Kathakali Dance Theatre Guide

Guide and explanation of Kathakali, the famous indigenous dance theatre of Kerala

Kathakali in Kerala

Kathakali is a ritualistic dance-drama of Vedic age origin. In Kathakali the story is enlivened in the dance. Natural and graceful movements embodied by gestures and passions distinct Kathakali from other ritualistic art performance. Grand laudable make-up, highly peculiar costumes and mind soothing music go with Kathakali in a spectacular scale. The costumes of Kathakali have resemblance with the costumes of Koodiyaattam and Chakyaarkooth.

Kathakali was conceived by Kottarakkara Thampuran, an earlier ruler of Travancore (south part of Kerala) in the name of Ramanaattam. Ramanaattam was renamed to Attakatha. Attakatha was again renamed to the present name of Kathakali, capsuled elaboration of story by dance and gestures. Kathakali is woven on the story of Lord Rama as against Krishnaattam woven on the story of Lord Krishna.

Kathakali is more popular than Chaakyaarkooth, Koodiyaattam and other forms of art worshipping dance-dramas. Acting, gestures, hand poses are borrowed from Chaakyaarkooth and Koodiyaattam. In the matter of facial make-up, Kathakali has its own style with unrivalled attraction.

Three types of acting are embodied in Kathakali. They are:

  • Sattvika (expression of thoughts by articulating the mind),
  • Aangika (conveyance of ideas by gestures) and
  • Vaachika (conveyance of idea by singing, shrieking etc).
  • Aharya (dress deportment) makes the art exemplary.

Mudras (hand poses) play a pivotal role in Kathakali. Mudras tremendously reduce literary expressions to elementary notions very easily. The basic Mudras number sixty-four and these Mudras are elixir of 500 words. The regulated movement of eyes conceives expressions. Expanded and crypt smiles and hyperboles convey messages.

In this art form the essential characteristic is the moment of hand and body along with the beat of the orchestra. The traditional orchestra of Kathakali comprises of the Chenda and the Maddalam Maddalam along with cymbals and another percussion instrument the Elataalam.

The music plays cardinal role in Kathakali. The up-beat music electrifies the moods of the performer to display with defined and refined foot steps.

The vocal form for the Kathakali is known as Sopaanam, which generally two singers perform. This traditional dance form can be seen during several cultural festivals or occasions. Voicing the rich cultural and traditional heritage of Kerala.

Make-up in Kathakali

Make-up is a highly reckoning factor in Kathakali. Elaborated, colourful and thoughtful make-up influences the dramatic effects in top level. Each colour in make-up denotes each particular quality.

  • Green denotes godliness,
  • white denotes spirituality,
  • red denotes turmoil,
  • black denotes evil and
  • yellow denotes combination of godliness and turmoil.

In other words, each colour represents each character with marked costume and make-up. These five characters are named

  • Pachha,
  • Katti,
  • Taadi (it has three types – Velupu Thaadi, Chuvappu Thaadi and Karuppu Thaadi.

Reddening of the white portions of eyes of the characters is a salient feature in Kathakali. For this tender seeds of sollanum pubescence are used.


Minukku make-up soothes face. Yellow and red colours mix used for it creates natural skin colour supposedly of Brahmins, Rishis and virtuous women. Some artists prefer to have cream or white colour dots from cheeks to the fore-head in bow shape. Forehead is caste-marked with black colour, while the lips are coloured red. Eyes and eye-lids are lengthened with black greasy collyium. For women characters appropriate touch-ups are given.


Pachha (green) facial make-up is symbolic to gods like Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Krishna etc. Smooth deep green base is given in front portion of the face. Over it, from centre of both the chin to the lower jaw, white rice paste curves known as Chuttis are given. Lips are made red, while eyes and eye-lashes are made black. Upper portion of the forehead is covered with a red ribbon attached the headgear.


This is a complicated and meticulous make-up. Katti in local language is knife. Katti make-up resembles full bent knifes. Katti characters are evil forces or fierce characters or demon characters. Ravana, Keechaka, Dussassana and the like fall in this category.

The facial make-up begins with green colour base. Red is applied on the sides of the nose and stretches it to the forehead above eye-brows to look like an upturned moustache. The border lines of the red are in white. From middle o the cheeks a Chutti is drawn along the jaw-bones. Two Chuttipuvus (flower-like white knobs) are created on the face. Two protruded canine teeth over lover lips on either end of the mouth are shown for demonic characters.


Taadi or beard is created for both the characters – godly and demonic. For character-wise differentiation there are three colours of Taadi – white, red and black. For Taadi make-ups there shall be no white Chuttis.

White Taadi

White Taadi make-up is for characters like Hanuman (monkey god) and the like. This make-up consists of white beard and a fur coat. Black ointment is applied on lips and upper half of the face. A white rosette with a red dot within is made in the middle of the chin and lower part of the lip and up-to the chin is red coloured. Thin decorative coating of Chutti covers the black end portion of the face and meets the Chuttinata (hem of head dress). A white pattern is developed from green painted base of the nose to lead to either side of the cheeks by encircling the red spots. Two oval shaped red spots – one each on forehead and nose tip – complete the White Taadi.

Red Taadi

Red Taadi make-up is for mild evil characters like Sugriva, Baali etc. In this make-up the face is coloured red, while chin, lips and around the eyes black lines are drawn. Lips coloured black. To add ferocious look to the fiery red eyes, two bristled white rows are drawn from the upper lip to the black lines around the eyes. This separates the black portion from the red portion of the face. On the forehead and nose tip Chuttipuvus (flower-like white knobs) in larger size than for any other characters are also shown.

Black Taadi

Black Taadi is for the characters like Kaali, Kaattalan (hunter), robber chieftains, brigands etc. This make-up is with black beard and black coat. The face is coloured black. White lines in oval shape are drawn around the eyes with red colour in between the lines. White bristles are placed on the ridges, while lips are coloured red. Nose tip bears a Chuttipuvu of normal size.


Kari (black) make-up is for female evil characters like Soorpanaka and Simhika. Faces are blackened and a red crescent is created in centre-cheeks. Different from other characters, a pair of Damshtraas (protruding teeth) will be there.

Make-up Procedure

The intricate make-up of Kathakali consumes more than three hours. An expert’s service is a must.

The performer lies flat with face up on floor in a mat. An expert puts the seal of his talent on the face with a thin rod. After the face work is over, the performer wears costume. He ties around 30 to 40 pieces of short cloth around the waist aided by a long cloth twisted rope. This is for giving the skirt an oval shape. This over, he wears well-starched and pleated skirt followed by a jacket. Wearing of ornaments of beads, armlets, cupped mirrors etc follows. Wearing and fixing of headgear which is large in size is the next step. For this a helper’s service is a must. Finally, the anklet bells are tied.

Women performer wears silver paijaeb (a variety of ornament) before tying the bells. Male performer ties a small woolen cloth above the anklet and ties bells fixed on a leather pad below the knee.


Kathakali is performed anywhere, but mostly in temple precincts. No raised platform is necessary. Well before the beginning of the show, a drum beater beats the drum as an announcement of the show to begin.

The performance is around a big multi-wicked bell-metal lamp. Behind the lamp a rectangular curtain is held by two persons. The actors stand behind the curtain. When the curtain holders drop and remove the curtain, the performance starts.

The musicians numbering minimum four and maximum 12 go into their job bare-chested and standing behind the actors in half circle format.

Presentation Sequence

Kathakali has seven items to act upon. They are:

  • 1 Todayam (basic dance)
  • 2 Purappadu (debut of the main character)
  • 3 Tiranokku (curtain look by evil characters or demons)
  • 4 Kummi (preamble for the female character’s appearance)
  • 5 Kathakali (the main play)
  • 6 Kalaasam (passage of hyped dance as hyphen between two pieces of verse play)
  • 7 Samaapanam (concluding benediction dance)


This is a preliminary dance behind the curtain, employing basic techniques.


This is preliminary dance on the stage by the main character. For Purappadu the curtain is held by the stretched up hands in maximum height. The atmosphere is surcharged with high pitch music. Sound of quick and heavy foot-steps from behind the curtain pierces through the atmosphere. At this time a colour-canopy appears over the curtain, when an extra ordinary noise is heard. Drums beat becomes at top vigour. Fingers of the character (left hand fingers covered with long thimbles) rise in the centre of the curtain. The hands hold the curtain on top end and fingers glide across. No singing at this moment, but the drum beat crosses tolerable limit.

Now is the turn of anti-hero. He shakes the curtain violently. The audience chances upon the upper portion of the headgear of the hero. Anti-hero draws the curtain towards him and surge forward. The face of the hero character is now exposed on the stage.


The anti-hero drops the curtain and the hero is exposed in full view. At this stage the curtain is pulled off from the stage. This procedure is known as Tirano’kku.


This is preamble of female characters appearance. In Kummi (a sort of dance) the movements and gestures are not rigid. Gentleness and mildness with slow paces are Kummi’s specialties.


The main play, dance-drama, with full glory is staged.


Kalaaasam is pure Thaandava style dance. It embodies two scenes and two verses.

Major Kathakali Centres of Kerala

  • 1 Kerala Kalamandalam, Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur District.
  • 2 P.S.V. Natyasangham, Kottakkal, Calicut District.
  • 3 Unnayivarrier Smaraka Kalanilayam, Iringalakkuda, Thrissur District.
  • 4 Gandhi Seva Sadanam, Pathirippala, Palakkad District.
  • 5 Cochin Cultural Centre, Cochin, Ernakulam District
  • 6 Art Kerala, Valanjambalam, Ernakulam District.
  • 7 Margi, Thiruvananthapuram, Thiruvananthapuram District.
  • 8 R.L.V. Thripunithura, Ernakulam Dt

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