Man applying colourful face paint
Culture & tradition,  Just One Person,  Kerala,  Travel galleries

Gallery: a traditional Keralan Kathakali performance

In a simple room in old Fort Kochi, Kerala, a young man is gradually transforming himself. In one hand he holds a small mirror; in the other the fine brush with which he applies paint to his face. An audience of tourists watches agog, cameras flashing, phones held aloft.

The Kathakali classical dance style originated in Kerala. Even more than other Indian dancing traditions, it relies heavily on facial expressions and gestures, with relatively little in the way of body movements. The dancers use a sort of sign language, with dialogue expressed through hand movements known as mudras, while emotions and mood are expressed through facial and eye movements. The costumes and make-up are equally stylised and symbolic. Performances are based on ancient stories of the gods, and traditionally were very long, although those staged today for the benefit of tourists are much less so.

We went along early, as visitors are encouraged to do, to watch one of the performers apply his make-up. This painstaking task took him almost an hour.

Man applying colourful face paint
Man applying colourful face paint
Man with colourful face paint
The transformation

Following the make-up session there was an English language only brief explanation of Kathakali. One of the dancers demonstrated a range of facial movements and gestures and we were told what each meant.

Man in costume and colourful face paint
Man in costume and colourful face paint
Man in costume and colourful face paint
The demonstration

The performance

Finally it was time for the performance. We heard a resumé of the story to be acted out, which of course involved gods and demons, and then the two dancers took to the stage with three musicians.

The dance itself lasted about 30 minutes and it was fascinating to see how the facial expressions in particular were used to tell the story. And the man we had watched so carefully applying his make-up was totally transformed!

Hopefully my video gives you a flavour of what we saw.

At the end the dancers posed for photos, inviting audience members up on to the stage to pose with them. That’s not really our thing so we left at this point, happy with the photos we had already taken of this One Person from Around the World, his fellow dancer and musicians.

I visited Kerala in 2017


  • IndiaNetzone

    Kathakali is a combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance. “Katha” means story and “Kali” stands for dance. This is a form of dance formerly confined only to the festival stages in temples. It symbolizes a blending of the Aryan and Dravidian cultures, for shaping its technique. The most striking element in Kathakali is the dramatic quality which is inspiring and belongs exclusively to a world of myth and legend.

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    Wow , When that young man is made up you wouldn’t recognize him would you? What facial and muscle coordination this takes…….did they say how long they study before they are able to perform this way? Cady


    wow, what an unusual performance, always good to see how other cultures entertain but I think 30 minutes of this one would be enough for us. Great costumes and makeup. It’s reminiscent of the puppet show we saw in Hanoi, interesting and fun but didn’t really know what was going on. Whatever, they all add to the enjoyment of world travel.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, 30 minutes was enough for us too, although with the make-up session and demo the whole evening was well over an hour. Definitely worth doing as an insight into the culture there 🙂

  • SandyL

    Of all your posts Sarah, I enjoyed this the best! It’s amazing to see the transformation and hard to believe it’s the same young man. It must take a lot of training to have have that range of control over his facial muscles. I’m reminded of Jim Carrey who relied on facial acrobatics in his acting. I don’t care for the music though. I enjoyed th video much more with the sound muted off 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Sandy, I’m really happy you liked this such a lot!! I agree about the music, and to be honest 30 minutes of the performance was enough for us 😆 But yes, seeing the transformation was pretty incredible!

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