The word literally means Story –Play (Katha -Story) & (Kali-Play): An ancient traditional classical form of ritual Indian dance drama (theatre form), evolved late 16th century, originated in the Southwestern India known as KERALA which can be described as a ballet or an operatic form of theatre which draws its inspiration from earlier forms of Sanskrit drama Koodiyattam and Krishanattam.

Kathakali has developed over the years with improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming, which symbolizes the visual art of Kerala has now developed to be qualified as a universal art.

The main reason for its appeal is its attractiveness gained by the perfect blending of numerous varieties of fine arts. It is a rhythmic blend of five fine art forms: Natyam (Acting/facial expression), Nritham (Dance/rhythmic body movements), Nrithyam (Enactment /mudras/hand gestures), Sangeetham (Music), Vadyam (Instrument accompaniment) Sahithyam (Literature), is considered as a component of Geetha or music, as it plays only a supplementary role to Nritham, Nrithyam and Natyam.

Kathakali involves gorgeous make-up, eye catching complex Costumes, Dazzling ornaments, rich headgears, magnificent gestures (facial expression), Figuration of the hands (mudras) and with precise body attitudes & Poses. The actors with great ease and simplicity performs theatre accompanied by percussion instruments and vocalists to produce one of the most elegant and vibrant forms of theatre in the world.

Kathakali uses devotional literature which is integral part of ancient Hindu temple rituals. It draws its basic themes from the Hindu mythology, more importantly the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata focusing on love, life and conflicts of gods, Kings, heros and the demons. ), apart from some bird and animal characters can be represented only in larger than life, superhuman dimensions.


The facial expressions are all derivations of navarasa or the nine emotions-

  • Sringaaram (amour)
  • Karunam (pathos)
  • Beebhatsam (disgust)
  • Saantham (tranquility, peace)
  • Haasyam (ridicule, humour)
  • Veeram (valour)
  • Adbhutham (wonder, amazement)
  • Bhayam (fear)
  • Roudhram (anger, warth)

The training for Kathakali is intensive and requires real girth. Often training starts at childhood and it takes many years before an artist gets to perform.


One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code which itself in a fine art. The average face painting may take 3-4hours which can be done in stages and the duration varies according to the character.

Theppu is the first stage where the artiste himself applies the basic facial paintings. On this the Chuttikkaran (make-up man) puts the Chutti which forms the second stage of make-up. The Chutti plays a crucial role in differentiating the characters and their personality and has the following basic classification:-

KATHAKALI VESHAMS: They are of five types :

PACHA (Green)- Portrays noble protagonists like Gods and great kings like Lord Ram , Krishna, King Arjuna, Karna & Nalan.

A subtle variation of this can be seen in Pazhuppu (Ripe). PAZHUPPU/Saffron: For characters like Lord Shiva, Agni, Balarama who are known for their wrath in addition to noble qualities, the green paint is replaced by saffron.

Kathi (Knife)(Green with red streaks)- Portrays evil of heart villainous characters like Duryodhanan in Mahabharata

Red: Extreme villainous characters (Ravana & Kichaka which means evils like Rakshasas & Asuras

Kari (Black): Used for lady-demons (witches in Indian epic) like Poothana

Minukku (Prettying Up): Used for female characters and sages - Draupati, Damayanthi, Bhanumathi

THADI (Beard):

There are three types of bearded or Thadi Veshams.

“Vella Thadi" or White beard for superhuman monkeys like Hanuman.

"Chuvanna Thadi" or Red beard is for evil characters like Bali in Balivadham, Rakshasas, Asuras etc

"Karutha Thadi" or Black beard for the hunter like the Kattalan in Nalacharitham and Kiratham Kathakali.

All the colours used in the make-up are obtained from natural substances and herbs. However, now-a-days many of these colour mixing processes have been replaced by easily available material like paper pulp etc.

Uduthukettu is the thrid stage in dressing. Stiff tapes of white cloth is wound around the waist, with the help of others and are bound together with another piece of cloth, the Kacha. Ulluvaal, Puramvaal, Pattuvaal etc are the different cloth pieces used for the elaborate bulky skirt of a Kathakali artiste.

