Kathakali is the dance from the southernmost state of India its centre has been the region of Kerala and Malabar. The genesis of the word Kathakali is generally traced to a combination of Katha and Kali, the literal meaning of which is dance-drama.
This tradition of dance-drama has been popular in the Malabar region primarily in the form of Krishna and Rama ballets. The same folk-art was rechristened, in the 17th century A.D. by the ruler of Travancore State, Maharaja Veerkeral Verma, as Kathakali. The lyrics used in this dance seem to be influenced very largely by Jaidev’s Gita-Govinda. This dance form, curiously, is an exclusive domain of the male dancers.
Even female roles in the story line are performed to perfection by male artists. In support of the performance of dance, a group of singers keep continuously reciting the poems and epics. The artists who perform Kathakali do not sing the lines themselves. The actions are all executed in silence by the artists, only through the poses and postures of body and face. These dance postures are more complex than those used in Bharatnatyam.
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One of the peculiarities of this dance form is its costume and very elaborate make-up of the face. In this respect Kathakali has presented and also kept alive and continued the ancient dance-dramas of Kerala, such as Chakkiyarkuthu and Kuttiyattam. The face is mostly painted with red and yellow and the eyes and eyelashes are adorned with lines in white all around. These white lines are known as Chuttee.
The headdress in Kathakali is of special significance as it also defines the hierarchical status of different artists participating in the performance. The dance is performed all through the night on a stage which is simple yet specially designed for Kathakali. A large brass lantern is invariably hung on the stage.
The beginning of the performance is preceded by Chaidakaran, a ritual playing of drums. Traditionally the stage presentation of this dance was immediately preceded by a practice session called sevakali and undertaken in the precincts of a temple. Late Shankaram Namboodiri and Gopinath have been Kathakali artists of repute.
In the propagation of this dance form late Vallatol, the famous poet and dancer of Kerala had done tireless work. He had made it suitable to the requirements of changing times. An organisation, known as Keral Kala Mandalam, was set up by him and has since done commendable work.