Dating back to the 17th century, this traditional dance of Kerala, literally meaning “story-play”, is a sort of a dance-drama theatre. Artistes in elaborate make-up and heavy costumes enact stories from the great epics Mahabharat, Ramayana, and the ancient scriptures, Purana. The make-up on these dancers takes at least three hours to paint.
Kathakali has been an all-men’s performance but in recent years, women have started entering the arena. Traditionally there are 101 kathakali stories. Performances begin at dusk and last all night. Nowadays, however, more concise versions are created to last for about three hours instead of a whole night, and in an attempt to popularize the art, Mary Magdalene from the Bible, Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s King Lear have been adapted into Kathakali plays.
Actors enact stories by hand movements or ‘mudras’, facial expressions or ‘rasas’ and body movements. There are 24 main mudras, a form of sign language to tell a story. The actors undergo special training sessions to learn the control of eye movements. Kathakali actors gain over-all stamina and skill through vigorous training sessions based on the ‘kalaripayattu’, an ancient martial art of Kerala. Training can last for 8-10 years.
To sum up, Kathakali is a unique combination of literature, dance, drama, acting, music and painting.