The back stage preparations of Kathakali

In this article you will be able to get a glimpse of back stage preparations of Kathakali, the classical dance drama of Kerala, South India. Literally the word Kathakali means "Story Play". Kathakali is a major art form of southern India with very colourful make-up, complicated costumes, and  huge vivid crowns.

These images were captured during the preparation moments of a kathakali performance held at Thripunithura Layam Koothambalam, Friday 25th March 2016 05:00 pm.

The main elements of kathakali are the expressions(natyam), dance(nritham), enactment (nrithyam), songs (geetha) along with the instruments (vaadyam). The performance is done in front of a very big oil lamp(nilavilaku) .

This art form has a elaborate process for the makeup which can last for hours. Kathakali predominantly uses the colours red, yellow, white, green, black and blue for the makeup of the artistes. Traditionally these colours are extracted from natural substances and herbs and coconut oil is used as a base for mixing these.

The process of Kathakali makeup can be divided into two stages. The first stage is ’Theppu’. Here the performer himself applies the basic facial paintings. 

The next step is the ‘Chutti’. Here the performer lies flat on a mat and the Chuttikaran, i.e., the make up artist, applies ‘Chutti’, which is a series of white ridges built up from the rim to either side of the cheek. The Chutti would take two to three hours for completion.

There are seven basic makeup styles used in Kathakali, namely Pacha (green), Pazhuppu (ripe), Kathi (knife), Kari (black face), Thadi (beard), Minukku (lady) and Teppu. These vary with styles, colors, and the ingredients used.

In these Pacha is heroic, kingly and very devine type of characters. 

Kathi would be arrogant and anti hero.

Kari characters would be lady demons or the witches in Indian Epic.

Thadi (Beard) are of three kinds, 1. ella thadi ( white beard) for superhuman like Hanuman and chuvanna thadi (red beard) for evil charachters and Karutha Thadi (black beard) for hunters.

Minukku (lady) is for heroines, servants etc. 

After the makeup is done, the performer puts on his grand costume. The performer first ties 30 to 40 pieces of cloth around his waist. Over this, he dons layers of frilled garments of vivid colours for buoyancy. He then puts on his jacket, head gear other accessories.

A huge and intricately designed headgear forms the most important and prominent part of the costume. The headgear is carved out of light weight wood and embellished with mirrors, colourful stones and shiny metal plates. The headgear also changes according to the character played by the performer.

Kathakali mudras or hand gestures, which is used to convey the story/dialogues and  emotions/mood are conveyed by facial expressions called Navarasas. There are 24 different basic mudras in which they use single handed and double handed to show different symbols. Asamyutha Mudra (single handed) and Samyutha Mudra (double handed) are the two basic  mudras.

Facial expressions called Navarasas are of nine types. This expressions are used to convey the emotional state of the character. 1. Sringara expresses Rati (Love, pleasure, delight etc) 2. Hasya expresess Hasa (Comic, mocking etc) 3. Karuna expresses Shoka (Sad) 4. Raudra expresses krodha (anger, fury, etc) 5. Vira expresses Utsaha (Heroic, enthusiasm, etc) 6. Bhayanaka expresses Bhaya( worry, horror etc) 7. Bibhalsa expresses Jugupsa ( disgust) 8. Adbhuta expresses Vismaya ( Magical, Wonderful, Curious etc) and the last 9. Shanta expresses sama ( Peace, tranquilty etc).

Traditionally a Kathakali performance would be from dusk to dawn, but in todays fast moving era even Kathakali performances have been shortened to two to three hours to suit the convenience of the audience.


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Rahul Devakumar
Creative Media Studio

We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.


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