Rendezvous With Kathakali Classical Dance Drama


Kathakali is visually the most appealing and most easily recognizable classical dance form in India. Elaborate makeup and voluminous costumes make the dancers stand apart from any other form. Last week I had the opportunity to watch one of their performance. And more importantly, got to see the dancers getting ready for the performance. You can read about the historical and technical details of the dance on Wikipedia.

All decked up classical dance-drama Kathakali performer
All decked up classical dance-drama performer

Here I share my experience of shooting the in-progress makeup and the performance.

Kathakali Classical Dance Drama

Kathakali performer make-up in-progress
A performer’s make-up in-progress


It is a tedious task to get dressed as a drama dance performer. It takes hours and hours of time and patience. And begins with the face makeup, where the base color is applied to the face and designs painted over it. The base color is chosen according to the character being played e.g. Green for the heroes, Red color and Black for evil characters, and pale yellow for female characters. The eyes are colored red by putting a flower extract and make the face look even more dramatic. The face extensions made of simple white chart paper are applied using rice powder paste. You need a makeup artist to help you put this.

Draupadi role performer makeup in progress for Kathakali Performa
Draupadi role performer makeup is in progress


After this, the flair for the lower garment is added to the waist, before it is covered with the red-bordered white skirt. This is followed by wearing up the upper garment. And the layers and layers of jewelry, around the neck, wrists, waist, and arms. Then comes the time to wear bands around the forehead. That adds to the color and formation of already applied makeup.


A very heavy headgear or Kirit is fixed on the head on top of a plain scarf. Headgear is elaborately embellished both in front and at the back. Big extension earrings are tied and look like huge ears. Long hair extensions are fixed. Metallic nail extensions are applied that makes the fingers appear longer and more discreetly visible. Depending on the character 4-5 Uttariyas or upper garments are hung around the neck, with knotted ends, one of these has mirrors affixed to them. Sometimes during the performances, artists would quickly use them to check their makeup or expression. And sometimes use it as a prop for the dance.

Facial makeup in progress for the Kathakali perfomer
Facial makeup in progress for the performer

Kathakali Performance Deepam

The classical dance performance happens in front of a huge Deepam called Keli. Traditionally the performance happened from late evening to dawn. And the lamp served as the only source of light. Now it is a part of the tradition. The live music is played using various drums and singers sing on the stage as dancers take center stage. Characters are introduced from behind a curtain before they start performing. Covered in layers and layers of garments, makeup, and accessories.

Traditional dance form performers mingle with the audience to engage
Traditional dance form performers mingle with the audience to engage

The key parts used by the dancers to express are the eyes with extensive eyebrow movements. Hands with various mudras and feet with Ghoongrus tied at the knee level.

A performers headgear rear side
A performers headgear rear side


The theme of this classical dance-drama performance was Mahabharata. There were seven scenes that depicted the crux of the epic. During the performance, two characters came off the stage and went into the crowd. The whole auditorium became a stage. There were a few scenes where they repeated this. And this enthused the audience a lot as they could feel the characters close to them. Click pictures with them and feel a part of the play. This also created space for some impromptu acts by the actors with the audience. Now is this not how all our traditional performances used to be before the advent of ticketed events?

Kathakali performance and its central lamp
Kathakali performance and its central lamp

I thought the 3+ hours of performance was too long. When I came back and read about it I realized that this is the shortest performance of the dance drama. Yes with so much time invested in preparing for each performance, they better perform for some time.

Thank you, Suresh Ji, for inviting me to this wonderful performance that was as much an education for me.

Recommend you to read the following travel blog posts.

Padmanabhapuram Palace, Fort & Town

Top Kanyakumari Tourist Places for You to Visit

Ponmudi Hills – Southern end of the Western Ghats in Kerala

Ayurveda for the Travelers

South Kerala – First Impressions


  1. I have known most of all things after reading your blog. Rendezvous with Kathakali. Very nice description with pics. Thanks and keep it up.


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