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Title: Kathakali  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Malayalam, Kottarakkara, Kalaripayattu, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Dhananjayans
Collection: Arts of Kerala, Dances by Name, Kathakali, Theatre in India
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Kathakali performer

Kathakali (Malayalam: കഥകളി, kathakaḷi; Sanskrit: कथकळिः, kathākaḷiḥ) is a stylized classical Indian dance-drama noted for the attractive make-up of characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion. It originated in the country's present day state of Kerala during the 17th century and has developed over the years with improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming.[1]


  • History 1
  • Kathakali plays 2
  • Music 3
  • Performance 4
  • Acting 5
  • Notable training centres and masters 6
  • Kathakali styles 7
  • Other forms of dance and offshoots 8
  • Noted Kathakali villages and belts 9
  • Awards for Kathakali artistes 10
  • Kathakali Attams [Elaki Attams] 11
    • Vana Varnana: Bhima in Kalyana Saugandhika 11.1
    • Udyana Varnana: Nala in Nalacharitham second day 11.2
    • Shabda Varnana: Hanuman in Kalyana Saugandhikam 11.3
    • Thandedattam: Ravana in Bali Vadham 11.4
    • Ashrama Varnana: Arjuna in Kiratham 11.5
      • An Attam Based on a Sloka 11.5.1
      • A Conversation based on a sloka 11.5.2
    • Swarga Varnana: Arjuna in Kalakeya Vadham 11.6
    • Tapas Attam: Ravana in Ravana Ulbhavam 11.7
    • Scene1 11.8
    • Scene2 11.9
    • Kailasa Uddharanam: Ravana in Bali Vijayam 11.10
  • Kottarakkara Thampuran Memorial Kathakali Museum,Kollam,Kerala 12
  • See also 13
  • References 14
  • Bibliography 15


Kathakali performers

Kathakali has its origins almost 1500 years ago in the early ritual folk dances and dance dramas of Kerala, in southern India, such as the dances associated with the cult of Bhagavathy (Thiyyattom, Mudiyettu, and Theyyam), that were performed at religious festivals by actors wearing elaborate masks, colorful costumes and headdresses, and intricately painted faces.;[1] and socio-religious and material dances such as the Sastrakali and Ezhamattukali. Ashtapadiyattom, a dance drama based on the Gita Govinda of the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva, told the story of Krishna embodied as a humble cowherd, his consort Radha, and three cow girls. In 1655, Manavedan, Sri Samoothiri Maharaja of Kozhikode, wrote Krishnagiti, a dance drama to be performed as Krishnattom (Krishnan; attom (enactment)) on eight consecutive nights, incorporating elements of Ashtapadiyattom and Koodiyattam, another form of Sanskrit ritual dance drama. The performance of Krishnattam was strictly restricted to the Guruvayur Temple, palaces of the members of the Samoothiri Royal family, and temples and houses of Namboodiri Brahmins within the jurisdiction of Sri Samoothiri Maharaja's empire.[2] Krishnattam told the story of Krishna, using dance and mime, while the narrative was sung by musicians. According to legend, Kottarakara Thampuran, the Raja of Kottarakara (once a province of Kerala), a great admirer and promoter of traditional art forms, invited His Highness Samoothiri Maharaja to present Krishnattom in Kottarakkara. The Samoothiri Maharaja refused, saying that Krishnattom was not for the unsophisticated audience of southern Kerala. In response, Kottarakara Thampuran composed several plays and created Ramanattom (Raman; attom(enactment)), also performed on eight consecutive nights. At first, Ramanattom enacted stories from Ramayana and other epics, but as it evolved into Kathakali., it began to encompass many stories.[3] Kathakali shared similarities with both Ramanattom and Krishnanattom, but incorporated several outside elements from the folk and martial arts of Kerala which contributed to its popularity.[3] The increasing use of the local language, Malayalam (as a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam, called Manipravaalam) made it more popular among the masses, who could not understand the ancient Sanskrit language. In time, masks were discarded in favor of more elaborate facial make up.[4] Around the seventeenth century, acting became separated from singing, leaving the actors free to concentrate on dramatic expression. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Prince Kottayam wrote four plays based on the Mahabharata, liberating Kathakali from adherence to any particular Hindu epic and distinguishing it from Ramanattom. Emotion expressed in the face became central to performances, and he introduced a white frame around the face, and red features on a green background, to emphasize movements of the facial features. In the eighteenth century, Kapplingattu Nampoothiri (b. 1740) introduced a number of innovations that shaped Kathakali as it is performed today. He improved the percussion accompaniment, and standardized the use of alarrca, the inarticulate cries made by demons and animals. He further borrowed mudras from Koodiyattam, and harmonized their use with body movements. He clarified and defined the five types of character and strengthened the use of three-dimensional makeup. He also developed the “kathi,” (knife) character type, which combined noble features with evil qualities, as the central role in Kathakali plays.[5] Kathakali was traditionally performed during religious festivals. Several Hindu ethnic groups participated in the performance of Kathakali. In its early days, the Nair community dominated because they were often well-versed in the martial art, Kalarippayattu, which is used in Kathakali training and, in a mild form, on the stage. Kathakali, as it is performed today, is just more than four centuries old. It is no longer restricted to temples, palaces and religious festivals, but is often presented in theaters and at special events as entertainment, and is performed far more frequently than the older forms of dance drama to which it is related.

