Is it a dance form or is it a play? We can write a lot, but with Kathakali, we’ll always have a lot more to say. That’s how special this captivating art form is. Native to the state of Kerala, Kathakali is defined by its elegance and complexity. The dance form has been around since centuries, and today, it’s artistic prominence transcends boundaries.
Learning to perform Kathakali takes nearly 12 years of practice. You would truly believe this when you see a performance. Every movement made by the dancer has some significance to the entire act. There’s attention given to the footwork, eye movement, brow movement, hand postures, facial expressions, body poses and much more.
History Of Kathakali
A fascinating art form which has literally stood the test of time, Kathakali’s history goes as far back as 300 years. The heritage of the dance form is a testament to the deeply rooted culture of Kerala. It was back in Kerala, back in the 17th century, that Kathakali evolved into the masterpiece it is today. That’s why it’s believed to be the heart and face of Kerala. Today, this magnificent dance form is famous around the world, but people don’t leave Kerala without a glimpse of the Kathakali dance form.
A Kathakali dance performance is really special, since it’s an art form that elegantly narrates stories from some of the most celebrated Hindu epics. This is why every Kathakali dancer takes on the dual role of acting and dancing. There’s an immense amount of emotion on and off stage. Colorful bold makeup, grand costumes, neat gestures and precise facial expressions; all of these gloriously come together to ensure everyone has their eyes glued towards the dancer during the entire performance.
Things To Notice During A Kathakali Dance Performance
There are nine emotions you’d probably observe the dancers pull off on stage while performing. There’s feeling loved, comical, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, wonder, unpleasant and peaceful. Each emotion is done with a graceful and elegant tone to it, which is what makes this dance performance a treat. Students learn to send these emotions across to the audience mainly with their eyes! The actors cannot speak on stage, but their eyes give away the complete story. Which is what develops an even stronger sense of intrigue towards the performance.
The Main Roles In Kathakali
Characters – Kathakali is not just a dance, but a grand visual art form. The dance form also has plenty of dramatical elements such as various characters. Depending on the character being played by the dancer, he/she will wear the appropriate attire and make-up. There are certain defined groups of characteristics, so you could probably try to locate a character while watching the performance. This completely depends on which storyline is being depicted for you.
The groups are Pacha, Kathi, Thadi, Kari or Minukku.
We’ll explain these characteristics so you would find yourself understanding the storyline better. It’s not necessary to worry yourself to remember these exact words, but you could also just observe the colors on the character. That’s a good way to easily recognise who the actor is playing.
Pacha – This is the color green and denotes Godliness. These characters have a smooth green layer of paint patterns and portray a noble character in the story. This is usually the hero of the act.
Kathi – Kathi in local language means knife. The actor playing this character is usually a fierce angry demon or an evil force. In other terms, this is the antagonist, while Pacha is the protagonist. To spot a Kathi, you would notice that the actor has more red paint covering the face, even though the base of the face paint is green. Another way to distinguish is by the intense villainous actions he’ll be playing. It’s what clearly sets the character apart from the rest.
Thaddi – The word Thaddi essentially means beard. Depending on the beard of the character, you could judge if the actor is playing a God or demon. The actors would either have a white (spiritual), black (evil) or red beard (mild evil).
Kari – Kari (black) make-up is for female evil characters. The base paint is completely black in this case.
Minukki – Minukku is a mild color that is almost the same color of natural skin. This color is created by mixing red and yellow paint. It’s applied on female characters or sages.
The make-up procedure can also be witnessed if you arrive 2 hours before the actual Kathakali performance. It takes 2-3 hours for a performer to get ready. You’d witness the performer lying flat on a floor while the expert artist paints his canvas.
There is face work and costume work, both taking equal amounts of time. At times, a performer might do his/her own makeup but the grand heavy outfits always require a helping hand.
Where To Watch A Kathakali Performance
A Kathakali centre in Cochin is the best place to view a Kathakali performance. There are numerous such centres in Cochin and Munnar, due to the growing interest among tourists to see such a performance. Another reason why Kathakali Centres are the best place to experience this is because they aim to preserve and promote this classical dance form. And since they are very invested in keeping the tradition alive, it is best to head straight to a Kathakali Centre. An entire Kathakali performance takes around 2.5 hours. A ticket would cost you an average of Rs.350 per head, including the fee to see the makeup procedure. You can contact the centre a day prior to book a ticket for the performance.
Major Kathakali Centres of Cochin are
Kerala Kathakali Centre
Cochin Cultural Centre
What Makes Kathakali In Cochin A Special Experience?
One thing which we find really fascinating about a Kathakali dance form, it doesn’t require a language to communicate the story. Kathakali has a way of making the spectators feel as though it is specially performed for them. All you have to do is observe the performer’s eyes and you’ll notice how they dance for you. It’s something which is considered as a special feature of the performance. Also, it’s arguably the most difficult skill to master.
Another striking feature of the dance performance is the music and how it helps set the mood of the character being played. For instance, an up-beat music can electrify the mood or anger of the performer. So you’ll discover how every different element of the performance majestically conspires to evoke a varied range of emotions among the spectators. All of these very elegantly complement each other to make this immersive dance form such a special experience.