Kathakali Indian Classical Dance

Kathakali, one of the oldest dance forms of the world, originated in Kerala, a coastal state in South India. It dates back to the seventeenth century and is deeply rooted in mythology. Kathakali, which literally means 'story-play', has a unique combination of dance, music, drama, literature and painting. The origin of Kathakali lies in several traditional art forms. Its roots lie in Koodiyattom, the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater in India that has been preserved in Kerala for centuries, by a small community called Chakyar as a part of their hereditary temple service.

Krishnanattom, another form of dance-drama considered fore runner to Kathakali, is performed even today at the famous Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayoor, Kerala.

Besides these two forms, elements from martial, ritualistic, socio-religious arts have also influenced in the making of Kathakali. Kathakali can be said to be the fruit of a fusion between all Indian theatre tradition represented by Koodiyattom and the indigenous tradition of folk dance forms.

Kottarakara Thampuran, the chieftain of Kottarakkara penned the first play of Kathakali performance. A cycle of eight plays depicting various incidents of Ramayana, the great Indian epic, was performed. The performance of each story, known as ramanottam (play pertaining to Rama, the epic hero) lasted for six to eight hours. Eventually, stories from other epics and Puranas were also included and Ramanottam evolved as Kathakali. In the beginning, the actors themselves sung their verses and colourful masks were used abundantly. Maddalam (two headed barrel shaped drum), a Chengila (metal gong) and Elathalam (a pair of cymbals) were the musical instruments used during performances. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. The style of singing particular to Kathakali is called Sopaanam. The orchestra of a Kathakali troupe is unique and provides not only the background to the dancing, but also serves as a highly expressive special effects team.

The best known Kathakali playwrights are Kottayam Thampuran, who wrote four stories based on Mahabharatha; Irayamman Thampi, who was both a good poet and composer, accredited three stories; Unnayi Warrier, the author of Nalacharitham (Story of King Nala); and Vayaskara Moosad who wrote one of the popular stories -- Duryodhana Vadham.

In olden days, Kathakali performance generally took place at the temple premises or at the house of the local landowner. A simple canopy housing a ground-level stage and a green room would be erected. The stage would be decorated with coconut leaves, bunches of areca nuts etc. The only source of light was a big bell metal lamp placed down the centre stage.

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