Vallathol Narayana Menon founded the Kerala Kalamandalam and revitalized Kathakali. He stimulated the world's interest in this art during his tours abroad between 1950 and 1953. The revival of the art of Kathakali in modern Kerala was mainly due to the efforts of Vallathol and the Kerala Kalamandalam.

Kathakali plays

According to tradition there are 101 classical Kathakali stories, though less than a third of these are commonly staged at present. Almost all of them were initially composed to last a whole night. Nowadays, there is increasing popularity for concise, or oftener select, versions of stories so as the performance lasts not more than three to four hours from evening. Thus, many stories find stage presentation in parts rather than totality. And the selection is based on criteria like choreographical beauty, thematic relevance/popularity or their melodramatic elements. Kathakali is a classical art form, but it can be appreciated also by novices—all contributed by the elegant looks of its character, their abstract movement and its synchronisation with the musical notes and rhythmic beats. And, in any case, the folk elements too continue to exist. For better appreciation, perhaps, it is still good to have an idea of the story being enacted.

Some of the popular stories enacted are Nalacharitham (a story from the Mahabharata), Duryodhana Vadham (focusing on the Mahabharata war after profiling the build-up to it), Kalyanasougandhikam, (the story of Bhima going to get flowers for his wife Panchali), Keechakavadham (another story of Bhima and Panchali, but this time during their stint in disguise), Kiratham (Arjuna and Lord Shiva's fight, from the Mahabharata), Karnashapatham (another story from the Mahabharata), Nizhalkuthu and Bhadrakalivijayam authored by Pannisseri Nanu Pillai. Also staged frequently include stories like Kuchelavrittam, Santanagopalam, Balivijayam, Dakshayagam, Rugminiswayamvaram, Kalakeyavadham, Kirmeeravadham, Bakavadham, Poothanamoksham, Subhadraharanam, Balivadham, Rugmangadacharitam, Ravanolbhavam, Narakasuravadham, Uttaraswayamvaram, Harishchandracharitam, Kacha-Devayani and Kamsavadham.

Recently, as part of attempts to further popularise the art, stories from other cultures and mythologies, such as those of Mary Magdalene from the Bible, Homer's Iliad, and William Shakespeare's King Lear and Julius Caesar besides Goethe's Faust too have been adapted into Kathakali scripts and on to its stage. Synopsis of 37 kathakali stories are available in


The language of the songs used for Kathakali is Manipravalam. Though most of the songs are set in ragas based on the microtone-heavy Carnatic music, there is a distinct style of plain-note rendition, which is known as the Sopanam style. This typically Kerala style of rendition takes its roots from the temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at several temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.

As with the acting style, Kathakali music also has singers from the northern and southern schools. The northern style has largely been groomed by Kerala Kalamandalam in the 20th century. Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambisan, an overarching Kathakali musician of those times, was a product of the institute. His prominent disciples include Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup, Kalamandalam Gangadharan, Kalamandalam P.G. Radhakrishnan, Rama Varrier, Madambi Subramanian Namboodiri, Tirur Nambissan, Kalamandalam Sankaran Embranthiri, Kalamandalam Hyderali, Kalamandalam Haridas, Subramanian, Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and Kalamandalam Bhavadasan The other prominent musicians of the north feature Kottakkal Vasu Nedungadi, Kottakkal Parameswaran Namboodiri, Kottakkal P.D. Narayanan Namboodiri, Kottakkal Narayanan, Kalamandalam Anantha NarayananKalamandalam Sreekumar Palanad Divakaran, Kalanilayam Rajendran, Kolathappilli Narayanan Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Narayanan Embranthiri, Kottakkal Madhu, Kalamandalam Babu Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Harish and Kalamandalam Vinod. In the south, some of whom are equally popular in the north these days, include Pathiyur Sankarankutty. Southerner musicians of the older generation include Cherthala Thankappa Panikker, Thakazhi Kuttan Pillai, Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup, Thanneermukkam Viswambharan and Mudakkal Gopinathan.


Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is usually conducted at night and ends in early morning. Nowadays it isn't difficult to see performances as short as three hours or fewer. Kathakali is usually performed in front of the huge Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance; vilakku meaning lamp) with its thick wick sunk till the neck in coconut oil. Traditionally, this lamp used to provide sole light when the plays used to be performed inside temples, palaces or abodes houses of nobles and aristocrats. Enactment of a play by actors takes place to the accompaniment of music (geetha) and instruments (vadya). The percussion instruments used are chenda, maddalam (both of which underwent revolutionary changes in their aesthetics with the contributions of Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval) and, at times, edakka. In addition, the singers (the lead singer is called "ponnani" and his follower is called "singidi") use chengila (gong made of bell metal, which can be struck with a wooden stick) and ilathalam (a pair of cymbals). The lead singer in some sense uses the Chengala to conduct the Vadyam and Geetha components, just as a conductor uses his wand in western classical music. A distinguishing characteristic of this art form is that the actors never speak but use hand gestures, expressions and rhythmic dancing instead of dialogue (but for a couple of rare characters).


A Kathakali actor uses immense concentration, skill and physical stamina, gained from regimented training based on Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, to prepare for his demanding role. The training can often last for 8–10 years, and is intensive. In Kathakali, the story is enacted purely by the movements of the hands (called mudras or hand gestures) and by facial expressions (rasas) and bodily movements. The expressions are derived from Natyashastra (the tome that deals with the science of expressions) and are classified into nine as in most Indian classical art forms. Dancers also undergo special practice sessions to learn control of their eye movements.

There are 24 basic mudras—the permutation and combination of which would add up a chunk of the hand gestures in vogue today. Each can again can be classified into 'Samaana-mudras'(one mudra symbolising two entities) or misra-mudras (both the hands are used to show these mudras). The mudras are a form of sign language used to tell the story.

The main facial expressions of a Kathakali artist are the 'navarasams' (Navarasas in anglicised form) (literal translation: Nine Tastes, but more loosely translated as nine feelings or expressions) which are Sringaram (amour), Hasyam (ridicule, humour), Bhayanakam (fear), Karunam (pathos), Roudram (anger, wrath), Veeram (valour), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutam (wonder, amazement), Shantam (tranquility, peace). The link at the end of the page gives more details on Navarasas.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Most often, the make-up can be classified into five basic sets namely Pachcha, Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, and Minukku. The differences between these sets lie in the predominant colours that are applied on the face. Pachcha (meaning green) has green as the dominant colour and is used to portray noble male characters who are said to have a mixture of "Satvik" (pious) and "Rajasik" (dark; Rajas = darkness) nature. Rajasik characters having an evil streak ("tamasic"= evil) -- all the same they are anti-heroes in the play (such as the demon king Ravana) -- and portrayed with streaks of red in a green-painted face. Excessively evil characters such as demons (totally tamasic) have a predominantly red make-up and a red beard. They are called Red Beard (Red Beard). Tamasic characters such as uncivilised hunters and woodsmen are represented with a predominantly black make-up base and a black beard and are called black beard (meaning black beard). Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces and this semi-realistic category forms the fifth class. In addition, there are modifications of the five basic sets described above such as Vella Thadi (white beard) used to depict Hanuman (the Monkey-God) and Pazhuppu, which is majorly used for Lord Shiva and Balabhadra.

Notable training centres and masters

Kathakali artistes need assiduous grooming for almost a decade's time, and most masters are products of accomplished institutions that give a minimum training course of half-a-dozen years. The leading Kathakali schools (some of them started during the pre-Independent era India) are Kerala Kalamandalam (located in Cheruthuruthy near Shoranur), PSV Natya Sangham (located in Kottakal near Kozhikode), Sadanam Kathakali and Classical Arts Academy (or Gandhi Seva Sadan located in Perur near Ottappalam in Palakkad), Unnayi Varier Smaraka Kalanilayam (located in Irinjalakuda south of Thrissur), Margi in Thiruvananthapuram, Muthappan Kaliyogam at Parassinikkadavu in Kannur district and RLV School at Tripunithura off Kochi and Kalabharathi at Pakalkkuri near Kottarakkara in Kollam district, Sandarshan Kathakali Kendram in Ambalapuzha and Vellinazhi Nanu Nair Smaraka Kalakendra in Kuruvattor. Outside Kerala, Kathakali is being taught at the International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi, Santiniketan at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, Kalakshetra in Chennai and Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad among others. PadmaSree Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai mostly known as 'Guru Chengannur'was running a traditional Gurukula Style approach to propagate Kathakali.

‘Guru Chengannur" is ever renowned as the Sovereign Guru of Kathakali. His precision in using symbols, gestures and steps were highest in the field of Kathakali. Guru Chegannur's kaththi vesham, especially the portrayal of Duryodhana enthralled the audience every time he performed. A master of the art, he found immense happiness and satisfaction in the success and recognition of his disciples.