The anklets, colourful and ornate vests, jewellery and the huge headgear complete the Kathakali costume.


The soft graceful movements as involved in traditional dances are almost entirely absent in Kathakali; the movements are often explosive. Rigorous footwork and a highly developed, intricate language of hand gestures characterize the dance form. Hastalakshana Deepika is followed for hand gestures in Kathakali.

There are about 24 basic mudras:1. Pathaaka (Flag) 2. Mudraakhyam 3. Katakam (Golden Bangle) 4. Mushti (Fist) 5. Kartharee Mukham (Scissor's sharp point) 6. Sukathundam (Parrot's peek) 7. Kapidhakam (The fruit of a tree) 8. Hamsa Paksham (Swan'swing) 9. Sikharam (Peak) 10. Hamsaasyam (Swan's peek) 11.Anjaly (Folded hands in Salutation) 12.Ardhachandram (Half moon) 13. Mukuram (Mirror) 14. Bhramaram (Beetle) 15. Soochimukham (Needle's sharp point) 16. Pallavam (Sprout) 17. Thripathaaka (Flag with three colours) 18. Mrigaseersham (Deer's head) 19. Sarpasirassu (Serpant's head) 20. Vardhamanakam (Seedling) 21. Araalam (Curved) 22. Oornanabham (Spider) 23. Mukulam (Bud) 24. Katakaamukham and about 470 symbols in all.

The facial expressions are all derivations of navarasa or the nine emotions- Sringaaram (amour), Haasyam (ridicule, humour), Bhayam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Rowdram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valour), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutham (wonder, amazement), Saantham (tranquility, peace). The training for Kathakali is intensive and requires real girth. Often training starts at childhood and it takes many years before an artist gets to perform.


The Kathakali music provides a perfect background to the performance. Chenda, maddalam, Chengila and Elathalam are the four instruments used to provide the instrumental background (melam) for kathakali. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. The style of singing particular to Kathakali is called Sopana sangeetham (Sopana Music). Of the two singers, the first singer (pinnani) keeps the steady beat of the thala (rhythmic pattern) by using the chengila (gongs), made of bell metal.

CHENDA: A percussion instrument. It isis wooden drum, which is cylindrical in shape . Both sides of Chenda are covered with skin. The drummers hang Chenda in their neck. The drummer strikes the upper parchment using two sticks. Chenda produces very loud sound.

MADALAM: A percussion instrument. It is wooden drum, Both sides are covered with skin a drum played with the hands

CHENGILA: It is a percussion instrument of India. It is a type of gong that helps the singer keep time in many traditional art forms of Kerala. A ringing sound is produced when it is struck with a stout wand when hung freely, while a flat tone is produced when it is in contact with the forearm that holds the instrument.The lead singer in some sense uses the Chengala to conduct the Vadyam and Geetha components.

IILATHAALAM: A pair of small hand cymbals. Usually made of bronze, brass, copper zinc or Bell metal and connected with a copper cord which passes through holes in their center. They produce a rhythmic tinkling sound when struck together.

These Padams performed in Kerala were known as ASTAPADI ATTAM , which means, eight Padams and sung in Sanskrit.


Keli is a percussion concert performed just before sunset on the day of. This is envisaged as an announcement that there will be a Kathakali performance, later at the venue. Keli was probably adopted from Mudiyettu, the earliest known theatrical art. Keli is performed on the Chenda, Maddalam (drums) Ilathalam and Chengila (the cymbals & gong). Almost immediately after the Keli, the main artists of the play will prepare for Chutty (the facial make-up). It takes from one and a half to two hours depending on the type of characters.

There are a few Items performed before the designated play of the day starts. If Kathakali is the only item for the night usually the lamp is lighted at about eight o'clock. Traditionally this is done by a costume assistant, using a wick lighted from the green room lamp.

Arangukeli is a brief percussion item, more like an auspicious ritual. Only Maddalam gong and the cymbals are played. Maddalam perhaps represents "Dundubhi" the large drums of ancient times, which was considered auspicious. Formerly a junior artist used to perform salutation for Lord Ganesha while this item is in progress.

