means a story play or a dance drama. Katha means story. Belonging to the
South-Western coastal state of Kerala, Kathakali is primarily a dance drama
form and is extremely colourful with billowing costumes, flowing scarves,
ornaments and crowns. The dancers use a specific type of symbolic makeup
to portray various roles which are character-types rather than individual
characters. Various qualities, human, godlike, demonic, etc., are all represented
through fantastic make-up and costumes.
The world of Kathakali is peopled by noble heroes and demons locked in battle, with truth winning over untruth, good over evil. The stories from the two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as the Puranas constitute the themes of the Kathakali dance dramas.
The macro and micro movements of the face, the movements of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the cheeks, the nose and the chin are minutely worked out and various emotions are registered in a flash by a Kathakali actor-dancer. Often men play the female roles, though of late women have taken to Kathakali.
The pure dance element in Kathakali is limited to kalasams, decorative dance movements alternating with an expressional passage where the actor impersonates a character, miming to the liberetto sung by the musician. A cylindrical drum called chenda, a drum called maddalam held horizontally, cymbals and a gong form the musical accompaniment, and two vocalists render the songs. Using typical music known as Sopanam, Kathakali creates a world of its own.
The most striking feature of Kathakali is its overwhelming dramatic quality. But its characters never speak. It is danced to the musical compositions, involving dialogues, narration and continuity. It employs the lexicon of a highly developed hand-gesture language which enhances the facial expressions and unfolds the text of the drama.