Kerala diaries 3: A story told through dance

We had the opportunity to watch a Kathakali dance performance while we were in Kochi, and grabbed it with both hands. Now, viewing a Kathakali dance performance had been on my bucket list for long. So, we when we discovered that the Cochin Cultural Centre held performances every day, we could not contain our excitement and booked tickets right away. We were not at all disappointed. The show was simply superb, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Kathakali is said to have originated in Kerala as far back as the 17th century, and has undergone several changes since then. The dance gestures and costumes have become more elaborate over time. In those days, Kathakali performances used to begin in the evening, go on all through the night, and end only in the morning, considering that people had very few other modes of entertainment. As lives got busier, the performances started getting shorter and shorter, and now, hardly extend for more than 2 hours. The performance that we saw lasted for a little more than an hour.

The word ‘Kathakali’ is made up of two distinct words – katha (meaning ‘story’) and kali (meaning ‘performance’).A Kathakali performance is, thus, a story told in the form of a performance. The dance we got to see was ‘Keechakavadha’, based on a story from the Mahabharata about the slaying of the demon Keechaka.

As a wonderful bonus, we got to see the artistes getting dressed up in their finery and applying their make-up before the performance. That, again, was something I had always wanted to do. It was quite a sight to see – watching simple, demure men transform into grandly dressed heroes and heroines and fiery demons! My heart was in my mouth to see the amount of make-up that went on each artist’s face, but I relaxed visibly when we were told that all the make-up for Kathakali performances is done using entirely natural ingredients, like rice paste and the powder from stones and flowers.

This is the artist who played the lady in the performance. Can you believe the transformation?
The artist who played the hero, getting dressed for the performance
The making of Keechaka, the demon

There is very little or no speech in a Kathakali dance performance. The story is narrated entirely through the song (which a singer sings in the background), the eye and hand movements of the artistes, and little grunts and other songs made by them. I never knew grunts could be so expressive!

Keechaka in action – again, can you believe the transformation?
A still from the performance. Do notice the beautiful, traditional Kerala temple in the backdrop.
The slaying of the demon Keechaka – a scene that was beautifully carried out.

I was initially afraid that I might get bored during the performance or not understand it at all. Thankfully, all my fears turned out to be ill-founded. I was spellbound throughout the show, and could not take my eyes off the artistes. The same was the case with the OH and the 20-odd guests we watched the performance with. I had no problem at all in grasping any part of the story. The performance was not at all slow, but went at the right pace. I did not even know when it came to an end!

I am so glad to see the art of Kathakali is being accepted so well by Indians and foreigners alike. Unlike many other Indian folk arts and crafts, there are considerable steps being taken to keep this dance form alive, I am delighted to note.

We had not known what to expect out of the performance, but now, I am so very happy that we took a chance and went to see it. It is an experience worth having in life, something that each of you should do whenever you are in Kerala.

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Have you read Part 1 and Part 2 of this travelogue?

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25 thoughts on “Kerala diaries 3: A story told through dance

    1. @Amit

      Yes, Kathakali is all about facial expressions. Considering that there is no speech at all in the entire performance, the story is told fully through facial expressions. No wonder they need all that make-up to highlight those facial expressions to the best!

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    1. @Swaram

      Wow, I didn’t know you have been to Munnar. That is still pending on our travel list. 🙂 Will read your post soon.

      We were also explained the various mudras of Kathakali and their meaning. Was absolutely lovely!

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  1. Such a wonderful post TGND – you took me through the process so beautifully! Loved every snap and every detail and loved how it culminated the way it did!

    K and I plan to do Kerala together for a week – something we will want to do definitely! 🙂
    It makes me mull over the transformation we travel-lovers see after a couple of journeys. I had been to Kerala a couple of years ago – I wanted to see the temples, the beaches, buy a Kerala saree and generally eat obnoxious amounts of banana chips. But now, my wish-ist looks so different. It is a wonderful feeling. Pretty much one of those rare experiences, even words can’t describe.

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    1. @Kismi

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Kismi. 🙂

      Yes, we do evolve as we travel more and more. The first time I went to Kerala, I just did what you have mentioned – boathouse, temples, eat chips and buy sarees and other souvenirs. Now, I want to do different things. 🙂

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  2. Loved the pictorial details of kathakali dance 🙂

    My only contact with this form was when I was in high school. We had an ‘Incredible India’ theme for our talent day and this was one of the performances. So we all sat and painted (yes, painted) the face of two of our friends. And, it actually turned out fab 🙂

    Would love to watch a performance live someday 🙂

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  3. “I never knew that grunts could be so expressive!”

    ROFL!!

    But seriously, you got see the makeup process!! That’s awesome! You are the first person I know who has done it. Everyone just comes back saying that the performance was great. The off stage experience must have made it all the more special for you!

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    1. @Dreamer

      No, really. I didn’t know a person could say so much through a simple grunt. 🙂

      Yes, it was an awesome experience to see the make-up process. That was a big part of the charm for us. As soon as we came to know we could watch the artistes putting on their make-up, we got super-eager to watch the performance. 🙂

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  4. I am always fascinated by this dance form Kathakali. Did a painting of it some years back, inspired by it. I love their facial expressions and how a simple man transforms to an entire different person as soon as the make up is on. I have not got a chance to watch it live (as a show) but I have caught glimpses of the dance many times during my childhood. (We lived in defense locality with people from all regions of India and I was lucky to get invited to a few functions held by the Malayalee Samajam of our area). I would surely love to go watch it again.

    Loved this post beyond words TNGD.

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    1. @Greenboochi

      Thank you so much, GB! 🙂

      I hadn’t witnessed a Kathakali performance before this, either live or on TV. I had only seen pictures and read about it, and was fascinated by that alone. I am so glad I got a chance to see a live performance.

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  5. Its one of the toughest dance forms because your facial expressions have to be bang on…yes, the male dancers don the female grab and its really astonishing to see the change in them..I wasnt aware that they still use natural ingredients for the make up..thats wonderful..I have not see a live kathakali performance but watched a dozen on TV..watching any dance performance live gives me goosebumps!

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