Dance Description Essay

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Kathakali is a major form of classical Indian dance. It is a 'story play' genre of art, but one distinguished by the elaborately colorful make-up, costumes, and face masks that the traditionally male actor-dancers wear. Kathakali is a performing art in the Malayalam-speaking southwestern region of Kerala.

Kathakali's roots are unclear. The fully developed style of Kathakalī originated around the 17th century, but its roots are in the temple and folk arts (such as Krishnanattam and religious drama of the kingdom of the Zamorin of Calicut) southwestern Indian peninsula), which are traceable to at least the 1st millennium CE. A Kathakali performance, like all classical dance arts of India, synthesizes music, vocal performers, choreography, and hand and facial gestures together to express ideas. However, Kathakali differs in that it also incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions of South India. Kathakalī also differs in that the structure and details of its art form developed in the courts and theatres of Hindu principalities, unlike other classical Indian dances which primarily developed in Hindu temples and monastic schools.

The traditional themes of the Kathakali are folk stories, religious legends, and spiritual ideas from the Hindu epics and the Puranas. The vocal performance has traditionally been performed in Sanskritised Malayalam. In modern compositions, Indian Kathakali troupes have included women artists and adapted Western stories and plays such as those by Shakespeare.

Etymology and nomenclature

The term Kathakali is derived from Katha which means 'story or a conversation, or a traditional tale', and kaḷi which means 'performance' or 'play'. The dance symbolizes the eternal fight between good and evil.


Elements and aspects of Kathakali are taken from ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra. The kathakali is attributed to sage Bharata, and its first complete compilation is dated between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.

The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Taṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhava, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances including Kathakali. Dance and performance arts stated in this ancient Hindu text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues, and the essence of scriptures.

The roots of Kathakali are unclear. Jones and Ryan state it is more than 500 years old. Kathakali emerged as a distinct genre of performance art during the 16th and 17th centuries in a coastal population of south India that spoke Malayalam (now Kerala). The roots of Kathakali, states Mahinder Singh, are more ancient and some 1500 years old.

Links to older performance arts: Kutiyattam and Krishnanattam

According to Farley Richmond and other scholars, Kathakali shares many elements such as costumes with ancient Indian performance arts such as Kutiyattam (classical Sanskrit drama) and medieval era Krishnanattam, even though a detailed examination shows differences. Kutiyattam, adds Richmond, is 'one of the oldest continuously performed theatre forms in India, and it may well be the oldest surviving art form of the ancient world'. Kutiyattam, traditionally, was performed in theatres specially designed and attached to Hindu temples, particularly dedicated to the Shiva and later to Krishna. The designs of these theatres usually matched the dimensions and architecture recommended as 'ideal' in the ancient Natya Shastra, and some of them could house 500 viewers.

Krishnanattam is the likely immediate precursor of Kathakali, states Zarrilli. Krishnanattam is a dance-drama art form about the life and activities of the Hindu god Krishna, that developed under the sponsorship of Sri Manavedan Raja, the ruler of Calicut (1585-1658 AD). The traditional legend states that Kottarakkara Thampuran (also known as Vira Kerala Varma) requested the services of a Krishnanattam troupe, but his request was denied. So Kottarakkara Thampuran created another art form based on Krishnanattam, called it Ramanattam because the early plays were based on the Hindu epic Ramayana, which over time diversified beyond Ramayana and became popular as 'Kathakali'.

Another related performance art is Ashtapadiyattom, a dance drama based on the Gita Govinda of the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva, which told the story of Krishna embodied as a humble cowherd, his consort Radha, and three cowgirls. Kathakali also incorporates several elements from other traditional and ritualistic art forms like Mudiyettu, Theyyam, and Padayani besides folk arts such as Porattu Nadakam that shares ideas with the Tamil Therukoothu tradition. The south Indian martial art of Kalarippayattu has also influenced Kathakali.

Despite the links, Kathakalī is different from temple-driven arts such as 'Krishnanattam', Kutiyattam, and others because, unlike the older arts where the dancer-actor also had to be the vocal artist, Kathakali separated these roles allowing the dancer-actor to excel in and focus on choreography while the vocal artists focused on delivering their lines. Kathakali also expanded the performance repertoire, and style and standardized the costume making it easier for the audience to understand the various performances and new plays.


Kathakali is structured around plays called Attakatha (literally, 'enacted story'), written in Sanskritized Malayalam. These plays are written in a particular format that helps identify the 'action' and the 'dialogue' parts of the performance. The Sloka part is the metrical verse, written in the third person – often entirely in Sanskrit - describing the action part of the choreography. The Pada part contains the dialogue part. These Attakatha texts grant considerable flexibility to the actors to improvise. Historically, all these plays were derived from Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata Purana.

