By: Will Goodwin


Mudra, the sign language of kathatkali, is defined as Hasthalakshanadeepika and is inseperable kathakali acting. All Kathakali acting features this spiritual sign language, which has its origins in the ancient Natyasastra, the oldest how-to book of kathakali dance-drama . Having roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism mudra is a complex system of spiritual iconography. Differing gestures symbolize different tangible objects (bird and arrow) and intangible concepts (love and bewilderment). Kathakali actors are extremely skilled with Mudra and perfect it over many years of training. There over 420 different mudra hand positions, but only the basic 24 are the most common:

The mudra gestures have been organized into nine different categories according to meaning and usage:
  1. Heroic gestures
  2. Command gestures ('go away', 'bring my chariot here')
  3. Power gestures (indicating large concepts such as 'destruction' or 'war')
  4. Anger gestures
  5. Relationship gestures ('friend', 'sister')
  6. Environmental gestures ('mountain', 'brightness', 'rain')
  7. Neutral gestures ('sun', 'moon')
  8. Erotic gestures ('lips', 'beauty')

In order to properly express the mudra, years of practice is necessary. A mature actor is able to display the mudra gestures without thinking and is therefore able to put more emphasis on the pathos and emotion of the role he is playing instead of the physical movement. More importantly, however, it is the emotion seen in the eyes that is of higher priority. Kathakali actors look at the mudra gestures during performance in order to inwardly connect with the emotion more. It is, in a sense, a temporary possession of the character in the actor that is desired during performance.

Kathakali acting has its roots not only in mudra but also in dance, martial arts and yoga and resembles certain elements of all three during performance. For instance, with every gesture that the actor performs there is a certain breathing technique that accompanies it in order to provide stamina throughout the show. These breathing techniques come from yoga and ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine) which profess that good health is maintained through the stimulation of the breath/life force of the body, in order to purge toxins and have good circulation.

Kathakali acting is very organic and open to interpretation even though the technicality is of upmost importance. Improvisation, for instance, is engrained into kathakali just as much the technical gestures are. This isn't quite as evidenced in Nala as it is in Kalyana Saugandhika, where Bhima, the protagonist in search for a lotus flower goes through the jungle and encounters an elephant in his path. The stage direction in this part of the play encourages the musicians and actor in this scene to improvise together here. Dance can be incorporated, and different mudra gestures experimented at the discretion of the performer and musicians.

The preparation before a kathakali performance could even be considered more important than the actual performance itself in this art form. The time for makeup can last up to two hours to put on, and during this time the performers focus on their roles before going onstage. After the makeup is applied, once the actor looks at himself in the mirror, the character embodiment has begun. Beginning of performance there is a character-actor shift that happens behind the curtain. From house right and left, audience members are reminded that the character IS an actor. Another interesting characteristic of kathakali is that makeup and costumes can be rearranged during the performance if one of them looks out of order. The actor simply goes offstage, rearranges his costume then enters once more as if nothing even happened. This is simillar to kabuki, where actors' stagehands can actually come onstage to fix actors' costumes if they mess up. This is another principal that shows that kathakali plays more to the audience rather than each other.

Below are a few terms that describe the different areas of kathakali acting technique:

  • Bhava--the emotional state of the performer
    • In Nala Charitham, Damayanti would be said to be a in a rati bhava early in the play because of her longing to see Nala.

  • Abhinaya--means "the art of expression" and comprises the ways of emotional conversation on the stage. The methods of abhinaya include speech, gestures, expressions, stage properties, costumes, make-up and other conventions. They are the external methods that actors employ to express the characters' feelings.
    • Four categories:
      • Angika Abhinaya--communication through the limbs, or, Anga. This would include the dance elements of kathakali, mudra and facial expressions.
      • Aaharya Abhinaya--Everything external to the performer--make-up, costumes, stage, stage properties, etc.
        • In Nala, aaharya abhinaya is evidenced in the elaborate dress each character wears.
      • Vachika Abhinaya--Speech communication. Everything that is said by the Kathakali artist.
        • In Nala, vachika is not evidenced in the actors but really the musicians' singing, which are the only vocals onstage.
      • Sathvika Abhinaya--involunary reactions to authenic emotions onstage. The actors are taught to bring their own experiences to the work of art they are performing in order to make it more authentic for the audience whose watching.

