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(Malayalam, literally “the telling of a story”), a traditional kind of performance in the popular theater of South India, including dance, pantomime, vocal and instrumental music, and elements of circus acrobatics. The origins of Kathakali date from early antiquity, although the final form was established in the 17th century.
The basic theatrical principle of Kathakali is differentiation of the visual and the musical aspects of the show. The actor does a dance and a pantomime, and the dialogues and monologues of the characters are performed by the singers and chorus, accompanied by an orchestra. The canonical positions of the dancer’s fingers and hands, which are used to convey feelings and concepts, are the basis of the actor’s means of expression (the Mudra and Hasta). Subjects for Kathakali plays are drawn from the epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana and various legends and narratives. The first plays for Kathakali are attributed to the poet Thampuranom and the maharajah T. K. Turunal, and since the first half of the 19th century, works by S. Tirunal and I. Thampa have also been used. Kathakali performances are given under the open sky on a low platform. The costumes and makeup are strictly fixed and symbolic. The characters are divided into three groups: Satvik, the noble heroes, gods, and kings; Rajasik, those representing various vices; and Tamasik, demons and spirits personifying the forces of evil.
By the early 20th century, the art of Kathakali had fallen into decline. In 1930 the Indian poet and public figure Vallathol founded the Kerala Mandalam School, initiating the revival of Kathakali. In independent India, Kathakali has become part of the national culture of the Indian people. Among the Kathakali actors are Kunju Kurup, Chandu Panikkar, Gopi Nath, G. Panikkar, and Krishnan Kutty.
M. P. BABKINA