Kathakali - Origin, History, Fine Art Elements and Plays

Kathakali is an ancient and traditional dance form of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally means Story-Play. Kathakali uses elaborate make-ups, costumes and background. Kathakali was originated in the 17th century and has its roots in Hindu mythology. Kathakali has a unique combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance. Kathakali is based on religious themes. They play is mostly based on the two epics 'Ramayana' and 'Mahabharata'.

Origin and History of Kathakali

Popular belief is that Kathakali is emerged from Krishananattam, the dance drama on the life and activities of Lord Krishna created by the Zamorin of Calicut. Once Kottarakkara Thampuran, the Raja of Kottarakkara who was attracted by Krishnanaattam requested the Zamorin for the loan of a troupe of performers. Due to the political rivalry between the two, Zamorin did not allow this. So Kottarakkara Thampuran created another art form called Ramanattam which was later transformed into Aattakatha.

Krishnanaattam was written in Sanskrit, and Raamanaattam was in Malayalam. By the end of 17th century, Attakatha was presented to the world with the title 'Kathakali'.

Elements of Fine Art Kathakali is a combination of five forms of fine art like :

1. Natyam (Acting or Expressions)

2. Nritham (Dance)

3. Nrithyam (Enactment)

4. Sangeetham (Music)

5. Vadyam (Instrument accompaniment)

Even though the lyrics/literature would qualify as another independent element called Sahithyam, it is considered as a component of Geetha, as it plays only a supplementary role to Nritham, Nrithyam and Natyam.

Kathakali Plays

There are about 101 Kathakali stories. The stories were composed for the whole night in the old times. But due to the increasing demand for the concised versions, now the plays are composed for 2-4 hours instead of the whole night. It is good for one who watches Kathakali to have an idea of the story being played. Success or failure of amateur Kathakali artistes is often decided by their sensibility to successfully personalize characters.

Important stories enacted in Kathakali are 'Nala Charitham' (Story from Mahabharatham about King Nala and his wife Damayanthi), 'Duryodhana Vadham' (Another story from Mahabharata about the killing of Duryodhana by the Pandava brother Bhima in Kurukshetra), 'Kalyanasowgandhikam' (Bheema's encounter with Hanuman when the former set out in search for the flower Kalyanasaugandhikam for his wife Draupadi), 'Keechaka Vadham'(Story of the killing of Keechaka by Bhima when the Panadavas were in disguise), 'Kiratham' (Story of Arjuna and Lord Shiva's fight), and 'Karna Shapadham' (story of Karna from Mahabharata).