Kathakali ("story play") is the classical dance drama of Kerala, which dates back to 17th century and is rooted in Hindu mythology. Kathakali has a unique combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance.

Kathakali draws heavily from drama and is performed with elaborate masks and costumes. Kathakali recitals are generally long and while other dance forms are more emotive than narrative, Kathakali is both. It combines dance with dialogue to bring myth and legend to life in the temple courtyards of Kerala. The dancers use their stunning costumes and make-up, with the accompaniment of drums and vocalists, to create various moods and emotions.

Kathakali has a harmonious combination of Sahithyam (literature), Sangeetham (music), Chithram (painting), Natyam (acting) and Nrithyam (dance). All the five forms of art have a very important place in this combination. Its literature is narrative, poetic and dramatic. Costumes are of vivid colours, facial makeup is done by the artist himself and a distinct headgear made of wood is worn during the play.

The make-up colours and names denote nature of the characters. The Aharya (Make-up) has many faces like Pacha / Green (Symbolizes godly or virtuous character), Kathi / Knife (portrays villainous characters), Thadi / Beard (based on the colour of Beard depicts demoniac, aborigines, saints characters), Minukku / Prettying up (Women character) and Kari / Black (she-demons). The make-up is complicated, requiring several hours to apply. Dancers place a chilli seed under their lower eyelid before the performance to turn the white of their eyes red.

During the drama the dancers do not speak, but the hand movements known as 'Mudras' and unique facial expressions all imbibe to a sign language. All the drama and dance are accompanied by powerful vocal music. Drummers provide a rhythmic background to the drama. Kathakali performances usually begin with a musical note called Thiranottam. The dance extravaganza lasts all through night to dawn.

There are 24 Basic Mudras (hand gestures) in the "Hasthalakshana Deepika", the book of hand gestures, which Kathakali follows. There are 'Asamyutha Mudras' (that is shown using single hand) and 'Samyutha Mudras' (mudras shown in double hands) in each Basic Mudras, to show different symbols. Considering all these Mudras and their separations there are totally 470 symbols used in Kathakali.

1. Pathaaka (Flag) 2. Mudraakhyam 3. Katakam (Golden Bangle) 4. Mushti (Fist) 5. Kartharee Mukham (Scissor's sharp point) 6. Sukathundam (Parrot's peek) 7. Kapidhakam (The fruit of a tree) 8. Hamsa Paksham (Swan's wing) 9. Sikharam (Peak) 10. Hamsaasyam (Swan's peek) 11. Anjali (Folded hands in Salutation) 12. Ardhachandram (Half moon) 13. Mukuram (Mirror) 14. Bhramaram (Beetle) 15. Soochimukham (Needle's sharp point) 16. Pallavam (Sprout) 17. Thripathaaka (Flag with three colours) 18. Mrigaseersham (Deer's head) 19. Sarpasirassu (Serpent's head) 20. Vardhamanakam (Seedling) 21. Araalam (Curved) 22. Oornanabham (Spider) 23. Mukulam (Bud) 24. Katakaamukham.

It was one of the Rajas (Chieftain) of Kottarakkara, who wrote the first play intended for Kathakali performance. They form a cycle of eight stories based on Ramayana. The performance for each story was designed to last for six to eight hours. The performed stories were then known as Ramanattom (play pertaining to Rama), which later came to be called as Kathakali. Stories based on other epics and puranas like Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana were added to its repertoire in later period