The headdresses and ornaments of Kathakali are masterpieces of craftsmanship. The Kiritam and the Mudi which are the two types of headdresses used, are carved out of wood and embellished with wooden pieces, and covered with golden foil, and inlaid with jewels. The Kiritam has a pagoda crown with a jewelled large halo fixed to the back. Carved out of light wood in several parts, tied together by cords, the Kiritam is covered with red felt and decorated with quills of peacock feathers, and artificial jewels made out of glass and mirror covered with gold foil where needed. The Kiritam is tied on to the head by means of a cloth band and a prayer is uttered by the actor before it is put on. The demons wear huge crowns called Kuttichamaram which add about three feet to their height.
The dome-shaped crown called Mudi is meant for Gods like Vishnu, Krishna and Rama and for noble heroic characters using the Paccha makeup. This is again carved out of wood and covered with red felt, and has bands of real silver fixed around it, with a bunch of peacock feathers adorning the top. Hanuman’s Vatta Mudi is like a hat with a dome-shaped white crown. The Kari types wear tall cylindrical crowns flared at the top, black in color and profusely decorated with peacock feathers and quills. Rishis or sages wear tall black Mukuts made to look like matted hair piled on the top. Minor characters like messengers wear red turbans while Brahmins wear a head cloth covering their foreheads and hanging down at the sides to frame the faces.
Long-sleeved jackets with fastenings at the back are worn by all the actors, excepting the Brahmins, sages and minor characters who bare their upper bodies. Krishna dons a blue jacket, red is worn by Gods, black by demons, white fur by Hanuman and so on. The lower garment worn by Kathakali actors is pleated skirt, usually white with a border.
The women characters (men actors) wear a long-sleeved jacket and a gold-edged white skirt with golden belt. A long cloth is worn over the head and fastened with a silver belt.
The ornaments worn by Kathakali dancers are very beautiful and artistic and consists of Kundalam (ear rings) and Kotalam or chest ornaments. In addition, long white scarves with the ends knotted in frills are worn. One red scarf has cup-shaped ends set with mirrors so that the actors can inspect their makeup. Long hair made out of dyed jute fibre is worn at the back. On the left hand, all the actors wear long curved silver nails and the usual bells around their legs, just below the knees.
The performance begins with vigorous and loud drumming, long before the event, in order to attract an audience. The stage is an elevated piece of ground, canopied, with a thatch hoisted on four poles, decorated with flowers, mango leaves and other greenery. Performances take place at night and as soon as the audience assembles, a huge brass oil lamp kept at the front of the stage is lit. The play usually takes place in the compound of a temple or in a courtyard. The Chenda playing or Keli creates a charged atmosphere and we soon enter a world of imagination peopled by Gods galore. As the drummers finish and go back, two men holding a colourful rectangular curtain appear on the stage. Behind this curtain, hidden from the audience, two young dancers, usually novices, execute a series of steps and movements to songs in praise of Ganapati, Saraswati and Vishnu. This is the propitiatory Thodeyam; after this, two other dancers replace the novices, still behind the curtain and this time represent a God and his consort. The musicians continue to sing and what is known as the ‘curtain look’ is presented, with the curtain alternately lowered and pulled up repeatedly, so as to give tantalising glimpses of the dancers’ faces, animated with the eyebrows quivering, cheeks and lips trembling, and eyes flashing.
Eventually to the mighty beating of drums, the curtain is whisked away, revealing the two divinities in full glory, smiling and looking benevolently at the audience, and assuming elegant poses. This item is the Purappad, after which the dancers retire and the singers sing Manjutaru from Jayadeva’s Astapadi. This preamble of dance music helps to work the audience up into a sense of pleasurable anticipation, which is fully satisfied by the performance that follows. These preliminaries take about three hours. Meanwhile feverish preparations have been going on, in the green room with each dancer lying flat on the floor, submitting himself to the makeup expert who takes nearly two to four hours to get a single character ready. There is absolute silence in the green room and as the dancer lies on the floor waiting to be made up, he relaxes completely and prepares himself for the role he is to assume.
The stage is bar, and has no backdrop, but often has on it a stool on which the dancer may sit or stand. There are always two singers, with one, the Ponani leading and the other, the Sinkidi, following, with the former using the Chengalam or gong, and the latter using the Elathalam or cymbals. From the musical point of view the Kathakali work or Atta-Katha is a garland of songs which can be sung by trained singers for entertainment without the dance. These songs are known as Padams (different from the Padams of Carnatic music). The Padams represent in the first person the thoughts and emotions of the characters. To sing the Padams which are in specific ragas and talas, a knowledge of Carnatic music is necessary. Kathakali music may be special to Kerala, but its links with Carnatic classical music are evident in the ragas or melodies used such as Todi and Bhairavi. The four main talas of Kathakali are the Chempada, Adhantha, Champa and Panchari. These have their counterparts in Carnatic music though known by other names. Certain ragas (like Padi, Indisa, Maradharasi) used in Kathakali are not to be found in Carnatic music, probably because these ragas were part of old Tamil music and were overlooked by the later singers.
