Kathak vs. Kathakali

What's the Difference?

Kathak and Kathakali are two distinct classical dance forms originating from different regions of India. Kathak, originating from North India, is a storytelling dance form that combines intricate footwork, graceful movements, and expressive facial expressions. It focuses on rhythmic patterns and improvisation, often accompanied by tabla and other classical Indian music instruments. On the other hand, Kathakali, originating from the southern state of Kerala, is a highly stylized dance-drama that involves elaborate costumes, heavy makeup, and exaggerated facial expressions. It tells mythological stories through a combination of dance, music, and acting. While both dance forms are deeply rooted in Indian culture and require years of training, Kathak emphasizes storytelling and footwork, while Kathakali focuses on dramatic expressions and elaborate costumes.


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OriginNorth IndiaKerala, South India
Dance StyleClassical Indian dance formClassical Indian dance-drama form
CostumesElaborate traditional costumesElaborate traditional costumes
MakeupMinimal makeupElaborate makeup with vibrant colors
Facial ExpressionsEmphasis on facial expressionsHighly expressive facial movements
Hand GesturesUses intricate hand gesturesUses elaborate hand gestures
FootworkEmphasizes footwork and rhythmic patternsEmphasizes footwork and rhythmic patterns
MusicAccompanied by classical Indian musicAccompanied by classical Indian music
StorytellingPrimarily focuses on storytelling through danceCombines dance, music, and acting to tell stories
TrainingRequires rigorous training in dance techniquesRequires rigorous training in dance and acting techniques
Photo by Avin CP on Unsplash

Further Detail


Kathak and Kathakali are two prominent classical dance forms originating from India. While both forms share their roots in the rich cultural heritage of the country, they differ significantly in terms of their origin, technique, costumes, makeup, and storytelling. In this article, we will explore the attributes of Kathak and Kathakali, highlighting their unique characteristics and the cultural significance they hold.

Origin and History

Kathak, which means "storyteller" in Sanskrit, has its origins in the northern regions of India, particularly in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. It evolved as a form of storytelling through dance, with influences from the Mughal courts and the traditional dance forms of the region. Kathakali, on the other hand, hails from the southern state of Kerala and has its roots in ancient Hindu mythology and religious rituals. It emerged as a form of dance-drama, combining elements of dance, music, and acting.

Technique and Movements

Kathak is characterized by its intricate footwork, fast spins, and graceful movements. The dancers often perform complex rhythmic patterns, known as "tatkar," using their feet to create rhythmic sounds. Hand gestures, known as "mudras," are also an essential part of Kathak, allowing the dancers to convey emotions and tell stories through their movements. Kathakali, on the other hand, is known for its highly stylized and exaggerated movements. The dancers use elaborate facial expressions, eye movements, and hand gestures to portray various characters from mythology.

Costumes and Makeup

Kathak dancers typically wear flowing, colorful costumes, known as "lehengas" or "ghagras," adorned with intricate embroidery and embellishments. The male dancers often wear a long tunic, known as a "sherwani," paired with loose pants. The makeup in Kathak is minimal, with a focus on enhancing the natural features of the dancers. In contrast, Kathakali dancers wear elaborate costumes and vibrant makeup. The costumes are made of rich fabrics, with exaggerated headdresses, ornate jewelry, and large skirts. The makeup in Kathakali is a highly intricate process, involving the application of various colors and patterns to depict different characters.

Storytelling and Themes

Kathak is primarily a solo dance form, where the dancer tells stories through their movements, expressions, and gestures. The themes of Kathak performances can vary widely, ranging from mythological tales to historical events and even contemporary narratives. The dancers often use poetry and music to enhance the storytelling element. Kathakali, on the other hand, is a group performance, with a team of dancers, musicians, and actors coming together to present a complete dance-drama. The themes of Kathakali performances are predominantly based on Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with a focus on portraying the battle between good and evil.

Music and Instruments

Kathak is accompanied by a variety of musical instruments, including the tabla, sarangi, sitar, and harmonium. The music in Kathak is often based on classical Hindustani or Carnatic ragas, providing a melodic backdrop for the dancer's movements. In Kathakali, the music plays a crucial role in setting the mood and enhancing the dramatic elements of the performance. The traditional instruments used in Kathakali include the chenda (a cylindrical drum), maddalam (a double-headed drum), and the chengila (a gong). The music in Kathakali is characterized by its rhythmic complexity and powerful beats.

Cultural Significance

Both Kathak and Kathakali hold immense cultural significance in India. Kathak has been passed down through generations, preserving the rich traditions and stories of the region. It has evolved as a form of artistic expression, reflecting the cultural diversity and historical influences of the country. Kathakali, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in the religious and mythological traditions of Kerala. It is considered a sacred art form, often performed in temples and during religious festivals. Both dance forms have gained international recognition, contributing to the promotion and preservation of Indian classical dance on a global scale.


In conclusion, Kathak and Kathakali are two distinct classical dance forms from India, each with its own unique attributes and cultural significance. While Kathak focuses on storytelling through intricate footwork and graceful movements, Kathakali combines dance, music, and acting to present elaborate dance-dramas based on Hindu mythology. The costumes, makeup, music, and themes of these dance forms further differentiate them from each other. Despite their differences, both Kathak and Kathakali play a vital role in preserving India's rich cultural heritage and continue to captivate audiences with their beauty and artistry.

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