Seeing a Kathakali Performance in Kerala

Demoness in Kathakali performance

For visitors to the Indian state of Kerala, one of the obvious highlights – besides exploring the Kerala backwaters by houseboat – is attending a traditional Kathakali performance. Dating back to the 17th century, these colorful musical performances offer up a combination of traditional dance and rhythmic music punctuated with wild shrieks and maniacal laughs. They are quite the experience!

So what is it all about? Plotlines are usually drawn from the Hindu classics such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas as well as folk mythology.

But given that stories are mostly conveyed through gesture, stylized facial expressions and symbolic costuming, for most foreigners the experience will be less about the story and more about the awesome visuals. And those begin before the performance even starts!

We had the opportunity to attend a Kathakali performance in the Indian beach community of Varkala. It was a small outfit more geared towards tourists, but I have to say it really felt surprisingly authentic. We were advised to arrive an hour early to watch the performers apply their traditional makeup and don their extremely elaborate costumes. This was great advice!

Applying Kathakali makeup

In some ways, this was my favorite part of the performance because you had time to sit with the actors and get a feel for just how complex and time-consuming their preparations were. It was worth the whole performance just to see how long it took them to put on their huge layered skirts. As an added bonus, we were encouraged to photograph and film to our heart’s content.

You’ll notice in our video and pictures that all the performers are men, including the musicians and singers. Even female characters are played by men, much to the amusement of the audience. Actors tell the story through specific hand movements called mudra and facial expressions called abhinaya passed down by generations of traditional temple dancers and Kathakali performers.

These movements, while obscure to foreigners, are easily interpreted by Indians as expressing the whole spectrum of emotions: love, humor, sadness, anger, surprise, hate – just to name a few. I imagine that one reason this form of non-verbal performance evolved in the past was that it allowed for wandering performers to move around through multi-lingual India and not have to worry about translations. Luckily for us, we were given a short description of the story in English to help us out.

Nakrathundi and Jayantha

The demoness Nakrathundi is out to capture maidens for her master the Asura king Narakasura when she encounters Jayantha, the son of Indra. She falls in love with him and so assumes the form of a beautiful girl to ask him to marry her. When he turns down her proposal, she gets angry and turns back into a demoness. A fight breaks out between them and ends in Jayantha cutting off Nakrathundi’s nose, ears, and part of her breast.

Kathakali in Kerala, India

Yep, that pretty much sums up what we saw. It was a little difficult to determine who the “beautiful girl” was as nobody really looked human, but we figured it was the actor with the large conical breasts. (By the way, did Jean Paul Gaultier steal his iconic conical Madonna bra from a Kathakali performance? Hmmm.)

But I digress. The whole experience was very cool and very Keralan. I did a little extra digging to see what I could learn about the makeup and costumes. Apparently, the green face signifies a noble protagonist. The white beard means that he is of divine origin or has a virtuous inner state. The black face represents a she-demon. The beautiful ornamental headdress is called a kireetam; you see these on posters and in postcards throughout Kerala.

Now I just have to say, as impressive as the costumes were, our eyes kept going to a very thin, little old man in the back playing the drums. (He’s in our video, too.) Man, did he get into the performance! He was laying into that drum throughout the show – we really got a kick out of him.

Perhaps, Kathakali isn’t for everybody; some people just aren’t made for cultural performances. But for anyone who has even the slightest interest in culture, music or the traditional arts, a Keralan Kathakali is an absolute must. Not only will you witness one of the highlights of traditional Keralan culture, you might come away with some pretty extraordinary photos as well.

If you are interested in Keralan peformances, also start googling Thirayattam. We’ll have to catch that the next time we visit.

3 responses to “Seeing a Kathakali Performance in Kerala”

  1. avatar Mary Bidinost says:

    I am surprised you guys are still travelling in these Covid times. Courageous hearts!

    • avatar Thomas says:

      This experience is actually a few years old. We reworked this blog post and included more information and more visuals. 🙂

  2. avatar Bama says:

    Watching Kathakali in Kochi was one of the highlights of my trip in Kerala back in 2015. There were aspects of this state that my friend and I didn’t like, but Kathakali and the food redeemed it all. We also came early to see the performers put make up and costumes, and the hairiest of them turned out to play the sole female character in the performance. It was so amazing to see the different facial expressions, something I know takes years to master.

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