KERALA INFO: Classical Dance Forms of Kerala - Kathakali

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Classical Dance Forms of Kerala - Kathakali

by by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)  (Feedback)

Kathakali is a unique classical dance-drama form in Kerala. The themes for Kathakali are taken from the treasure trove of the ancient Puranas, depicting the lives, loves and conflicts of the gods and the supermen of Indian mythology.

Kathakali ranks high among the Indian dance forms through its vivid and eloquent mudras (hand signs), natural and impressive gestures, graceful and rhythmic movements, apart from excellent pleasing choreography and delightful wealth of imagery. Well known for its archaic costumes, weird make up and grand head gears, Kathakali preserves the masculine aspect of the dance in its elemental vigour.

Even though the roots of Kathakali can be traced at least 1500 years earlier, it came to be known only since 300 to 400 years. It symbolizes the blending of the Aryan and Dravidian cultures, as it assimilates various elements borrowed freely from the dances, dramas and ritual performances of these cultures. It has evolved out of the earlier forms of dance dramas such as the Chakiayarkoothu and the Koodiyattom, various ritual dances with the cult of the Bhagvathy such as the Mudiyattu and the Theyyattom, socio-religious dances such as the Sastrakali and the Ezhamattukali and later forms of dance dramas such as the Krishnanattom and the Ramanattom.

Kathakali is not a realistic art but it is an imaginative form as specified in Bharatha's Natya shastra. It constitutes three fine arts of the Abhinaya (acting), the Nrithya (dancing) and the Geetha (music). The Abhinaya has every feeling idealised and expressed on the face with intense vividness and every shade of such expression is harmonised with the rhythm of the Nrithya and the melody of the Geetha. Kathakali music has a very slow tempo singing style called the Sopana.

There are two vocal musicians in Kathakali of whom the main one is known as ponani and his partner as sinkidi. Also there are two important music players, the Chenda player keeps time with a resounding gong called the Chegala and the Maddalam player with a pair of clanking cymbals called the elethalam. The chenda is a cylindrical drum with a loud but sweet sound while the maddalam has the appearance of a big mridangam.

The mudras (hand gestures) used as a substitute for spoken language, with the actors acting and dancing in harmony with the rhythm as well as with the sense of the songs. The mudras form the inseparable part of the nrithya and abhinaya. The large overcoats, the flowing scarves, the bulging skirts, the antique ornaments, the strikingly opulent head dresses with streaming hair flowing down to the waist and covering the back are the main costumes and ornamentation of the Kathakali dance.

The characters in kathakali are all mythological and they all have set modes of make-up and attire and adornment.

There are five main types of make-up attires based on the predominant colour applied to the face. They are the paccha (green), the kathi (knife), the thadi (beard), the kari (black) and the minukku (polished). The colour paccha represents virtuous and noble characters. The colour kathi represents proud aggressive and unrighteous characters. The bearded type known as thadi are of three varieties. The chuvanna thadi (red beard) represents the most aggressive and demoniac characters, the vellathadi (white beard) represents the mythical and fabulous beings like the monkey-gods, and the karutha thadi (black beards) represents aboriginals, forest-men and cave-dwellers. The colour Kari (black) represents the lowest type of characters. The colour minukku (polished) represents the gentle and spiritually inclined characters like women, sages, Brahmins etc.

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