The Birth of Kathakali

Kathakali - Story - Play


In the 17th century it is alleged that the King of Kottaraka, south Kerala, was intrigued by the power of the Krishnattam performers.

He invited the Krishnanattam Troupe to perform in south Kerala, the King of Calicut refused his invitation so the King of Kotarraka created eight new stories based on the life of Lord Rama and called the art form Ramanattam.

Writers and poets began to create stories from other sacred books such as the Mahabharatha, therefore, Ramanattam was no longer an appropriate name.

The name for the new stories was changed to KATHA [meaning story] KALI [meaning play] and Kathakali was born.



Photo Garry Laybourn

Sacred theatre had now reached the doors of one of the most powerful forms of story-telling in world theatre.

Kathakali unlocked the mystery of the Sanskrit poems and made them accessible to the wider community.

In the mid 17th century improvements to the performing style of Kathakali were made by Vettathu Raja living north east of Kochi. He introduced several important developments to Kathakali:

1: Two singers to invoke harmony - Pooni Karan and Sindi Karana.

2: The chengila [cymbols] to provide the Tala - beat.

3: The Chenda - a powerful drum originally used in temple rituals and to accompany the Thol Pava Kuttu puppets.

4: The Thiranukuu - a method of introducing the characters in the play from behind a satin curtain, called a Tereshiela, held at the front of the stage.

The King of Kottarakara also made significant changes to Kathakali by introducing Malayalam into the Sanskrit singing and presenting the plays in the temple forecourt so that the local people could experience them.

Kathakali had now reached the local people and became their doorway into the sacred stories of Hinduism.

The Kottayam King of north Kerala wrote four magnificent stories that became the basis of Kathakali and a requirement of a Kathakali actor to master.



Olappamanna Mana - Kaliyogam

Kathakali is an extraordinary combination of the arts, where each element merges to create total theatre to exemplify human behaviour and express our eternal desire to attain spirituality.

At the end of the 17th century a number of Kathakali Troupes called Kali Yogam were established to develop Kathakali. The Kali Yagam was managed by the lead actor who was responsible for the training, rehearsals [that took place in the monsoon season] and arranged the performances in the temples throughout Kerala.

Although Kathakali originally flourished, it went into decline in the 19th century due to the invasion of various nations, including the British and the patronage of royalty slowly reduced.

It was the small Kali Yogams and the Namboodiri families that enabled Kathakali to survive. Olappammana situated in the small village of Vellinazhri was the home of the Namboodiri family who supported Kathakali for 300 hundred years.

They played an important role in the preservation of Kathakali and the creation of great Kathakali masters.

Ithiraricha Menon, was one of the original teachers at Olapammanna Manna, the grandfather of modern Kathakali and the creator of Kalluzhari style Kathakali.

Kathakali, and the other classical arts of Kerala, were suffering in the early part of the 20th century.

Kali Yogams, including Olappamanna Mana Kaliyogam, were unable to maintain large Kathakali groups.

The poet Vallathol Narayanan, Menon, and Mukunda Raja, founded the Kerala Kalamandalam in the village of Cheruthuruthy to preserve the arts of Kerala.

The Kathakali artists from Olapammanna transferred to the Kerala Kalamandalam to form the first group of teachers [ashan`s] who together established Kathakali as an international art form.

Without the support provided by Namboodri's families such as Olapamanna and establishments such as the Kerala Kalamandalam the classical arts of Kerala may not have survived.

Olapamanna Mana continues to support festivals and performances in the village and offers a chance for tourists to stay in their home stay and follow in the footsteps of the Kathakali masters.



Ithiraricha Menon


Vallathol Narayanan Menon

Other institutions to include PSV Natyasnagam Kottakal, Margi Kathakali School, Kalanilayam Irinjadakkuda and Sadanam Kathakali School have all contributed to the preservation and development of Kathakali into the 21st century. By training artists and performing throughout Kerala, India and internationally they are preserving the remarkable heritage of Kerala for future generations to enjoy.

The Kala Chethena Kathakakli Company was established by Kathakali chutti artist, Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar and Kathakali actor, Kalamandalam Vijayakumar to bring the art and culture of Kathakali to the people of the UK.

They have both worked endlessly for 30 years to bring classical Kathakali to thousands of people of all ages and abilities throughout Britain.

The Kala Chathena Kathakali Company is a registered charity with a mission is to increase understanding and enjoyment of Kathakali and non western theatre for all ages and abilities.



Early Kathakali - Kalamandalam Govinda Warrier Ashan with his Student


Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar - The First Female Chutti Artist in the World

To achieve this the company engage highly trained and experienced Kathakali artists, provide specially designed workshops and welcome people to see the make-up, the costumes and meet the artists.

Since 1987 the Kala Chethena Kathakali company have presented over 1,500 full company Kathakali performances, 3,000 solo performance and workshops and 23 exhibitions of Kathakali costumes.



Kathakali with its magnificent costumes and make-up, complex drumming, sensitive singing and powerful acting will survive and continue to inspire, educate and entice people from all over the world into the splendour of Kathakali.

Photo credits Mark Bennett – Garry Laybourne