When the twilight loses its multitudes of hues to the all-engulfing darkness of night, the thick wicks bathed in untainted coconut oil in the kalivilakku (huge bell metal lamp placed in the temple premises) are lit to commence a resplendent art form called Kathakali. A stylised version of Indian classical dance drama that originated roughly in the same period when Shakespeare was scribbling his masterpieces, Kathakali riveted the attention of many with its magnificent make-up of characters, elaborate costumes and well-defined body movements.
These resplendent make-ups, known as vesham, typify the character in Kathakali. The accepted conventions regarding the veshams classify it into five basic sets, based on the characteristics of the facial make-up. They are viz. namely Pacha (green), Kathi (knife), Kari (black), Thaadi (beard), and Minukku (radiant).
The pacha vesham with its predominant green colour is used to portray noble male characters like kings and divine beings. These characters have a mix of satvic (pious) and rajsik (kingly) nature. The satvic element facilitates immense possibility for the artiste to explicate his acting talents. Characters like Lord Krishna and Lord Rama are examples of pacha vesham.
Kathi characters are arrogant and evil but have a streak of valour in them. Though their make-up is basically green, denoting that they are high born, a red mark like an upturned moustache or knife is painted on the cheek to show that they are evil. They also have white knobs on the tips of their noses and on their foreheads, which add to their evil nature. Ravana, the demon king is a typical kathi character in Kathakali.
There are three distinct types in the class of thadi vesham viz. chuvanna thadi (red beard as in the case of the character Bali - the king of monkeys) vella thadi (white beard) and karutha thadi (black beard). The red beards are vicious and excessively evil characters. Their faces are mainly painted black on the top half and red on the lower. The white beard represents a higher type of being and is seen mainly in the character of Hanuman, the monkey god. The black beards are the character types in which black predominates in make-up and costume. These are the primitive beings - the wild hunters and forest dwellers.
Kari vesham is used for demonic characters, portraying the most gruesome figures on the Kathakali stage. Their faces are jet-black with dotted red and white markings on them. Minukku vesham symbolizes gentleness and high spiritual qualities (like saints), which are in sharp contrast to the preceding four classes.
Apart from these five main classes there are eighteen special characters like Jatayu, Hamsam and Karkotaka whose make-up cannot be fitted into any particular category.