Kathakali (katha for story, kali for performance or play) is an expressive form of Indian dance-drama. It originated in the South Indian state of Kerala. It is a spectacular combination of dance, music, percussion, acting, painting and rituals thus make a total theater in its completion. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics, Mahabharatha and Ramayana


Kathakali originated in the 17th century. However, its roots could be tracked back even to the earlier times. Koodiyattom, the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater in India has been preserved in Kerala for centuries, now, by a small community called Chakyar as a part of their hereditary temple service. Krishnanattom, another form of dance-drama considered fore runner to Kathakali in its origin, is performed even today at the famous Shree Krishna temple in Guruvayoor as an offering to the Lord.

Besides these two forms, elements from martial, ritualistic, socio-religious arts have also influenced in the making of Kathakali. Though Kathakali is only 300 years old, a great deal of enrichment and refinement has taken place in every aspect of its technique during this short period. Scholars are of opinion that Kathakali is the result of a fusion between all Indian theater tradition represented by Koodiyattom and the indigenous tradition of folk dance forms.

It was one of the Rajas (Chieftain) of Kottarakkara, who wrote the first play intended for Kathakali performance. They form a cycle of eight stories based on Ramayana. The performance for each story was designed to last for six to eight hours. The performed stories were then known as Ramanattom (play pertaining to Rama), which later came to be called as Kathakali. Stories based on other epics and puranas were added to its repertoire in later period.

A vivid picture of the nature of performance of Kathakali in the past is not known. However, it is said that in the beginning the actors themselves used to sing the text while performing. Masks were elaborately used for some characters and percussion was limited to a Maddalam, (two headed barrel shaped drum) a Chengila (metal gong) and Elathalam (a pair of cymbals).

Among the better known Kathakali play writes are Kottarakara Thampuran, the author of the above mentioned Ramayana Stories; Kottayam Thampuran, who wrote four stories based on Mahabharatha; Irayamman Thampi, who was both a good poet and composer, accredited three stories; Unnayi Warrier, the author of Nalacharitham (Story of King Nala); and Vayaskara Moosad who wrote one of the popular stories — Duryodhana Vadham.


Kathakali is a dance-drama in which a high degree of stylization is seen in the method of acting, presentation, make-up and costuming. Realism is limited only to certain characters. Kathakali in its totality can be better understood in terms of a four-fold scheme of historic representation given in the Natyasastras. They are:

1. Angika — This involves the whole body of the actor and included an elaborate scheme of facial expression, mime, gestures, accompanied by their appropriate movements, poses and attitudes. Hastalakshna Deepika is the regional text on the Hastas (hand gestures) mainly used in Kathakali.

2. Vachika — One of the distinguishing characteristic of Kathakali is that the actors do not speak. Vachika (drama text in the form of verses and songs) are recited and sung by vocalists. These songs are explained and interpreted in details by actors through angikabhinaya. Its main aim is the evocation of the appropriate, dramatic mood and sentiments.

3. Satvika –: A highly stylised technique in the invocation of bhava has been developed in Kathakali. This is called Rasabhinava. Indian dramatic theory explains 9 kinds of basic sentiments, Rasa with a corresponding sthayi bhava.

4. Ahraya — The make-up and costuming is another important factor of the dance-drama. The characters in Kathakali are classified under:

Pacca (GREEN) – Heroic, Divine e.g.: – KRISHNA, ARJUNA.
Kathi (KNIFE) – Heroic but lustful with arrogance. e.g.:- DURYODHANA, RAVANA.
Tadi (BEARD) – Red – Villainous and evil. e.g.:- DUSSASANA
White – Pious E.g.:- HANUMAN
White – Pious E.g.:- HANUMAN
Black – E.g.:- HUNTER.
Kari (BLACK) – A Demoness.
Munukku (SHINING) – All females (expect demoness in their original form). Brahmins, Sage, Messengers, Charioteer.
Teppu (SPECIAL MAKE-UP) – Birds, Bheeru (coward) etc.
A major part of the face make-up is done by the actor himself. However, specially trained artists are entrusted to apply Chutty (framing the face with white paper and rice paste). Designs vary according to the type of a character. A close observation on Aharya aspect of Kathakali would reveal the highest level of aesthetic imagination conceived by our predecessors.


The vocal music in Kathakali although based on the Karnatic (South Indian) system has developed a distinct regional style called Sopanasangeetham The orchestra consists of two drums- the ‘Maddalam’ and ‘Chenda’, the ‘Chengila’, which is a bell metal gong and the ‘Ilathalam’ or cymbals.