Kathakali: An Odyssey of Color, Gesture, and Expression

Kathakali, one of India’s most ancient and revered theatrical forms, is synonymous with the cultural fabric of Kerala. Delving into its history, intricate costumes, iconic performances, and legendary artists, we embark on a journey through time, emotion, and artistic brilliance.

History of Kathakali

Originating in the 17th century in Kerala, Kathakali is a classical dance-drama that evolved from earlier temple art forms like Kutiyattam and Krishnanattam. The name ‘Kathakali’ is derived from two Malayalam words: ‘Katha’, meaning story, and ‘Kali’, meaning play. The art form thus epitomizes the grandeur of storytelling through dramatic play.

Costume and Makeup: A Symphony of Colors

One of the most distinguishing features of Kathakali is its elaborate costume and makeup. The makeup, called ‘Chutti’, is an intricate process that can take several hours, transforming the performer into the character they represent.

  • Pacha (Green): Represents noble characters like kings or divine heroes.
  • Kathi (Knife): Signifies villainous characters with exaggerated features.
  • Thadi (Beard): Divided into three—red, black, and white, representing various characters ranging from evil to divine.
  • Minukku (Polished): Represents female and ascetic characters.

The costumes, with their large skirts, heavy jackets, and towering headgear, add to the majestic presence of the performers. The ornaments, made of wood and paper-mache, painted and polished to a metallic sheen, further enhance their dramatic appearance.

Major Performances: Tales of Valour and Virtue

Kathakali performances are based on stories primarily taken from the Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. A few of the most renowned plays include:

  • Kalyanasougandhikam: The tale of Bhima’s journey to fetch flowers for his wife, Draupadi.
  • Nalacharitham: A four-day play, narrating the trials and tribulations of King Nala and Queen Damayanti.
  • Duryodhana Vadham: Revolves around the climactic battle between Bheema and Duryodhana.

The stories are conveyed through an exquisite blend of ‘mudras’ (hand gestures), facial expressions, and rhythmic foot movements, accompanied by vocal and instrumental music.

Famous Kathakali Artists: Legends Live On

The grandeur of Kathakali has been upheld by numerous artists who have dedicated their lives to mastering and propagating the art form. Some legends in the realm of Kathakali include:

  • Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair: Revered for his roles as Nala, Ravana, and Duryodhana.
  • Kottakkal Sivaraman: Celebrated for portraying romantic heroes.
  • Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai: Renowned for his technical virtuosity and knowledge of tradition.

The younger generation, inspired by these stalwarts, continue to train in traditional schools, ensuring that Kathakali remains vibrant and relevant.


Kathakali, with its rich tapestry of history, vivid costumes, dramatic narratives, and iconic artists, stands as a testament to India’s cultural diversity and depth. It’s not just a dance or drama; it’s an experience, a journey into tales of yore, filled with valor, love, and morality.

I hope this article serves as a comprehensive introduction to Kathakali! If you need more specific details or any other information, feel free to ask.

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