Senior Kathakali exponents of today include Padma Bhushan Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Padma Shri Kalamandalam Gopi, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair, Chemancheri Kunhiraman Nair, Kottakkal Krishnankutty Nair, Mankompu Sivasankara Pillai, Sadanam Krishnankutty, Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody, FACT Padmanabhan, Kottakkal Chandrasekharan, Vakkom Narendran Nair, Margi Vijayakumar, Kottakkal Nandakumaran Nair, Vazhenkada Vijayan, Inchakkattu Ramachandran Pillai, Kalamandalam Kuttan, Mayyanad Kesavan Namboodiri, Mathur Govindan Kutty, Narippatta Narayanan Namboodiri, Chavara Parukutty, Thonnakkal Peethambaran, Sadanam Balakrishnan, Kalanilayam Gopalakrishnan, Chirakkara Madhavankutty, Sadanam K. Harikumaran, Thalavadi Aravindan, Kalanilayam Balakrishnan, Pariyanampatta Divakaran, Kottakkal Kesavan, Kalanilayam Gopi, FACT Jayadevavarma, FACT Mohan, and Kudamaloor Muralikrishnan. The late titan actor-dancers of Kathakali's modern age (say, since the 1930s) include Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, Chenganoor Raman Pillai, Chandu Panicker, Thakazhi Guru Kunchu Kurup, Padma Shri Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Padma Shri Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair, Kavalappara Narayanan Nair, Kurichi Kunhan Panikkar, Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair, Padma Shri Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri, Oyur Kochu Govinda Pillai, Vellinezhi Nanu Nair, Padma Shri Kavungal Chathunni Panikkar, Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair, Kottakkal Sivaraman, Kannan Pattali, Pallippuram Gopalan Nair, Haripad Ramakrishna Pillai, Champakkulam Pachu Pillai, Chennithala Chellappan Pillai, Nattalam Trilochanan Nair, Guru Mampuzha Madhava Panicker, and Vaikkom Karunakaran.

Kathakali is still hugely a male domain but, since the 1970s, females too have made entry into the art form on a recognisable scale. The central Kerala temple town of Tripunithura has, in fact, a ladies troupe (with members belonging to several part of the state) that performs Kathakali, by and large in Travancore.

Kathakali styles

Known as Sampradäyaṃ(Malayalam: സമ്പ്രദായം); these are leading Kathakali styles that differ from each other in subtleties like choreographic profile, position of hand gestures and stress on dance than drama and vice versa. Some of the major original kathakali styles included:

  1. Vettathu Sampradayam
  2. Kalladikkodan Sampradyam
  3. Kaplingadu Sampradayam

Of late, these have narrowed down to the northern (Kalluvazhi) and southern (Thekkan) styles. Northern style was largely developed by the legendary Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1881-1949). It is implemented in Kerala Kalamandalam (though it has also a department that teaches the southern style), Sadanam, RLV and Kottakkal. Margi has its training largely based on the Thekkan style, known for its stress on drama and part-realistic techniques. Kalanilayam, effectively, churns out students with a mix of both styles.

Other forms of dance and offshoots

Kerala Natanam is a kind of dance form, partly based on Kathakali techniques and aesthetics, developed and stylised by the late dancer Guru Gopinath in the mid-20th century. Kathakali also finds portrayal in Malayalam feature films like Vanaprastham, Parinayam, Marattam, and Rangam. Besides documentary films have also been shot on Kathakali artistes like Chenganoor Raman Pillai, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi and Kottakkal Sivaraman.

As for fictional literature, Kathakali finds mention in several Malayalam short stories like Karmen (by N.S. Madhavan) and novels like Keshabharam (by P.V. Sreevalsan). Even the Indo-Anglian work like Arundhati Roy's Booker prize-winning The God of Small Things has a chapter on Kathakali, while, of late, Anita Nair's novel, Mistress, is entirely wrapped in the ethos of Kathakali.

Similar musical theater is popular in Kasaragod and the coastal and Malenadu regions of Karnataka, viz. Yakshagana. Though Yakshagana resembles Kathakali in terms of its costume and makeup to an extent, Yakshagana is markedly different from Kathakali as it involves dialogues and method acting also the narration is in Kannada, wherein philosophical debates are also possible within framework of the character. As per records the art form of Yakshagana was already rooted and well established at the time of Sri Manavedan Raja. There is possibilities of its significant influence in formation of Kathakkali as the troupe of performers of "Krishnanattam" designed the basic costume of the art form already established in other parts of south India including Males playing the female roles (until more recently).

Kottayam thamburan's way of presenting kathakali was later known as Kalladikkoden sambradayam. Chathu Paniker,the introducer of Kallikkoden Sambrathayam, stayed in Kottayam for five years with Kottayam Thamburan's residence and practiced Kalladikkoden Sambrathayam. Then he returned to his home place. After a short period Chathu Paniker reached Pulapatta as instructed by Kuthiravattath nair. That was around the year ME 865. Many deciples from Kadathanadu, Kurumbra nadu, Vettathu nadu, Palakkadu and Perumpadappu studied kathakali(Kalladikkoden Sambrathayam ) By that time Chathu Paniker was an old man. Some years later he died from Pulapatta.

