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[K] Kathakali in Fort Kochi, Kerala | Travel Tales | #atoz

Kathakali is a traditional dance of Kerala wherein (only men perform) the men dress up as mythological characters and present the tableau in form of a dance (with no words, except the music on instruments and a pre-commentary on the act about to be presented) and the performance is totally dependent on the facial expressions (Haav bhav) and hand movements/gestures (mudras).

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Recently I had the golden opportunity of seeing a live Kathakali performance in Fort Kochi and was absolutely blown away by the make-up activity. It’s actually an hour-long visual treat in itself (patrons can come early to watch it being applied)


The colours for the facial makeup are natural pigments which are obtained by grinding particular stones in coconut oil on a stone plinth. Typical colours are white, yellow, red, green and black. A sticky paste is derived from rice which is used to fix the paper curves on the face on the main villain.

Character #1 – Bhima

Watch the transformation of this artist who was enacting out the character of Bhima (2nd of the five Pandavas brothers). He begins with a white powder for the base on his face. Notice how he even painted hair on his forehead and sides.






Character #2 – Keechak

The main Villian here is Keechak who is the younger brother of queen Sudeshna of the Matsya Kingdom. This Kingdom is where the Pandavas brothers and their queen Draupadi are spending the 13th year of their exile (in anonymity) So the artist puts a seed in each of his eyes and closes them while the makeup is being done. (We could actually hear him snoring 😉 ) When he opened his eyes, they were bloodshot – that’s why the seed (I can’t recall the name of the seed)





The story – Keechak Vadh (Death of Keechak)

The act being performed here is a story from the Indian Epic Mahabharata. Keechak falls in lust with his sister’s hand maiden (who is actually Queen Draupadi incognito).


He tries to woo her but she resists his charms. Undeterred, he calls her to his room on a pretext of an errand and then tries to molest her. She cries in protest and disgust and finally makes her escape. Enraged, Keechak is all the more determined to bed her now.


She runs to one of her five husbands, Bhima who is masquerading as one of the head chefs in King Viraat’s royal kitchens. She cries on his shoulders and begs him to save her.


Bhima assures her of revenge and suggests that she entices Keechak to her bedroom where Bhima will be hiding. Keechak is delighted and sashays into her chambers to celebrate her capitulation. Unknown to him, Bhima is lying under the covers and leaps out at an opportune moment to slay him.


The entire act was mesmerizing to say the least. Each character’s facial expressions had so much drama; each emotion vivid and clear. It was simplistic in its telling but dramatic in the props used to create the scene.

I think this is one of the most theatrical performance I have ever been to and had the real feel of culture and heritage. The melodrama and histrionics are unforgettable for me and I have promised myself that I will try to see another enactment whenever I am next in Kerala.

“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Have you ever seen a Kathakali performance? What did you like more- the makeup or the dance?

Fact File

  • Kathakali is the traditional dance form of Kerala and can be viewed at the many cultural theaters in most of the cities of Kerala.
  • I recommend checking out the story being enacted on that day as the makeup changes with the tale; more elaborate the tale…. (you get the drift)
  • Make up is done an hour before the performance and audience is encouraged to view it.
  • Traditionally mythological tales and spiritual legends from the Puranas are performed.
  • Ideas are conveyed with hand and facial gestures and elaborate footwork.
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A trained Interior designer who loves to travel, photograph and write, I have done some boutique stays in limited budgets and some in extravagant ones too. I specialize in using locally sourced/ made products which would provide support to the local community.I am also an advocate of using sustainable practices in housekeeping, laundry,etc which lessens the use of harmful chemicals. The water used for such chores is clean enough to be fed into the garden directly.

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78 thoughts on “[K] Kathakali in Fort Kochi, Kerala | Travel Tales | #atoz

  1. OMG!!!! This was stellar to say the least. I what fabulous shots you got there Gurl. Your pictures and descriptions were so vivid that I felt I was almost there.

    We missed this last time. Got to definitely watch it next time when we are there. Thank you for taking us through the performance. Totally loved it.


