Skip to content
18 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Enjoying a classical dance performance in Kerala

Kathakali dancer looking smug

Looking smug?

Our Indian adventures are never short on variety, and last night brought the chance to watch the Kathakali, a classic dance form that originated in Kerala (southern India) in the 17th century.

These dances are based on stories from epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharatha and Bhagavatha. Performers train for six to eight years, starting from the ages of 10 to 12. Kathakali is typically performed in temples during festivals, and normally runs from 9pm until the early morning.

We got the short, one-hour version.

Kathakali dancer—upset

Feeling upset

The first half hour was devoted to the first performer showing emotions through facial expressions and hands only. She/he? was accompanied by two musicians—a drummer and a percussionist. It was fascinating to see her/him effortlessly move from surprise to anger to flirting to disdain and more. We could have watched all night.

The next half hour was devoted to a brief version of the story of Jayantha, son of Lord Indra, and Nakrathundi, maid servant to the powerful demon king, Nakarasura. The demon king has ordered Nakrathundi to go to heaven and steal heavenly bodies.

Kathakali dancer and musicians

Jayantha reveals his sword—with musicians

Kathakali performance—Lalitha approaches Jayantha

Lalitha approaches Jayantha

Once she reaches heaven, Kafrathundi catches sight of Jayantha and falls immediately in lust. She disguises herself as Lalitha, a beautiful maiden, and approaches him with suggestive dance moves.

Lalitha (the first performer) offers herself to Jayantha, who declines, saying he needs his father’s approval. Lalitha doesn’t want to take no for an answer and makes a move on him, which enrages Jayantha, who orders her to leave.

At this point, Lalitha reveals her true identity (fangs and all) and Jayantha flies into a rage and chops off her breasts. nose and ears.

This part of the performance was also accompanied by musicians, and the percussionist sang the entire story (we think) in the local language of Malayalam.

Kathakali dancers—Jayantha and Lalitha

Jayantha tells Lalitha to go

Kathakali dancer—Jayantha


Are you exhausted? We were! 🙂

But seriously, the performers were so talented and so energetic, even though they didn’t dance all over the floor. Most of the movement was facial or almost in place.

And of course, the costumes and makeup were fabulous. The female in her elaborate jewellery and ornate red, white and gold dress and headdress. It was fitting that the royal Jayantha wore an elaborate crown as well as green face paint, making him seem less earthly.

Kathakali dancers—Jayantha in a rage

Jayantha in a rage

Kathakali dancers—Jayantha cuts off Lalitha's breasts

Off with the boobs!

When the performance ended, the audience was invited on stage to have their pictures taken with the two stars. How could we refuse even if we were underdressed?

An martial arts performance was next, but we didn’t stay for that.

In case you are travelling in southern India, you can see one of these fantastic performances at the Thirumeny Cultural Centre in Munnar, Kerala. Apparently the martial arts show is equally impressive.

Oh, and Poor John’s comment after the performance rather tickled me. He thought it was nice that the dancers didn’t have to have ballerina physiques to make it big on the stage.

Kathakali dancers with LeggyPeggy and Poor John

Curtain call?


Leave a Comment
  1. Archana / Nov 18 2016 2:10 am

    experienced this recently. So much fun

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Archana / Nov 18 2016 2:11 am

    oh and yes the martial arts perf is really cool too

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Heather Sjoberg / Nov 18 2016 2:22 am

    Went to a performance in Kerala last year – and it was a highlight of the journey.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Andrew Petcher / Nov 18 2016 2:40 am

    Are you sure that isn’t the Grinch?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. sidilbradipo1 / Nov 18 2016 3:01 am

    Great experience!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. jeanleesworld / Nov 18 2016 3:03 am

    Fascinating visit! I’ve been thinking of you and hoping your travels were going well. Such amazing adventures–love it!

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 3:09 am

      Thanks Jean. We are going well. The trip has flown by with only a couple of weeks left.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jeanleesworld / Nov 18 2016 3:16 am

        Can’t wait to hear/read more about it upon your return!

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Nov 19 2016 1:12 pm

        A least my connections will be better then. 🙂


  7. beetleypete / Nov 18 2016 3:04 am

    Looks like a fascinating slice of local colour. I saw something similar in China, but the cast was bigger. I think the female leads are played by men too. It would have been good to see you two done up in the same outfits, Peggy!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 3:10 am

      Thanks, Pete. Note to self—buy Kathakali costumes? Maybe not. 🙂


  8. Sharon Bonin-Pratt / Nov 18 2016 3:38 am

    Seeing local culture – one of the best reasons to travel to other countries. Fascinating theater, thanks for explaining the performance.

    Liked by 4 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 8:13 pm

      We were lucky because there was a brief explanation posted in the foyer, so we were able to figure out what was going on before the dance started.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Deesha / Nov 18 2016 4:09 am

    Wonderful ! Love and hugs 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Curious to the Max / Nov 18 2016 5:48 am

    “Jayantha flies into a rage and chops off her breasts. nose and ears.” AND AFTER THAT you and Poor John were brave enough to have your picture taken without protecting your “private parts”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 8:15 pm

      Geez, we need you as a travelling companion to keep us out of future trouble. Are you available at short notice?


  11. Alison and Don / Nov 18 2016 7:42 am

    Wonderful! I would have loved this. It immediately reminded me of sacred temple dancing we’d seen in Pushkar, and of an amazing festival in Delhi where they had the top performance groups from many different states, and of performances we’d seen in Bali. So rich and colourful.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 8:19 pm

      We lovd the colour too. Haven’t been to Pushkar but will keep temple dancing on my list. Thanks for the info.


