Kathakali dance and masks

A Kathakali interpretation of the Paṭṭābhiṣēkaṃ of Śrī Rāma, 2020 (photo: AdvaithNair, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Kathakali interpretation of the Paṭṭābhiṣēkaṃ of Śrī Rāma, 2020 (photo: AdvaithNair, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Consisting of makeup, face painting, and stylized masks, kathakali masks are used in the kathakali dance drama that use masks, colorful makeup, and costumes worn by performers. The word “kathakali” is derived from the Sanskrit words katha (story) and kali (to play or perform). The subject matter of kathakali originally included stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. The central theme of kathakali performances is the triumph of good over evil, expressed with martial dances or action-heavy climactic sequences.

The form is thought to have originated in Kerala around the seventeenth century, evolving from existing forms of devotional dance drama such as Krishnattam and Ramanattam. It is also believed to incorporate elements from martial arts such as KalaripayattuKoodiyattam, a temple-based drama; and ritualistic performances such as Theyyam and Mudiyettu.

The performance

Early Kathakali performances were held in the compounds of family homes or outside temple walls, on a rectangular ground cordoned off with poles and cloth. The stage was generally bare, with the exception of a handheld curtain. More recently, performances are held in stage performance venues. The performers undergo a rigorous makeup and costuming process before the performance, taking up to three hours. Props such as weapons, generally made from lightweight wood, are often used. Other objects, such as chariots, are represented through mimetic actions. Performances originally lasted all night, beginning at dusk and ending at dawn. Contemporary kathakali performances reduce or remove the introductory segments entirely, making them two to three hours long.

The performance begins with the lighting of an oil lamp, accompanied by the singing of ceremonial verses. The performance then starts with introductory dancesAs the story is enacted, four kinds of dances may be performed. The basic stance of a kathakali performer consists of feet placed parallel to each other at shoulder width, with the knees bent outward. The lower back of the performer is curved inwards towards the belly, allowing the arms to stretch wide. This accounts for the heavy mask and costume worn by the performers, keeping their centre of gravity low. Their footwork follows rectangular, straight, diagonal or circular patterns. Eye movements, along with facial and hand gestures, are employed to express the bhava, or inner state of the character. The performers are primarily men, though women began to join kathakali performances from the mid- to late twentieth century. Kathakali performers were traditionally from and patronized by the upper castes; its popularity today has prompted the participation of performers from more diverse social backgrounds.

Kathakali dance, 2014 (photo: Dumphasizer, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kathakali dance, 2014 (photo: Dumphasizer, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Makeup and masks

It originally used simple makeup for characters being represented: Rama and Lakshmana (Rama’s brother) had faces painted blue, while demons and monkeys wore face masks. The headgear was made of palm sheath painted with designs, and the torso was left bare. The influence of patrons like the feudal chiefs of the kingdom of Tanur  led to changes in makeup and masking traditions. The blue makeup of divine characters was changed to the emerald green that is today one of the most recognizable aspects of the form. Masks for demons and monkeys were replaced with facial paint and gilded crowns began to be used as headgear.

Kathakali today uses a number of makeup types. The first, called paccu, uses green facial paint and is most frequently used for divine or noble characters. The green coloration is circumscribed by a white painted border, the cuttiThe mark of Vishnu is often applied on the forehead with red and black marks upon a yellow base composed of rice paste. The eyes are framed by underlining the eyebrows and lower eyelids with a soft black pigment, extending to the sides of the face.

The “ripe” (payuppu) makeup type uses a similar design but replaces the green with a strong orange-red. It is used for characters such as Balarama (Krishna’s brother), Brahma, Shiva, and Surya.

Hanuman in Kathakali dance (photo: Gokul Krishna Raja, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hanuman in Kathakali dance (photo: Gokul Krishna Raja, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The white beard (vella tati) type is used to signify another class of wise divine beings like Hanuman. It involves red, white and black patterns painted on the face, accompanied by a white beard either painted or worn on the cheeks. A small patch of green paint on his nose suggests his pious nature.

Kathakali dancer with "knife" makeup type, Kerala, India (photo: Pratheep P S, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kathakali dancer with “knife” makeup type, Kerala, India (photo: Pratheep P S, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A number of makeup types are used to signify different types of antagonistic characters. The “knife” (kattitype, for example, is used for high-born characters who embody villainy or arrogance. Although the basic frame of the design is the same as in paccu, an upturned red mustache framed by white rice paste is added. The pattern is repeated above the eyes and eyebrows, and two white, bulbous extensions provided on the nose and forehead. This type is used for characters like Ravana.

Kathali dancer with red beard makeup type (photo: lomaDI, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Kathali dancer with red beard makeup type (photo: lomaDI, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Red beard (cuvanna tati) makeup signifies characters who are also evil or vicious, such as Dussassana, who led the disrobing of Draupadi. The eyes are framed by black bands, and a white mustache extending to the ears is added. Lips are painted black to set off a ferocious mouth, and the bulbous noses and foreheads are made deliberately larger than that of the “knife” characters. A big crown is worn, with red paint around its borders.

Black beard (karutta tati) makeup is used for evil characters associated with the forest, characterized by a black beard but otherwise similar to those of the red beard type. The lower part of the face is black and the face is framed by the design of a black beard; otherwise it resembles the design of the red bearded characters.

Left: Kathali dancer as a demoness (photo: Charles Haynes, CC BY-SA 2.); right: Kathakali dancer at Thiruvananthapuram (photo: Shagil Kannur, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Left: Kathali dancer as a demoness (photo: Charles Haynes, CC BY-SA 2.); right: Kathakali dancer in minukku makeup type at Thiruvananthapuram (photo: Shagil Kannur, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Demonesses are given jet black (kari) faces, relieved by patches of red, outlined in white rice-paste. They are usually contrasted with the “radiant” (minukku) variety, which includes “virtuous” or noble women like Sita in the Ramayana and similarly “pure” males, including Brahmins, holy men, and sages (who may wear a wooden crown)The minukku makeup type uses a warm yellow-orange paint, creating an effulgent glow.

A host of make-up styles and patterns are used for the other varieties and shades of characters and beings like Garuda and Jatayu, who are depicted with makeup resembling a bird; Bhadrakali may be given a red tongue and white rice paste spots on the face, suggesting a pockmarked appearance.

Masks are usually adopted to signal a transformation, such as from human to animal. Bali’s son Angada wears a monkey mask when he appears on stage, while Daksha, Brahma’s son who is decapitated by Virabhadra and Bhadrakali, wears a goat mask after coming back to life.

Kathakali is one of Kerala’s most popular and recognizable dance forms today.

Drawing from articles on The MAP Academy

MAP Academy logo

Arjun Raina, “The art of creating a Kathakali performer’s ‘Presence,’” Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, volume 6, number 3 (2015), pp. 323–38.

Darius L. Swann, Farley P. Richmond, and Phillip B. Zarrilli, editors, Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance (India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993).

Philip B. Zarilli, “Kathakali,” Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performanceedited by Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann, and Philip B. Zarilli (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), pp. 315–58.

Philip B. Zarrilli, Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play (London: Routledge, 2000).

Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Kathakali dance and masks," in Smarthistory, September 12, 2022, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/kathakali-dance-masks/.