History of Kathakali: of art, agency, and aesthetics

“Are you mad about play, Indulekha?” inquired the Nambuthiri.
“Mad about what?” asked Indulekha.
“About the play – the Kathakali.”
Indulekha (1889), one of Malayalam’s first novels.

“Kathakali is the greatest treasure of the Keralites”
– Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958)

“I did not say that art is necessarily political but politics is inherent in the forms themselves”
– Jacques Rancière (2009)

Kathakali, the classical dance-drama, has been studied by historians, performance theorists, theatre artists, anthropologists and various other scholars in the past. Particular to the Kerala region, this art form has been taken up by the State of Kerala as its representative cultural symbol through various cultural institutes and the tourism department. A controversy surrounding Kathakali and the improper depiction of the art form by a multinational soft drink company in an advertisement brought about strong non-uniform responses. Of major interest is the statement issued by P. N. Suresh, the Vice Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University, one of India’s leading performing arts universities and acclaimed cultural centres for Kathakali, following the controversy:

This is an insult to Kathakali, Kerala’s centuries old classical theatre, always performed with a certain sanctity in a high cultural ambience. This commercial is an insult and humiliation to the cultural tradition zealously nurtured by Keralites over centuries [emphasis added]1.

Apart from this supposed cultural (mis)appropriation, this paper picks upon two elements that the statement speaks of – high performance and representativeness of Malayalis in general. The two are interconnected in ways peculiar to the historical conditions in which Kathakali underwent its transformation in the early twentieth century. But for reasons of clarity, viewing the art form from these two vantage points will be beneficial.

This paper will move through a linear history of Kathakali, with the first section dealing with its inception, with influences, patronage and participation. The next section will explore the emergence of Kathakali as an art form and part of national and sub-national identity as part of specific responses to caste and religion based social formations. The final section will look at the implementation of aesthetics as a supposedly neutral regime of identification of art mainly through academic and scholarly constructions, and modern practices of tourism in the present day context. This is a sociological study with an interdisciplinary approach, not privileging continuities over time, but one that will try to locate shifts where certain concepts have been gradually taken as granted and without history.


Various historical narratives of Kathakali (and similarly considered cultural heritages) have depicted the grandness of the project, and a larger than time picture comes to devolve upon their genesis. Studies (Jones, 1987; Zarrilli, 2000; Glynn 2001) have shown Kathakali’s link to bhakti, a religious movement originating from contact with foreigners between the sixth and ninth century. Malayalam has been the language generally preferred since the tenth century, though Sanskrit plays a dominant role in informing this tradition. It is later on, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that a collective of plays as performances is recorded at Kottarkkara and Kottayam. These earlier plays drew from the Kuttiyattam Sanskrit drama basing their content in the epics of Ramyana and Mahabharata. Hence, we are informed of a Sanskritised or Aryanised influence on Kathakali2.

Further, patronage that began exclusively at palaces slowly began to move on to upper-caste households or tharavadus of Nairs and Namboodhri Brahmins. Kaliyogam, the area within these households designated for the training of Kathakali, was mainly used by young men for kalaripayyatu, the martial and military practice particular to this region. Kathakali helped develop dexterity and agility (Jones 20), directly assessing and enabling the body for trained military activities. What was the perceived threat that the Nairs and Namboodhris faced is an important aspect to be looked upon. Levies imposed upon lower castes and other communities were mainly used to conduct Kathakali performances (Karat 4). In order to maintain such a feudal setup of subjugation, militarism was more than essential. It is in this background that earlier bodily practices of upper-caste elites ought to be analysed.

Participants in Kathakali were more of active actors more than passive viewers. Earlier Malayalam novels like Indulekha (1889) depict the frenzy in which Kathakali was performed and participated in (as actors or viewers). The famous “Kali branthundo”, “Are you mad about play,” the question posed by the Namboodhri to the young Nair woman Indulekha, speaks of the close association of these castes with the performance. It is within the fabric of caste that perceptions related to Kathakali were overtly present and articulated. Aryan superiority converted into caste superiority, and maintained by rigid armed forces directly repressed lower castes and other communities both culturally and physically. With the coming of colonial domination, aspects of daily life came under pressure. Hence, till the twentieth century we see Kathakali as having very little consumption as art per se. It is only with the advent of colonialism and the nationalist discourse that we find talks of Kathakali as art.


