Kathakali is one of the oldest forms of theatre/dance-dramas in the world. It originated in southwestern India (the state of Kerala now) during the 16th century. The name is derived from the South Indian language, Malayalam, and it means “story” (katha) and “performance” (kali).
This stylized dance form is typified by its elaborate costumes, attractive make-up, detailed hand and facial gestures, and well-defined body movements. The performance is accompanied by playback music (“geeta”) and percussion instruments (“vadya”). Another distinguishing characteristic of Kathakali is that the actors in the drama rarely ever use any words to convey their emotions or carry forward the story. All this is done with the help of expression, hand gestures, and rhythmic dancing.
As mentioned before, a traditional Kathakali performance begins in the evening and lasts until dawn. The dance is conducted by the light of a typical South Indian lamp known as Kalivilakku, “kali” meaning performance and “vilakku” meaning lamp. This practice was more prevalent at a time when the performances were conducted inside temples. Today, the performances have been visibly modified, both time and lighting wise. The performances have moved from palaces to proscenium stages and a Kathakali performance doesn’t last beyond a couple of hours.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of this dance form is its elaborate code of make-up. The colors used by performers are based on the type of character they are playing. Noble characters, divine heroes and virtuous kings, have green faces, whereas characters that have an evil streak have green make up with red marks on the cheeks. Characters that depict extreme anger or outright evil sport a flowing beard and have a predominantly red make-up. Hunters, tribals, and forest dwellers use a base of black make up and female characters are represented with golden yellow faces.
Given the complexity of the makeup, it takes nearly three to four hours to apply it. All the colors used in the make-up are made using herbs and natural substances. For instance, the white color is made by mixing rice flour and lime whereas the black substance is made by burning sesame oil. The red, yellow, and green colors are got by powdering certain semi precious stones and mixed with coconut oil.
A successful Kathakali performer is not just required to master the stylistic elements of the dance but also build his/her endurance and stamina. On many occasions, they need to be able to last a whole night’s performance. This is gained by following a regimented training that has its base in an ancient martial art form of Kerala, Kalaripayattu. Training for Kathakali goes on for 8-10 years, and is extremely intensive.