A seventeenth century dance-drama, Kathakali is intrinsically masculine in its vigor and bold characterizations. This energetic quality is true to the Natyashastra concept of the tandava. Folk roots notwithstanding, Kathakali observes classical norms and hence is an asset as both folk theatre and classical form. The headdresses, the exaggerated movements and makeup are reminiscent of Kutiyattam and Ramattam, both of which are regarded as its inspiration. Dance, music, and acting all combine to interpret the ancient Indian epics: Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas.
The actors have traditionally been drawn from the Nair community, well-versed in the martial arts of ritual warfare. This has proved a sound background because the training for Kathakali performers is strenuous and extends over 6-10 years. A normal day of training begins in the early hours of morning to continue till midnight. The text of the plays as well as the dance sequences and choreography are to be memorized, complete with facial expressions, movements, gestures.
Precision is the key word in Kathakali for the ideas and the emotions are all communicated through physical movements. The text of the play is sung in the characteristic style known as sopana by two singers who remain behind the actors. The ponnani (lead singer) holds a heavy gong that is struck with a banana-root stick and the second singer plays large cymbals. These two artists provide the basic rhythm that is enhanced by the harmonium, the conch shell and three different types of drums. The harmonium maintains pitch, while the conch shell announces gods and significant rituals. The maddalam, a large, horizontal drum, allows for a change of pace and intonation; the cenka, a vertical drum, is used for special effects; and the itekka , a delicate-sounding drum with an hour-glass shape that indicates the presence of female characters.