History of Kathakali

Elements of Kathakali can be found in Hindu temples, ancient rituals and in various dance forms which have supposedly and gradually appeared between the second and the sixteenth century.

Many features of Kathakali are older than the texts, as they are based on oral traditions which are older than literature. But the features that are specific to Kathakali were not fixed before the sixteenth century, when the Rajah of Kottarakkara, a small principality in the central Travancore, wrote plays based on the Hindu epics in a Sanskritised Malayalam. Thanks to this mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam, it became understandable to ordinary people. Until then the stories were played in pure Sanskrit, thus comprehensible only to a small number of people. Kathakali emerged as a unique style of dance-drama from past traditional dances and became a popular theatre form.

The plays were performed by actors from the Rajah’s Court itself, not only in temples and at the Court but also in the houses of feudal lords. This new art form (named Ramanattam) became popular in all regions where Malayalam was spoken. Malabar feudal lords began to compete in their efforts to get the best Kathakali troupe, and this competition contributed to the fast development of this performing art over a short period of time.