Kathakali: The Spectacular Performing Art of Kerala Part I

June 30, 2016


Vibrant yet refined, dramatic yet lyrical, exuberant yet sublime, Kathakali is one of the well-known classical theater traditions of India. Few art forms are as powerfully primordial and at the same time poetic as Kathakali. It is often called a dance drama since it is neither a drama nor a dance, but a combination of both.


In times past, all-night Kathakali performances were held under the stars on a bare outdoor stage. A huge Kathakalivilakku, bronze oil lamp, marked the center of the stage and the audience gathered around three of its sides. Behind the oil lamp on the canopied stage the actor-dancers, musicians, and percussionists together brought to life a story from the Hindu epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. The vocalists kept rhythm with their gong and cymbals and sang the entire text while the drummers provided the accompaniment. Performers acted and danced near the lamp, the only source of light on the stage. As gods, goddesses, sages, demons, beasts, forest, mountains, and oceans all came alive on stage under the pale light of the night sky, the audience sat wide- eyed in awe of the story unfolding in front of them. The performance continued until the first streaks of dawn.

Kathakali evolved as an independent art form over the last four centuries. During its development Kathakali incorporated several elements from the classical Sanskrit religious plays Koodiyaattam and Krishnanaattam, and ritualistic folk art forms like Mudiyettu, Thiyyattu, Theyyam, and Padayani. Kerala’s renowned martial art system Kalarippayattu contributed the massage techniques and the exercise system with vigorous and defined movements, which gradually transformed into Kathakali’s own aesthetics. By the mid nineteenth century all identifiable elements of Kathakali were fully developed.

Development of Kathakali
Kathakali’s growth was intertwined with the development of Malayalam as distinct literary tradition and the increased popularity of the bhakti movement in Kerala. The eleventh Century composition Geetagovinda by Jayadeva, the poems that told the story of Lord Krishna’s life, heralded in a new era for Indian classical arts. Performers and poets took elements of this work developed their own ways of performing these stories. In Kerala,  the eight poems from Geetagovinda were sung in Sanskrit and performed as Astapadiattam.


Inspired by the Geetagovinda, in 1654 Manavedan Raja of Kozikode composed a series of eight dance dramas known as Krishnanaattam. This art form was an adaptation of Astapadiattam, and was inspired by the acting techniques, gestures, costumes and make up of Koodiyattam. Similarly, its lyrics were in classical Sanskrit and it still continues to be staged at the Koothambalam (dance stage within the temple) of Guruvayoor temple.

The prince of Kottarakkara requested Manavedan Raja to allow his Krishnanaattam troop to perform at his palace. When this request was denied, the prince composed and produced his own version consisting of eight plays presenting the theme of Ramayana, which came to be known as Ramanaattam. The actors were trainined, rehearsals were held, and the premier performance with rich costumes and makeup was held in the Kottarakkara palace.

The lyrics of Ramanaattam were highly influenced the epic Malayalam work Adhyathma Ramayanam by Thunchath Ezuthachan (father of Malayalam language). Most importantly, the language of this new performance form was Manipravalam, a hybrid linguistic style where words in Malayalam and Sanskrit are blended indistinguishably. While Malayalam was developing as a separate language during the ninth through the twelfth centuries, the elitist Vaishnavite religious literary works were composed in Manipravalam. Over the following decades Ramanaattam spread all over Kerala.

Vettathu Raja and Kottayam Thampuran, two royal patrons, introduced several modifications to Ramanaattam’s music, percussion, choreography, makeup, and costumes with the collaboration of their senior actors. Kottayam Thampuran authored and produced four plays based on the Mahabharata. Ramanaattam was no longer an appropriate name for this art form, and a new name – Kathakali – literally meaning story play was introduced. Today, Ramanaattam is extinct, but its story plays continue to be a part of Kathakali.

There is no language barrier in Kathakali – opening slokas are in Sanskrit while narratives in Manipravalam, and later in Malayalam, continue throughout the performance. It unlocked the mystery of Sanskrit poems and made them available to the whole community. From the beginning Kathakali was performed outside the temple walls and was accessible to many, if not all.

Both royal and Namboothiri ( Kerala Brahmin) patronage facilitated the growth and consolidation of Kathakali as a distinct performance tradition. Kartika Tirunal of Tiruvithamcore, Veera Kerala Varma of Kochi, and later Manakkulam Valiya Kunjunni Raja brought their artistic and financial patronage to the refinement of Kathakali. They were also composers of Kathakali music. Both performers and connoisseurs focused on refining techniques, music, makeup and costumes. Unnayi Variar, through his composition of Nalacharitam elevated Kathakali to the frontiers of dramatics. Kaplingaattu Namboothiri, a great innovator, introduced numerous pioneering changes; establishment of Hastalakshanadipika, the Sanskrit manual of gestures, as the source book for Kathakali mudras being an important one.


Namboothiris had an immense presence in the Kathakali canvas; be it in choreography, lyrics, acting,
composing, singing, drumming and more importantly, in the organizing and running of Kaliyogams (troups) with Kalaris for training. Kaliyogams organized the training and the rehearsals during the monsoon season and arranged performances during the dry season, when temple celebrations were held outdoors throughout Kerala. Many great artistes were identified, promoted and brought to prominence by these Kaliyogams.

Both acting style and music developed distinct northern and southern sampradayams or styles of performance. A composite acting style, Kalluvazhi Chitta, which synthesized the elements of kalladikotan and kaplingadan traditions, was developed at the Olappamanna Kaliyogam, one of the earliest and long-lasting (close to a century) Kaliyogams. This style, noted for its distinctive emphasis on technical virtuosity, eventually became the predominant style at the Kerala Kalamandalam. Southern Kerala developed the Kidangoor style with emphasis on expression and slow tempo. These styles differ in subtleties like choreographic profile, hand gestures, and stress on dance or drama. Improvements in music compositions and modes of elaboration also resulted in the gradual sanskritization of Kathakali music.

Patronage remained a major support for Kathakali and the art flourished until early twentieth century. British colonization and the resultant changes in social, political, legal, and economic systems resulted in a rapid decline in patronage and most Kaliyogams folded. Although Oplappamanna Kaliyogam was disbanded by the 1930's, since 1990, through the Deviprasadam Trust, the family honors scholars and eminent Kathakali performers with annual awards.

Understanding the plight of the kaliyogams, Manakkulam Valiya Kunjunni Raja offered his help to Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon for launching an institution for Kathakali. In 1927, Kerala Kalamandalam was registered as a charitable society and three years later it was inaugurated. This renowned institution for Kerala performing arts established a new form of institutional patronage. Vallathol was successful in rekindling the appreciation for the art not just locally, but also nationally and internationally.

Click here to go to Part II

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN