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Kathakali dance drama is an operatic spectacle involving abstract dance, singing, instrumental accompaniment, elaborate and stylized costumes and makeup. It is truly a magnificent multimedia presentation from the magical state of “God’s own country”, Kerala. Kathakali literally means story play and depicts the victory of truth over falsehood.

I am often confronted with people who mistake Kathak and Kathakali. Just to clarify here that Kathak is a dance style from the North and Kathakali is from the South and no styles could be more different.

Kathakali is a highly stylized dance drama which serves to present story themes derived from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Hindu epics, myths and legends. The dance aspect consists of pure dance (nritya) as well as mime (abhinaya).

What is most striking about this dance form is the emphasis given to the use of costumes, color, ornaments and facial makeup. The costumes and makeup of Kathakali are the most elaborate in world theatre today. It is done to emphasize that the characters are superhuman beings who come in from another world and the makeup depicts Satvik, Rajasik, Tamasik, which means godlike, the heroic and the demonic. There is an interesting story behind the unique dressing style of Kathakali costumes. It is believed that one of the composers of this art, Kaplingat Nambudari, was sitting on the seashore wondering as to how to dress the dancers. Lost in thought, he saw a splendid, spectacular vision of great beings arising out of the waves dressed in gorgeous head dresses and jewels. It was a dream. When he finally woke up, he could remember the figures but only upto the waist. Below the waist was the billowing white surf of the sea. And so, the dancers wear huge skirts and rise up from behind a curtain (this cloth depicts the waves).

Each dress and makeup represents a character. The two most common colors used are green, which represents noble, divine beings, kings and heroes and more red color makeup represents arrogant and wicked villainous characters. Women, sages and pious Brahmins always have a shining yellow or beige makeup with eyebrows and eyes finely and dramatically made. The aim of these colors is not merely to cover the human face, but rather transform the dancers into a God or demon. The facial make-up for Kathakali is so typical, elaborate and complex that it takes about four hours to wear and two to take it off.

Kathakali is performed in open air on a roughly 5-metre square stage in a temple compound or a courtyard of someone. The stage is generally covered with coarse mats. A tall and massive brass lamp fed with coconut oil is set in front of the actors at the centre of the stage. This is the only lighting used. By the light of the oil lamps, amid palm tress and parrot colored fields, these dance dramas last the whole night. The continuous thundering of the drum called Chenda heralds the performance of Kathakali. Another drum called the Madala also is played along with two large bronze cymbals. All the three are played in unison to proclaim the performance. This skilled and captivating drumming is known as Melappadam. In a typical Kathakli performance, two dancers perform a devotional dance behind the curtain. The dance is of pure type and is called Todayam.

After the todayam comes a pure nritta piece known as the purappadu, in which appear two characters, either the hero or his consort or two other green characters or even the five Pandava brothers. The purappadu is another introductory dance of invocation and has no mime. Before any major character appears, there is the slow revelation of the character from behind the curtain. The character gradually appears as the curtain is lowered. Indeed, the leading dancer often comes on at about 3 o’clock in the morning. The story unfolds through nritta, natya and abhinaya. with purely percussive musical accompaniments for hours. This is followed by pure nritta passages where only the kalasams or the dance cadences are executed. As the play concludes, the curtain is reintroduced and the players behind make their exit almost exhausted but fully satisfied having played and danced their roles with great confidence, composure, poise, virtuosity and éclat.

There is nothing more exciting as a Kathakali performance in the wee hours of the morning -- the time when the gods kills the demon, and victory of truth over evil and justice prevails. But the language has to be understood and the story well told and learned.

Jyothi Venkatachalam, director of Abhyasa School Of Dance, Club Tampa Palms, offers classes in Bharat Natyam, traditional folk dances, Indian percussion instruments (Mridangam, Dholak, Ghatam, Kanjira, Morsingh and Konakol). She can be reached at (813) 977-9039 or (813) 404-7899 or via e-mail at

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