    Travel Epiphanies:

    1. Thanks so much Natasha – glad to hear you enjoyed reading this. Hope you get to witness a performance for yourself soon!

    1. Thanks Roma – I hope you do get to watch it for yourself someday soon. The seed tidbit was amazing for me to know too. What lovely info such acts present to us na?

  2. Wonderful. and yes, kathakali requires immense patience just in the make up aspect. And facial expressions are key to it.
    On a slight aside, did you ever get to see the rituals of Muthappan Swamy in Kannur (or Malabar area)? The effort put in to get the look is equally arduous.

    1. I have noted down your tip for this performance that I must definitely catch; I am hoping to get into the Kerala trip fever once again in 2019; hopefully the weather would be good when I plan!

      I adored the Kathakali perfomrance and would love to watch another one soonest. Infact I am in love with everything Kerala- be it banana chips or appams or the Dolphins in the water!!! 😉

  3. Yes its a fascinating art form. I saw a similar art form in Karnataka called Bedarvesha. It had similar face and body painting involved, but i didn’t quite get the drift, when it came to story. Do you know about it?

    1. Wow Neha this is totally new for me. Shall definitely check it out on my next trip to Bangalore. Will check before hand to see where its performed – thanks for the tip.

  4. They are truly amazing dancers. Very similar to the Yakshagana dancers from Karnataka.
    Your pics and the narrative complement each other very well!

    1. Yakshagana dancers?? Thats new for me and I have never heard of them before. Must check that out when I next head down to Karnataka – thanks for the tip Radhika

  5. Great pictures. Kathakali is a difficult art form wth the costumes and headgear. Very interesting about it different aspects like the seed in the eyes to make them bloodshot.

    1. Thanks Shalini – I just loved it and couldnt wait to watch another one. Thats hasnt materialised so far but fingers crossed for another trip down there soon!!

  6. Wow! That’s an amazing on stage glimpses as well as behind the scenes of this dance form. The make-up is so very elaborate and you got to see it from close quarters. Cool.

    1. Yup the makeup was quite the highlight Shilpa. I cant begin to tell you how intricate and tedious the process was but the sheer beauty of it made me appreciate it even more.

  7. This is so amazing, Shalini. I never knew Kathakali was performed only by males?! And the make-up! Brings out quite a transformation.
    I would love to witness it sometime!


    1. Thanks Geetika – even I didnt knwo about that. What amazing things in our traditions no!?

      I hope you do get to witness one for yourself soon 🙂

    1. Oh my how did I miss this comment Sunita? What a beautiful thing to hear – I am super grateful for this feedback on my post 🙂

    1. Yeah it is just incredible and I was blown away by it all. Looking forward to visiting a performance again someday soon 🙂

  8. Your photos! Oh my! How well you’ve captured the essence of each moment.

    We saw our first Kathakali performance in Thekkady, Kerala two years ago and my daughter had the time of her life. She was super thrilled to get a picture with the performer too. It is an incredibly beautiful form of dance and one that requires facial skill!

  9. The efforts are commendable. It takes so long for the makeup itself. And then the costumes are so so heavy!
    Fun Fact: I was always scared by the sheer look back in childhood. 😀

  10. I absolutely loved your pictures. In Bangalore, sometimes during Dushhera, temples organize Kathakali. I have seen those but never the make up and how intricately it is done. Yes, the story is always a part of mythology and I am so glad you brought that out.

    1. Wow! I had no clue this was performed outside of Kerala and that too at religious places. Lucky you for being able to view it without a trip to Kerala. I would kill to attend another one 😉

  11. This is an absolutely stunning post – your pictures and narration have brought the experience to Life! As a child, I have always found them (the make-up and costumes) to be scary, and reading your post today, I think it is time i went for a performance as a grown up!

