Mohan Khokar Dance Collection & Archives of India.

KATHAKALI by Prof Ashish Mohan Khokar,

Editor Publisher – attendance yearbook & Chair, the Dance History Society of India.

kathakalihebbarOf all the Indian classical dance forms, Kathakali remains constant and unchanged and thank god for that! Kathakali remains so because iof its very nature: It is group work comprising of a chain of solos. It needs minimum two or more patras, characters. Unlike in other forms where one dancer undertakes all characters or roles, in Kathakali each is especially “made-up” and also designated. Kathakali is tailor-made dance drama. It is actually a pre fabricated dance drama, performed as solo pieces, joint together! Tales are mostly from the mythology, the Ramayana and Mahabaharata being mainstay and sequences from each are depicted. Ofcourse, many other new works have been added but first let us understand the basis of the form itself. Kerala’s most popular classical visual art form, known as Attam and Kathakali, originated from the visual presentation of a poetical work called Ramanattam Kavyam, composed by the ruler of Kottarakara, a small kingdom near Trivandrum. It came into being in the second half of the 17th century.Manaveda Zamorin, King of Kozhikode, composed a Sanskrit poem Krishnageethi in 1657, based on which the visual art form Krishnanattm was created. Enacted in eight nights till today, it narrates the story of Krishna in as many parts and only the temple of Guruvayoor remains the centre for it.

Some firmly hold that it was Krishnanattam that was developed first and the King of Kottarakara followed this mould and composed Ramanattam Kavyam, in which the story of Rama is told and its enactment takes eight nights.

There are others who believe it was Ramanattam that had evolved first. Krishnanattam is there as it was first given shape. Ramanattam, however, has inspired the composition of a number of Attakathas, and out of the story once enacted in eight days, now only certain portions are presented. One can get a clear idea of how to stage Krishnanattam even today. As for the initial form of Ramanattam, we can make a conjecture on the basis of historians’ and scholars’ dissertations.

It was in the southern districts of Kerala that Ramanattam had become popular. G. Krishna Pillai, on p. 104 of his book “Kathakali”, says, “The presentation of Ramanattam gave prominence to verbal action (vachika abhinaya). The actors themselves sang the songs related to their roles and rhythmically moved their body. They were more or less like actors in a modern play. The actors were trained properly so that they could convey the emotions appropriate to each role and situation.”

The change from Ramanattam to Kathakali took place between 1650 and 1725 at Kottayam, in northern Kerala, Malabar. Kottayam Thampuran, who lived and reigned in Kottayam wrote four Attakathas. It was with their performance that Kathakali evolved and moved out of Ramanattam. He was a scholar, an actor and a devotee. He composed four serious works based on Mahabharatam – Kirmeera Vadham, Baka Vadham, Kalyana Sougandhikam and Nivatakavacha Kalakeya Vadham. He also tried to have all these stories acted out competently and presented.

Kottayam Thampuram made a very noteworthy contribution to composing Attakathas, their direction and production. He improved on the four areas of acting – angikam (gestures), vachikam (oral part), aharyam (costume) and sattvikam (depending emotions). He also laid down rules and conditions for the performance of Kathakali. This type of performance is called Vattath Sampradayam. It may be said that a settled form of Kathakali is first seen in the performance of Kottayam Thampuran’s Attakathas.

Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma Maharaja, who ruled the kingdom of Travancore from 1758, was famous as a composer of Attakathas, a scholar of Natya Shastra, author of Balarama Bharatham and a learned man with an aesthetic taste. He wrote seven Attakathas – Rajasooyam, Narakasura Vadham, Subhadraharanam, Baka Vadham, Gandharva Vijayam, Panchali Swayamvaram and Kalyana Saugandhikam. During the time of festivals at Shree Padmanabha Swami Temple, he had arranged performances of Kathakali. He had put together even a troupe of actors. He invited Kaplingatt Namboothiri, a native of Trichur, to Trivandraum and discussed with him how certain reforms in the performance of Kathakali could be introduced. The Maharaja, Kaplingatt Namboothiri and Eswara Pillai Vicharippukar together introduced certain changes and produced what is now known as Kathakali according to the Thekkan Chitta, the southern style, which became quite popular. With Trivandrum as its centre, it had specific characteristic features as regards