As the Arangukeli or Kelikkai gradually fades out, the curtain is held aloft by two persons and the singers begin "Vandanalaslokam", i.e., the hymn praising the favourite deities.

Thodayam. One or more actors, mostly junior artists, in the traditional costume worn during training perform this pure dance sequence inside the curtain. The lyrics contains supplication to the various gods of Hindu mythology. Although Thodayam is a beautiful piece of dance, containing dance sequences to the beats of percussion performance in all the four rhythms used in Kathakali (Chempata, Chempa, Atantha and Panchari), now it is rarely performed on stage.

Purappad follows Thodayam. Chenda joins the percussionists from this point only. This was originally introduced quite in the lines of "Nandi" of Sanskrit drama, to indicate what is in the offing; that is, to give the audience a clue about the story to be presented. A few lines of verse added in the beginning of many "Aattakkathas" (scripts) are indicative of this. The main characters, mostly hero and his spouse, used to perform Purappad. Soon this item was detached from the play. It became a ritual and as it exists now mostly it is performed by junior artists dressed as Sreekrishna, sometimes accompanied by Rukmini or Balarama and Subhadra. In this form it is assumed that the gods on being pleased by the worship during Thodayam are joining the audience for witnessing th performance. Purappad is their blessing for the performers and audience. The most common lyrics for Purappad is taken from the story "Rajasooyam" and is in praise of Sree Krishna and Sree Rama.

Melappadam is a percussion concert intended mainly to show their grade of performance. It is a veritable feast for those who are musically inclined. It develops like a Raga-thalamalika concert (Garland of tunes and rhythms). The lyrics used are from Jayadava's Geethagovindam, perhaps in memory of Ashtapadiyattam, a forerunner of Ramanattam and Krishnattam.

After Melappadam the "play" starts.

There is one more ritual associated with the first entry of characters other than "Pacha" and "Minukku" (regal and gentle). This is known as "Thiranokku", literally, looking over the curtain. For characters of royal pedigree, this item is accompanied by few props resembling regal pageantry.

Characters and their attire: Unlike in most performing arts, the make up and costumes in Kathakali are not exclusive to each character. It is divided into four groups based on the general nature and behavioural aspects of the characters.

Thus noble and heroic persons with only exemplary virtues fall into one category, named Pacha (Green). The main feature of this class is the predominant green paint on the face, fringed with paper flanges. Sreekrishna, Sreerama, Pandavas, Karna etc belong to this category. A subtle variation of this can be seen in Pazhuppu (Ripe). For characters like Lord Shiva, Agni, Balarama who are known for their wrath in addition to noble qualities, the green paint is replaced by saffron.

The second category is called Kathi (Knife). Named so due to the knifelike design close to the nose, painted in red in most cases and in black for Yama the god of death, indicative of Thamoguna (Black disposition). Depending on the characteristic disposition, there is another variation in Kathi. For a character of romantic disposition superimposed on inherent daring the design is short (Kurumkathi). Ravana, Duryodhana, Sisupala, Narakasura and Keechaka fall into this category. For those who are to act only as a "strongman" the design is bigger and is called Nedumkathi. Yama is an example.

Minukku is the plain make-up without chutty employed for female characters and Brahmins.

Chuvanna Thadi (Red beard) is a term used for demon-like make up for extremely villainous characters with fierce nature. The chutty and facial paintings are quite intricate. The headgear is very large in size. A large beard, red in colour is attached to the chin. Dussasan, Jarasandh, Bali & Sugriv appear in this make-up.

The general colour of the costume for the upper body is red. All the red hue in this is replaced by black or blue for Karutha Thadi. Kali is an example.

Vellathadi (White beard), contrast is reserved for extremely good characters. The make-up is entirely different. The head gear resembles a large hat. Hanuman is the best example.

Kari (Black) is the make-up for rude and crude characters like Nishadas. The head gear is like an inverted cone with its apex chopped off.

