Evening Sun vanishing in the sweet gold of western horizon....Divine forms step out into the luminous lap of the Queen of Arabian Sea.Watch them float. Watch them roar. Watch them love, fight, and cry in an art form that's more refined and more colourful than any other performing art in the world, KATHAKALI, the stately dance of Kerala.
Kathakali make-up is the the slow metsmorphosis of mortals into immortal deities and demons. A lengthy affair, the process takes two-three hours to complete.Doing the facial using natural pigments like manayola, actors turn themselves into mythical being step-by-step. And as the brilliant head-gear fixed on their human heads, they become larger tahn life realities.
ELEMENTS of the art of Kathakali are believed to have been gradually developed in Kerala from early as the 2nd century until the end of the 16th century. Kathakali as an individual style of dance-drama emerged as a 'people's theatre’ from the traditional dances of the past. Kathakali as we now see it therefore dates back to about the time that Shakespeare was writing his plays. The performances given in Malabar at that time by troupes of actors were formed by and enjoyed the patronage of the local Rajah's and other noblemen (especiallycially the Namboodiris, or Brahmins of Malabar) must in many ways have been similar to the Masques which were in vogue in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which masked performers acted and danced, developing into a form of drama with music, then Kathakali has passed through many stages of improvement in make-up and costume, dance forms and acting techniques.




KATHAKALI is performed by men who in their youth have undergone an intensive course of physical training and a long period of instruction in abhinaya (acting) and nritta (dancing).The former is the representation of emotions and moods by expressions of the face supplemented by mudras, the descriptive and symbolic movement of the hands and fingers in a particular manner to signify an object or action. The Kathakali actor uses mudras in place of the spoken word.The physical training which a Kathakali student has to undergo is very strenuous. In the cooler months of the monsoon season he has a daily session of eye exercises and gymnastics from 3 a.m. to 7.30 a.m. which ends up with an oil massage. This is a special feature of the training in which the teacher, holding to a bar, massages the student with his feet and toes, working gingelly oil into every joint and muscle. The process is painful, but it does create the required fitness and flexibility of body that is demanded by the incredibly exacting tradition of the Kathakali stage.



KATHAKALI characters represent the mythological beings of the three worlds—the upper world of the devas (gods), the middle world of humans and the nether world of the asuras (demons). The striking make-up and costume are designed to transform the actors both mentally and physically into the types of characters they are to portray. With the exception of the female characters and the gentle ones like sages and holy men, all characters have their faces painted over in bright colours: basically green for the heroes, gods and kings, red and black for those who are wicked and fierce, and various elaborate designs for the animal types.





In Kathakali, however, the actor's make-up is thick enough to give the appearance of and provide the advantages of a powerfully painted mask, but as it is applied direct to the face it also allows full expressions of the face and eyes, thus enabling him to portray the different emotions which are an important feature of all Hindu dramas.The colourful patterns that are painted onto the actor's face are made from various stones and powders which are mixed with water or coconut oil and ground into a fine paste in the greenroom prior to the start of the process of making up. Just before going on to the stage, the actor places a small seed in each eye which turns the whites of his eyes red. This redness, which is not painful and lasts for about five hours, greatly enhances the expressions of the eyes which play such an important part in Kathakali acting.
The make-up falls into five main classes: Paccha (meaning 'green'), Katti ('knife'),Tadi ('beard'), Kari ('black') and Minukku ('radiant').
Paccha (green): These are the heroic, kingly and divine types. Their faces are painted green, and they have large black markings around their eyes and eye-brows, the sacred mark of Vishnu on their foreheads and vermilion around their mouths. They wear a chutti, the ridges of which are made of white paper fixed into layers of rice paste. On their heads they wear a golden crown called the kesabharam kirita (hereafter referred to by its more common name, kirita).
Katti (knife): These characters are arrogant and evil, but have a streak of valour in them. They wear the same chuttis and kiritas as the paccha characters, and their make-up is basically green, to indicate that they are high-born, but a red mark like an upturned moustache or knife of a shape popular in Kerala is painted on each cheek. They have white knobs on the tips of their noses and on their foreheads to show that they are evil.
Tadi (beard). There are three distinct types in this class: Chuvanna Tadi (red beard), Vella Tadi (white beard) and Karutta Tadi (black beard). All three wear artificial trimmed beards in their appropriate colours which just cover the neck.
The Red Beards are vicious and vile characters, whose faces are painted mainly black on the top half and red on the lower.The White Beard represents a higher type of being, and is seen mainly in the character of Hanuman, the monkey-man of divine nature. His make-up suggests that of an animal, with its complicated red, black and white patterns on the face. The Black Beards are the character-types in which black predominates in make-up and costume. These are the primitive beings—the wild hunters and forest dwellers. Kari (black).These female characters are the demonesses—the most gruesome figures on the Kathakali stage Minukku (radiant). This class, which symbolises gentleness and high spiritual qualities, is in sharp contrast to the preceding four classes.
In addition to these five main classes of make-up, there are eighteen special characters whose make-up cannot be fitted into any particular category. These include the birds Garuda and Jatayu the swan Hamsa, the serpent Karkotaka, the man-lion Narasimha and various special elaborations of the standard patterns to meet other requirements.



THE COSTUME of the Kathakali actor is most decorative. The male characters (apart from some of the minukku characters) have an enormous 'skirt' which contains 55 yards of cloth, on top of which is a thick woolen jacket draped with lengths of cloth. This seemingly cumbersome dress is in fact functional, as the rhythmic sway of the skirt imparts a certain majesty to the movement of the actor, and its volume gives the right balance to these oversized figures. The ample space it provides allows for ease of leg movements, which are an important part of this masculine art.




THE KATHAKALI stage is as simple as it can be. No scenery is required as the actors describe everything by their mudras and facial expressions. At the front of the stage, which traditionally is an open space of ground or the forecourt of a Hindu temple, stands a large bell metal lamp from which two cotton wicks floating in coconut oil give out a mellow and exciting light.


AT THE BACK of the stage on the left as seen from the audience stand the two drummmers One plays the chenda, a cylindrical drum held vertically and for the most part played with sticks, the other plays the maddalam, held horizontally and played with the hands. The left end is played with the palm and the right end with the fingers, each of which has a finger-stall made of rice and lime applied to a strip of cloth. The drummers accompany the action, supply the rhythm and emphasise the mudras and dance steps of the actors.
The orchestra is completed with two singers who stand on the right of the stage. The leader plays a gong and his assistant a pair of cymbals. The singers tell the story of the play, verse by verse, in Sanskritized Malayalam which the actors interpret word for word through their mudras and facial expressions, after which there is a period of pure dance called kalasam, when part of the first verse is repeated. After this the next verses are sung, and in this way the whole story of the play is told.



THE FACIAL expressions used by the actors express the nine principal aesthetic emotions—love, valour, pathos, wonder, derision, fear, disgust, fury and tranquillity. The mudras supply them with a complete language of gestures which enables them not only to interpret the lines of the story, but also to communicate with each other on matters relevant to the occasion.



  1. The arangu keli, a period of invocatory drumming, played by the maddalam player, standing in front of the lamp.
  2. The todayam, which essentially is a rite performed to propitiate the gods, but is loosely translated as 'beginning'.
  3. The purappadu, meaning 'going forth', an introduction in pure dance which in its original form was intended to introduce the main character of the play being performed
  4. The melappadam, a display of drumming by the two drummers accompanied by the gong and cymbals which lasts for over half an hour and enables the drummers and the singers to demonstrate their skills

 
Mural painting of different Kathakali characters exhibited at our theatre.

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