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?
- 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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