Kathakali is a major form of Indian Classical Dance. It is a “Story Play” genre of art, but one distinguished by the elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and face masks that the traditionally male actor-dancers wear. Kathakali is a Hindu performance art in the Malayalam-speaking southwestern Indian state of Kerala.
Kathakali’s roots are unclear. The fully developed style of Kathakali originated around the 17th century, but its roots are in the temple and folk arts and religious drama of the southwestern Indian peninsula, which are traceable to at least the 1st millennium CE.
A Kathakali performance, like all classical dance forms of India, synthesizes music, vocal performers, choreography and hand and facial gestures together to express ideas. However, Kathakali differs in that it also incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions of South India.
Kathakali also differs in that the structure and details of its art form developed in the courts and theatres of Hindu principalities, unlike other classical Indian dances which primarily developed in Hindu Temples.
The traditional themes of Kathakali are folk mythologies, religious legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu epics and mythologies. The vocal performance has traditionally been performed in Sanskritised Malayalam.
In modern compositions, Indian Kathakali troupes have included women artists, as well as adapted Western stories and plays such as those by Shakespeare.
Of all classical Indian dances, Kathakali has the most elaborate costuming consisting of head dresses, face masks and vividly painted faces. It typically takes several evening hours to prepare a Kathakali troupe to get ready for a play. Costumes have made Kathakali’s popularity extend beyond adults, with children absorbed by the colors, make-up, light and sound of the performance.
Like many classical Indian arts, Kathakali is choreography as much as it is acting. It is said to be one of the most difficult styles to execute on stage, with young artists preparing for their roles for several years before they get a chance to do it on stage. The actors speak a sign language, where the word part of the character’s dialogue is expressed through Mudras (Hand-signs), while emotions and moods are expressed through facial and eye movements. In parallel, vocalists in the background sing rhythmically the play, matching the beats of the orchestra playing, thus unifying the ensemble into a resonant oneness.