Noted Kathakali villages and belts

There are certain pockets in Kerala that have given birth to many Kathakali artistes over the years. If they can be called Kathakali villages (or some of them, these days, towns), here are some of them: Vellinezhi, Kuruvattoor, Karalmanna, Cherpulassery, Kothachira, peringode, sreekrishnapuram Kongad and Ottapalam in Palakkad district, Vazhenkada in Malappuram district, Thichur or Tichoor, Guruvayur, Thiruvilwamala and Irinjalakuda in Thrissur district, Tripunithura, Edappally, Thekkan Chittoor in Ernakulam district and Kuttanad, Harippad belt in Alappuzha district, Vakkom in Thiruvananthapuram district,Nattalam in Kanyakumari district besides places in and around Thiruvanathapuram in south Travancore and Payyannur in north Malabar.

Awards for Kathakali artistes

  • Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardees - Kathakali (1956–2005)
  • Nambeesan Smaraka Awards—For artistic performances related kathakali{1992-2008}

Kathakali Attams [Elaki Attams]

Attams or more specifically "elaki attams" are sequences of acting within a story acted out with the help of mudras without support from vocal music. The actor has the freedom to change the script to suit his own individual preferences. The actor will be supported ably by Chenda, Maddalam, and Elathalam (compulsory), Chengila (not very compulsory).

The following are only some examples. 'Kailasa Udharanam' and 'Tapas Attam' are very important attams and these are described at the end. Two of the many references are Kathakali Prakaram, pages 95 to 142 by Pannisheri Nanu Pillai and Kathakaliyile Manodharmangal by Chavara Appukuttan Pillai.

Vana Varnana: Bhima in Kalyana Saugandhika

Modern man looks at the forest, indeed the birthplace of primates, with a certain wonder and a certain respect. Kathakali characters are no exception.

When Pandavas were living in the forest, one day, a flower, not seen before, wafted by the wind, comes and falls at the feet of Panchali. Exhilarated by its beauty and smell, Panchali asks Bhima to bring her more such flowers. To her pleasure Bhima is ready to go at once. But Panchali asks him what he shall do for food and drink on the way. Bhima thinks and says "Food and Drink! Oh, this side glance (look) of yours. This look of longing. This look of anticipation. The very thought fills me up. I don't need any food and drink at all. Let me go." He takes his mace and off he goes. Ulsaham (enthusiasm) is his Sdhayi Bhavam (permanent feature).

"Let me go at once in search of this flower," says Bhima. "The scented wind is blowing from the southern side. Let me go that way." After walking some distance he sees a huge mountain called Gandhamadana and three ways. He decides to take the middle one which goes over the mountain. After going further "The forest is getting thicker. Big trees, big branches in all directions. The forest looks like a huge dark vessel into which even light can not penetrate. This is my (Bhima's) way. Nothing can hinder me." So saying he pulls down many trees. Sometimes he shatters the trees with his mace. Suddenly he sees an elephant. "Oh! Elephant." He describes it. Its trunk. Sharp ears.

The itching sensation in the body. It takes some mud and throws on the body. Oh good. Then it sucks water and throws on the body. Somewhat better. Slowly it starts dosing even though alert at times. A very huge python is approaching steadily. Suddenly it catches hold of the elephant's hind leg. The elephant wakes up and tries to disengage the python. The python pulls to one side. The elephant kicks and drags to the other side. This goes on for some time. Bhima looks to the other side where a hungry lion is looking for food. It comes running and strikes the elephants head and eats part of the brain and goes off. The python completes the rest. "Oh my god, how ruthless!" says Bhima and proceeds on his way.

Udyana Varnana: Nala in Nalacharitham second day

Descriptions of gardens are found in most dance forms of India and abroad. These are also common in Kathakali.

Newly married Nala and Damayanthi are walking in the garden. When Nala was lovingly looking at Damayanthi a flower falls on her. Nala is overjoyed and thinks that this is a kindness nature has shown on his wife. Nala says "On seeing the arrival of their queen, the trees and climbers are showing happiness by dropping flowers on you." He tells her, "See that tree. When I used to be alone the tree used to hug the climber and seemingly laugh at my condition." Then he looks at the tree and says, "Dear Tree, look at me now. See how fortunate I am with my beautiful wife."

Both wander about. A bumblebee flies towards Damayanthi. Immediately Nala protects her face with a kerchief. He looks at the bee and then at Damayanthi. He says, "On seeing your face the bee thought it was a flower and came to drink the nectar." Nala and Damayanthi listen to the sounds coming out of the garden. Damayanti says, "It appears that the whole garden is thrilled. The flowers are blooming and smiling. Cuckoos are singing and the bees are dancing. Gentle winds are blowing and rubbing against our bodies. How beautiful the whole garden looks." Then Nala says that the sun is going down and it is time for them to go back and takes her away.