      • Alison and Don / Nov 19 2016 10:33 am

        The temple dancing was during the Camel Fair (every november I think it is – huge and amazing!), but may also happen at other times of the year.

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Nov 19 2016 1:11 pm

        I’m sure Mama Google will help me narrow it down. 🙂


  12. Dorothy / Nov 18 2016 8:33 am

    Very colourful, sounds like a very entertaining performance. Love the outfits.


    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 8:20 pm

      We loved the outfits too. They even looked good when we were close to them on stage. 🙂


  13. gerard oosterman / Nov 18 2016 8:52 am

    How did it compare with our own ‘Bushwhackers, Pride of Erin?’

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 8:20 pm

      Good one Gerard. I reckon both could learn from one another.:)


  14. Vicki / Nov 18 2016 8:55 am

    All I can say is ‘Wow, what a colourful show.’

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Curt Mekemson / Nov 18 2016 10:35 am

    “Off with her boobs!” Shades of Alice in Wonderland. Enjoyed your post Peggy. And when I read 9 p.m. to the wee hours I was thinking far, far past my bed time. When I saw the hour presentation, I thought I could do that. 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Nov 18 2016 8:22 pm

      An hour was enough for us. I’m no longer up for all-nighters (they had those in Burma too), although I think the audience can sleep if it gets to be too much. Loved your reference to Alice! 🙂


      • Curt Mekemson / Nov 19 2016 3:54 am

        My tail no longer has the sense of humor to handle sitting for a long time either. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Nov 19 2016 1:10 pm

        My tail is fine, but my legs twitch.


  16. voulaah / Nov 18 2016 5:12 pm

    Wow super fan this experience, thank you so much for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  17. wfdec / Nov 18 2016 10:20 pm

    I agree with Poor John about the need for figures. Great comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. inesephoto / Nov 19 2016 4:41 am

    Absolutely fascinating. I always dreamed of watching this sort of performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Nov 19 2016 1:10 pm

      Happy to share it with you here and hope you are able to see it in person one day.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Vocal Pendulum / Nov 19 2016 5:36 pm

    Hey, I am a native of Kerala and very pleased to know that you had a nice visit here. That comment on ‘dancers didn’t have to have ballerina physiques’ cracked me up. I have several friends who are trained in Classical dance and I know for a fact that even this physique is the result of conscious training. Kathakali artists are supposed to have flexible muscle movements and I have attended a workshop where the artist demonstrated how they shake their chest and belly muscles to go with the facial expressions. Strong abs are just not their thing, I suppose 😀

    I have heard from a friend that female classical dancers wake up at 5.00 am and use butter in their eyes so that they can have larger, rounded, lotus-shaped eyes! Kathakali is just one of the Classical art forms in Kerala, albeit the hardest one to master!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Nov 20 2016 3:28 am

      Thanks so much for the extra details about the Kathakali dancers. It is clearly a difficult dance to master. I would love to be able to attend a workshop on the movements or even the make-up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vocal Pendulum / Nov 21 2016 4:35 pm

        Next time you are in Kerala, ask your travel agents to arrange for one. There are lots of places you could visit to gain an insight into the intricacies of Kathakali. Even the makeup of Kathakali is a separate art in itself. I am volunteering for the work of a portal that aims to establish itself as the Wikipedia of folk arts in Kerala. It is an ambitious project that aims to cover about 150 of the local folk arts. When they are up and running, I will let you know 

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Nov 21 2016 6:13 pm

        Oh yes, please do let me know about the portal. I’ll be happy to add a link here. And thanks for the suggestion to arrange a viewing of the makeup process.


    • Sy S. / Nov 21 2016 3:14 pm


      Thanks for posting and adding additional commentary on the beautiful/colorful Kathakali dancers and story. Peggy’s many photos showing the various facial expressions, really helped without actually seeing the movements in person.

      Sy S.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Vocal Pendulum / Nov 21 2016 4:42 pm

        I am glad that you appreciate them. Yes, Kathakali performances are a striking experience. The more you know about, the better you will like it. The quirk of an eyebrow, a smirk or a glance, the colour of the makeup used…every minute movements hold its own meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Nov 21 2016 6:24 pm

        I certainly see what you are saying about every quirk of eyebrow, smirk and glance meaning something special. I took about 100 photos of the performance and each one is noticeably different. Such a remarkable production.


  20. The Year I Touched My Toes / Dec 18 2016 9:20 pm

    Hi Peggy, I saw the Kathakali over thirty years ago, seems a million years ago. We watched the green faced Janatha guy dress and put his make up on. I remember he put eggplant seeds in his eyes to make them red. I remember the expressive faces but not the violent story! Great photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 18 2016 9:30 pm

      Probably just as well you didn’t remember the chopping off the boons part. 🙂 But you were very lucky to see the costume and make-up going on.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. milliethom / Mar 2 2017 5:23 am

    A wonderful and impressive show, Peggy. I’m glad you queried his/her? early on in your narrative because I was wondering that myself. The face of the first character could well be male. The whole performance looks so colourful and I’d dearly love to see it! The makeup and costumes are stunning -but I think Janaha went a bit far by chopping off the woman’s body bits! Lol. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Mar 2 2017 10:48 pm

      The performance was completely amazing and I should go back and add that both actors were male. I’m glad you were attracted to the make-up. Apparently it’s sometimes possible to view the make-up being applied before the show.

      And I agree, chopping off bits is over the top, but then legends are usually extreme.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: