Written by
M. P. Sankaran Namboodiri (Principal - Kerala Kalamandalam,1996)

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. However, its roots could be tracked back even to the earlier times. Koodiyattom, the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater in India has been preserved in Kerala for centuries, now, by a small community called Chakyar as a part of their hereditary temple service. Krishnanattom, another form of dance-drama considered fore runner to Kathakali in its origin, is performed even today at the famous Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayoor as an offering to the Lord. Besides these two forms, elements from martial, ritualistic, socio-religious arts have also influenced in the making of Kathakali. Though Kathakali is only 300 years old, a great deal of enrichment and refinement has taken place in every aspect of its technique during this short period. 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.

A vivid picture of the nature of performance of Kathakali in the past is not known. However, it is said that in the beginning the actors themselves used to sing the text while performing. Masks were elaborately used for some characters and percussion was limited to a Maddalam (two headed barrel shaped drum), a Chengila (metal gong) and Elathalam (a pair of cymbals).

Among the better known Kathakali play writes are Kottarakara Thampuran, the author of the above mentioned Ramayana Stories; Kottayam Thampuran, who wrote four stories based on Mahabharatha; Irayamman Thampi, who was both a good poet and composer, accredited three stories; Unnayi Warrier, the author of Nalacharitham (Story of King Nala); and Vayaskara Moosad who wrote one of the popular stories -- Duryodhana Vadham.

Structure of the Performance

In olden days Kathakali performance mostly took place on a temple premises or at the house of a local land lord. For a typical performance, a simple temporary pandal (canopy made of thatched roof) at a height of 101/2 feet will be erected. A minimum of 12 feet-square (144 sq. feet) is needed for the acting area. A green room will also be located close to the stage. 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.

Kelikottu at about 6 `o clock in the evening will announce the performance of the evening. Kelikottu is a brief passage of drumming involving Chenda ( a cylindrical drum), Maddalam, Chengila and Elathalam. The actual performance will begin only between 9:00 - 10:00 PM. Arrangukeli will announce the beginning of the performance. This is a passage of drumming, which is followed by Thodayam, a piece of abstract dance at the same time are invocatory in nature. Thodayam is performed by junior actors in the group with simple make-up. Recitation of Vandanaslokam (Prayer Song), followed by Purappad -- traditionally a preliminary item introducing the main character of the story in full costume and make-up. However, now-a-days it is mostly Krishna and Balarama who are presented, sometime with their spouses in this introductory dance. Next is the Melappadam, which is a musical piece where vocalists and the drummers are given opportunity to show their skill without depending on the actors. Then the story or part of the stories proposed are enacted which may last till dawn. The end of the performance is marked by a piece of pure dance called Dhanasi.


Kathakali is a dance-drama in which a high degree of stylization is seen in the method of acting, presentation, make-up and costuming. Realism is limited only to certain characters. 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:

1. Angika -- pertaining to the body and its limbs.

2. Vachika -- relating to the vocal including proper pronunciation, modulation of voice accents and percussion.

3. Satvika -- representation of psychic condition.

4. 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, gestures, accompanied by their appropriate movements, poses and attitudes. Dance passages known as Kalasams have an important role to play in Kathakali. While sustaining as a pure dance, it is also meant to enhance the appropriate bhavas. Hand gestures is another integral part of Angika since the interpretation of the text is mainly conveyed through this. Hastalakshna Deepika is the regional text on the Hastas (hand gestures) mainly used in Kathakali.

Vachika Abhinaya: One of the distinguishing characteristic 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. The vocal music in Kathakali although based on the Karnatic (South Indian) system has developed a distinct regional style called Sopanasangeetham. Its main aim is the evocation of the appropriate, dramatic mood and sentiments.

Satvika Abhinaya: A highly stylized technique in the invocation of bhava has been developed in Kathakali. This is called Rasabhinava. Indian dramatic theory explain 9 kinds of basic sentiments, Rasa with a corresponding sthayi bhava (emotional stayi mood). They are:


Sthayi Bhava

Sringara (EROTIC)

Rati (LOVE)





Raudra (FURIOUS)

Krodha (ANGER)

Veera (HEROIC)


Bhayanaka (TERRIBLE)

Bhayam (FEAR)

Atbhutam (MARVELOUS)


Sandham (SERENE)


Through a systematic process of practice an actor gain a full control of the facial muscles which enables him to express the bhavas. 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.

Aharya Abhinaya:- The make-up and costuming is another important factor of the dance-drama. Such an elaborate system is rarely found elsewhere. The characters in Kathakali are types. As such characters are classified under 5 major types. According to their nature. They are:

A major part of the face make-up is done by the actor himself. However, specially trained artists are entrusted to apply Chutty (framing the face with white paper and rice paste). Design vary according to the type of a characters. A close observation on Aharya aspect of Kathakali would reveal the highest level of aesthetic imagination conceived by our predecessors.

This short note on Kathakali could be summarized as such that the theater form is a combination of dance, music, percussion, acting and painting thus make a total theater in its completion