Shabda Varnana: Hanuman in Kalyana Saugandhikam

While Bhima goes in search of the flower, here Hanuman is sitting doing Tapas with mind concentrated on Sri Rama.

When he hears the terrible noises made by Bhima in the forest he feels disturbed in doing his Tapas. He thinks "What is the reason for this?" Then the sounds become bigger. "What is this?" He thinks, "The sounds are getting bigger. Such a terrible noise. Is the sea coming up thinking that the time is ripe for the great deluge (Pralaya). Birds are flying helter-skelter. Trees look shocked. Even Kali Yuga is not here. Then what is it? Are mountains quarreling with each other? No, That can't be it. Indra had cut off the wings of mountains so that they don't quarrel. Is the sea changing its position? No it can't be. The sea has promised it will not change its position again. It can't break the promise." Hanuman starts looking for clues. "I see elephants and lions running in fear of somebody. Oh a huge man is coming this way. Oh, a hero is coming. He is pulling out trees and throwing it here and there. Okay. Let him come near, We will see."

Thandedattam: Ravana in Bali Vadham

After his theranottam Ravana is seen sitting on a stool. He says to himself "I am enjoying a lot of happiness. What is the reason for this?" Thinks. "Yes I know it. I did Tapas to Brahma and received all necessary boons. Afterwards I won all ten directions. I also defeated my elder brother Vaishravana. Then I lifted Kailas mountain when Siva and Parvathi were having a misunderstanding. Parvathi got frightened and embraced Siva in fear. Siva was so happy he gave a divine sword called Chandrahasa. Now the whole world is afraid of me. That is why I am enjoying so much happiness." He goes and sits on the stool. He looks far away. "Who is coming from a distance. he is coming fast. Oh, it is Akamba. Okay. Let me find out what news he has for me."

Ashrama Varnana: Arjuna in Kiratham

Arjuna wants to do Tapas to Lord Siva and he is looking a suitable place in the Himalayan slopes. He comes to place where there is an ashram. Arjuna looks closely at the place. "Oh. What a beautiful place this is. A small river in which a very pure water is flowing. Some hermits are taking baths in the river. Some hermits are standing in the water and doing Tapas. Some are facing the Sun. Some are standing in between five fires." Arjuna salutes the hermits from far. He says to himself "Look at this young one of a deer. It is looking for its mother. It seems to be hungry and thirsty. Nearby a female tiger is feeding its young ones. The little deer goes towards the tigress and pushes the young tiger cubs aside and starts drinking milk from the tigress. The tigress looks lovingly at the young deer and even licks its body as if it were its own child. How beautiful. How fulfilling."

Again he looks "Here on this side a mongoose and a serpent forgetting their enmity are hugging each other. This place is really strange and made divine by saints and hermits. Let me start my Tapas somewhere nearby."

A sloka called "Shikhini Shalabha" can be selected instead of the above if time permits.

An Attam Based on a Sloka

Sansrit slokas are sometimes shown in mudras and it has a pleasing and exhilarating effect. Different actors use slokas as per his own taste and liking. However, the slokas are taught to students during their training period. An example is given below.

Kusumo Kusumolpatti Shrooyathena Chathushyathe
Bale thava Mukhambuje Pashya Neelolpaladwayam

Meaning a flower blooming inside another flower is not known to history. But, my dear, in your lotus like face are seen two blue Neelolpala flowers (eyes).

A Conversation based on a sloka

Sanskrit slokas can also be used to express an intent. One such example is a sloka used by Arjuna addressed to Mathali the charioteer in Kalakeya Vadham. Sloka:
Pitha: Kushalee Mama hritha Bhujaam
Naatha Sachee Vallabha:
Maatha: kim nu Pralomacha Kushalinee
Preethim va Kushchate Thadikshnavidhow
Cheta Samutkanuthe
Sutha: tvam Radhamashu Chodaya vayam
Dharmadivam Mathala

Meaning: The husband of Indrani and the lord of gods my father - Is he in good health? His son Jayantha - Is he strictly following the commands of his father? Oh, I am impatient to see all of them.

Swarga Varnana: Arjuna in Kalakeya Vadham

Arjuna goes to heaven on the invitation of his father, Indra. After taking permission from Indrani he goes out to see all the places in Swarga. First he sees a building, his father's palace. It is so huge with four entrances. It is made of materials superior to gold and jewels of the world. Then he goes ahead and sees Iravatha. Here he describes it as a huge elephant with four horns. He is afraid to touch it. Then he thinks that animals in Swarga can't be cruel like in the world and so thinking he goes and touches and salutes Iravatha. He describes the churning of the white sea by gods and demons with many details and how Iravatha also came out of the white sea due to this churning.

