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 for centuries, and today, its artistic prominence transcends boundaries.
Learning to perform Kathakali takes nearly 12 years of practice. It might seem extreme, but you’d be convinced 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.
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 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, and 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. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that 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.
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. Now that's what develops an even stronger sense of intrigue towards the performance.
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There are nine emotions you’d probably observe the dancers pull off on stage while performing, known as the Navarasam. 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.
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 artist, 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 recognize 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 the local language means ‘knife’. The actor playing this character is usually a fierce angry demon or an evil force who is born into nobility. 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.
Thaadi – The word Thaadi 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 (for spiritual characters), black (for more primitive characters) or a red beard (to portray the most evil characters).
Kari – Kari (black) make-up is for evil characters. The base paint is completely black in this case.
Minukku – 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.
A Kathakali center in Cochin is the best place to view a Kathakali performance. There are numerous such centers in Cochin and Munnar due to the growing interest among tourists to see such a performance. Another reason why Kathakali centers 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’s best to head straight to a Kathakali center.
An entire Kathakali performance takes around 2.5 hours. A ticket would cost you an average of ₹350 per head, including the fee to see the makeup procedure. You can contact the center a day prior to book a ticket for the performance.
The Major Kathakali Centers of Cochin are
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The artists perform to the Kathakali Padangal (the songs), accompanied by percussion instruments including the chenda, maddalam, chengila and ilathalam. But what we found fascinating is that even if you don’t understand the words sung, you don’t necessarily need to know the language to follow the story depicted in the Kathakali.
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.
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Where Is Kathakali Dance From?
Kathakali is a dance form that originated in Kerala. Although it’s a comparatively younger art form of the state, Kathakali is easily the most popular.
How Did Kathakali Originate?
It’s believed that Kathakali originated in the 17th century, under the patronage of the king of Kottarakkara, with its base in Krishnanattam and Ramanattam. He’s said to have introduced Malayalam in the songs, so that the local people could experience them too.
Why Is Kathakali So Important?
Kathakali is an art form that has grown to represent Kerala throughout the world. This art form combines music, expression, dance and elaborate costumes that bring stories from Hindu epics and scriptures in a surreal way.
What Does Kathakali Mean?
Kathakali is a combination of two words - Katha, meaning ‘story’, and Kali, meaning ‘play’.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Kathakali?
Being an art form that relies a lot on delicate movements and expressions, learning Kathakali can take you as much as 12 years!
What Is The Difference Between Kathak And Kathakali?
Kathak is a dance form that is from north India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, while Kathakali is a dance form from Kerala. While Kathak focuses on footwork, Kathakali emphasizes on facial expressions.
What Kind Of Music Is Used In Kathakali?
The Kathakali Padangal (songs) are sung in Manipravalam, a language that combines Malayalam and Sanskrit, and are influenced by Carnatic and Sopanam music. The songs are accompanied by percussion instruments including chenda, maddalam, chengila and ilathalam.
Where Can I Watch Kathakali In Kerala?
Kerala Kathakali Centre, Kochi
Cochin Cultural Centre, Kochi
Kerala Kalamandalam, Vallathol Nagar
Margi Theatre, Thiruvananthapuram
Are Cochin And Ernakulam Same?
Cochin/Kochi is a city in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. Cochin is about 10 km away from Ernakulam, which is located in the mainland.
Are There Any Hotels Near Kerala Kathakali Centre?
Yes, there are multiple hotels and homestays near Kerala Kathakali Centre. They are:
These are only a few of the many hotels. Check out Unstumbled’s curated list of hotels in Fort Kochi to find the places best suited to your tastes!