Consisting of makeup, face painting, and stylised masks, kathakali masks are used in the kathakali dance drama, which originated in Kerala around the seventeenth century.
The earliest form of the dance focussed on narratives from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. It originally used simple makeup for characters being represented: Rama and Lakshmana had faces painted blue, while demons and monkeys wore face masks. The headgear was made of palm sheath painted with designs, and the torso was left bare. The influence of patrons like the feudal chiefs of the kingdom of Tanur led to changes in makeup and masking traditions. The blue makeup of divine characters was changed to the emerald green that is today one of the most recognisable aspects of the form. Masks for demons and monkeys were replaced with facial paint and gilded crowns began to be used as headgear.
Kathakali today uses a number of makeup types. The first, called paccu, uses green facial paint and is most frequently used for divine or noble characters. The green colouration is circumscribed by a white painted border, the cutti. The mark of Vishnu is often applied on the forehead with red and black marks upon a yellow base composed of rice paste. The eyes are framed by underlining the eyebrows and lower eyelids with a soft black pigment, extending to the sides of the face. The “ripe” (payuppu) makeup type uses a similar design but replaces the green with a strong orange-red. It is used for characters such as Balarama, Brahma, Shiva and Surya. The white beard (vella tati) type is used to signify another class of wise divine beings like Hanuman. It involves red, white and black patterns painted on the face, accompanied by a white beard either painted or worn on the cheeks. A small patch of green paint on his nose suggests his pious nature.
A number of makeup types are used to signify different types of antagonistic characters. The ‘knife” (katti) type, for example, is used for high-born characters who embody villainy or arrogance. Although the basic frame of the design is the same as in paccu, an upturned red moustache framed by white rice paste is added. The pattern is repeated above the eyes and eyebrows, and two white, bulbous extensions provided on the nose and forehead. This type is used for characters like Ravana. Red beard (cuvanna tati) makeup signifies characters who are also evil or vicious, such as Dussassana, who led the disrobing of Draupadi. The eyes are framed by black bands, and a white moustache extending to the ears is added. Lips are painted black to set off a ferocious mouth, and the bulbous noses and foreheads are made deliberately larger than that of the ‘knife’ characters. A big crown is worn, with red paint around its borders. Black beard (karutta tati) makeup is used for evil characters associated with the forest, characterised by a black beard but otherwise similar to those of the red beard type. The lower part of the face is black and the face is framed by the design of a black beard; otherwise it resembles the design of the red bearded characters.
Demonesses are given jet black (kari) faces, relieved by patches of red, outlined in white rice-paste. They are usually contrasted with the “radiant” (minukku) variety, which includes ‘virtuous’ or noble women like Sita in the Ramayana and similarly ‘pure’ males, including Brahmins, holy men and sages (who may wear a wooden crown). The minukku makeup type uses a warm yellow-orange paint, creating an effulgent glow. A host of make-up styles and patterns are used for the other varieties and shades of characters and beings like Garuda and Jatayu, who are depicted with makeup resembling a bird; Bhadrakali may be given a red tongue and white rice paste spots on the face, suggesting a pockmarked appearance.
Masks are usually adopted to signal a transformation, such as from human to animal. Bali's son Angada wears a monkey mask when he appears on stage, while Daksha, Brahma’s son who is decapitated by Virabhadra and Bhadrakali, wears a goat mask after coming back to life.
Kathakali is one of Kerala’s most popular and recognisable dance forms today.
Raina, Arjun. “The art of creating a Kathakali performer’s ‘Presence’”. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 6, no. 3 (2015): 323-338.
Swann, Darius L., Farley P. Richmond, and Phillip B. Zarrilli. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993.
Zarilli, Philip B. “Kathakali.” in Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance, eds. Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann and Philip B. Zarilli. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 315 – 358.
Zarrilli, Philip B. Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play. London: Routledge, 2000.