He walks on and sees his father's (Indra's) horse. It is described as being white and its mane is sizzling like the waves of the white sea from which it came. He touches and salutes the horse also. Then he goes to see the river of the sky (or milky way). He sees many birds by this river and how the birds fly and play is shown.

Then he sees the heavenly ladies. Some are collecting flowers, and one of them comes late and asks for some flowers for making garland. The others refuse. She goes to the Kalpa Vriksha and says "please give me some flowers." Immediately a shower of flowers occurs which she collects in her clothes and goes to make garlands chiding the others. "See... I also got flowers." After this he sees the music and dance of the heavenly ladies. First it starts with the adjustments of instruments Thamburu, Mridangam, Veena. Then the actual music starts along with the striking of cymbals. Then two or three types of dances are shown. Then comes juggling of balls. It is described by a sloka thus:

Ekopi Thraya Iva Bhathi Kandukoyam
Kanthayaa: Karathala Raktharaktha:
Abhrastho Nayanamareechi Neelaneelo
Popular belief is that kathakali is emerged from "Krishnanattam", the dance drama on the life and activities of Lord Krishna created by Sri Manavedan Raja, the Zamorin of Calicut (1585-1658 AD). Once Kottarakkara Thampuran, the Raja of Kottarakkara who was attracted by Krishnanattam requested the Zamorin for the loan of a troupe of performers. Due to the political rivalry between the two, Zamorin did not allow this. So Kottarakkara Thampuran created another art form called Ramanattam which was later transformed into Aattakatha. Krishnanaattam was written in Sanskrit, and Ramanattam was in Malayalam. By the end of 17th century, Attakatha was presented to the world with the title 'Kathakali'. Kathakali also shares a lot of similarities with Krishnanattam, Koodiyattam (a classical Sanskrit drama existing in Kerala) and Ashtapadiyattam (an adaptation of 12th-century musical called Gitagovindam). It also incorporates several other elements from traditional and ritualistic art forms like Mudiyettu, Thiyyattu, Theyyam and Padayani besides a minor share of folk arts like Porattunatakam. All along, the martial art of Kalarippayattu has influenced the body language of Kathakali. The use of Malayalam, the local language (albeit as a mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam, called ), has also helped the literature of Kathakali sound more transparent for the average audience. As a part of modernising, propagating, promoting and popularizing Kathakali, the International Centre for Kathakali at New Delhi has taken up a continuing project since 1980 of producing new plays based on not only traditional and mythological stories, but also historical stories, European classics and Shakespeare's plays. Recently they produced Kathakali plays based on Shakespeare's Othello and Greek-Roman mythology of Psyche and Cupid. Even though the lyrics/literature would qualify as another independent element called Sahithyam, it is considered as a component of Geetha or music, as it plays only a supplementary role to Bhumau Talcharana Naghamshu Gaurgaura:

Meaning One ball looks like three balls. When it is in the hands of the juggler, it takes the redness of the hands, when it goes up it takes the blueness of the eyes, when it strikes the ground it becomes white from the whiteness of the leg nails. Once a juggled ball falls down. Then she, the juggler, somehow manages to proceed and remarks "See.. how I can do it".

At one time a garment slips from a lady's body and she adjusts the cloth showing shameful shyness (Lajja). Then the ladies go in for a Kummi dance. As Arjuna was enjoying this dance, suddenly somebody calls him. Arjuna feels scared. "Oh God, where am I?" he says and beats a hasty retreat.

Tapas Attam: Ravana in Ravana Ulbhavam

[Background: Mali, Sumali and Malyavan were three brothers ruling Sri Lanka. During a war between them and Indra, Indra requested help from Lord Vishnu and as a consequence Lord Vishnu killed Mali. Sumali and Malyavan escaped to Patala. Kaikasi was the daughter of Sumali. She wandered in the forest. She belong three boys through a great sage called Vishravassu. (Vishravassu had an earlier son called Vaishravana who became the richest among all people.) The eldest boy of Kaikasi was Ravana followed by Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana.]


When Ravana was a young boy (Kutti Ravana vesham), one day he was sleeping on his mothers lap in a place called madhuvanam. At that time Kaikasi sees Vaishravana flying overhead in his vimana (mythical aeroplane). She thinks "Oh, that is Vaishravana, technically a brother of my son who is sleeping on my lap. He is rich and strong. My son is so poor and weak. While thinking thus a drop of tear from her eyes drops on Ravana’s face. Ravana suddenly wakes up and sees his mother crying. When he knew the reason he could not bear it. He says he is going to do tapas to Brahma to get boons so that he will be strong and rich.


