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Kathakali is a true dance-drama. In this, the dancers act out the parts of different characters in a play. They dress up in outsize costumes to give themselves a larger-than-life appearance. They also wear mask like face make-up, in colours that have a strong, symbolic meaning. Kathakali performances are often held outdoors and sometimes go on all night. In Kathakali, the actors do not speak or sing and the story line is unfolded through music, sung by musicians standing behind, while the dancers convey the meaning of each line with movements and gestures, including finger pointing, sweeping body movements, wide circling arm movements. Because of its terrifying vigour, in the past, men played all the roles, but now women also perform in them.
The word Kathakali means, story performance, originated in the 17th century in Kerala, the lush tropical western coastal strip of South India.
Kathakali was devised by the Raja of Kottarakkara, then a small princely state in southern part of present Kerala state in South India. The Raja, angry over the refusal of a neighboring prince to allow his dancers to perform a Sanskrit dance-drama in his court, decided to create his own dance troupe using Malayalam, the spoken language of the people. This school has its own very elaborate hand symbols called hastha mudras and facial expressions. It also has marked elements of energetic ritualistic dances. It takes many years of rigorous practice to master the art. The makeup has its roots in demon masks. Themes are taken mainly from the Ramayana, Siva-Purana, Bhagavata-Purana, Mahabharata and other religious texts. The characters represent primal forces of good and evil at war.
In kathakali facial makeup is central to the portrayal of character. Differently coloured beards are used to represent good or bad characters, while the colour of the makeup is even more revealing: a green and red painted face represents an evil and ferocious character, a green and white face is for heroes and noblemen, a pinkish-yellow face is for women characters and sages, and black and red makeup is used for female demons.
Most kathakali characters (except those of women, Brahmins, and sages) wear towering headgear and billowing skirts and have their fingers fitted with long silver nails to accentuate hand gestures. The principal characters are classified into seven types:
Pacha (green) is the noble hero whose face is painted bright green and framed in a white bow-shaped sweep from ears to chin. Heroes such as Rama, Laksmana, Krishna, Arjuna, and Yudhisthira fall into this category.
Kathi (knife), haughty and arrogant but learned and of exalted character, has a fiery up curled moustache with silver piping and a white mushroom knob at the tip of his nose. Two walrus tusks protrude from the corners of his mouth, his headgear is opulent, and his skirt is full. Duryodhana, Ravana, and Keechaka belong to this type.
Chokannatadi (red beard), power-drunk and vicious, is painted jet black from the nostrils upward. On both cheeks semicircular strips of white paper run from the upper lip to the eyes. He has black lips, white warts on nose and forehead, two long curved teeth, spiky silver claws, and a blood-red beard
Velupputadi (white beard) represents Hanuman, son of the wind god. The upper half of his face is black and the lower red, marked by a tracery of curling white lines. The lips are black, the nose is green, black squares frame the eyes, and two red spots decorate the forehead. A feathery grey beard, a large furry coat, and bell-shaped headgear give the illusion of a monkey.
Karupputadi (black beard) is a hunter or forest dweller. His face is coal black with crisscross lines drawn around the eyes. A white flower sits on his nose, and peacock feathers closely woven into a cylinder rise above his head. He carries a bow, quiver, and sword.
Kari (black) is intended to be disgusting and gruesome. Witches and ogresses, who fall into this category, have black faces marked with queer patterns in white and huge, bulging breasts.
Minnukku (softly shaded) represents sages, Brahmins, and women. The men wear white or orange dhotis. Women have their faces painted light yellow and sprinkled with mica, and their heads are covered by saris.
Traditionally Kathakali is performed during nights. Before the performance starts, in the evenings a special percussion orchestra is performed called Kelikottu, informing the public of the Kathakali performance. The dance drama is enacted under a flower-decked canopy on an open square, ground-level stage, a tall brass worship lamp brimming with coconut oil burns brightly. The musicians and dancers bow before it before they start performing. Drummers standing in one corner pound the chenda, a barrel-shaped drum with a piercing, clattering sound suited for battle scenes, and continue throughout the performance, almost without respite. Two men hold a 12-foot by six-foot (four-meter by two-meter) embroidered hand curtain from behind which the principal characters make their entrances. They dance, grab the trembling curtain, and give vivid facial expressions with fearful glances and grunts. This "peering over the curtain," called tiranokku, is a close-up that offers an actor full scope to display his art. At climax the curtain is whisked away and the character enters in full splendor. The performance lasts all night, often extending up to five nights, the singers singing the text that the dancers act out in an elaborate gesture language.