Kathakali Dance – Classical Dance of Kerala

Kathakali Dance Origination:

Kathakali dance, one of the Indian classical dance forms, is famous in Kerala. The word Kathakali means ‘story-play’. The classical dance of Kerala originated in the 17th century; we find the dance’s roots in Hindu Mythologies. The themes of the dance are based on the two Hindu epics, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’. Hence, dance combines literature, music, acting, and dance. Classical dance is a combination of five forms such are 1. Natyam(expressions) 2. Nritham(dance) 3. Nrithyam(enactment) 4. Sangeetam(music) 5. Vadyam(instruments).

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The Kathakali dance has a long tradition, formed in the 17th century. The ancient practice has been continued from old tradition to the modern period. Even the great Kathakali dancer Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon founded Kerala Kala Mandalam and trained many disciples. Even he brought some changes in Kathakali steps and the performance style of classical dance. Hence, the dance starts at dusk and continues throughout the night. In the ancient period, the men only danced with the women dancers by wearing women’s costumes and performing as women. But modern women also dance to a wide range.

During the performance of the dance, dancers perform the dance theme with expressions and gestures, which makes the spectators can be understood very easily. Hence, the composers adopted the Hindu epic themes to the dance concept. In the Kathakali dance, another vital word is mudras, which is called the expressions of the eyes and the gestures of the hands.

                       Also Read: History of Kuchipudi Dance

Kathakali Dance Costumes

The dancers use heavy Kathakali Costumes, especially the makeup is unique in every direction. In the dance of Kerala, there are many characters, like Sathwika(the hero), Katti (the billion), Minukku(females) and Thathi(the other characters). So the dancers need to show their characters through costumes to the audiences. During the dance performance, the spectators can quickly identify the characters due to their costumes and makeup.


The Kathakali dance makeup is very elaborate; the materials are locally available naturally. The makeup men apply different colours on the face of the dancer as a mask. These Colours are prepared locally by the artists only. They use rice flour for white colour, red made from Vermilion, and black from soot. The colours of the makeup indicate the portrayal of the character while dancing.

Kathakali Themes:

The dancers perform nearly 101 characters. In the olden days, all stories perform in one night. But the dancers currently perform only 2 or 3 novels in 2-4 hours. So the audience can easily attach to the dance and understandable the theme of the dance. The important Kathakali dance stories are adapted from the Hindu mythologies like Mahabharatha and Ramayana. The stories are like Karna Shapadham, Nala Charitham, and many more.

Instruments of Music:

The music for Kathakali dance is very similar to South Indian classical music. The musicians use local instruments during the dance performance, such are Cheda, Idakka, and shuddha Madalam. The famous Sage Bharatha Muni wrote the Natyasastra over 2000 years ago. In the book, he discussed classical dance, music, makeup, drama, and costumes. The dancers of Kathakali followed the Natyasastra, which gave them how to perform. Probably the sculpture of the temples also inspired the characters of Kathakali.

In India, some dance styles are also adopted from the temple rituals. In the early days, Brahmins and Priests only memorized the stories of Kathakali dance; later, it passed to the next generation. Yet some Brahmin families migrated to settle in new places in various parts of India and spread the dance culture. In the olden days, the kings patronized to bring the glory of Kathakali dance. Even they contributed a lot of money to the Kathakali dancers. They arranged the temples on special occasions to perform the Classical dance of Kerala.