March 08, 2005

Kathakali - The Traditional Theatre Of Kerala

A Kathakali Performer
Photography By El-Branden Brazil

In southwest India, is the lush green state of Kerala. It boasts having a highly educated population, as well as a colourful history and culture. If there is one art form that bests symbolises Kerala, then that honour must be bestowed upon the traditional performance art of Kathakali.

Kathakali theatre shares many similarities with Japanese Kabuki. Both styles were created in the 17th Century, and both revolve around mythological stories and folk tales. The disciplined movement and dance that is so indicative of both forms, is enhanced by elaborate make-up, exceptional costumes and traditional music. All actors in both Kabuki and Kathakali are male, even when some characters are female.

Hindu scriptures, such as the Mahabarat and the Ramayana, are the primary source for the stories performed in Kathakali. The religious reverberance of Kathakali means that when a performance is staged, it is a major local event. Beginning at dusk, they often play through the entirety of the night.

The make-up is particularly striking and unique. After the painstaking application of gaudy paints upon the actor's face, white paper is carefully cut and shaped to fit on to the chin and cheeks. The effect is extraordinary, and instantly transforms the actor into something beyond the human.

A performer demonstrating the
eye and face control
of Kathakali.
Photography By El-Branden Brazil

The heavy costumes are equally colourful, and imbued with specific meaning to fit the archetypes of the characters. For example, the hero wears a costume called the Sathwika; the villain, the Kathi; the female characters, the Minukku. These variations are instantly recognisable to the audience.

Like the symbolism behind the make-up and costumes, the gestures used by the actors, help to convey the essence of the story being told. Hand gestures, called mudras, communicate a variety of messages, and can be also found in the religious iconography of India, as well as other Indian dance forms.

The muscle control that Kathakali performers have mastered is truly astounding. With almost supernatural skill, their faces and eyes match the rhythm of the drum. This devotion and perfection of their art is truly an inspiration both for the mind and the soul.

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