A traditional Kathakali performance begins in the evening and continues throughout the night, culminating at the auspicious hour of dawn, when good finally conquers Evil. Today, however, it has been modified for the proscenium stage, and urban audiences can participate in this ritualistic theatre experience in the comfort of a plush auditorium, within the span of a couple of hours. In olden days Kathakali performance mostly took place on a temple premises or at the house of a local landlord. For a typical performance, a simple temporary pandal at a height of 101/2 feet will be erected. A minimum of 12 feet-square (144 sq. feet) is needed for the acting area. A green room will also be located close to the stage. The stage will be decorated with coconut leaves, bunches of areca nuts etc. The only source of light is a big bell metal lamp placed down the center stage. The level of the stage used to be the same as that of the ground where people used to squat while witnessing the performance.
Kelikottu at about 6 `o clock in the evening will announce the performance of the evening, where the Kelikottu is a brief passage of drumming involving Chenda (a cylindrical drum), Maddalam, Chengila and Elathalam. The actual performance will begin only between 9:00 - 10:00 PM. Arrangukeli will announce the beginning of the performance. This is a passage of drumming, which is followed by Thodayam, a piece of abstract dance at the same time are invocatory in nature. Junior actors in the group with simple make-up perform Thodayam. Recitation of Vandanaslokam (Prayer Song) followed by Purappad -- traditionally a preliminary item introducing the main character of the story in full costume and make-up.
However, nowadays it is mostly Krishna and Balarama who are presented, sometime with their spouses in this introductory dance. Next is the Melappadam, which is a musical piece where vocalists and the drummers are given opportunity to show their skill without depending on the actors. Then the story or parts of the stories proposed are enacted which may last till dawn. The end of the performance is marked by a piece of pure dance called Dhanasi. Drummers, singers, make up artists and costumers complete the ensemble of highly trained specialists, to present a Kathakali performance.
There are a few Items performed before the designated play of the day starts. If Kathakali is the only item for the night usually the lamp is lighted at about eight o`clock. Traditionally a costume assistant, using a wick lighted from the green room lamp does this. Arangukeli is a brief percussion item, more like an auspicious ritual. Only Maddalam gong and the cymbals are played. Maddalam perhaps represents "Dundubhi" the large drums of ancient times, which was considered auspicious. Formerly a junior artist used to perform salutation for Lord Ganesha while this item is in progress.
As the Arangukeli or Kelikkai gradually fades out, two persons hold aloft the curtain and the singers begin "Vandanalaslokam", i.e., the hymn praising the favourite deities. One or more actors, in the traditional costume worn during training perform Thodayam; this pure dance sequence inside the curtain. The lyrics contain supplication to the various gods of Hindu mythology. Although Thodayam is a beautiful piece of dance, containing dance sequences to the beats of percussion performance in all the four rhythms used in Kathakali (Chempata, Chempa, Atantha and Panchari), now it is rarely performed on stage.
Purappad follows Thodayam and the Chenda joins the percussionists from this point only. This was originally introduced quite in the lines of "Nandi" of Sanskrit drama, to indicate what is in the offing; that is, to give the audience a clue about the story to be presented. A few lines of verse added in the beginning of many "Aattakkathas" (scripts) are indicative of this. The main characters and his spouse, used to perform Purappad. Soon this item was detached from the play. It became a ritual and as it exists now mostly it is performed by junior artists dressed as Sreekrishna, sometimes accompanied by Rukmini or Balarama and Subhadra. In this form it is assumed that the gods on being pleased by the worship during Thodayam are joining the audience for witnessing the performance. Purappad is their blessing for the performers and audience. The most common lyrics for Purappad are taken from the story "Rajasooyam" and are in the praise of Sree Krishna and Sree Rama.
Melappadam is a percussion concert intended mainly to show their grade of performance. It is a veritable feast for those who are musically inclined. The lyrics used are from Jayadavas Geethagovindam, perhaps in memory of Ashtapadiyattam, a forerunner of Ramanattam and Krishnattam. After Melappadam the "play" starts. There is one more ritual associated with the first entry of characters other than "Pacha" and "Minukku" (regal and gentle). This is known as "Thiranokku", literally, looking over the curtain. For characters of royal pedigree, few props resembling regal pageantry accompany this item.
This is the part of Kathakali Acting where the actor enacts the dialogues following the lyrics being sung by the singers. The acting traditionally should be "word-by-word". Depending on the tempo, there are three types in Cholliyattam. Pathinjattam is extremely slow and here all Mudras (hand gestures) are displayed in detail, to academic perfection. Usually romantic scenes at the outset of the plays are set in this category. While for a comparatively new viewer it can be painstaking ordeal to watch a Pathinja Padam, it is sheer delight for the connoisseur. Cholliyattam in medium tempo is more commonly used. Here the acting will be quicker, taking a sentence at a time. In scenes like battle, confrontation etc. the tempo rises to real rapid.
The hand gestures are in quick succession. During cholliyattam of female characters Chenda is not played except in very few cases where the character is extremely exited, and the tempo is rapid. Idakka is played instead for female characters. The accompanying music comes to logical finishing, when their cycles complete, with a piece known as Kalasam played on percussion instruments. The actors have turned this into an advantage by performing a pure dance, called by the same name Kalasam. The mood of this dance always matches that of the character.
There are several variations in Kalasam called, Iratty, Vattam etc. The lengthiest among these is Ashtakalasam, traditionally performed only by Arjuna in Nivatha Kavacha Kalakeyavadham, to indicate the extreme state of exhilaration he was in when he was honoured at the hands of Indra, the King of gods. These days, however, this dance sequence has been adapted into other stories too, for example, Kalyanasougandhikam (Hanuman) Subhadraharanam (Balarama & Krishna), Lavanasuravadha (Hanuman and Lavakusha). There is a slight difference in style of performing Kalashams between male and female characters, obviously to suit the basic nature.
often acting without vocal support marks the end of each act. These are called Ilakiyattam. Reminiscences, narrations, casual remarks, preparations for journey or war, teasing etc are not unusual. This item is often used to enact portions of the story left out by the lyricist. A fair knowledge of the language of Mudras is essential for enjoying Ilakiyattam. Hence, while veterans enjoy it thoroughly, new comers panic during these dumps acts. Although the actor is not bound to follow set patterns, generally the content of Ilakiyattam follows a predetermined plan.
There are mandatory sequences in many stories. The most popular one is Kailasodharam and Parvatheeviraham" by Ravana in Balivijayam. There is one story where Ilakiyattam takes centre stage. Ravanolbhavam. Here except for the start and finish, the entire act is without vocal support. This story is considered as the acid test for not only an actor, but also for the percussionist (Chenda). Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, who is considered an all time great in this role, stopped performing it after the demise of the Chenda Maestro, Kalamandalam Krishnan Kutty Poduval.