  • Rasa--the taste or aesthetic quality of performance that the audience experiences.
    • During the scene with Nala and Damayanti, there is rasa of sringara (eroticism) but also of love
    • There are eight main rasas expressed:
      • Sringara--erotic love
      • Hasya--comedy
      • Karuna--empathy, sadness
      • Raudra--fury, wrath
      • Vira--heroic, valor
      • Bhayanaka--fear
      • Bibhatsa--disgust
      • Adbhuta--wonder, amazement
      • Santa--peace, tranquility

Overall, it is the mastery of the bhava through the use of mudra and abhinaya that is the most important thing to accomplish as a kathakali actor. Each word in a kathakali play has a certain tone to it, and good acting is lies in representing this tone through his body. Similar to Stanislovsky's idea of the "psychophysical union" between mind and body onstage, kathakali actors believe the physical expression of bhava and the rasa of the scene must be in harmony with each other. A kathakali actor's imagination is equally important onstage. While although not realistic, good kathakali actors put their minds in the characters' minds to achieve emotional pathos. An actor with true emotional expression (rather than manufactured) is a good actor. Bhavas are considered the psychological state, while rasas are the resulting emotional state of mind the audience experiences.

Kathakali is full of conventional gestures as well, which are integral to the style. Since kathakali is a very imaginative art form rather than representational, it is necessary to take certain actions and conventionalize them to make them accessible. First, kathakali actors do not look at each other during performance. This specific style is for the audience's sake, who must be able to see the actors' faces at all times. Also, For instance, traveling a long distance to another land would be represented as the actor walking around the stage a few times, symbolizing this journey. Similarly, different ways a character weilds a prop can mean different things. A stool could indicate a rock on the ground, while later on in the play it could represent a throne upon which the king sits.


Nala/Bahuka: Kalamandalam Gopiis probably one of the most famous, if not, the most famous kathakali artists in recent history. He is celebrated for adding creative aesthetics to kathakali as well as making it more popular in the state of Kerala. A Padma Shri winner, Gopi was originally a Ottamthullal practitioner in Kerala, but switched to kathakali upon meeting Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair, a wealthy citizen of Kerala at the time who saw his work.

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Damayanti Minukku: Kottakkal Sivaraman was born in 1936 and was a disciple of his uncle-guru Padma Shri Vazenkada Kunchu Nair, the first principal of Kerala Kalamandalam. Fame became widespread when he teamed with Kalamandalam Gopi and played the role of Damayanti in Nala Charitam. His portrayal of Sairandhri in Keechakavadham also made him very popular among the people of Kerala. He is an avid reader of the Hindu Puranas, and has won the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his artistic achievements.

external image KottakkalSivaraman_16585.jpg 2006122200130202.jpg
Keshini: Minuku P.Vasu (Kalluvazhi Vasu) was born on Oct 15, 1950 in Palakkad District. His father is C. Padmanabhan Nair. His primary education was up to 7th and passed Diploma in Kathakali of 8 years in Kerala Kalamandalam with first class. Then he continued higher studies with Central Govt Scholarship for 2 years. He worked as temporary teacher in Kerala Kalamandalam at different periods. He has expertised in "Sthree" (feminine) characters for last 30 years.

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  1. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990. Print.
  2. Pandeya, Avinash C. The Art of Kathakali. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1999. Print.
  3. Zarrili, Phillip B. Kathakali Dance Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play. London: Routledge Publishing, 2000. Print.
  4. Wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathakali