The contemporary art form from Kerala dates back to 17th Century. Kathakali literally means ‘story play’. Originally 108 stories were performed but there are 30 now only regularly performed. They are based on the Hindu Epics ‘The Ramayana’, ‘The Mahabharata’ and the ‘Purana’.

The script, ATTAKATHA, or poetic text of Kathakali performance is in MANIPRAVALAM,  a Sanskritised form of Malayalam, the language of Kerala. The script is vocalised by singers and the performers ‘narrate’ the drama through precise movements and hand gestures.  These gestures are called mudras and there are 9 facial expressions called navarasas. Performances take place in temples, open air and indoor halls.

The performers play various characters:

PACCHA The category is the most beautiful and if used for royal and divine creatures, such as Lord Krishna, King Nala, Princes, Vishnu and Rama. The main colour used for this character is green (green symbolises heroism and righteousness). Along the chin line is placed the fragile white chutti made of thick rice paste and paper.  Noble birth and leadership are the hall-marks of this category of character. They wear a circular crown and other ornaments. The paccha usually wear red jackets and white skirts, but Lord Krishna uses a blue jacket and a yellow skirt with a large crown – see the photo below.

Krishna and Bhima getting ready for performanc

Paccha characters

KATTI These are the anti-heroes – kings who are slaves, demonic kings and villains, such as Ravana, the evil king who abducted Sita in the Ramayana, Dwapara, Kali’s henchman, and Bhima, when in exile.  Katti refers to the knife shape on the forehead that is painted in red and white.  It differs from the Paccha  by using red paint on either side of the nose bordered by a white moustache that extends to the nose. White knobes (chutti balls) are fixed on the forehead and the tip of the nose. Inside the mouth they wear fangs which are displayed during angry scenes. The paccha and katti wear the same crown and costume, but are opposite in temperament.

TADI Tadi means ‘beard’. The red (chuvanna tadi), black (Karin tadi) and white (vella tadi) beards are worn by many characters. The Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, is a white beard.  Cruel characters and kings subject to darkness, wear chuvanna tadi. The make-up is mainly red with designs in black, with white borders. Chutti layers rise up from their face with knobes on their nose and forehead. They wear a red furry coat, and over sized crown and an appropriately large costume. Fangs are also worn. Such characters are Dussasana, Krodhavasa and Bali. Kali, the evil character in the Nalacharitam, is assigned a black beard (Karin tadi). Monkeys appear as vella tadi, with white, black, red and green face paint with special chutti and paper bits. They wear a white furry jacket with a round head dress with silver detail.

KARI Forest dwellers and demonesses are assigned kari make-up. Males are ankari and females are penkari. Black paint (kari) dominates the design with detail drawn in white and red. On the nose is a flower like pattern made out of paper. A black beard is worn by the male character and both male and female wear a coat and skirt of jet black. A black and white bucket shaped piece of head gear is worn, decorated with peacock feathers and silver. For female characters like Surpankha in Kharavadham and Nakratundi in Narakasura vhadam, there is a technique called ninam (blood). These characters need to display blood pouring from their nose and breasts, when they are chopped off.  Red paint is also splashed on the dress. Other characters include the likes of Shurpanakha, Ravana’s sister. This creature has menacing fangs and huge breasts, all in black.

MINUKKU The face is painted yellow with a hint of red. The eyes and eyebrows are outlined with a black paste. Female characters belong  to this category as do messengers, carpenters, wrestlers and servants. Female characters cover their heads, wear special jewels and ornaments and use the sari folds for their costume. They wear artificial breasts made of wood.  Servants and messengers wear regular skirts and turbans on their heads. These are gentle souls made up with subtle tones, with simple unadorned costumes.

TEPPU These represent many different unique performers – human beings, animals or weapons.

To train to be a Kathakali performer takes up to 8 years and much of the training in Kerala takes place at Kalamandalam.