Kerala’s own classical dance is known throughout the world as a total form of Dance Theater. Due to its graceful make-up and costumes, its music, its accompaniment instruments and, above all, its dance movements and intense acting, it fills the heart of all art lovers with an auspicious mood. It is said to be 400 years old; the direct offspring of an earlier form called Ramanattam. Kathakali added to Ramanattam a wider variety of stories and refined its aesthetics and performance codes.
Kathakali literally means story-play (katha-kali). The story is literally played or danced with the entire body using a complex and codified gestural language. The themes of most of the stories are taken from the Mahabharatha and Ramayana epics. The actors have the most important role in Kathakali. They play the stories in accordance with the lyrics and rhythms of the songs (known as Kathakali padangal) sung by the musicians. Two percussion instruments Chenda and Maddalam are used for the background support. In some scenes another percussion instrument known as Idayka is also used. Lyrics of the stories are written by famous poets with suitable Raaga (tune) and Thaala (rhythm).
A royal king, namely, Kottayathu Thampuraan is known as the creator of Kathakali. It is a sweet revenge against another king, namely, Zamorins who has hesitated to send his Krishnanaattam (another art form) team to Kottayathu thampuran’s palace. He worked out his idea to reform Raamanaattam and created Kathakali.
In Kathakali, a story is depicted through a dance form. The themes of most of the stories are taken from the epics Raamayana and Mahabhaaratha.
Based on the nature of Kathakali, the characters are divided into six different types. Saathwika (peaceful) Raajasa (majestic) and Thaamasa. In Kathakali the characters are classified as Pacha, Kathi, Thaadi, (Thaadi is also classified as Chukanna Thaadi, Vella Thaadi and Karutha Thaadi) Kari, Minukku, Pazhuppu etc. The saathwika characters are seen in Pacha, Minukku and Pazhuppu. The Raajasa in Kathi and Thaamasa in Thaadi.
The front part of the face is given smooth green colour on either side of face starting from centre of the chin covering the lower jaw. The eyebrow and eye-lashes painted with black and lips with bright red. The characters like Nala, Arjuna, Bhima, Rugmangada are coming under this category.
The literary meaning of Kathi is knife. In the make-up the shapes of colour positions sharply bent like a knife. With the basement of green colour the nose is painted with red which rises up to the forehead. Two white knobs known as Chuttippuvu are placed each on the nose and on the forehead. The characters Ravana, Duryodhana, Keechak
Thaadi means beard which is representing normally Thaamasa characters, or comic.
Chukanna Thaadi (Red beard)
The face is painted with red with black lines around the eyes, lips and chin. Two big chuttippuvu are placed on the nose and forehead. Baali, Dussaana, Thrigartha are some of Chukanna Thaadi characters.
Vella Thaadi (White beard)
The upper half of the face, the eyes, and lips are treated with a black ointment. The chin at the middle is decorated with a white rosette, bearing a red dot within. Red paint is applied to the lower part of the lower lip, up to the chin. A thin coating of chutti decoratively encloses the black-end part of the face and meets the chuttinata, the hem of the head dress. Another white pattern develops on either side of the cheeks and circling the red spots, starting from the base of the green painted nose. On the tip of the nose and the forehead two oval-shaped spots are given in red. The lord Hanuman is the main Vella Thaadi character.
Karuppu Thaadi (Black beard)
The face is first coated with black paint. The eyes are bracketed within oval-shaped white border lines, the area between two such lines being painted in red. Small white bristles adorn the ridges. Lips are in red. The tip of the nose bears a chuttippuvu. Kali and Kattalan are main characters in this section.
The faces are painted in black and the cheeks have a red crescent in the middle. A pair of damshtraas inside the mouth. Soorpanakha, Nakrathundi, etc are Karis.
The facial make-up of Kathakali is known as Chutti and is recognized by the Guinness book of world record as the largest (thick) facial make-up in the world. Using paper cuttings and different paints a human face is changed into a god or epic hero. Wearing the costumes along with the make-up the actor is completely converted as a character beyond our world.
There are no oral dialogues to an actor. He is just expressing or playing the situations as the musicians sings it. To get the effectiveness or perfection of acting, the aforementioned instruments are used on the stage. After completing the lyrics, (dialogues) the actor has the freedom to improvise also known as Manodharma.
A multi-colour cloth is used as the curtain, known as Thirasseela which is not fixed but just pulls up whenever necessary. When the characters like Kathi and Thaadi appear on the stage they will show their face above the curtain with same graceful performance known as Thiranottam.