While in Cochin, India I attended a makeup and abbreviated Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali means “Story-Play”. It is a unique blend of dance, music and acting using the entire body. It incorporates movements from the ancient martial arts and athletic traditions of south India employing animated hand gestures and facial expressions. Telling stories from Indian epics, Kathakali is known for its large and heavy costumes, elaborate makeup and head-dresses. This dance form originated around the 16th or 17th century although elements of it can be traced back to approximately 200BC. There are over 500 plays but today only about 50 are actively performed. Dancers are rigorously trained and Kathakali training schools can be found all over India as well as in the US. Traditionally the performances begin at dusk and continue through dawn, but our make-up session and performance was about 2 hours.
Kathakali makeup is an elaborate process lasting for about 3 hours. It is so heavy that it looks like a mask and all the colors in the makeup come from natural herbs and substances. The makeup follows a code that helps the audience to identify the characters – gods, goddesses, demons, saints, animals maidens, etc. Seven basic makeups are used in Kathakali. We saw two: Pachcha (green) with lips painted brilliant coral red portrays noble characters and sages and Tati (red) is the code for someone with an evil streak, etc. . You will notice in the images that the dancer’s eyes are red allowing the them to vividly pop out against the made-up face. Our performance included the character Kalasam (in green make-up) and Lalitha the beautiful girl in red. You can see the stages of applying the makeup in the images below.
The performance includes music, singing, hand and facial gestures and footwork. The repertoire includes a series of sections. First comes a preliminary dance that emphasizes the dancer’s skill in expressing emotion with just the face and the eyes. The dancers master control of their facial muscles through years of rigorous training. The nine emotions they master are: love/pleasure/delight, comic/laugh/mocking, pathetic/sad, anger/fury, vigor/enthusiasm/heroic, fear/concern/worry, disgust/repulsive/, wondrous/marvel/curious, and peace/tranquility.