(The tapas itself is shown as a part of autobiographical narration of adult ravana)

Ravana (adult Ravana, not kutti Ravana) is sitting on a stool. He thinks "Why am I so happy? How did I become so rich and strong? Oh yes. It is because of the tapas I did. What made me do the tapas? When I was a young boy, one day I was sleeping on my mother’s lap in a place called Madhuvanam. A drop of tear from her eyes falls on my face. I asked her why she was crying. She said she saw Vaishravana flying overhead in his vimana (plane). She told me Vaishravan was a brother of mine now flying in a plane. He is rich and strong. I am so poor and weak. When I heard this comparison between me and my brother, I could not bear it. I am going to do tapas to Brahma to get boons so that I will be strong and rich.

I made five different types of fires (while doing tapas gods are approached through Agni the god of fire). Then I started my tapas. I asked my brothers to stand guard and also keep the fires burning. Then I fully concentrated on tapas. Time passed but Brahma did not appear. I looked. Why is Brahma not appearing? I doubled my concentration. Time passed. Brahma is not appearing. Still not appearing? I cut one of my heads and put it in the fire. Waited, Brahma did not come. One more head rolls. Still no Brahma comes. Heads roll and roll. No Brahma. Only one head is left. First I thought of stopping my tapas. But no! Never! That will be an insult to me and my family. It is better to die than stop. Also when I die Brahma will be judged as being partial. With great determination I swung the sword at my last neck, when, lo and behold, suddenly Brahma appeared and caught my hand. I looked at him with still un-subsided, but gradually subsiding anger. Brahma asked me what boons I wanted. I asked for a boon that I should win all the worlds and have all the wealth and fame and that I should not be killed except by man. I also asked him to give boons for my brothers.

In the next scene Ravana asks Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana what boons they got. Unfortunately Kumbhakarna’s tongue got twisted while asking for boon and he got ‘sleep’ instead of becoming the ‘king of gods’. Ravana laughed it off. As for Vibhishana, he being a bhaktha of Vishnu, asked for Vishnu’s blessings and got it. Ravana laughs it off and also decides to conquer all the worlds and starts preparing his grand army for the big conquest of the worlds.

[This method of presentation with a peculiar sequence has a tremendous dramatic affect. The main actor redoes a small part of what happened to kutti Ravana vesham, and this gives a view of the high contrast between the boy and the man Ravana. Similarly the presence of Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana in the subsequent scene offers a good smile on the face of the viewer at the end of the play.]

Kailasa Uddharanam: Ravana in Bali Vijayam

[Background and Previous scene: After receiving the boons, and widening his kingdom in all directions, Ravana lives in Sri Lanka with great pomp and splendor. One day he sees Saint Narada approaching his palace singing songs in praise of him ‘Jaya jaya Ravana, Lanka Pathe’. Happily he receives Narada and seats him next to him. After telling Narada about the victory of his son Indrajith on Indra, Ravana tells Narada "Now there is nobody on earth or other worlds who can fight with me". To this Narada replies " Very true indeed, but there is one huge monkey called Bali who says he can defeat you. He even said that you are just like a blade of grass to him. Well let him say what he wants. You are unbeatable." Then Narada says ‘let us go there and see him’. Both decide to go. But Ravana takes his famous sword called "Chandrahasam". Then Narada asks the history of this sword. Ravana’s Attam Starts.]

Ravana says "I received this sword from Lord Siva. It happened thus. Once when I was conquering new places and expanding my empire I happened to be going across the Kailasa mountain. The plane got stuck on the mountain unable to move forward. I got down from the plane and looked at the mountain. (Looks from one end to the other first horizontally and then vertically.) So huge it was. Then I decided to lift it with my bare hand and keep it aside and move forward. I started sticking my hands under it one by one. Then I tried to lift it. It doesn’t move. I put more force and more force. It moved just a bit. I pushed harder and harder, slowly it started moving then again and again and it moved easily. Then I lifted it up with my hands and started juggling it (exaggeration evident).

"At that particular time Lord Siva was quarreling with his wife Parvathi. Why did they fight? The story is as follows. Parvathi had gone for enjoying swimming and bathing in some beautiful pond. At that time Siva opened his jata (disheveled long hair) and called Ganga for some entertainment after asking Ganapathi and Subramania to go for some errands. Somehow becoming suspicious, right at that time, Parvathi came back in a hurry with wet clothes and saw Siva with Ganga. Siva was wondering what to do and it was at that time that Ravana started lifting the Kailasa. When Kailasa started shaking Parvathi got scared and ran to Siva and hugged him. So the quarrel ended and Siva was happy. "As a reward Siva called me and gave me this famous Chandrahasa sword."

Then Narada and Ravana leave to meet Bali. Ravana wanted to take the sword along with him, but Narada suggested that the sword is not required for teaching a lesson to Bali who is after all an unarmed monkey.

Kottarakkara Thampuran Memorial Kathakali Museum,Kollam,Kerala

See also


  1. ^
  • Alice Boner"Kathakali", Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, June 1935, pp 1–14.


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