Culture Trip: Watching a Kathakali Performance in India

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Kathakali, one of the major dance forms in India comes with vastly extravagant makeup and costumes in what is a spectacular performance. Originating in the Malayalam speaking part of India, namely Kerala, seeing a Kathakali performance should be incorporated into any trip to southern India.

The world itself comes from the Sanskrit ‘Katha’, meaning story, or conversation, and ‘kali’ or performance. The performances traditionally depict stories from Hindu folklore, but today can range hugely to even include western stories from Shakespeare and Christianity. The performances, like any Indian dance are visually exciting, but in the Kathakali, the make up sets it apart. The actors faces are usually painted in a colour which denotes the kind of character they are; green for our heroes, red for the villains, for example. They are also adorned with huge headdresses, and costumes littered with jewels and decoration. The performance itself involves music and dance, as is the norm, but in the Kathakali it is also the small movements which become crucial to the story. As a tourist I was given a cheat sheet to help me understand what each facial expression represented. A small raise of the eyebrows, a twitch or wide eyes all denote special emotional responses and are labelled appropriately, love, peace, furious, for instance.

It is a highly traditional part of Indian tradition as dance and music are in general. But with its particular importance to this region it should be a must see for anyone visiting Kerala.

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