Kathakali: Cultural preserver of classic tales


By Akash Shukla

Based on Hinduism and charged with powerful drama, it unfolds drama, devotion, dance, and music. Kathakali does it all to create one of the most impressive forms of sacred theatre in the world.

Embracing centuries of tradition and culture, it is not just a dance-drama but a devotion act showcasing the perennial tug-of-war between good and evil.

From then to now, Kathakali continues to provide a window into the past and a sneak peek into the ancient traditions. Kathakali plays embalm these traditions and have preserved it for centuries now.

Indian tradition of story-telling has been beautifully carried forward through Kathakali as it dances and dramatises to carry forward the classic tales from one generation to the other.


The Origin

Apart from drawing its inspiration from the magnificent sculptures of temples depicting gods and goddesses of Ramayana and Mahabharatha, Kathakali also draws its encouragement from the temple rituals and from the classical drama forms, namely, Koodiyattam, Kootha, and Krishnanattam.

To preserve the meaning, essence, and spirituality, Brahmin priests (Namboodiri) memorized the stories and passed them on to the next generation.

Despite the king’s prowess in the area, Namboodiris wielded a lot of power and they played a pivotal role in preserving the stories, upholding the law and developing the spirituality.

When Brahmins travelled and settled in various parts of India, the culture and classic tales went along with them to innumerable places nationwide.

Hundreds of years later, these sacred tales were performed in the temple. And, the whole community vividly experienced the life of their ancestors and their story of evolution in material and spirituality.


Kathakali and its types

Known as Sampradäyaṃ (Malayalam: സമ്പ്രദായം); there are three leading Kathakali styles that differ from each other in subtleties but clear demarcations like gestures, hand positions choreographic profile, and stress on dance than drama. Many-a-time it was the other way round and the stress was on drama than dance. Out of the lot, the three Kathakali styles are:

Kalladikkodan Sampradyam, Vettathu Sampradayam

Kaplingadu Sampradayam

Of late, all Kathakali styles have boiled down to the northern Kalluvazhi and southern Thekkan styles.

Northern Kalluvazhi style was majorly developed by legend Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1881-1949). It is implemented in Kerala Kalamandalam. However, this department also teaches the southern style).

Kathakali’s fame, claim and contemporary offshoots

Drawing its roots from Kathakali techniques and aesthetics and stylised and developed by legend Guru Gopinath in the mid-20th century, Kerala Natanam dances its way to existence as a part Kathakali dance form.

Kathakali finds expression in Malayalam feature films like ParinayamMarattam,Vanaprastham, and Rangam.

Many docu-features and documentaries have been shot on Kathakali artistes like Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Raman Pillai, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kottakkal Sivaraman, Kalamandalam Gopi, and Chenganoor.


Foraying into fiction, Kathakali finds place in Malayalam short story ‘Karmen’ by NS Madhavan and space in novels like ‘Keshabharam’ by PV Sreevalsan.

Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize-winning The God of Small Things witnesses a chapter on Kathakali

Even the Indo-Anglian work like Arundhati Roy‘s Booker prize-winning The God of Small Things has a chapter on Kathakali.

If the hope for Kathakali wasn’t already far from over, Anita Nair’s novel Mistress, which is suffused with the ethos of Kathakali, adds another feather to the cap of this Lit-cultural dancing saga…