A Kathakali repertoire is an operatic performance where an ancient story is playfully dramatized. Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is long, starting at dusk and continuing through dawn, with interludes and breaks for the performers and audience. Some plays continued over several nights, starting at dusk every day. Modern performances are shorter. The stage with seating is typically on open grounds outside a temple, but in some places, special theatres called Kuttampalam built inside the temple compounds have been in use.

The stage is mostly bare, or with a few drama-related items. One item called a Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance; vilakku meaning lamp), can be traced back to Kutiyattam. In both traditions, the performance happens in front of a huge Kalivilakku with its thick wick sunk in coconut oil, burning with a yellow light. Traditionally, before the advent of electricity, this special large lamp provided light during the night. As the play progressed, the actor-dancers would gather around this lamp so that the audience could see what they were expressing.

The performance involves actor-dancers in the front, supported by musicians in the background stage on the right (audience's left), and vocalists in the front of the stage (historically so they could be heard by the audience before the age of microphone and speakers). Typically, all roles are played by male actor-dancers, though in modern performances, women have been welcomed into the Kathakali tradition.


Of all classical Indian dances, Kathakali has the most elaborate costumes consisting of headdresses, face masks, and vividly painted faces. It typically takes several evening hours to prepare a Kathakali troupe to get ready for a play. Costumes have made Kathakali's popularity extend beyond adults, with children absorbed by the colors, makeup, light, and sound of the performance.

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The makeup follows an accepted code, that helps the audience easily identify the archetypal characters such as gods, goddesses, demons, demonesses, saints, animals, and characters of a story. Seven basic makeup types are used in Kathakali, namely Pachcha (green), Pazhuppu (ripe), Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, Minukku and Teppu. These vary with the styles and the predominant colors made from rice paste and vegetable colors that are applied on the face. Pachcha (green) with lips painted brilliant coral red portrays noble characters and sages such as Krishna, Vishnu, Rama, Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Nala, and philosopher-kings.

Thaadi (red) is the code for someone with an evil streak such as Dushasana and Hiranyakashipu. Some characters have a green face (representing heroism or excellence as a warrior) with red dots or lines on their cheeks or a red-colored mustache or red-streaked beard (representing evil inner nature), while others have a full face and beard colored red, the latter implying excessively evil characters. Kari (black) is the code for forest dwellers, hunters, and middle-ground characters. Demonesses and treacherous characters are also painted black but with streaks or patches of red.

Yellow is the code for monks, mendicants, and women. Minukka (radiant, shining) with a warm yellow, orange, or saffron typifies noble, virtuous feminine characters such as Sita, Panchali, and Mohini. Men who act in the roles of women also add a false top knot to their left and decorate it in a style common to the region. Vella Thadi (white beard) represents a divine being, someone with a virtuous inner state and consciousness such as Hanuman. Teppu is for special characters found in Hindu mythologies, such as Garuda, Jatayu, and Hamsa who act as messengers or carriers but do not fit the other categories. Face masks and headgear are added to accentuate the inner nature of the characters. The garment's colors have a similar community-accepted code of silent communication.

The character types, states Zarrilli, reflect the Guṇa theory of personalities in the ancient Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy. There are three Guṇas, according to this philosophy, that have always been and continue to be present in all things and beings in the world. These three Guṇas are sattva (goodness, constructive, harmonious, virtuous), rajas (passion, aimless action, dynamic, egoistic), and tamas (darkness, destructive, chaotic, viciousness). All of these three gunas (good, evil, active) are present in everyone and everything, it is the proportion that is different, according to the Hindu worldview. The interplay of these gunas defines the character of someone or something, and the costumes and face coloring in Kathakali often combine the various color codes to give complexity and depth to the actor-dancers.


Like many classical Indian arts, Kathakali is choreography as much as it is acting. It is said to be one of the most difficult styles to execute on stage, with young artists preparing for their roles for several years before they get a chance to do it on stage. The actors speak a 'sign language', where the word part of the character's dialogue is expressed through 'hand signs (mudras)', while emotions and mood is expressed through 'facial and eye' movements. In parallel, vocalists in the background sing rhythmically the play, matching the beats of the orchestra playing, thus unifying the ensemble into a resonant oneness.

Several ancient Sanskrit texts such as Natya Shastra and Hastha Lakshanadeepika discuss hand gestures or mudras. Kathakali follows the Hastha Lakshanadeepika most closely, unlike other classical dances of India.

