India is an enormously culturally rich country, with nearly every state having its dialect, unique cuisine, and traditional dances. When it comes to dancing, India has traditional, classical, folk, and tribal dance traditions, all of which are just beautiful. One such traditional dance form is Kathakali, it originated during the 17th century in the south Indian state of Kerala, often known as God’s Own Country.
Kathakali dance is a traditional style of classical Indian dance and one of the oldest theatre forms currently practiced. It is a “story game” kind of art, but the traditional actor-dancer’s lavishly colored costumes and make-up set them apart. This is one of the most appealing, dramatic, and intricate genres of classical Indian dance. The intricate and colorful costumes, rich makeup, distinctive character and conception, regional flavor, and indigenous music have all contributed to Kathakali’s widespread acceptance and appeal among tourists.
Inspired by events from Hindu mythology, kathakali dance is a narrative, a dance tale weaved in a traditional framework. It’s a traditional dance that showcases exquisite gestures, skillful movements, intense training, extravagant, colorful skirt-like costumes, and heavily face-painted makeup. To make it easier for the audience to recognize archetypal figures like gods, goddesses, demons, demonesses, saints, animals, and tale characters, makeup is applied according to an established pattern.
The Story Behind the Makeup
In Kathakali dance, seven fundamental makeup kinds are used: Pachcha (green), Pazhuppu (ripe), Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, Minukku, and Teppu (red). These differ according to the popular styles and hues that are put on the face, which are mostly made of rice paste and vegetable dyes. Pachcha (green) with vivid coral red lips represents sages and honorable figures like philosopher-kings, Arjuna, Nala, Krishna, Vishnu, Rama, and Yudhishthira. Thaadi (red) is the symbol of a wicked character, such as Dushasana and Hiranyakashipu. Kari (black) represents forest dwellers, hunters, and people from the middle ground. Demonesses and cunning individuals are likewise shown as black but with crimson splotches or streaks.
Yellow represents monks, mendicants, and women. Warm shades of yellow, orange, or saffron, characterized as “radiant and shining,” are associated with noble and virtuous feminine figures, including Sita, Panchali, and Mohini. Vella Thadi (white beard) denotes a divine entity, such as Hanuman, who has a virtuous inner condition and knowledge. Teppu is the name for exceptional characters from Hindu mythology who serve as messengers or carriers but do not fit into any of the other categories, including Garuda, Jatayu, and Hamsa.
The Wonderful Art of Dancing
Like many other traditional dances, Kathakali combines acting and choreography. Aspiring performers practice their roles for years before they have the chance to perform them on stage since it’s said to be one of the hardest genres to do live. The performers use “sign language” in which they use “hand signs (mudras)” to convey word parts of the characters’ speech and “facial and eye” gestures to convey emotions and mood. Several ancient Sanskrit scriptures, like Natya Shastra and Hastha Lakshanadeepika, address hand motions or mudras. Unlike other Indian traditional dances, Kathakali most closely adheres to the Hastha Lakshanadeepika.
In Kathakali traditional dance, there are many more smaller mudras in addition to the 24 major ones. To convey the feelings of the character in the play, a performer must learn nine facial expressions known as Navarasas through facial muscle control training. The ethics behind the Navarasas is found in old Sanskrit literature like Natya Shastra, but often under various titles. These texts are also present in other classical Indian dances. In Kathakali, the nine Navarasas convey the following nine Bhavas (emotions): Rati is expressed by Sringara as love, pleasure, and delight; Hasya as comic, laugh, and mocking; Karuna as pathetic, sad; Raudra as Krodha (anger, fury); Vira as vigour, enthusiasm, and hero; Bhayanaka as Bhaya (fear, concern, worry); Bibhatsa as Jugupsa (disgust, repulsive); Adbhuta as fascinating, marvellous, and intrigued; and Shanta as Sama (ease, serenity).
Songs and Instruments
The play is presented as a series of lyrical, meter-perfect lines sung by vocalists trained to perform in time with the dancing performing on stage and different tunes (ragas). In addition to delivering the lyrics, the vocalists use voice modulation to convey the character’s inner mood and contribute to setting the scene. The centrepiece of a Kathakali performance is music. It establishes the tone and elicits feelings consistent with the scene’s nature. Additionally, it establishes a rhythm for the actor-dancers’ performance of the scenes and choreography. The following are some prominent musical patterns that correspond with the scene’s moods and content: Adantha (scenes involving kings or divine beings); Panchari (for odious, preparatory such as sharpening a sword); Chempa music (show nervousness, disagreement, dissatisfaction between lovers or competing ideas); Chempada (the standard and default, which applies to a range of moods, in battles and fights between good and evil, as well to conclude a scene); and Muri Adantha musical style (for amusing, humorous or fast-moving scenes involving heroic or anger-driven activity). In Kathakali, a variety of musical instruments are employed. The three main types of drums are the barrel-shaped Maddalam, the cylindrical Chenda drum played with curved sticks, and the hourglass-shaped Idakka drum, which plays melodic but muffled tones when female characters perform.
The collaborative effort between the musicians and performers, guided by rhythmic precision and melodic richness, creates a dynamic and immersive musical backdrop, enhancing the overall aesthetic and emotional impact of the Kathakali dance-drama.
Kathakali traditional dance is known for its elaborate and lengthy performances, often lasting several hours. The art form requires years of training and dedication, and performers, known as “Kathakali artists,” undergo rigorous training in classical dance, martial arts, and acting to master the intricate nuances of the art. The combination of visual spectacle, emotive storytelling, and cultural richness makes Kathakali a unique and revered form of classical Indian performing arts.
Kathakali is not just a dance form but a holistic theatrical experience that aims to communicate stories from Indian mythology in a visually captivating and emotionally engaging manner. It continues to be an important cultural heritage of India, captivating audiences with its vibrant performances and timeless stories.