Kathakali means a story play or a dance drama. Katha means story. Belonging to the South-Western coastal state of Kerala, Kathakali is primarily a dance drama form and is extremely colourful with billowing costumes, flowing scarves, ornaments and crowns. The dancers use a specific type of symbolic makeup to portray various roles which are character-types rather than individual characters. Various qualities, human, godlike, demonic, etc., are all represented through fantastic make-up and costumes.
The world of Kathakali is peopled by noble heroes and demons locked in battle, with truth winning over untruth, good over evil. The stories from the two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as the Puranas constitute the themes of the Kathakali dance dramas.
The macro and micro movements of the face, the movements of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the cheeks, the nose and the chin are minutely worked out and various emotions are registered in a flash by a Kathakali actor-dancer. Often men play the female roles, though of late women have taken to Kathakali.
The pure dance element in Kathakali is limited to kalasams, decorative dance movements alternating with an expressional passage where the actor impersonates a character, miming to the liberetto sung by the musician. A cylindrical drum called chenda, a drum called maddalam held horizontally, cymbals and a gong form the musical accompaniment, and two vocalists render the songs. Using typical music known as Sopanam, Kathakali creates a world of its own.
The most striking feature of Kathakali is its overwhelming dramatic quality. But its characters never speak. It is danced to the musical compositions, involving dialogues, narration and continuity. It employs the lexicon of a highly developed hand-gesture language which enhances the facial expressions and unfolds the text of the drama.
It is intended for presentation on eight successive nights to unfold the entire story of Lord Krishna, the style is almost akin to Kathakali.
The language of the songs used for Kathakali is Manipravalam. Even though most of the songs are set in ragas based on the microtone-heavy Carnatic music, there is a distinct style of plain-note rendition, which is known as the Sopanam style. This typically Kerala style of rendition takes its roots from the temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at several temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.
Like its acting style, Kathakali music also has singers from the northern and southern schools. The northern style has largely been groomed by Kerala Kalamandalam in the 20th century. Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambisan, an over-arching Kathakali musician of those times, was a product of the institute. His prominent disciples include Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup, Gangadharan, Ramankutty Varrier, Madambi Subramanian Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Sankaran Embranthiri, Kalamandalam Hyderali, Kalamandalam Venmani Haridas, Subramanian, Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and Kalamandalam Bhavadasan. The other prominent musicians of the north feature Kottakkal Vasu Nedungadi, Kottakkal Parameswaran Namboodiri, Kottakkal P.D. Narayanan Namboodiri, Kottakkal Narayanan, Palanad Divakaran, Kalanilayam Rajendran, Kolathappilli Narayanan Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Narayanan Embranthiri, Kottakkal Madhu, Kalamandalam Babu Namboodiri, Kalanilayam Rajeevan, Kalamandalam Vinod and Kalamandalam Hareesh. In the south, some of whom are equally popular in the north these days, include Pathiyur Sankarankutty. Southerner musicians of the older generation include Cherthala Thankappa Panikker, the late Thakazhi Kuttan Pillai, Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup, Thanneermukkam Viswambharan and Mudakkal Gopinanthan.
Most music is traditionally formed in groups of up to 14 people. But usually the songs are composed with over 20 people.
Known as Sampradäya(Malayalam: ); these are leading Kathakali styles that differ from each other in subtleties like choreographic profile, position of hand gestures and stress on dance than drama and vice versa. Some of the major original styles included:
Of late, these have narrowed down to the northern (Kalluvazhi) and southern (Thekkan) styles. It is the highly stylised Kalluvazhi tradition (largely developed by the legendary Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon - 1881-1949) that is implemented in Kerala Kalamandalam (though it has also a department that teaches the southern style), Sadanam, RLV and Kottakkal. Margi has its training largely based on the Thekkan style, known for its stress on drama and part-realistic techniques. Kalanilayam, effectively, churns out students with a mix of both styles.