History of Kathakali – Culture of Kerala

kathakali

Kathakali is a significant genre in the canon of Indian classical dance form and specific to the rich culture of the Kerala province. Sharing traits with other classical dance forms of India, Kathakali showcases superb footwork, expressive gestures of the face and hands, brought to complementation with music, rhythm, and vocal recitals.

What stands out this dance form from the rest is its unique use of face masks. The vividly done facial makeup, the robust costume, and stern gestures of the hands and faces in Kathakali reflect the tradition of strength exhibition, athletic, and martial arts in the culture of the province of Kerala. By this parallel of the essence, Kathakali history is easily relatable to the Vedic schools of performance from which the great spiritual disciplines of Yoga and Ayurveda have also sprung forth.

Exploring Kathakali History

Bharata’s Natya Shastra, the seminal text on Indian performance arts and theatrical traditions bears testimony to the origins of the Kathakali dance form of the Kerala culture.

In this ancient text from 200 CE, ‘dance’ is categorized into two forms. One emphasizes hand movements and gestures and the second form is more expressive facially and shows transitions between moods fabulously.

It is popularly believed that Lord Krishna is the precursor of this dance form and on a more historical context, the performance style found patronage under Sri Manavedan Raja, the Zamorin ruler of Calicut. Owing to the legacy of Lord Krishna, the dance form is also ‘Krishnattam’. An interesting tale follows from the Zamorin’s claim on this performance style.

Once upon a time, Vir Kerala Varma, also variant called as Kottarakkara, requested the Zamorin- patron of the ‘Krishnattam’ to send a troupe of brilliant dancers for a certain festival in his kingdom. However, he was mockingly denied and humiliated indignantly by the Zamorin king. In retaliation, a new dance form was formed by Kottarakkara, centered upon the Ramayana and named as Ramanattam. Kathakali is believed to be a genesis of this expressive storytelling token of Ramanattam.

There is an alternative belief of Kathakali origin to be wholly from folk dance forms and folk styles of theatre. The various ritualistic art forms like Padayani, Theyyam, and Mudiyettu are thought to have contributed to the genesis of Kathakali. This version takes away the religious connotation of Lord Krishna’s grace finding expression through the dance form and counters Kathakali traditional performance at temple premises.

Choreography of Kathakali

The choreography of Kathakali is extremely intricate. The characters are devoid of voices but tell the story only through hand gestures or mudras. The bhava or internal state of the characters becomes manifest in the vacillation of their facial expressions. The Kathakali costume and Kathakali face mask are important instruments in underlining the gravity of each passing expression.

There are significances of their face coloring in their characterization. For example—

  • Bright coral or red lips denotes a god, a nobleman, or a sage
  • A mix of red and green facial color with an upwards twisted mustache represents evil
  • Black facial makeup denotes tribal men of the forests or a demoness when her hair is streaked red
  • Black beards are often used to show a god or a demon, depending on the story
  • Orange, yellow, and saffron of faces depict honorable female characters

The history of Kathakali is an integral part of Kerala’s cultural history and establishes the performance form in continuity with yoga and the martial art of Kalaripayattu.

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