The Ultimate Guide to Kathakali in Kerala

Kathakali is a traditional dance-drama form that originated in the southern state of Kerala in India. It is a highly stylized and visually captivating art form that combines elements of dance, drama, music, and storytelling. Kathakali holds a prominent place in the rich cultural heritage of Kerala and has gained international recognition for its unique and expressive performances. In this article, we will explore the origins, features, significance, and future of Kathakali in Kerala.


Kathakali, which means “story-play,” is an ancient art form that dates back over 400 years. It emerged during the 17th century in the kingdom of Travancore, present-day Kerala. The art form combines elements from traditional dance forms, martial arts, and ritualistic performances. Kathakali is known for its vibrant costumes, elaborate makeup, expressive gestures, and intricate footwork, all of which contribute to its distinctive visual appeal.

Origin and history of Kathakali

Kathakali draws its roots from various art forms prevalent in Kerala, including Krishnanattam, Ramanattam, Koodiyattam, and Theyyam. The art form evolved as a means of storytelling, with performances based on episodes from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Over the years, Kathakali has developed its own distinct style and repertoire.

The unique features of Kathakali

Kathakali is characterized by its elaborate makeup, intricate costumes, stylized gestures, and expressive facial expressions. The actors, known as “Kathakali artists” or “actors,” undergo extensive training to perfect the art form’s unique techniques. The performances are accompanied by live music, which adds depth and emotion to the storytelling.

Training and preparation for Kathakali

Becoming a Kathakali artist requires years of rigorous training and dedication. The training involves learning various mudras (hand gestures), body movements, facial expressions, and eye movements. The artists also undergo physical exercises to build stamina and flexibility. Additionally, they receive training in singing, percussion instruments, and Sanskrit language to enhance their overall performance.

The costumes and makeup in Kathakali

One of the most striking aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate costumes and makeup. The makeup, known as “chutti,” involves applying layers of rice paste to the face, giving it a supernatural appearance. Each color and design represents a specific character type, such as gods, demons, heroes, or heroines. The costumes are equally elaborate, with vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and embellishments that enhance the visual appeal of the performance.

The music and instruments used in Kathakali

Kathakali performances are accompanied by a live orchestra known as the “melam.” The melam consists of percussion instruments like chenda, maddalam, and edakka, along with cymbals and a wind instrument called the shankh. The music sets the mood, rhythm, and pace of the performance, complementing the dancers’ movements and expressions.

Different characters and roles in Kathakali

Kathakali has a wide range of characters, each with their distinctive makeup, costumes, and movements. The characters are classified into different types, such as pacha (green), kathi (knife), kari (black), minukku (radiant), and thadi (beard). Each character type represents a particular trait or role in the story, and the makeup and costumes help convey these characteristics to the audience.

Kathakali performances and storytelling

A Kathakali performance typically begins with a pure dance sequence called the “attakatha.” It is followed by the main part of the performance, which involves storytelling through gestures, expressions, and movements. The performers interpret and convey the emotions, conflicts, and resolutions of the characters through their nuanced expressions and body language. The performances are often intense and visually captivating, leaving the audience enthralled.

The significance of Kathakali in Kerala

Kathakali plays a vital role in Kerala’s cultural identity and heritage. It serves as a medium to preserve and promote the state’s rich cultural traditions. The performances are often staged during religious festivals, temple events, and other cultural celebrations. Kathakali also attracts tourists from around the world, contributing to Kerala’s tourism industry and introducing the art form to a global audience.

Places To Watch Kathakali In Kerala

  • Kalamandalam is a premier institute for performing arts in Kerala. It is located in Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur district. Kathakali performances are held at the Kathakali auditorium of the institute.
  • Kathakali Centre is located in Fort Kochi. It is a popular tourist destination and offers regular Kathakali performances.
  • Kerala Tourism Department organizes Kathakali performances at various venues across Kerala. These performances are a great way to experience the art form and learn about its history and significance.
  • Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple is located in Thiruvananthapuram. It is one of the most important temples in Kerala and hosts regular Kathakali performances.
  • Vanchi Kattakal is located in Alappuzha district. It is a traditional Kathakali performance venue and is a popular tourist destination.

Kathakali performances are usually held in the evening and can last for several hours. It is advisable to book your tickets in advance, especially during the peak tourist season.

Contemporary influence and global recognition

In recent years, Kathakali has gained international recognition and has been performed in various countries across the globe. The art form’s unique blend of dance, drama, and visual spectacle has captured the interest of audiences worldwide. Many international artists and scholars have also studied and trained in Kathakali, further enriching its global influence.

The challenges and future of Kathakali

Despite its enduring popularity, Kathakali faces several challenges in the modern era. The art form requires dedicated patronage, financial support, and the passing on of knowledge and skills to future generations. Efforts are being made to preserve and promote Kathakali through cultural institutions, festivals, and educational initiatives. The future of Kathakali relies on the continued appreciation and support from both local and international audiences.


Kathakali is an enchanting art form that showcases the rich cultural heritage of Kerala. Its intricate gestures, expressive movements, and vibrant costumes create a mesmerizing visual experience for the audience. The art form’s significance in Kerala’s cultural landscape cannot be overstated, and its global recognition is a testament to its enduring appeal. As Kathakali continues to evolve and adapt to the modern era, it remains a cherished art form that connects people to Kerala’s rich traditions and stories.


  1. What is the meaning of Kathakali? Kathakali means “story-play” and is a traditional dance-drama form from Kerala, India.
  2. How old is Kathakali? Kathakali has a history of over 400 years, dating back to the 17th century.
  3. What are the unique features of Kathakali? Kathakali is known for its elaborate makeup, vibrant costumes, expressive gestures, and intricate footwork.
  4. How long does it take to become a Kathakali artist? Becoming a Kathakali artist requires years of rigorous training and dedication.
  5. Where can one watch Kathakali performances? Kathakali performances are often staged during religious festivals, temple events, and cultural celebrations in Kerala. They can also be experienced at dedicated Kathakali centers and theaters.

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