Kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. Originating in the area of southwestern India now known as the state of Kerala, it is a group presentation in which dancers take various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
One of the most interesting aspects of the art form is its elaborate make-up. Characters are categorized according to their nature, which determines the colors used in the make-up. The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, the divine hero Rama, etc., are predominantly green. Characters of high birth who have an evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, but slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Exclusively evil characters wear red make-up and a flowing red beard. Hunters are represented with a black make-up base. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces.
The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigorous. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this art, a Kathakali dancer undergoes a strenuous course of training, and special periods of body massage.
The dancers wear large head dresses, and the contours of the face are extended with molded lime. The extraordinary costumes and make-up serve to raise the participants above the level of mere mortals, giving them the strength to transport the audience into the world of epic and myth.
The orchestra of a Kathakali performance includes two drums known as the chenda and the maddalam, along with cymbals and another percussion instrument, the ela taalam. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. The style of singing particular to Kathakali is called Sopaanam. The unique orchestra not only provides the background to the dancing, but also serves as a highly expressive special effects team. In the traditional village ambiance, the percussionists also provide publicity for the event by playing outside the venue for some hours before the start of the show.
A traditional Kathakali performance begins in the evening and continues throughout the night, culminating at the auspicious hour of dawn, when Good finally conquers Evil. Today, however, it has been modified for the proscenium stage, and urban audiences can participate in this ritualistic theatre experience in the comfort of a plush auditorium, within the span of a couple of hours.