The night is dark, the dancing twin flames of the brass lamp, the Kalivilakku, cast a soft glow upon the stage. A conch is blown and the Chenda and Maddalam fill the night with their drumming. The dramatic singing of the vocalists adds to the beauty of the music. From behind the hand held curtain, the tirasseela, emerge otherworldly characters from India’s ancient epics. The Kathakali performance begins.
The colourful make up and heavy costumes, the beautiful rhythmic dance movements, the elaborate gestural language, the melodic vocal music and the dynamic drumming patterns turn the performance into an unforgettable experience. For many hours the artists transport the audience to another realm, where Gods and noble mortals, demons and wild creatures of the imagination are engaged in dramatic confrontations. As mysteriously as they emerge, these Gods and Goddesses, demons and demonesses, heroes and heroines, slip back into the darkness.
Kathakali offers its audience a glimpse into a world larger and grander than their own. This out worldly realm is brought to life by the actor- dancers and musicians. For some, Kathakali is a miracle play, a grand mime, a dance-drama, a ballet, an opera, even a cult play. Kathakali has some aspects of all these forms. Yet it is more. It has a special identity of its own. It is the presentation of a Katha (story) through Kali (play, acting). Kathakali then translates as story play or the acting of a story. The great Hindu Epics and Puranas are sources for the characters, motives and plots of the Kathakali repertoire.
Kathakali is a harmonious blend of Kerala’s distinct art forms – its literature, vocal and percussion music, dance, drama, the visual arts of drawing, painting, sculpture and costume design. The balanced combination of these elements makes Kathakali a unique performing art.
Apart from sheer enjoyment it provides, a Kathakali performance offers the potential to uplift the audience with its underlying ethical and philosophical values. This fine balance of aesthetic beauty, heroic, moral and spiritual content places Kathakali on par with other great dramatic and philosophical forms of Asia, the Japanese Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki, Chinese Beijing Opera and the Wayang theatre of Indonesia.