The Sopana style of singing is peculiar to Kerala and is supposed to have derived its name from the flight of steps (Sopana) leading to the Sanctum-Sanctorum which was where the ritual singing of Jayadeva’s Ashtapadi was done. This was later absorbed into Kathakali. The Sopana style of singing is characterised by a slow tempo suitable for Abhinaya. Raga Alapana and Swara or Neraval singing are eschewed. Adhering to the tala and the raga, the musicians sing in such a manner that full scope for Abhinaya is given. Shorn of elaboration and ornamentation, the music leaves a deep impression on the audience. Wind and stringed instruments are not used. The Chenda or large drum is beaten with two sticks, and produces a loud sound. The Maddalam is another type of large drum played on both sides with the hands; the metal gong called Chengalam and cymbals called Elathalam are also used. Tala is given a great deal of importance and sometimes dancers when telling a story or describing an episode often do so to the accompaniment of mere drumming. On the whole, the vocalists have a hard time, as they have to sing from dusk to dawn, without rest and to the loud accompaniment of percussion instruments.
Each Kathakali play contains a number of songs which have a high literary content. Kathakali music is noted for its Bhavas ranging from Bhakti to Sringara.
The performance lasts all night and is centered around stories drawn from the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana and the Puranas. The theme is invariably based on the destruction of an evil enemy by the hero or leading character, who is often in love with the beautiful heroine. As a matter of fact, the play begins with the theme of the hero’s love. Slowly, an atmosphere of fury and thunder is built up which is an integral part of Kathakali. The Sahitya or the literary content of the play consists of Slokas which act as the connecting links between the sequences of the play, and pieces of narrative, and the Padas, lines of which are repeated so as to give the dancer an opportunity to express ‘his’ personal emotions through Sanchari Bhava and also show off his skill in Abhinayam.
The Hands or Hastas play a vital part in Kathakali and are recorded in the Chakkiar manual known as the Hasta Laksha Deepika. There are twenty-four basic Hastas, namely, Pathaka, Mudrakhya, Kataka, Musti, Kartarimukha, Sukatunda, Kapittha, Hamsa Paksha, Shikara, Hamsasya, Anjali, Ardha Chandra, Mukura, Bhramara, Suchimukha Pallava, Tripataka, Mrgasirsa, Sarpasirasa, Vardhamanaka, Arala, Urnanabha, Mukula and Kathakamukha. These are elaborated upon and run into almost 540 varieties, which the Kathakali dancer is expected to learn and master.
In between songs are pure dance embellishments which provide relief to both the dancers and to the spectators from the high degree of concentration necessary to interpret and understand the art of Kathakali. Great importance is attached to the correct depiction of the Navarasas by the actors who have to undergo a vigorous course in Mukhajabhinayam.
The Atta-katha is the name given to the literary aspect of Kathakali. The Rajah of Kottarakara was the first exponent of the Atta-katha and composed eight stories on the life of Rama. When these were staged, the Atta-katha became Kathakali. Actually there are only three or four Atta-katha playwrights whose works are really outstanding.
The Rajah of Kottayam’s Kirmeera Vadham, for example, is ideal for Kathakali and so are the three works of Thampi, a court poet of the Travancore royal family – Utturaswayamvaram, Keechakavadham and Dakshayagam, which are considered the best.
Kathakali is danced only by men and boys perhaps because of the vigour involved in it. The actor dancer has to jump, pirouette, stamp his feet and generally be highly vigorous while dancing and also be dramatic. Through gesture and expression, the actor can depict the entire gamut of emotions ranging from murderous hatred to tender love and pathos. Each main character is introduced behind the curtain or Tera. Violence dominates Kathakali and the demonical characters yell, growl and trample everything underfoot. Brutality is violent and vindictive and often when the enemy is overcome, his “entrails” are ripped out. The drums and cymbals are played with gusto and the general effect is of “Total Theatre” from another world altogether.
The opening scene of every dance-drama begins sometimes with the hero and heroine in a garden, or the heroine describing her feelings to her friend; or, with some other episode from the rich storehouse of Indian mythology, with nothing being said by the dancers, but everything being ‘acted’ out in the exquisite grammar of Kathakali and singers singing those parts that cannot be acted. Slowly, with drama, rhythm and music, the story is carried forward by the dedicated participants towards its majestic conclusion. No wonder then, that Kathakali is described by critics as “A Theatre from Another World”.