Kathakali dance at a New Year carnival in Kochi, India 01 Dec 2016

Posted on 01 Dec 2016
Kathakali dance at a New Year carnival in Kochi, India
Kathakali dance at a New Year carnival in Kochi, India
Kathakali dance at a New Year carnival in Kochi, India

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Kathakali has been described as ‘one of the most magnificent theatres of the imagination’. While owing much to ancient Sanskrit drama, it has absorbed many other elements of ritual during its history, some local such as Teyyam, and of Keralan martial arts (specifically Kalaripayattu). Kathakali is a highly stylised dance-drama that presents stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics, myths and legends. The dance aspect consists of pure dance as well as mime.

What is striking about Kathakali is the emphasis given to aharya-abhinaya, the use of elaborate costumes, ornaments and facial make-up. This, according to one observer, helps to transform the dancer into a type rather than a character. According to the qualities that they represent, the characters fall into five main types, and the make-up illuminates these types (green stands for good, red for evil and white for a deity). Because of the heavy make-up, the Kathakali dancer has to use his eyes very expressively to convey even the most subtle expressions.

Kathakali makes strenuous demands on its exponents; dance critic Sunil Kothari notes this is because ‘it is the only dance form in which the entire body, both skeleton and muscles, down to even the smallest facial muscle, are used to portray emotion. The actor in Kathakali never speaks except with his hands. The text of the drama is sung for him and is the baseline for his interpretation. It is in histrionics or interpretive dancing that the Kathakali artist excels, the spectator’s experience enhanced by the thrilling drum beats’. 

Get an insight into this rich dance culture with a Kathakali Dance Session experience, which you can add to your Insight Guides trip itinerary. Speak to one of our local experts and plan your trip today.

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