At this very time, the Kathakali form known as Kallatikkott Sampradayam got evolved in the Malabar area. Vettath, Kallatikkott and Kaplingatan styles of Kathakali got established. Later, a few other technically different but not all widely known styles were also introduced. They are Mathoor, Keerikad, Kurichi, Kidangoor, Champakulam and Kerala Kalamandalam styles. They did not really overhaul and radically alter the existing style. Only certain minor changes like those related to costumes, entrance to the stage, hand gestures, change of scenes, mode of singing etc were introduced. More in the nature of experiments and resulting from the traditions of different teachers and

The various musical instruments used were Maddalam, Chenda (drum), Chengala (gong), Ilathalalm, Sankh (conch) and Idakka. The use of Srutippetti (harmonium) came into vogue only recently. A Kathakali troupe consists of actors, singers (of first and second rank), instrumentalists, makeup men, persons holding thirassila or curtain. A traveling troupe carrying costume boxes (Attapetti) was once a familiar sight in Kerala. It was an essential part of its visual art tradition. Now motor vehicles and other


Traditionally, most of the stories performed in Kathakali are taken from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam. Their themes are treated in a dramatic and musical structure. In recent times, Nizalkuth by Panniseri Nanu Pillai and Kama Sapatham by V. Madhavan Nair (Mali) are based on mythology and they have been performed very many times. Themes from the lives of Buddha, Gandhi and Christ have been treated in modern Attakathas – that is, in the poetic text of Kathakali – but they have not been popular in performance. Even Aushedhaharanam of Mahakavi Vallathol Kandathil Varghese Mappillai’s Darpa Vichchedam and Portia Swayamvaram besides Kattakayam Cherian Mappila’s Oliver Vijayam treat foreign themes. French dancer Anette Leday has worked seriously with the idiom in Cindrella and other productions. Sadanam Balakrishan did Othello many years ago. Some other Attakathas, composed by poets, are based on new themes. They have been performed but have not been widely accepted and become famous. The latest example is Nulla Samaryakkaran.

The four technical aspects of acting – angikam, vachikam, aharyam, sattvikam -, the story, the characters and the expression of rasas are indispensable in Kathakali performance. The selected Attakatha, its staging in Kathakali, the fame it has acquired in India and abroad are aspects of great relevance. They are relevant to other classical art forms of Kerala like Koodiyattam and Krishnattam as well. Classical arts are those that do not allow changes in their fundamental format. Certain changes have, however, been introduced as regards their staging, learning, appreciation, popularizing, preserving and the like. It is undeniable that changes are still

“Most lovers of Kathakali of our day can be described,” G. Krishan Pillai, a recognized Kathakali scholar, points out, “as ones who watch it without knowing what the story is about. When one examines the choice of story, it looks one can enjoy the performance without referring to its story. All the same, it is necessary to know at least in a general manner the resume of the story, a short description of the characters, and other scientific arid teaching. aspects.” It is a view worth consideration.

As a classical visual art form of Kerala, its distinguishing features have been recognized universally. For centuries, a Kathakali has been accepted as a permanent item of religious entertainment at festivals and social institutions. Mahakavi Vallathol and the Kerala Kala Mandalam founded by Vallathol in 1933 and brought international fame to Kathakali. Amongst its first students were Gopinath and Madhavan. Australian louise Lightfoot came and took Anand Shivram to Australia to popularize him and the form. At Kalamandalarn, there are schools teaching both the Northern and Southern styles. A Kathakali performance is successful only if equal attention is paid to acting, singing, instruments, chuttikuthu (makeup), costumes and other areas. Training, therefore, is given in all these areas. There are other individuals and centres engaged in teaching and training like in Kottakal, even outside the state like in Delhi.There are good artists and eminent masters to select young boys for such training.


