Kathakali is the story dance from the southern state of Kerala. Kathakali literally means “Katha” story and “Kali” means a dance or a performance. It is a composite art where different actor-dancers take different roles. The stories are usually from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kathakali is a very majestic art and when you see the costumes you realize how much thought and how much aesthetic values have gone into the making of this art. The entire idea is of ‘total theatre’ where there are acting, music – both vocal and instrumental and also the colour psychology and costumes playing equal roles. A performance starts by lighting of the ceremonial lamp. It has just two wicks – one wick is towards the audience and the other towards the stage. It signifies that the light of knowledge must spread not only to the actors but also to the audience. And what is the message? The message is very simple. It is “the victory of good over evil”. Kathakali can be described as the “theatre of imagination” where demons and good beings clash in the realm of imagination, where the good beings are eventually victorious.
Kathakali make-up is the most complicated and the most colourful of all the make-up in the Indian classical dance styles. The make-up is called vesham and it follows the colour- psychology.
The characters are divided into certain broadbased groups. The uttama characters that is the lofty characters, the madhyama characters that is the middling characters and the adhama characters that is the lowly characters. And each sort of character has its own colour combinations as follows:
For instance when there is a green base applied on the face which is called the pachha make-up, it is meant for the good or high sort of characters. The middling characters have a knife-like pattern katti painted on the cheek. The lowly of characters, the thorough going rascals are called the beard or taadi veshams and they have red and black colours predominating. The cheek is outlined by a white outline which is called chutti and which is made up of the strips of cloth which are bound together by a paste made up of rice flour and lime.
Historically Kathakali is the end product of a long line of theatrical practices. The germs of Kathakali are to be found in the Kutiyaattam the Sanskrit drama which has been the preserve of the Chakkyar Brahmin community for almost 2000 years. There are reference to be found in the Southern epic Shilappadikaram which describes a dance that Chaakkyaar presented in the honour of the victorius king. The present form of Kutiyattam was finalized in 1000 A.D. Together with the Chaakkyaar’s art flourished Nangyar Kuttu performed by women. In the 16th century we come to the next phase in the development in the Krishnaatam which presents the Krishna cycle in eight days. Later in the 17th century developed the Raamanaattam which presents the Rama cycle. It is Raamanaattam, which is no more practiced, which resulted in Kathakali.