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The origins

The literal translation of the word 'Kathakali' is `story-play'. This form of dance-drama originated in the 17th century in the state of Kerala. In a country that boasts traditions and culture that are centuries old, Kathakali being just 300 years old, is a relatively young dance form. 

However, its roots can be traced back to even earlier times. It has links to Koodiyattom, the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater in India that has been preserved by a small community called the Chakyars as a part of their hereditary temple service. Krishnanattom, another form of dance-drama performed even today at the famous Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayoor is also considered a forerunner to Kathakali. Besides these two forms, elements from martial, ritualistic and socio-religious arts have also played a part in the making of Kathakali. Thus, Kathakali can be summarized as a theater form that is a combination of dance, music, percussion, acting and painting.

The first Kathakali performance was a cycle of eight stories based on the Ramayana written by one of the chieftains of a district known as Kottarakkara. The performance for each story was designed to last for six to eight hours. These stories came to be known as Ramanattom (play pertaining to Rama), which later came to be called Kathakali. Stories based on other epics and puranas were added to its repertoire in later period.

The features

A striking feature of Kathakali is the use of elaborate facial make-up, colourful costumes, and headgear. While other dance forms are more emotive than narrative, Kathakali is both. It combines dance with dialogue to bring myth and legend to life in the temple courtyards of Kerala. The dancers use their stunning costumes and make-up, with the accompaniment of drums and vocalists, to create various moods and emotions. 

The dancer represents a particular character, rather than a neutral personage depicting several characters, a convention known as ekaharya abhinaya. These characters can be as varied as gods, demi-gods, villains, kings, princesses, half-human and half-animal beings, saints, demons, and children. There is specific make-up and costume types associated with each personage.

This dance form involves the whole body of the actor and includes an elaborate scheme of facial expression, mime, gestures, accompanied by their appropriate movements, poses and attitudes. The interpretation of the text is primarily conveyed through hand gestures. 

Another 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 is based on the Carnatic (South Indian) system and its aim is to evoke the appropriate dramatic mood and sentiments.

Through a systematic process of practice an actor gains full control of the facial muscles that enables him to express the basic bhavas or emotions of love, laughter, sorrow, anger, energy, heroism, tranquillity, fear and astonishment. 

The makeup is also a method of categorizing the characters. For instance, green makeup represents heroic or divine characters like Krishna or Arjuna; red represents evil and white is a symbol of piety. The actor does a major part of the face make-up himself. However, specially trained artists are entrusted to apply Chutty (a procedure that involves framing the face with white paper and rice paste). Designs vary according to the type of characters. 

A typical performance

In olden days Kathakali performance mostly took place on a temple premises or at the house of a local land lord. A pandal or a canopy with a thatched roof would be erected with a green room located close by. The stage is not raised, but at the same level as the audience and is 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. 

At about 6 o'clock in the evening the performance is announced by a brief passage of drumming known as Kelikottu. The actual performance begins only between 9 and 10 o'clock at night. Arrangukeli, another passage of drumming, marks the commencement of the performance. This is followed by Thodayam, a piece of abstract dance, which is invocatory in nature. Junior actors in the group with simple make-up perform Thodayam. The recitation of Vandanaslokam (a chanted prayer), is followed by Purappad, a preliminary item that introduces the main character of the story in full costume and make-up. Next is the Melappadam, which is a musical piece where vocalists and the drummers are given the opportunity to show their skill without depending on the actors. Then the story or part of the stories proposed is enacted, which may go on till the wee hours. The end of the performance is marked by a piece of pure dance called Dhanasi.

The current flourishing of the form is largely due to the efforts of the poet Vallathol, one of the cultural revivalists of the Independence era. Like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali also needed a resurrection in the 1930s. The great poet Vallathol rediscovered Kathakali, establishing the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1932, which gave new life to this art form.

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