Major Changes:It is against this background that major features of Kerala’s classical arts in the contemporary world with special reference to Kathakali have been briefly discussed below.

  1. An Attakatha that can be described as a classical work is no longer composed. Gone is that age. We are not likely to get a new genuine Attakatha that would come up to the standards of the ancient works. The reason is we no longer have poets who are mad for the Kathakali tradition.
  1. Performing Kathakali for the whole night, even two or three episodes, and keeping the stage throbbing till the dawn was common in the bygone era. Rarely today is the traditional Kathakali performed till early morning, at certain temple festivals and cultural institutions. In the light of the eminence of the performers, their classification as a ‘major set’ and a ‘minor set’ is thought of. The fact remains that the practice of putting up a Kathakali performance as a full-night item is on the wane.
  1. A Kathakali club was set up around seventy years ago by a distinguished promoter of the art form V. Krishnan Thampi, a native of Trivandrum. Principal of a government college, he was a composer of Attakatha and an ardent lover of Kathakali. For the busy citizens having some interest in Kathakali, the club used to organize its evening shows getting over by around ten. Later, clubs came into being that organized such monthly programmes for their members. Even today there are clubs of this kind in Emakulam, Trichur and a few other places. There are parallel camps and institutions that hold Kathakali performances and lec-dems in certain places, including Delhi.
  1. In former times, there were schools (Atta Kalari), headed by recognized masters in the art, which provided comprehensive training and organized performances. With the masters’ old age or demise the schools disappeared. Now expert training is offered at Kerala Kalamandalarn, Kottakkal Kalari, Kala Nilayam at Irinjalakuda near Trichur, Margi at Trivandrum, and Kalabharathi at Quilon. Kala Mandalam, which has popularized Kathakali the world over, and Kottakkal Kalari have a history spanning several decades.


Contributions by the likes of Guru Gopinath, Ragini Devi, Ananda Shivaram and Mrinalini Sarabhai deserve a special mention in popularizing Kathakali before independence and adopting the technicalities in certain dance productions. Gurudev Tagore and Santiniketan also helped a great deal in bringing forth Kathakali to the modern world.

Vallathol sold lottery tickets door-to-door to collect monies to create the everlasting institution – Kalamandalam. He fell short of some sums despite this so Pt. Nehru the then PM came to his rescue and sent a grand cheque of Rs10,000/0 to him (Rs10,000 those days in 1930s is equal to 10 crore now in land value terms) himself had already been acclaimed for his Malay­am poetry as Mahakavi (poet laureate) of Kerala. By fortunate coincidence his growing deafness found in the dance-drama remnants of Kathakali not only one of India’s richest art heri­tages, but a sign language and mute art form which served as a useful source of communication not only for the intellec­tual artist but also for the deaf. He turned his poetic talent to writing new plays on the old themes and thereby enriched the stagnating repertoire.

His distinguished personal position made his proselytizing and encouragement extremely effective and attracted the at­tention of influential patrons in Malabar. Finally he opened a school called Kerala Kalamandalam (Academy of Kerala’s Arts) at Cheruthuruthi, near Shoranur, Cochin state in north Malabar. With the assistance of the government, which technically owns the school and gives it an annuity, Vallathol was able to muster around him the few remaining teachers who knew the traditions of the art. The school be­gan to offer scholarships to interested students. The wide­spread publicity which South Indian scholars and writers gave Vallathoi’s “new-found” art form, reached the ears of outsiders, several of whom, among them Srimathi Shanta, came to study at the school. In the wake of Vallathoi’s revivalist activities, the Maharaja of Travancore established a small troupe of palace dancers at Trivandrum in Travancore. The troupe was recently dissolved as a result of the merging of princely states with the Republic of India and resultant curtailment of privy purses. Kathakali was first performed outside Malabar by Gopinath. Others followed, and Kathakali today is recognized, although unfortunately not supported, as one of India’s most important arts.


