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Kathakali - Costume & Make-up
From "A Dancer on Dance" written by V.P. Dhananjayan, published by Bharata Kalanjali

The costumes are very elaborate and fall into basic types. The make up is equally elaborate. While being made up, the actors lie on their backs as the make up men work on their faces. The facial makeup is designed in such a way as to indicate the intrinsic nature of each and every character. Pacha, Kathi, Thadi, Kari, Minukku and Theppu are the different types of make-up followed in Kathakali which are determined according to the basic qualities of the character portrayed. The underlying purpose is to create in the minds of the audience an atmosphere of the supernatural.

As all the stories depicted in Kathakali relate to mythological characters and as the natural stage is nothing more than a few square feet, lit by a single coconut oil fed lap, the entire get up is designed to generate an atmosphere to suit the story. The loud instrument used, the make-up and costumes employed, the painting of the faces, the display of the 'Chutti' as part of the facial make-up, are only the instruments used to achieve this objective. Irrespective of the individual who puts on the costume of a character like Nala, the audiences sees only Nala. The individual artiste is fully submerged by the elaborate make-up. It is, however, true that the outstanding talents of an individual artiste cannot be contained within the formal frame-work of a standard costume. In course of time, the individual does make an impression on the audience, but on a basis quite different from other histrionic arts. The costumes are thus intended to make the play as impersonal as possible.

Mythological characters are classified into different categories. The first in the order of precedence is the Dhirodatta, the noble hearted, upright hero. The make-up known as Pacha (Green) is allotted to such characters. Examples are the Gods of the elements, noble kings like Nala, Yudhishtra, Rukmangada, Arjuna and Bhimsena. Even Daksha is given Pacha, although he ultimately turns out to be arrogant and wayward. All characters who do Pacha also wear Kiritas (Headgear). But when it comes to characters like Vishnu, Krishna or Rama (the incarnation) head gear is changed to what is called Mudi. This costume also has now come to be referred to as 'Mudi'. For both Mudi and Pacha, the facial make-up is the same. krishna wears a dark jacket as distinct from the purple or red jackets of Pacha.

Kathi, another prominent costume of kathakali is devoted to heroes who are not too particular about the means they use to gain their needs. The costume in general is similar to Pacha, except that in the make-up, a knife-shaped pattern is drawn on either cheek in red pigment. In addition, a small ball is fixed to the tip of the nose and another one in the fore-head. kathi represents restlessness easily swayed towards wickedness and is the costume of characters like Ravana, Kamsa and Duryodhana. Kathi can be said to denote a combination of royalty and evil. Kings of demons like Ravana, or demons among kings and villains are depicted in Kathi. Whereas 'Pacha' characters do not open their mouths or create any noise 'Kathi' characters are permitted to make weird noises appropriate to the occasion or to the emotion expressed.

Thadi (Beard)
The costume that represents Thamoguna (wickedness) is Thadi. Thadi means beard. There are red, black and white thadis, each depicting a distinct type of wickedness. Red thadi has the face painted in frightening dark portions and wears an impressive red beard. The head gear is round in shape and much larger in size than those worn by Kathi. Red thadi is usually given to extremely wicked characters like Rakshasas or despicable men like Dussasana. Examples of Rakshasas are Bakasura and Jatasura. The concept of the red thadi is only of the destructive evil force with little or no thinking faculty. The costume has, therefore, been extended to portray roles like Srichakra and Veerabhadra. Srichakra is the all powerful weapon of Vishnu. Annihilation without thought is its motto. So also Veerabhadra who is born out of the fire of Siva, the Destroyer, is nothing but an agency for destruction and blind obedience.

A further extension of thadi is its application to monkey kings like Vali and Sugriva. Here again, the human contempt for the unthinking monkey has influenced this decision. There is no doubt, a slight modification in the white make-up pattern, but it is noticed only by careful observation.

White Thadi or white beard is a further refinement of the Thadi group of characters. A good example is Hanuman, the monkey God. The intricate patterns drawn on the face with red, black and white, suggests a monkey face almost similar to the baboons of african forests. Hanuman, the monkey God of the epic Ramayana merit special mention. The crown is known as Vattamudi, a ceremonial military hat-like headgear and a white beard. The make-up is different from the ones usually given to the monkeys. Hanuman occupies a very special place in Hindu mythology. So also in Kathakali. Hanuman is also permitted to make weird noises appropriate to the occasion.

The black Thadi or black beard is a costume given to a character like Kali in 'Nalacharitra'. The character is as evil as the red Thadi but has the subtle distinction of denoting a schemer as well. The make-up is the same as red Thadi, the beard alone being black in colour.

Kari (Black)
The 'Kari' is an all black costume. The face is painted in black; the jackets and skirts are blacker still. The headgear is primitive. The costume is used for depicting the lowest of primitive human beings both men and women. The noises they produce can almost amount to howling. Characters portrayed in this costume are demonesses and evil beings of the 'under world'.

The 'Chutti' or white make-up plays a very important role in Kathakali make-up. In the olden days, the chutti was laid, layer after layer with a mixture of rice paste and lime. It used to take about three to four hours to get an actor's 'Chutti' done. Today, the base is laid with a paste and the rest made of paper. The purpose of the 'Chutti' is to raise the contours of the face so that the area of aesthetic expression is clearly marked out. It also helps to draw the eyes of the audience to the actor's facial expression.


The make-up used for gentle characters is 'Minukku'. It consists of a mere painting of the face with yellowish orange pigment. There is no white chutty make-up and no elaborate clothing as in other characters. Women, sages and Brahmanas appear in 'Minukku'. Other characters who appear in Minukku are charioteers and messengers.

The Mask conception in Kathakali
The Chau dance of Bihar and the Balinese dance are mask dances, but they hardly bear any resemblance to Kathakali, which is known for its exaggerated mime and dramatic exposition. Still there are many who mistake the Kathakali make-up as masks. The painted face and the white frames made on the face (chutti) certainly give the dubious appearance of a mask, but they are not, and they are drawn and painted on the face each day employing a different artist, who is again specialised in this art of Kathakali make-up. The rich colours are obtained from special indigenous stones ground in coconut oil and mixed in the right proportions to get the right shades. The mixing of these colours and grinding of the stones another art, which again needs sense of proportion and precision. A wrong proportion could give a wrong chemical reaction, which could affect even the face and eyes of the actor.

The Red Eyes
People are often puzzled and fascinated by the red eyes of the Kathakali performers and they wonder how it is done. Making the eyes red has two objectives. One is to equate the colour combination on the face; if one watches a kathakali painted face without the eyes being red, you will realise how dead the face looks with pale eyes. Therefore against the green or black background for the face, the eyes must have a red base to stand out vividly.

Secondly, if the eyes are left free while all the other parts of the face are chemically treated, it is bound to affect the eyes with the warmth emitted by these paints. So the eyes must also be treated to equalise the chemical reaction. To make the eyes red, a tiny bit of a herb (chundappoo) is laid in the lower eye lid. It is very dangerous if it goes into the upper eye lid.

'Rasaprakarana' or (Raavikalpam) chapter in Natyasastra enunciates the various colours attached to various moods and sentiments. Though there is not much in common between this approach and the pattern followed in Kathakali, it has a definite bearing on the colour schemes ascribed to various sentiments.