The colonial invasion of India also saw a rise in the accumulation of categorical knowledge on the subcontinent. A wide variety of topics were covered and it was within this large rubric of created knowledge that performances, dances, music and many related activities were categorised as ‘classical’ or ‘folk’ art (Reed 508). Oriental in nature, they classified to such an extent that even post-independence these categories remain. What began as an exotic tradition in the eyes of the coloniser was to be used as identity later on by the colonised. However, moving on to Kathakali’s unique history, we find Mahakavi Vallathol’s instrumental role as essential in reinstating the same. Along with Mukunda Raja, he conducted fund raising performances in the years 1923, 1924 and 1925 at Allepey, Trichur and Calicut respectively. It was in 1930 that he successfully setup the Kerala Kalamandalam, an institute that would go on to be the premiere institute for Kathakali and other arts considered ‘classical’. Just like other nationalist leaders who designated classical Indian dance as a symbol of national identity in the 1930s (Hanna 35), Vallathol did the same with Kathakali for the region (Iyer, 1955; Jones, 1987; Zarrilli, 2000; Glynn, 2001; et al.) In short, we have a historical narrative that presupposes history as the construct of human agents in line with an essential story of universal empowerment. Hence, within Kerala’s own contribution to the national struggle, Vallathol emerges as having played the unique agent’s role in rebuilding India’s regional cultural heritage by establishing Kathakali as a cultural symbol, unifying people and promoting cultural resistance against colonial domination and finally empowering through independence. It is this very kind of agency, history and empowerment that Talal Asad (2000) warns against in a different context.

One of the questions that Asad posits as missing from such readings in history is that of “what story is the agent a part of” (Asad 51). Vallathol is taken as the initial point for Kathakali’s grand return. Such histories then see agency as undoubtedly leading towards a positive goal, without considering the ways in which such autonomy and consciousness is developed. This part of the paper will then try to explore how Vallathol, as a human agent, is ‘historically realised’ and ‘socially endowed’ with consciousness as well as autonomy. The end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw a series of struggles known as the Malabar rebellion, revolts against the upper caste/upper class landlords and the colonial state by the Muslim Mappilas of Malabar3. Colonial writings created the Mappila Muslim as prone to violence, ‘barbaric’ in nature; and even the categories by which the Mappilas might be identified like those of peasant, working class and lower caste were all overtly emphasised by religion (Ansari, 2005; Punathil, 2013). The nationalist discourse also reaffirmed these very colonial notions. Gandhi4 wrote about ‘Mappila madness’ while the nationalist poet Kumaran Asan5 in his poem ‘Durvastha’ depicts Kerala as reddened with Hindu blood ‘shed by the cruel Muhammadans’ (Punathil 8). Such notions were not individualistic and was very much part of the major discourse amongst nationalist leaders, and not exclusive to a regional level. Annie Besant, also the President of the Indian National Congress around these years, reprimanded the Malabar Rebellion. She goes on to say that the “Moplahs [Mappilas] murdered and plundered abundantly” (Besant 252). It is such colonial and nationalist discourses that informed Vallathol’s era.

Nationalist leaders from Kerala, like other leaders from different parts of the subcontinent, were elites comprising of upper castes or upper classes. In Kerala, around this period, they were mainly part of the janmis, the land owning stratum. From the late 1930s onwards there was a direct attack on “excessive exactions of rent” and “a rejection of forms like Kathakali” (Menon 60). Hence, the rigorous efforts picked by Vallathol to establish the institute of Kerala Kalamandalam around this same time needs to be seen in light of a growing opposition to not just janmi sampradayam (culture of landlordism or feudalism) but as part of Kerala’s history where upper castes and the nationalist uprising was seen with suspicion by many in the society. Translating Mappila Muslims into Indian Muslims, at this stage,6 was what nationalists in Kerala were set upon. Unity lied between lower castes and Mappila Muslims, rooted in regional politics against upper caste hegemony, as seen during the ‘abstentionist’ movement which started in 1932, jointly initiated by lower caste groups along with Muslims “against the domination of upper caste Hindus in administrative positions” (Punathil 10). Breaking this unity then seems to be part of the strategy applied by nationalists in Kerala, hence conceptualising a unified Hindu religion in popular imagination7. Vallathol’s fund-raising events and the institution of Kerala Kalamandalam then rise from such historical settings. That large funds were raised is part of the crisis that nationalist Nairs and Namboodhiris faced, but more importantly it was also an act of establishing solidarity amongst these upper caste elites. Establishing a certain Hindu-Muslim divide was also essential for breaking the unity; and such crises were dealt with a well-rehearsed method of reconstructing the nation’s glorious past (Chakravarti, 1998). Thus, Vallathol, representing Nairs (Damodaran and Visvanathan 7), reinstated Kathakali, giving it the status of the region’s cultural symbol, engaging in direct opposition with the Mappila Muslims; and, translated Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana (even while Ezhuttacchan’s Ramayana was available)8 to bring about a unified Hindu religion.

Hence, upper caste sentiments articulated through nationalist discourses is very much the ‘story’ that is seldom missing in Kathakali’s history9. But the story doesn’t remain in the hands of nationalists as communists sought to create an Aikya Keralam (unified Kerala). EMS Namboodiripad10, Kerala’s first Chief Minister and India’s earliest left leaders, promoted ‘arts’ like Kathakali establishing the culture of new Kerala “defined in terms of the culture of the caste Hindu” (Menon, 2006: 61-62). The cultural formation of the state of Kerala hence saw Kathakali emerging as an artistic form, devaluing its ritualistic content within the public sphere for the purposes of sub-national identity. Vallathol (in recorded history) and Kathakali’s autonomy are, then, obtained through this connection with art, art as being susceptible to aesthetics alone.


If such were the conditions in which Kathakali emerged as an art form, it is more than obvious to ask whether such oppositions still exist. Apart from a few sporadic incidents, comments, and articles11, Kathakali is criticised only within the domain of performance, theatre and arts. There has been a neutralisation of senses with the emergence of an ‘aesthetic regime of art’ (Rancière, 2009). This breaks down various earlier hierarchies of the other regimes, asserting:

the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroy[ing] any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself (Rancière 23).

In the specific case of Kathakali, there arises an aesthetic regime that destroys earlier experiences of the sensory based on caste, domination and opposition, asserting Kathakali as an autonomous art moulding according to its environment. Hence, Phillip Zarrilli (2000) would describe his approach as, “intended to allow the reader insight into kathakali as a complex and ever-changing system of social and aesthetic practices which both shapes and is shaped by its context(s)” (Zarrilli 12).

Thus, Kathakali is seen very much a part and product of society even while neglecting the historically specific mechanisms that dictate such a regime. Such aesthetic regimes are very well the construct of academic writings and scholarly works on arts and aesthetics. While emphases are given to minute details, costumes, mudras, and the art as such, history is just a mere linear narrative since Vallathol’s time captured in short paragraphs within so-called interdisciplinary studies. The assumption that art has to be criticised only within the ambit of arts has led even ethnographers (Zarrilli, 2000; Glynn, 2001) to produce tedious narratives of subjective positions in relation to worldly or non-worldly, transcendent or material, complex or simple art.

While many discourses, and not just academic ones, act to create an aesthetic regime of art, the other discourse that this paper will try to point to is that of tourism. Touristic practices of viewing or gazing such art-forms allow two propositions. First, connoisseurs and well-wishers of the art form can lament about the commodification and lowly representation of high art. Second, the tourism department can extend the cultural symbol into a larger than time-space picture assigning it authenticity by targeting foreigners; seemingly disinterested in the host populace. It is this disinterestedness (feigned or real) that allows for people in Kerala to then accept this new aesthetic regime of art in a large manner. The state of Kerala run tourism department is not only vibrant but is hugely popular, strategic and influential12. Hence, such modern practices make up part of our imagination, define our senses and initiate a process of collective amnesia.

