Last updated: December 21, 2023

What Does Kathakali Mean?

Kathakali is an ancient form of theater that originated in the state of Kerala in India. This Sanskrit word literally means “story play.” It is one of the oldest theater forms in the world and is distinguished by the elaborate makeup and costumes that the performers wear, as well as the symbolic gestures and dance movements.

The kathakali themes are based in Hinduism and yogic philosophy. The stories typically come from ancient narratives, like the “Mahabarata” and the “Ramayana,” and the scriptures called the Puranas.


Yogapedia Explains Kathakali

Traditionally, a kathakali would begin in the evening and last until dawn. Today, many are abridged versions, lasting four hours or less. There are 101 classic stories that can be staged in a kathakali, but less than a third are performed today.

The kathakali dancing consists of nritya (pure dance) and abhinaya (mime). To help tell the story, kathakali employs various dance movements and mudras (symbolic gestures that are also used in yoga). Through these gestures, footwork and body movements, the kathakali performer communicates phrases and stories.

The makeup is symbolic, too. Certain colors indicate the category and nature of the character portrayed by the dancer. For example, a god, such as Rama, or other noble male character will have his face painted green.

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