Cholliyattam: This is the part of Kathakali Acting where the actor enacts the dialogues following the lyrics being sung by the singers. The acting traditionally should be "word-by-word". Depending on the tempo, there are three types in Cholliyattam. Pathinjattam is extremely slow and here all Mudras (hand gestures) are displayed in detail, to academic perfection. Usually romantic scenes at the outset of the plays are set in this category. While for a comparatively new viewer it can be painstaking ordeal to watch a Pathinja Padam, it is sheer delight for the connoisseur. Cholliyattam in medium tempo is more commonly used. Here the acting will be more quicker, taking a sentence at a time. In scenes like battle, confrontation etc.. the tempo rises to real rapid. The hand gestures are in quick succession. During cholliyattam of female characters Chenda is not played except in very few cases where the character is extremely exited, and the tempo is rapid. Idakka is played instead for female characters. The accompanying music comes to logical finishing, when their cycles complete, with a 'piece' known as 'Kalasam' played on percussion instruments. This has been turned into an advantage by the actors by performing a pure dance, called by the same name 'Kalasam' . The mood of this dance always matches that of the character.

There are several variations in 'Kalasam' called, Iratty, Vattam etc.. The lengthiest among these is Ashtakalasam, traditionally performed only by Arjuna in Nivatha Kavacha Kalakeyavadham, to indicate the extreme state of exhilaration he was in when he was honoured at the hands of Indra, the King of gods. These days, however, this dance sequence has been adapted into other stories too, for example, Kalyanasougandhikam (Hanuman) Subhadraharanam (Balarama & Krishna), Lavanasuravadha (Hanuman and Lavakusha). There is a slight difference in style of performing Kalashams between male and female characters, obviously to suit the basic nature.

Ilakiyattam: Often the end of each act is marked by acting without vocal support. These are called Ilakiyattam. Reminiscences, narrations, casual remarks, preparations for journey or war, teasing etc.. are not unusual. This item is often used to enact portions of the story left out by the lyricist. A fair knowledge of the language of 'Mudras' is essential for enjoying Ilakiyattam. Hence, while veterans enjoy it thoroughly, new comers panic during these dump acts. Although the actor is not bound to follow set patterns, generally the content of Ilakiyattam follows a predetermined plan. There are mandatory sequences in many stories. The most popular one is Kailasodharam and Parvatheeviraham" by Ravana in Balivijayam. There is one story where Ilakiyattam takes centre stage. Ravanolbhavam. Here except for the start and finish, the entire act is without vocal support. This story is considered as the acid test for not only an actor, but also for the percussionist (Chenda). Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, who is considered an all time great in this role, stopped performing it after the demise of the Chenda Maestro, Kalamandalam Krishnan Kutty Poduval.


The Kathakali show is usually conducted at night and ends in early morning. But due to the increasing demand for the concise versions, now the plays are composed for 2-4 hours


Nala Charitham: A Story from Mahabharatham about King Nala and his wife Damayanthi

Duryodhana Vadham: Another story from Mahabharata about the killing of Duryodhana by the Pandava brother Bhima in Kurukshetra)

Kalyanasowgandhikam: Bheema's encounter with Hanuman when the former set out in search for the flower Kalyanasaugandhikam for his wife Draupadi)

Keechaka Vadham: A story of killing Keechaka by Bhima when the Panadavas were in disguise)

Kiratham: Story of Arjuna and Lord Shiva's fight

Karna Shapadham: Story of Karna from Mahabharata

Rukmini Swayamvaram: Story of how Rukmini the daughter of King Bhishmaka of Vidarbha conveys her desire to marry Krishna irrespective of the fact that her brother Rukmi wants her to marry Sisupala. through Sundara Brahmana.

Lavanasura Vadham: Story of Kusa and Lava capturing the yagaswva of Sri Rama's Ashwamedham. and Hanuman meeting them and their mother Seetha Devi in the forest.

Balivadham: Story of Sri Rama killing Bali for forcefully obtaining his brother Sugreevan's wife.

As part of popularization of the dance form, Shakespeare's King Lear, the Biblical story of Mary Magdalin, Persian legends Buddacharitam by N.V.krishnan and the stories of Tagore etc... were composed in Kathakali script recently.