The classical dance form of Kerala, Kathakali took shape mainly from Kootiyattam, Mohiniyattom, Chakyarkoothu , Ashtapadyattom and Krishnanattom. A complete art, Kathakali constitute 3 fine arts - abhinayam or acting, nrityam or dancing and geetham or singing, and is a pantomime in which the performing artiste does not sing or speak. So music is a very essential aspect of Kathakali and the bhagavathar or the singer plays a key role in the staging of the art form.
Kathakali is usually presented at dusk in the premises of temples, sometimes continuously for ten days, each night featuring an act of the play and lasting till day break. Kelikottu, an orchestration, announces the performance. The lighting of a huge Nilavilakku on the stage followed by percussion music - Suddha maddalam marks the ritualistic beginning of a Kathakali performance . Two back up artistes hold up a curtain and remove it to signify the start and finish of each scene.
Vocal musicians or bhagavathars standing at the corner of the stage sing, the lead singer called Ponnani bhagavathar keeps time with a resounding gong called the Chengila . He is assisted by Shankidi who plays a pair of Ilathalam (small cymbals).
Kathakali music belongs to the Sopana category of music which is typical of Kerala and is characteristically slow, strictly adhering to the tala (rhythm) giving full scope for abhinaya (acting).
The dancer mimes according to the padangal (verses) which helps the audience grasp the conversation, mood etc of each character on stage.
The Bhagavathar plays a key role in a Kathakali performance. He is not just the singer, but also the manager of the entire show. As such he has sound knowledge of the story being enacted, the characters and all the verses. As the caretaker of the show he controls the length of each act - according to its importance, and ensures that all equipment including weapons (wherever used) reach the stage on time. He also enjoys the freedom to manipulate the duration of each scene through his music. Among the noted Kathakali singers of yester years are Appukuttan Bhagavathar, Thiruvilwamala (1851-1930), Ettiravi Namboothiri (1809 - 1908), Kannappa Kurup (1845 - 1921), Kunjiraman Nambisan (1871 - 1916), Kunju Podhuval (1879 - 1940) and Krishnankutty Bhagavathar.
Kathakali, especially its verses and music are an enormous contribution to Malayalam literature and music. Aattakkatha, the literature part of Kathakali, forms a separate division in Malayalam literature. There are around 500 Aattakkathas and a few among them are Nalacharitham aattakkatha, Keechakavadhom aattakkatha, Dhuryodhanavadhom aattakkatha etc. Compared to others Kathakali music is more involved and complex clarifying the meanings of mudras or hand gestures, describing the context and expressing the depth of emotions enacted by the artiste.