There are 24 main mudras and numerous more minor ones in Kathakali. There are nine facial expressions called Navarasas, which each actor masters through facial muscle control during his education, to express the emotional state of the character in the play. The theory behind the Navarasas is provided by classical Sanskrit texts such as Natya Shastra, but sometimes with different names, and these are found in other classical Indian dances as well. The nine Navarasas express nine Bhava (emotions) in Kathakali as follows: Sringara expresses Rati (love, pleasure, delight), Hasya expresses Hasa (comic, laugh, mocking), Karuna expresses Shoka (pathetic, sad), Raudra expresses Krodha (anger, fury), Vira expresses Utsaha (vigor, enthusiasm, heroic), Bhayanaka expresses Bhaya (fear, concern, worry), Bibhatsa expresses Jugupsa (disgust, repulsive), Adbhuta expresses Vismaya (wondrous, marvel, curious) and Shanta expresses Sama (peace, tranquility).


A Kathakali performance typically starts with artists tuning their instruments and warming up with beats, signaling to the arriving audience that the artists are getting ready and the preparations are on. The repertoire includes a series of performances. First comes the Thodayam and Purappadu performances, which are preliminary 'pure' (abstract) dances that emphasize skill and pure motion. Thodayam is performed behind a curtain and without all the costumes, while Purappadu is performed without the curtain and in full costumes.

The expressive part of the performance, which constitutes the dance-drama, is split into four types: Kalasham (major and most common), Iratti (special, used with battles-related Chempata rhythm), Thonkaram (similar to Iratti but different music), and Nalamiratti (used for exits or link between the chapters of the play).

The entrance of characters onto the Kathakalī stage can be varied. Many of these ways are not found in other major Indian classical dance traditions. Kathakalī employs several methods: 1) direct without special effects or curtain; 2) through the audience, a method that engages the audience, led by torchbearers since Kathakalī is typically a night performance; 3) tease and suspense called hokku or thirasheela or tiranokku, where the character is slowly revealed by the use of a curtain. The 'tease' method is typically used for characters with hidden, dangerous intentions.

Songs and musical instruments

The play is in the form of verses that are metered and lyrical, sung by vocalists whose voices have been trained to various melodies (ragas), and music and synchronized with the dance acting on the stage. The vocalists not only deliver the lines but help set the context and express the inner state of the character by modulating their voice. For example, anger is expressed by the use of a sharp high voice and pleading is expressed by the use of a tired tone.

Music is central to a Kathakali performance. It sets the mood and triggers emotions resonant with the nature of the scene. It also sets the rhythm to which the actor-dancers perform the choreography and scenes. Some major musical patterns, according to Clifford and Betty, that go with the moods and content of the scene are Chempada (most common and default that applies to a range of moods, in battles and fights between good and evil, also to conclude a scene); Chempa music (depict tension, dispute, disagreement between lovers or competing ideas); Panchari (for odious, preparatory such as sharpening a sword); Triputa (thought-provoking, scenes involving sages and teachers); Adantha (scenes involving kings or divine beings); Muri Adantha musical style (for comic, light-hearted, or fast-moving scenes involving heroic or anger-driven activity).

Many musical instruments are used in Kathakali. Three major drums found are Maddalam(barrel-shaped), Chenda (cylindrical drum played with curved sticks), and Idakka (Idakka, an hourglass-shaped drum with muted and melodious notes played when female characters perform).

Traditional plays

Over five hundred Kathakali plays (Aattakatha) exist, most of which were written before the 20th century. Of these, about four dozen are most actively performed. These plays are sophisticated literary works, states Zarrilli, and only five authors have written more than two plays. In the late 17th century Unnayi Variyar, in his short life, produced four plays that are traditionally considered the most expressive of the Kathakali playwrights. Typically, his four plays are performed on four nights, and they relate to the mythical Hindu love story of Nala and Damayanti. The Nala-Damayanti story has roots in the texts of the 1st millennium BCE and is found in the Mahabharata, but the Kathakali play version develops the characters, their inner states, the emotions, and their circumstances far more than the older texts.

A traditional Kathakali play typically consists of two interconnected parts, the third-person Shlokas, and first-person Padams. The Shlokas are in Sanskrit and describe the action in the scene, while Padams are dialogues in Malayalam (Sanskritized) for the actors to interpret and play. A Padam consists of three parts: a Pallavi (refrain), Anupallavi (sub refrain), and Charanam (foot), all of which are set to one of the ancient Ragas (musical mode), based on the mood and context as outlined in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra. In the historic practice of a play performance, each Padam was enacted twice by the actor while the vocalists sang the lines repeatedly as the actor-dancer played his role out.

The traditional plays were long, many written to be performed all night, some such as those based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata written to be performed for many sequential nights. However, others such as the Prahlada Charitham have been composed so that they can be performed within four hours. Modern productions have extracted parts of these legendary plays, to be typically performed within 3 to 4 hours.

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