Uday Shankar says that Kathakali is the only dance tech­nique of India with which he is in genuine rapport. Certainly Kathakali is the most exhaustive technique India offers, and more than any other Indian art form lends itself to Western-style ballet. The principle of a performance is that the dancer acts out words of a song, punctuating it with interludes of pure dancing. Many sequences are complete dance entities in themselves: the narrative passages describing a peacock danc­ing before the darkening clouds of rain; the story of the bee who, visiting the lotus to get honey, is imprisoned in its closing petals at nightfall and devoured the next morning by an ele­phant; and the woman’s dance (kumrni), despite its misrepre­sentations in cities as “sari dance.” The essential flavor of Kathakali is that the mudras compel the actor to become what he tells about. It creates emotion by recreating the situations which produce the emotion, and the actor becomes not one thing, but all things. He is the frightened hunter, he becomes the animals he sees; he is the proud lover and becomes the even prouder peacock walking in the garden before him.

In this way Kathakali is a connected chain of complete solos. It is performed serially instead of by blending the sequences simultaneously, and because of this the ballet has not devel­oped in a Western sense. In love duets and battle scenes and wherever narrative portions occur, only one of the characters is active while the other remains passive. But if one removes the single song accompaniment and thinks in terms of a set of songs, or of a counterpoint of songs, each belonging to an individual character and whose words are related as, say, the words of an operatic quartet or sextet are related, then a com­plete ballet in the fullest sense of the word is automatically produced without altering the substance and genius of Kath­akali. One can also remove the words altogether and have an unsung, contrapuntal dance of silent meanings. These experi­ments with Kathakali can be made at no expense to linguistic purity or the flow of mudras, and at no risk of imitating the West to the detriment of indigenous purism.” Holds Fabian Bowers.

Kathakali has been used extensively in Indian productions. Ram Gopal, Anand Shivaram, Guru Gopinath all have used Kathakali extensively as material and even modern dancers like Astad Deboo and Jayahchandran partake of it. Many productions used portions to depicts characters from south India, like Ravana, from Kathakali. The dramatic make-up and costuming makes it very easily accessible and identifiable for various characters. Kathaklai remains only classical dance form of India that has not made way for senseless innovation and tinkering with the form, unlike many other forms notable Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Orissi, even Manipuri. And for that we have to be grateful !

Base book/sources

A Dictionary of Kathakali by K.P.S.Menon, BVB

Fabian Bowers book on Dances of India, London

Traditions of Indian Classcial Dance , Mohan Khokar, Clarions

Classical Dances of India, Ashish Mohan Khokar, Rupa & Co.

Attendance 1999–Kathakali cover, Ashish M.Khokar ,Ekah-printways

Attendance 2012 Kathakali today by A.S.Sharma, Ekah-Printways



Ashish Mohan Khokar learnt Kathak, Bharatanatyam, western ballet and Orissi before taking to arts administration. He served the govt., including the Delhi State Academy for Arts (1984-85); Festivals of India in France, Sweden, Germany and China (1985-90). He was Director of INTACH, under PM’s Chairmanship. He served the Times of India as Dance Critic in Delhi from 1990-2000 and Bangalore 2000-5. He was columnist for Spic Macay’s The Eye, India Today, FirstCity and Avantika. He has longest lasting column on narthaki.com (15 years) . He edits and publishes India’s only yearbook on dance – attendance – now in its 18th year and is Curator of India’s largest dance materials – the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He has written over 40 books on Indian arts and culture; is on many boards and committees (ICCR, DD< IIC, BSM, AFB) serving dance and has mentored many youngsters. He is connected with Universities of Baroda, Bangalore and Bombay; and a Visiting Professor to Madison, Madras, Mauritius. He Chairs the Dance History Society of India that annually awards many and he has pioneered academic dance DISCourses , with rare archival films. A simple Net search shows his outreach and impact. More Details: www.attendance-india.com

Written By:

Ashish Khokar

Ashish Khokar