Exotic figures striking Kathakali poses grace the famous frescoes of Kochi’s Mattancherry Palace, and appear among the stone carvings in Kerala’s many temples, as well. Indeed, colorful Kathakali images adorn everything from travel posters and guidebooks to T-shirts and coffee mugs, and have become the de-factor symbol of this southwest Indian state.
One of the world’s oldest theater forms, Kathakali—which translates to “story-play”—is rooted in Hindu mythology, particularly the Sanskrit epic poems, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. (Bharata Muni first mentioned the ritualistic dance-drama some 2,000 years ago in his Natya Shastra, a treatise on stagecraft and other art forms.) Kathakali actually combines five genres—acting, dancing, music, literature, and painting—and has influenced pantomime and other modern theater productions.
At its core, Kathakali involves an intricate and highly expressive “language” of hand and body gestures, each of which conveys specific words, sentences, or even entire narratives. (These choreographed movements owe heavily to Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial arts indigenous to the Kerala region.) The story-plays revolve around various moral crises of gods, kings, and heroes, ending with the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil. Drummers, cymbalists, and other percussionists, as well as two vocalists, accompany the actor-dancers.
What makes the Kathakali so mesmerizing are the performers’ elaborate costumes and evocative makeup, the color of which is determined by their character’s nature. So, for example, a divine king is painted green, the color of life and nature—and thus, God itself—while demons are predominantly red, and often have knobs on their faces to indicate their spiritual defects. Virtuous female characters are made up with yellow faces, while their evil counterparts sport black. (It should be noted that, while historically all Kathakali roles were performed by men, women are now part of many troupes, and there are even all-women ensembles.)
There are 101 classical Kathakali story-plays, although only a third or so are still performed. Traditionally, an entire village would take part in the experience, which begins in the early evening and lasts until dawn. Even though today’s audiences must be content to watch a condensed version of these elaborate productions, they are equally powerless against the Kathakali’s magical spell.