What is Indian Kathakali Dance?

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Dramatic dance of Kerala

I confess that I'd been going to India for over 30 years before going to see a performance of Kathakali.

You see Kathakali posters and masks in souvenir shops all over India but I'd always rather disliked them for their theatricality and that had always deterred me from going to see for myself. Some things only work in context and a few years ago we were staying close to a Kathakali performance centre in Cochin, Kerala.

I went along to see a performance one evening and found myself totally enchanted - I completely changed all my perceptions about Kathakali.

kathakali dancers

What is Kathakali? It's a traditional dance drama originating in 17th century Kerala involving colourful and elaborate costumes and make up, stylised movements of the hands, head and eyes, drumming and, sometimes, songs. In it's traditional form a performance would be held in a temple or noble house, it would start in the evening and last all night. The audience would be familiar with the drama and understand the messages in the make up, facial expressions and eye movement.

Nowadays Kathakali is often performed in a much shortened form, in essence you get the highlights, which can make it accessible to those of us unfamiliar with stories and the gestures. The performances of the Kathakali we saw were absolutely riveting, the skill of the drummers and the projection of the performers is extraordinary.

You may be invited to see the actors applying their make up on stage before the performance – this is a wonderful bonus and almost as absorbing as the performance itself. They sit cross legged on stage with wooden pots and plates of the different colours and rice pastes they'll put on their faces to create their extraordinary masks - they become transformed in front of your eyes.

Tv and film have started to take over as entertainment and these days fewer people want to sit through a whole night of theatre, Kathakali actors are concerned about the future, their skills take years to learn and the rewards are diminishing. Many of the costumes and headgear are extremely heavy and some of the characters put pigment in their eyes to create a demonic bloodshot look. This is not a career for the uncommited!

But while it's still possible, it's a wonderful experience to see even a shortened performance of a magnificent traditional theatre. I returned for another performance a couple of months later and enjoyed it even more.

You can find out more about the Cochin Kathakali Centre at http://www.kathakalicentre.com

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