Kerala has evolved from very ancient days its typical dance forms which are highly expressive of the way of living and the outlook of its people. The sculptures in the temples of Trikkodithanam and Trivikamamangalam (11th and 12th centuries A.D) which depict women dancers performing the Kudakuthu (pot dance) and Kudaikuthu (umbrella dance) shows that dancing had achieved a high level of perfection in those days. One of the postures in these panels has been identified with Bharata Natya. Meanwhile, the `Gita Govinda’ of Jayadeva, the Bengali saint of the 12th century, found its way into Kerala. The Chakiars who felt attracted by the melody of the song and beauty of its content gave dramatic representation to the Gita Govinda in Kudiyattam style. Thus came into vogue the Ashtapadi Aattam’ or Ashtapadi dance. The reform of Ashtapadhi Aattam came to be known as Krishnanattam or dance of Krishna and it became very popular in North Kerala.
The Raja of Kottarakkara who felt humiliated, immediately conceived of Ramanattam as an alternative of Krishnanattam. He composed a regular Attakatha’ in Malayalam in eight canto with Ramayana as its theme for the purpose of staging a new dance form. This came to be known as Ramanattam’ which has since been recognized as the immediate progenitor of Kathakali, the famous dance drama o f Kerala.
Kathakali represents a happy synthesis of all that is best in dance, drama and music and it has been recognized by connoisseurs of art the world over as ‘a total art form of immense sophistication and power’. A number of enthusiasts of the art patronised it and introduced significant innovations with a view of making it more popular and attractive.
Kathakali is distinguished by several unique features. It combines within itself both the `tandava’ and lasya’ elements of dancing. It is almost an all night performance in which the male characters dominate. The actors of Kathakali do not speak, but enact dialogues called `padams’ sung by singers from behind. The acting is done through facial expressions and `hasthalakshanas’, popularly known as `mudras’ (hand gestures). The art of Kathakali excels in the presentation of the most beautiful and the most violent scenes with equal skill.
It is the impression created by the make-up and the costumes that make Kathakali a visual par excellence. The whole face of the artist is painted over and it would appear as though he is wearing a mask. According to the character enacted, the makeup changes.