Kathakali is one of the classical dance drama of India famous for its elaborate costumes. Kathakali which means play of / by story has been around for more than 1500 years and now has become one of the distinctive part of Kerala’s identity. Kathakali began by being influenced by the age old dance dramas and folk dances viz. Theyyam, Mudiyettu – art forms that were performed as rituals and part of worship of Goddess Bhadrakali and martial dances like Sastrkali and Ezhamattukali etc. The art forms had colourful and distinctively detailed masks and head dresses as part of their costumes. 

Legend also has that the Raja of Kottarakara, being an ardent fan of traditional art forms, wanted His Highness Samoothiri Maharaja to perform Krishnattom in Kottarakakkara. Samoothiri Maharaja declined to perform in front of the unrefined people of South Kerala. And that gave birth to Ramanattom which was the form created by Kottarkara Raja parallel to Krishnattom. Kathakali evolved from both Krishnattom and Ramanattom as also adapted aspects of folk art forms and martial art forms. Later stories other than Kri shna’s, Rama’s were used as themes for Kathakali performance.

Kathakali Make up

In due course faces were painted instead of the masks. The face painting then became elaborate and has now evolved to one of the most important part of the performance. The characters’ make-up is based on the personality of the character. There are 5 distinct types of make-up used in contemporary Kathakali. Pachcha (green)in which the colour used would be predominantly green is used for Satvik (pious) , noble characters who are also duty bound and so might be Rajasik ( with a dark streak). Kathi (knife / sword) is used for Tamasic (evil) personalities and are the villains in the story .

This type of make-up would be dominantly red on green background. Crude and uncultured characters are denoted by the Kari (black) make-up . In this the make-up is dominantly black and they have black beards too. Women and pious characters are portrayed using make-up of yellow colour and is called the Minnukku (shining) and wise characters are Vellathadi (white beard).

The performances were refined and the artists stopped singing so Kathakali singers were introduced. The songs used in Kathakali are in Manipravalam (mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit) and are set in the ragas of Carnatic style of music. The songs are sung in the Sopanam style which has been a distinct style of singing practiced in the temples of Kerala since ages . The percussion instruments used are Chenda, Maddalam Edakka . The singers use Chengila (gong made of bell metal, which can be struck with a wooden stick) and Ilathalam (a pair of cymbals).


The Kathakali performances are usually conducted at night and goes on till dawn. The stage is set with the big brass lamp called Kalivillakku (lamp for play) . The performance starts with the singers starting their song and a curtain held across the arena by two people. The artists take place behind the curtain and when the time comes for them to start performing the curtain is removed. The artists use Mudras (hand gestures) and Navarasas (9 facial expressions denoting 9 feelings) to enact the story . An artist undergoes rigorous years of training to become a Kathakali artist. Traditionally there were 3 distinct types of Kathakali: Vettathu Sampradayam, Kalladikkodan Sampradyam Kaplingadu Sampradayam . Those are now classified as just the northern (Kalluvazhi) and southern (Thekkan) styles.


Few of the traditional and popular stories done in Kathakali are

Nalacharitham (Story of Nala) from Mahabharata
Duryodhanavadham (killing of Duryodhana)
Keechakavadham (killing of Keechaka)
Kalyanasoungandhikam (Bhima getting flower for his wife Draupadi)
Poothanamokhasm (salvation of Poothana)

Some new stories too have been used as themes for the Kathakali performances like

  • Mary Magdalene (from Bible)
  • Homer’s Illiad
  • King Lear and Julius Ceaser of William Shakespeare etc.