The Birth of Kathakali – How It Began

Krishnattam performers entered the court of the King of Kerala in the early 17th century. Their outstanding performances impressed the king, and he became a regular admirer. It wasn’t long before he invited the performers to move to his court. However, the king of Calicut prevented the performers from leaving his realm. In response, the king of Kerala decided to create new art. He came up with new-age stories, all of them revolving around Lord Rama.

The king directed poets and writers to come up with narratives from the major religious books. Although the initial art was called Ramanattam, the diverse religious background meant that a new name was needed. And that is how Kathakali was born.

Early Years

Theatre performances dominated the early years of Kathakali. Narrating stories was a crucial part of this new form of art. Performers tried to unlock the mysteries of Sanskrit poems, which were then confined to a specific part of the society. As a result, the broader community came to know about these poems and their mystical meanings.

Mid 17th century

After the philosophical and religious backgrounds had been created, the leading Kathakali performers decided to enhance their performance styles. Consequently, several stylistic devices were developed in the middle of the 17th century. They started with Sindi Karana and Pooni Karan singing in harmony. As the two performers sang, a synchronizing beat was introduced. This was a drum that was normally present during temple rituals.

Performers used to beat the drum as they accompanied puppets to the temple. The last stylistic device changed how all characters entered the play. Now, a satin curtain was used to separate the front stage from the backstage.

Kottarakara’s king also made several changes to the kathakali protocols. In particular, he introduced Malayalam and other forms of singing during the presentation of plays. He probably did this because he wanted the local people to enjoy Kathakali more.

Hinduism and Kathakali

The performers and audience began associating various kathakali stories with the practice of Hinduism. Many of the early stories were infused with Hinduism beliefs and practices. It wasn’t long before kathakali actors were required to be conversant with complex Hinduism stories before they could be allowed to play any role.

Later Advancements

It soon became apparent that Kathakali combined so many arts, beliefs, and performances that it could not be done by just one group. Later kathakali actors tried to portray exemplary human characteristics. The idea was to encourage people to live a life that will allow them to attain spirituality.

The 17th century ended with the formation of several kathakali troupes. Each of them was led by an experienced actor. This leading actor organized rehearsals and was responsible for developing training practices. He also directed stage performances and evaluated actor performances.

  • Decline 

    Kathakali grew rapidly during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the British invasion of India changed the fortunes of Kathakali. Kings no longer had the money or authority to support kathakali actors. Moreover, most people were adopting western beliefs and ideals.

    Fortunately, isolated families continued to support and promote kathakali actors. Many of these small families were located in faraway villages. Their persistent work enabled Kathakali to avoid extinction and remained a great performance art for many years.

    20th Century Kathakali

    Kathakali entered the 20th century as minor and unorganized performance art. Most of the performers were based in Kerala. Despite their hard work, they didn’t attract large followings. Even products from greater attention than Kathakali.

    Kathakali Today

    Kerala continues to be the cornerstone of Kathakali. If you went to that place today, you would likely find artists with painted faces and torsos. Their splendid costumes will be moving from side to side as they perform dramatic songs and narrate mystical stories.

    However, dedicated followers believe that Kathakali is not just another form of art. Instead, they view it as a religious and mystical performance. To them, it’s a way of learning about life and aspiring to attain higher levels of spirituality. As a result, it is unlikely that the magnificence of Kathakali will decline anytime soon despite the low following.


    Although kathakali actors struggle to find sponsors and audiences, the art is unlikely to dwindle anytime soon. Fortunately, local governments have decided to promote it as a form of ancient performance. Tourists are encouraged to attend Kathakali performances and admire the rich history of the Kerala region.

    The glorious period of Kathakali is behind us, but hundreds of new kathakali performers are entering the stage each day. Hopefully, more people will come to appreciate kathakali performances.