In conclusion, kathakali has been an upper-caste experience right from its inception. More than a sub-national art form that emerges out of its supposed grandness; we have seen that the genealogy of the same gives us a different narrative. Caste and religious social formations are closely interconnected to the grand narrative of Kathakali, though given little or no space. Modern day aesthetic practices and tourism take on from grand narratives available; remodel it and package it in such a way that history is not twice but thrice removed. This paper is not an attempt to re-write history or give an alternative. It specifically places few taken for granted concepts within the realm of power and explores what historically specific mechanisms produce discourses which function as true in particular times and places. This is the only connecting point for the above three sections (placed in linear time for reasons of clarity alone). The outburst (both pro and against) to the advertisement needs to be read as limiting any scholarly work as it tends to see art in isolation. Kathakali, as a privileged art form in the contemporary time needs to be rethought outside the category of art. Sensory details, bodily inscriptions, social disciplining within a practical and historical context is more than necessary for a detailed understanding of Kathakali.



1 For the complete statement issued, please follow the link: http://www.janamtv.com/news/Dismal_depiction_of_Kathakali _in_7Up_ad_Kalamandal_700984.php.
2 There is very little known of an inter-caste encounter except for a few remarks on Kathakali’s costume as having derived from a low caste ritual, namely theyyam. It is pertinent to note that the red dressed costume in Kathakali, similar to that of theyyam, is usually portrayed as the evil character. This distinction between the green (heroic) character and the red (evil) character can be seen as symbolising an inter-caste relationship based on oppression, with the former emerging victorious repetitively in almost all plays, as if there is a deliberate attempt to rewrite not just art but also history.
3 Mappilas transformed from being a caste-like group (kulam) to a community (ummah) only in the later periods with the emergence of identity consciousness amongst themselves. For a more thorough study on Mappila Muslims and this transformation, please refer Punathil (2013).
4 Vallathol considered Gandhi as his teacher and has even written a poem, “Ende Gurunathan”, in Gandhi’s praise.
5 Kumaran Asan, along with Vallathol and Ulloor Iyer were considered as the triumvirate poets of modern Malayalam. All of them were closely connected to the nationalist movement.
6 It was only later on during the Khilafat movement that Mappilas began taking part in the nationalist movement.
7 The poet Kumaran Asan was a disciple of Sree Narayana Guru and believed in his principle of One Caste, One Religion. “Durvastha”, the poem calls out for unity amongst castes within the framework of Hinduism against an Other, the Muslim.
8 Both Tucattu Ramnujan Ezhuttacchan and Valmiki’s versions of the epics were available, but Ezhuttacchan’s version of the Ramayana, due to its language in Malayalam, was usually favoured hugely with daily readings of the same by Nair families during particular months. Valmiki’s version was translated into Malayalam for a pan-Hindu reading of a particular version of the epic.
9 Aloysius (1998) has understood, in a general context, nationalism as an upper-caste mobilisation to counter lower caste issues.
10 EMS Namboodiripad asked his cadre not to be embarrassed by Kathakali and temple festivals (Menon 61). For a better understanding on EMS Namboodiripad’s role, please refer to the chapter ‘Being a Brahmin the Marxist Way’ (Menon 32-72).
11 For an analysis based on gender norms, please refer Daugherty and Pitkow (1991). For a study of Kathakali at an institutional level, read Prakashan (2013).
12 For instance ‘God’s own country’, Kerala Tourism’s tagline is taken up unquestioningly by subjects within the region that boasts of a huge Left tradition of atheism.


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Safwan Amir is an ICSSR doctoral fellow with the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He may be contacted at safwan.in@gmail.com.

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