Sunday, 26 April 2015


You may or you may not know that I am studying to be a tourist guide now. Well, that doesn't matter much; the thing is that the other day, one of my teachers told us to make a list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. And what was my surprise when I discovered that Kathakali is on the list!

Kathakali is a blend of dance, music and acting. It dramatizes stories based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It originated in the country's present day state of Kerala, during the 17th century.

Kathakali has many interesting aspects: elaborate costumes, detailed gestures, well-defined body movements,... But the most interesting of them all is its attractive elaborate make-up of characters.

The make-up is so elaborate that it is more like a mask than make-up in the strict sense of the word. Plus, the contours of the face are extended with moulded lime. The colours are not merely decoration, but also a means of portraying characters. For instance, excessively evil characters such as demons have predominantly red in the face; green, as the dominant colour is used to symbolize noble male characters; uncivilised hunters and woodsmen are represented with a predominantly black make-up base; women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces,... Mind you! It is performed only by men. Female characters are portrayed by men dressed in women's costumes.

The costumes are very large and heavy. It takes the actors hours to get dressed, and they use their colleagues' help to do so.

These extraordinary dresses, together with the make-up, serve to raise the dancers above the level of mere mortals, so that they can transport the audience to a world of wonders.

So, each character is instantly recognisable by their characteristic make-up and costume. At least, to the Keralite audiences.

The enactment of the play takes place in tune with the accompaniment of music and percussion instruments. The orchestra includes two drums (chenda and maddalam) along with cymbals and an ela taalam. Two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. All together, instruments and voices, provide, not only the background to the dancing, but also act as a highly expressive special effect team.

And last, but not least, we have the refined gestures, highly developed body movements and rigorous footwork, through which the artists can convey whole stories. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this demanding role, Katakali dancers undergo strenuous training and special periods of body massage. They need immense concentration, skill and physical stamina, gained from regimented discipline based on kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art of Kerala. The intense instruction period can last for 8 to 10 years.

Actors also undergo special practice sessions to learn how to control their eye movements.

Their hands are their words, their faces and eyes are their emotions and the actions of their bodies are the punctuation and poetry of their sentences.

According to the tradition there are 101 classical Kathakali stories, though less than a third of them are staged nowadays. 

A traditional Kathakali performance was initially composed to last a whole night, beginning in the evening and continuing throughout the night, when good finally conquers evil. Today, however, it has been modified so that audiences can enjoy it within the span of a couple of hours. Thus, many stories find stage presentation in parts rather than totality.

Here you have a video with a little sample of this jewel. Enjoy it!

Oops! I couldn't upload it! But you can find thousands of them in YouTube!

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