    1. Oh I cant imagine them being scary especially once you watch the make up coming on Ish – you must definitely attend one and be mesmerized by it 🙂

  12. This is amazing. We spent a week in Ft. Kochi last december and had never heard of Kathakali. How amazing the performance looks but I also love your pictures of them preparing for the show as they put on their make up. To be able to express an entire lore silently is to the next level

    1. Thanks so much Eric; you should definitely check out this experience if you can! I meant to go back and watch it again but somehow couldnt squeeze out the time for it again! The art and tradition of Kathakali is being preserved exquisitely by the tourism department here!! I hope you do get to expereince it once! cheers 🙂

  13. Lovely pictures… they’re self explanatory…and the Kathakali dancers are so expressive.
    Once, I just tried making a Rangoli of a Kathakali dancer and that taught me how much Colors we actually need to use for that perfect look.
    Thanks for this article…where people can easily understand about the traditional Kathakali dance.

    1. Thank you Neha for such great feedback on my post. I cant even begin to imagine the rangoli; do have a picture of it to share with us? I would love to have a look at it.

      Kathakali is all about expressions and then the dressup – it was a bewitching experience for me to say the least!

  14. Such a beautiful post, Shalz! Loved the pictures and it is amazing how you have captured the entire process of transformation of artistes with such intricate detailing. We watched Kathakali in Munnar , a different story though but can totally relate to the mesmerising experience it is.

    1. Thanks Gayatri; so glad to be appreciated for this post as its quite from the heart! All of these beautiful arts need patronage as they are dying out. I am hoping to catch another performance soon.

  15. The transformation is indeed fascinating. Kudos to them for patiently going through a long process of applying make up and then giving it out with their performance which is equally mesmerizing.
    Btw i loved the clicks shalz…beautifully captured 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for loving my pictures Keerthi – I loved clicking everyone of them and while including them in this post was hoping they do the performance and my narrative some justice. Happy to hear that they did 🙂

    1. Thank you Prasanna – thats such lovely praise. I am so glad to hear the photographs were able to present the awe I felt while watching this performance 🙂

    1. Thanks Dipika- yeah this is quite an amzing performance to watch; thank god there is still some preservation to it and we get to enjoy it! Wonder how long will it last though!!!?

  16. What a great article. This is something I don’t know anything about, so the article is very informative. Thank you for sharing and the pictures are amazing.

  17. Wow, this is amazing! I have never heard of this. I love learning new things that most people don’t know about! Thank you so much for sharing this informative post and beautiful photos!

  18. What an amazing experience! I would love to see it because I love everything related to cultural travel. Kerala is also very high on my bucket list.

  19. Fantastic! Our current plans to go to India are on ice right now, as we are locked down in Australia, but have saved this article for when we can travel again. It looks like something we would love to see!

    1. Oh thats not so good to hear- I hope you get to travel soon and come to India even sooner. Not just Kerala but entire country has so much diversity in food, people and experiences that you will be definitely blown over. I have never been to Oz and envy your lock down there as I hear its gorgeous there with loads to do and see 🙂

  20. I really want to visit Kerala, it sounds like it is full of culture and heritage. Your post is so descriptine and well written, i really feel like I was at the performance. x

    1. Thanks Pip – thats a very gracious feedback and I hope your plans to visit Kerala finalize sooner than you have planned. India is an amazing country to visit with its history, architecture and the delicious food 🙂

    1. Yes the make up part is just amazing and I guess they want to spread awareness of the traditions being preserved through all of it. I would recommend to watch this session before the actual performance 🙂

  21. Looks like such a cool cultural experience to watch and take in! I had never heard of Kathakali before this so it is very interesting to see 🙂

    1. You bet Kelly – its just stupendous and not to be missed out on at all. All parts of Kerala offer this experience of their prized traditions, so if you happen to be in Kerala, do check with your host about it 🙂

  22. […] ARMCHAIR TravelTravelougues have fascinated be ever since I was a young girl (more on this another day), and Travel blog posts which have been adding travel destinations to my wishlist for a while now. One of my alltime favorite trips of Shalini’s was to Kochi and one of her experiences that I want to experience for myself in person is watching a traditional Kathakali experience – Kathakali in Fort Kochi […]

    1. Thanks for the appreciation shown for this post Ish – its one of my best posts that I loved doing a lot! Your linking up just validated my efforts!!!

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