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Kathakali is considered to be one of the seven officially recognised (by the Ministry of Culture and The Sangeet Natak Academy, India) classical Indian dance forms. Originating from the state of Kerala, located in the south of India, this dance form is said to have been developed around the 17th century. This classical Indian dance style, similar to some of the others such as Bharatanatayam, Kathak and others, consists of a few unique features.  So these are the four unique features that Kathakali as a style of traditional dance possesses.


Kathakali was developed using many features seen in other dance forms found in the state of Kerala such as ‘Koodiyattam and Krishnanattam‘. The basic similarities between the ‘Kathakali, Koodiyattam, and Krishnanattam‘ basically lie in the use of elaborate costumes that includes the use of masks, and the use of acting techniques that involves the use of the eyes and facial expressions. However, there also exists a major difference between these dance forms. The difference is that, while kathakali involves the use of a separate vocalist, the Koodiyattam and Krishnanattam requires the dancer to sing along while performing.  In addition, this classical Indian dance also uses elements from other ritual based performing art forms such as Mudiyetty, Teyyam, and Padayani, and is also said to be extremely similar to “Kabuki”, a popular Japanese theatrical dance style. Furthermore, it is also said that Kathakali has been heavily influenced from a form of martial art (originating from Kerala) known as ‘Kalarippayattu‘.


Extremely elaborate is the best way to describe the costumes worn by an artist performing kathakali. There are numerous kinds of costumes in ‘Kathakali’ Dance. Apart from the attire and headgear the main feature of the costume includes the use of an extremely specific makeup code. Each character is immediately recognisable by their characteristic makeup and costume. The costumes used by the performers make them look like super humans. Designs are painted on the faces of the performers. Different types of lines are used to denote the nature of characters. With their colorful  and vibrant costumes, the ‘Kathakali’ dancers look fabulous performing on the stage. This code comprises seven different colors used to represent a few mythological characters being portrayed by the dancer during a performance. The major colors used in the makeup code are as follows:

  1. Pacca: The green colour is basically used to represent “divine” characters such as Krishna, Vishnu, Rama, Shiva, Arjuna etc.
  2. Tati: Red colour is essentially used to represent pure evil characters such as Ravana, Dushasana etc.
  3. Kari: Black colour is used to represent characters such as forest dwellers, hunters etc.
  4. Kathi: Also known as “Knife Vesham” is a green coloured makeup that also comprises of red streaks applied on the cheeks. It is used to represent a character such as Ravana who belongs to a high caste, and yet possesses a pure evil personality.
  5. Minukka: e. warm yellow, orange/saffron colour which represent pious mythological female characters that include Sita, Draupadi, and Mohini.
  6. Teppu: e. a bird style makeup that is used to represent special mythological characters such as Garuda, Jatayu, and Hamsa.
  7. Payuppu: e. orange-red colour basically used to represent characters such as Balarama, Brahma, Surya, and Shiva.

In addition, decorative face masks and head gear are used in accordance with the nature of the character being represented by the dancer.


Yet another unique feature about the “Kathakali” that is an absolute stand out is the use of acting technique which involves mainly the use of eyes and facial expressions (Navarasas). In addition, it also requires the use of a sign language (i.e. basically use of hands) known as “mudras”. Furthermore, this dance style comprises of about “24 mudras” and “9 navarasas”. The navarasas essentially represent “9 human emotions”, and they are as follows:

  1. Sringara: Also known as “Rati”. A navarasa used basically to represent emotions such as love, pleasure, and delight.
  2. Hasya: Also known as “Hasa”. A navarasa that expresses laughter, comedy etc.
  3. Karuna: Also known as “Shoka”. A navarasa that expresses sadness.
  4. Raudra: Also known as “Krodha”. A navarasa that expresses anger/fury.
  5. Vira: Also known as “Utsaha”. A navarasa that expresses enthusiasm and heroism.
  6. Bhayanaka: Also known as “Bhaya”. A navarasa that expresses fear, concern, or worry.
  7. Bibhatsa: Also known as “Jugupsa”. A navarasa that expresses repulsiveness.
  8. Adbhuta: Also known as “Vismaya”. A navarasa that expresses curiosity.
  9. Shanta: Also known as “Sama”. A navarasa that expresses peace/tranquillity.


In terms of acquiring admission in a “Kathakali” training centre/school, for those genuinely interested, an extremely intriguing process is used, and includes the following two stages

  1. Health and fitness examination: Held for an interested candidate, who undergoes a vigorous physical test, and is basically tested for body flexibility and sense of rhythm.
  2. A personal interview: Conducted so as to enable the training centre to gauge the “sincerity and passion” that the interested candidate possesses with regards to learning this rather complicated dance style.

A candidate after successfully acquiring admission into a training centre/school is then placed under the guidance of a teacher i.e. a guru.  It is then by living along with this guru and his family that the candidate begins to learn the basic rudiments of Kathakali. In addition, following the ancient Indian tradition of “Gurukula” (i.e. a symbiotic teacher-student relationship) the selected candidate, before the commencement of training, needs to present a gift in the form few coins with betel leaves to the guru. In response, the guru too needs to reciprocate the gesture of the student by gifting him a loin cloth.

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Watch videos of Kathakali dance:

Kathakali Dance – Indian Classical Dance of Kerala
Kathakali Dance – India’s Ancient Art of Eye Dancing
Kathakali Dance Performance – Nakrathundi
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