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Kathakali

Kathakali dancers as noble Pachcha

Kathakali, malayalam: കഥകളി, (katha stands for history, kali for performance or drama) is an expressive form of Indian dance or dance drama.

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Kathakali is mainly located in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Kathakali is regarded as one of the oldest dance forms. It's a spectacular mix of drama, dance, music and ritual. Characters with lively painted faces and elaborate costumes tell stories from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Kathakali is a harmonious combination of 5 areas of art:

Staging and story

A Kathakali performance is usually accompanied by music only with drums

Neither the presentation nor the content of Kathakali performances are particularly naturalistic; almost exclusively demons or gods from Hindu mythology are depicted, and facial expressions and gestures are artificially inflated and limited to a certain number of forms of expression (e.g. courageous, angry, charming, jealous). It is typical for Kathakali that all roles, including the female ones, are played by male actors.

The performers play and dance in pantomime, apart from the occasional screaming or shouting, while the action is sung by one or two musicians who stay in the background. Facial expressions, gestures and choreography require a high level of discipline. The training of Kathakali dancers typically begins in childhood and lasts up to 10 years.

The performance is always accompanied by two or more musicians who play percussion instruments to match the dance Chenda and a Maddalam, beat.

Although Kathakali has influences from older indigenous folk rituals, as well as from Kutiyattam, it did not emerge as an independent form of theater until the 17th century.

Masking

Close-up of the elaborately designed mask of a Kathi
Female roles, like one here Minukku, are traditionally represented by men, but women are increasingly recognized in Kathakali.

The elaborate masks of the actors are of great importance: The character to be represented is determined by the choice of color and pattern. The make-up and costuming of the actors often takes several hours. The main characters in Kathakali are:

  • Pachcha: have bright green make-up and represent positive characters, noble heroes or important deities.
  • Kathi: are evil and cunning characters who are often of aristocratic origin, as their equally green make-up suggests, but have a negative connotation, which can be recognized by their upturned mustaches and white bumps on their noses.
  • Chuvanna Thaadi: are power-hungry and mean and have black faces and blood-red beards
  • Kari: are ogres and witches, represent the most dangerous and cunning characters, and have black faces and huge breasts.
  • Minukku: are noble characters, women and wise men. They have pale yellow faces and wear saris (Women) or orange dhotis (Men).

Kathakali today

Kathakali, although strictly traditional, is a living art form and is very popular in Kerala. There are numerous Kathakali schools in larger Kerala cities like Kochi. Performances for both locals and tourists are offered daily. Typical performances take place as part of temple festivals, begin in the evening and often go into the early morning. The highlight is then to witness the killing of the evil character or a demon at dawn.

Tourist productions are usually much shorter and contain an explanation of the scenes shown.

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