- Posted May 25, 2013 by
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Kathakali performances are traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In Kathakali, all the roles are performed by men.
The hallmarks of Kathakali are the use of facial expressions and hand gestures (mudras), against a musical backdrop, to tell the story.
Because facial expressions are so important to a Kathakali performance, makeup and costumes are very elaborate and are used to transform the dancer into the character being portrayed. For example, green faced characters represent heroes and gods. For these characters, thick cutouts of white colored paper are also glued to the jaw and chin of the actor; eyes and eyelashes are painted black and the lips bright red. Characters with a black face are considered to be the *offbeat*; red face are evil and yellow is used to portray female characters. Facial designs, painted atop the base makeup, are used convey additional characteristics.
In addition to the elaborate makeup, Kathakali dancers also don heavily pleated skirts to enlarge and distort their form. The headgear is often very elaborate as well.
The Kathakali performance is all done through mudras (hand gestures) that are common throughout much of classical Indian dance. The body movements and footwork are also very specific as well as vigorous. As with many other dance forms, Kathakali dancers undergo a strenuous course of training.
The Kathakali dancers are accompanied by musicians and singers.
I went to see a Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre located in Kochi, India. If you arrive about an hour before the start of the performance, you can watch the dancers getting their makeup applied. It’s quite fascinating to watch; it’s lot of effort that they go through.
The first part of the performance is a demonstration of the mudras. An actor appeared on the stage to show the eye movements and facial expressions that are integral to Kathakali - happy, sad, angry, evil, curious, etc.
On the night I went, the performance was Narakasura Vadham (Killing of Narakasura). Thankfully, they handed out a program explaining the story otherwise, I would not have had a clue what was going on. The story revolves around Narakasura, a vicious demon and Jayantha, the valorous son of Lord Indra (King of Gods). Nakrathundi, Narakasura’s sister lusts after Jayantha and approaches him in the guise of Lalitha, a beautiful woman. Jayantha rejects her love and the disappointed Nakrathundi takes her normal form and attacks him. He injures her and a shocked Narakasura vows to take revenge, only to find himself punished for his wrongs. Quite a drama!
Kathakali is not an easy art form to appreciate and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you ever find yourself in Kochi, consider taking in a performance. For more details, check out the Kerala Kathakali Centre’s website at http://www.kathakalicentre.com/index.htm.