Kathakali is the most famous traditional art form of Kerala. This classical dance-drama, based on the guidelines put down by sage Bharatha in his Natya Sastra, comprises group performances traditionally based on themes from the two epics, the
Ramayana and the
This spectacular art, usually performed at night, features large circular headgear; huge, colorful umbrella-like skirts; and intricate makeup. Involving numerous Hindu rituals and customs, Kathakali has played an important role in temple rituals and festivals since ancient times. Traditionally, only men performed this art, but women performers and other innovations have been introduced in recent times.
Kathakali employs sophisticated makeup, based on a complex code. Characters, categorized according to their nature, are made up with specific colors and unique costumes. The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, are predominantly green. Extremely evil characters wear red make-up and a flowing red beard, with a small white bulb on the nose. Hunters and other forest dwellers are represented in black. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces. Ascetics also have a white beard.
Kathakali also has an elaborate and exclusive system of Mudras (symbolic gestures). The actors perform the story through elegant movements and facial expressions, in tune with on-stage background music. Two vocalists sing to the accompaniment of a Chengila (gong), Ilathalam,
Chenda and Maddalam. To be able to perform the Mudras properly, a Kathakali actor has to undergo years of rigorous training, which few people are willing to take in contemporary times. Desperate efforts are being made at governmental and institutional levels to save the art from going extinct.