Kathakali (katha, story, kali, performance) is a special type of Indian dance-drama. It originated in the state of Kerala in South India more than 500 years ago. It combines drama, dance, music, and ritual. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes reenact stories from the epics MAHABHARATA and RAMAYANA and the Puranas. The most popular stories enacted are “The Death of DURYODHANA,” “The Story of Nala,” “The Fight between ARJUNA and SHIVA,” and “The Story of Devayani and Kacha.”
   As has happened for centuries new stories are added to the Kathakali repertoire from time to time when they become sufficiently popular. In recent times stories from the Bible or Shake-speare have been added to appeal to modern audiences.
   The dramatic form is based, somewhat as opera is, on the notion that the audience is fully familiar with the stories being told. In the play the elaborately costumed actors (all male, even for female roles) do not speak; they pantomime the dialogue, while accompanists sing the lyrics. The language is an amalgam of Malayalam and SANSKRIT. The traditional Kathakali show begins at night and lasts till dawn; in the modern urban context in India and abroad the plays last only several hours.
   The actors in Kathakali are always accompa-nied by drummers and singers; the lead singer controls the entire show with a special rhythm instrument. The story is conveyed purely through hand gestures (MUDRAS), facial expressions, and body movements. Complete control over facial muscles is a prerequisite for this demanding dramatic art form. It takes a minimum of eight to 10 years for a Kathakali dancer to become fully trained. The training is very demanding and includes the study of one of the traditional martial arts of Kerala to create stamina, con-centration, and physical flexibility. It also, not incidentally, prepares the actors for the many dramatic fight scenes in the epics. There are 24 main mudras in Kathakali and a number of less commonly used ones.
   Kathakali uses a set “color code” for the makeup of the characters. Noble characters such as ARJUNA have their faces painted green. Evil characters who have heroic roles will have green makeup with red marks on the cheeks. Very angry or very evil characters will have red makeup and a red beard. Women and mendicants have yellow painted faces. Hunters and forest dwellers have primarily black painted faces. As in most other classical Indian forms, such as BHARATA NAT YA M, facial expressions for Kathakali actors accord with the nine RASAS (sentiments): love, humor, com-passion, fear, disgust, anger, wonder, valor, and tranquility.
   With elaborate costumes projecting larger-than-life images, loud music with a heavy percus-sive element, and very vigorous dance steps that require great stamina and balance, the Kathakali is the most powerful of dramatic instruments: the audience is left not merely enthralled but often completely mesmerized. This art form had its roots in shamanic costumed possessions that were taken up by Sanskritic culture and adapted to the Sanskrit language and sensibility. The pri-mordial element, surviving from traditional pre-ARYAN Kerala culture, is quite palpable in these performances.
   Further reading: David Bolland, A Guide to Kathakali (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1980); Clifford R. Jones and Betty True Jones, Kathakali: An Introduction to the Dance-Drama of Kerala (San Francisco: Ameri-can Society of Eastern Arts, 1970); Phillip Zarrilli, The Kathakali Complex: Actor, Performance and Structure (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1984).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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