A Traditional Kathakali Play

Times are changing in Kerala with many performances presented early evening and over by 10.00pm to enable people to go to work the next day.

Audiences for full night Kathakali performances have reduced in numbers drastically since the 1970`s when hundreds of people were gathered round the stage to experience the climax of the night when the evil character is killed just before the sun rises. These days there is often a hand full of people still there at dawn.

However, a traditional Kathakali play is usually performed as part of a village temple festival in the temple forecourt illuminated with lights and decorated with flowers.

The Vilaka - [bras lamp] is lit at the front of the stage and represents divine presence. The play begins with Arrangu Keli - a drumming session played on a Madalam drum to invite the gods to the performance. A satin curtain - Tereshiela - is held up at the front on the stage and represents the state of illusion in Hinduism known as Maya. It is reminiscent of the closed doors of the temple shrine where the priest prays and prepares the images of the gods in private.

As the actors make their way to the stage they travel from earth into the world of the gods. Kathakali is now in its ancestral home - the temple. Todayam - is the first item to be learned by a young Kathakali actor to test his ability to balance, use Mudras, understand facial expressions, keep classical positions and maintain rhythm. Todayam is traditionally performed behind the Tereshiela and out of site of the audience followed by Vandana Slokam - a prayer to the gods.

Purupad follows as a piece of pure dance by junior actors to give them the experience of performing on stage in the heavy Kathakali costumes and make-up. Next we have Melepadam - a musical master piece where senior singers and drummers are given an opportunity to show their outstanding skills. The singers bestow respect to Jayadevan by singing his poems.

When Melapadam has finished the audience has been uplifted and the stage is now prepared for the Kathakali play where good and evil will battle throughout the night until dawn the next day. Chutti artists and costumers work throughout the night to prepare possibly 30 actors for the stage.

When the actor takes his place behind the Tereshiela he first shows respect to the musical instruments and the stage. The Tereshiela is lowered to reveal is magnificent character but only when the actor is ready. At dawn Dansi - a dance ritual is performed by one of the heroic characters in the play to ask for blessings on the audience. The story of the night begins, there are often more than one story performed as the artists and audience continue until dawn.

To experience a full night Kathakali performance is something very special as the play unfolds in the darkness of the night. Time stands still as good battles with evil to bring these magnificent plays alive. Sitting outside the temple on a dirt floor on a mat or uncomfortable plastic chairs is not easy but somehow it doesn`t seem to matter as the incredible characters tell their story.

Years ago the whole village would stay through the night and at the end when the evil character is finally killed, just before the sun rises, everyone pushes to the front of the stage, a surge of excitement passes through the audience and in the blink of an eye it is over. Respect to the deity and the audience is given through the ritual of Danasi and the artists return from the land of the gods to this world.

The Vilika [lamp] is extinguished and the wonderful smell of coconut oil fills the air. Freshly made iddlies and samabar, or something similar, is prepared throughout the night to feed the artists, and the audience, before they leave in the cool air of the early morning.

These memories last a lifetime


Find out more about the background of Kathakali...