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Kathakali Performer
Kathakali Performer

Indian culture is rich in art forms, not the least important of which are music and dance. The two most important Hindu gods appear as musicians: Vishnu in his incarnation (gods can take many forms or incarnations) as blue-skinned Krishna plays the flute and Shiva as Nataraja is a beautiful dancer. There are many kinds of dance, but all tell stories. Village dances often tell folk tales, while temple dance usually depicts religious scenes from the classical epic poems. Kerala has many kinds of dance, but one is unique to the state. Called Kathakali, or "story-play" it was begun in the 1600s by the ruler of central Kerala and developed over time into a highly refined art form.

It takes years of training to become a Kathakali performer. The most celebrated school is at Kalamandalam where students train for 6 years. Kathakali is always done by men, but there is a also a school where girls train in traditional Indian dance. The work is arduous because the performers must train every muscle in their bodies and faces in precise movements. Nine facial expressions to depict emotions: disgust, fear, anger, repose, bravery, wonder, pity, derision, and love. Combined with 24 basic body movements these become some 800 gestures that the actors must learn to tell the story. The actors never speak, the story is told by two singers accompanied by musicians, so they must mime everything, like a silent movie.

Student practicing facial gesture:sadness.
Student practicing facial gesture:sadness.

Elaborate makeup is equally important and it takes years to learn how to apply it. Each element of costume and each color have meanings. For instance, green means a highly moral person, usually a god. Fiery red and fierce moustaches represent evil characters such as the demon Ravana. Those wearing huge skirts and headgear, with red faces and black or white beards are vicious, lazy, and gluttonous people, but the spiritual types have less complex clothing and jewelry.



Students practicing applying makeup to the bottom of bowls..
Students practicing applying makeup to the bottom of bowls..

A classical performance of Kathakali might take one whole day and night, or even three! Today these have been reduced to three or four hours, or even less for foreign visitors. Even so, performances can be long unless the audience is attuned to Kathakali traditions and the stories on which they are based. Nevertheless, this is brilliant and colorful theater that is well worth seeing and hearing in person.

To visit the website of the Kalamandalam Dance Academy