uncivilized hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base and a black beard and are called Kari/ Karutha Thaadi (meaning black beard). Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces and form the fifth class. In addition there are modifications of the five basic sets described above such as Vella Thadi (white beard) used to depict Hanuman (the monkey god) and Pazhuppe, which is used for the Sun God.

The make up is made from various mineral ores and pigments. They are ground on a stone and mixed with coconut oil before being applied on the face. Some characters also have their features enhanced, such as an enlarged nose or an elaborate mustache. There are made using elaborately cut paper which is stuck to the face with a mixture of rice paste and calcium carbonate. Dancers also often place a "chundanga seed" (variety of eggplant which bears small fruits) under their lower eyelid before the performance to turn the white of their eyes red. In fact the "chundanga" is not really a seed and is prepared by removing the ovaries at the base of the flowers of this plant. The procedure used for preparing these seeds involves the rubbing of a bunch of these in your palm until they become black (starting from a white color) and nearly dehydrated. They often last long enough for a season (of around four months) in this condition.

The most popular Kathakali artists have obtained their training from one the four centers below, which follow the traditional "gurukula" style. Moreover these four centers are the oldest ones with some of them present from pre-independent era of India. Kerala Kalamandalam (located in Cheruthuruthy, near Shoranur, Kerala) PSV Natya Sanghom (located in Kottakal, near Kozhikode, Kerala) Gandhi Seva Sadan Kathakali and Classic Arts Academy (located in Perur, near Palakkad, Kerala) and Unnayi Varier Smaraka Kalanilayam (located in Iringalakuda, near Thrissur, Kerala)

There also several new centers, but they are relatively new compared to these old schools where masters of the art such as Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair (recipient of prestigious Kalidas award) and Keezhpadom Kumaran Nair (recipients of prestigious Padmashree award) and contemporaries trained their disciples.

Vella Kathakali Vidyalayam and Kalabharathi Kathakali Vidyalayam,FACT Kathakali School, RLV Kathakali vidyalayam Trippunitura also conducting Kathakali classes.

KATHAKALI STYLES (Sampradayam) 1, Vettathu Sampradayam 2, Kalladikkodan Sampradyam 3, Kaplingadu Sampradayam.

The latest Sampradyam is Kalluvazhy Sampradayam which is implemented in Kerala kalamandalam,Sadanam and Kottakkal. By selecting attractive attams from the Kaplingadu Sampradayam(Thekkan styles) and Kalladikkodan Sampradayam (old Vadakkan styles)and named as Kalluvazhi Sampradayam. Now Kalluvazhi Sampradayam is known as vadakkan style and Kalladikkodan Sampradayam is vanished.In Kalamandalam thekkan style of Kathakali training also included.