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Learning Kathakali theater and dance in Cochin/Kerala

Kathakali LearningKathakali is a magnificent traditional dance and theater form of Kerala. The stories from Hindu mythology and Puranas are represented by facial expressions, gestures, and movements.
A singer and percussionist accompany the wordless representation of the actor. An integral part of pre-coded facial expressions are the hand and body movements that are familiar to the local audience. Only in this way can the performance be "read".
You can learn Kathakali - the dance and the make up/costume in Cochin.
It usually takes about 6 months for beginners to learn a complete role for the performance of a Hindi poem. Participants with experience in theater or dance can often learn much faster.



About Kathakali

Welcome to the land of ancient Maharajas, marvelous palaces and profound spirituality of the holy cities of Shiva, Rama and Krishna! While the golden evening sun sets into the horizon, divine figures rise from the depths of the Arabian Sea accompanied by exhilarating spicy scents, intensive melodies and rhythmical movements of dancers. They float, they swing, they love, argue and cry in an art form that is more ingenious and colourful than any other form of drama – Kathakali, the splendid theatrical dance of Kerala.
Kathakali literally means “story-telling by pantomime”. It is based on the union of literature, music, drama and painting and combines drama, dance, music and tradition. It was originally developed as an entertainment for rich Maharajas and feudal families of the 15th century. Later, also Hindu temples were chosen as performance locations, and Kathakali finally became a theatre for the people. Still today, in Kerala Kathakali performances are popular for young and old. A typical performance takes some 8 – 10 hours, from the evening to the early morning hours.
KathakaliThe actors don’t speak - the performances are completely based on facial expressions, movements and gestures of the actors. The topics of Kathakali are usually taken from Hindi legends and “puranas” where heroic fights between gods and demons are common themes. The characters arise from three spheres: the world of gods, the world of demons and of the human world. A singer and some percussionists accompany the pantomimic performance and the actual plot is being sung in narrative style including dialogues in Malayalam language.
The actors make use of encoded facial expressions and hand and body movements that are familiar to the local audience which is therefore able to “read” the performance. There are for instance nine basic facial expressions which stand for love, contempt, pathos, anger, valour, fear, disgust, wonder and peace.
Another characteristic feature of Kathakali are the extravagant costumes and painted mask-like faces. Applying the Kathakali make-up is a slow transformation of the actors from mortal beings to immortal divinities and demons. This metamorphosis takes place in front of the audience and takes around 2 – 3 hours until the actors are fully costumed and painted. By use of natural pigments such as manayola, the actor is being transformed step by step into a legendary creature. With the enormous head-dress as a part of the costume, the actor further adopts a height beyond human nature. Every figure has a characteristic facial painting and a particularly made costume.
KathakaliThere are some main characters in Kathakali which are being featured regularly: “Pachcha” are heroic figures such as divinities and other positive figures that are dressed with bright green colours standing for a good character. "Chuvanna Thaadi" are mean figures craving for power – the colour black is chosen for them which has negative connotations in Indian mythology. They may as well carry red moustaches symbolizing fury. “Kari” are dangerous man-eaters or witches, also painted in negative black, whereas “Minukku” rather define noble characters such as women and wise men in light colours such as yellow. Traditionally, Kathakali is only performed by men. Even female acts are played by male actors wearing the specific female costumes and facial paintings.
The actor also does makeup himself. The colors yellow, indigo and black for the make-up are obtained from stone, which is ground and mixed with coconut oil. Indigo and yellow produce green. The white makeup is made from rice paste.
A professional actor of Kathakali needs to be capable of presenting hundreds if not thousands of legends and stories and to know exactly about the numerous pantomimic expressions and their right combinations. Hence, an intensive training and a high level of discipline as well as body control is needed. To wear the heavy costumes and hair garment which weigh around 30 kg in total demands physical fitness – training in muscle control and flexibility are essentials during the training of a professional actor, which is traditionally being started in early childhood at special Kathakali schools.

Kathakali Watching, Dance and/or Make-Up learning

At Cochin (Ernakulam) it is possible for you to learn the wonderful art of Kathakali in one of the leading Kathakali schools. However, the school expects that you are serious about wanting to learn it. Previous experience or skills of western acting, dance or other performing arts are certainly helpful if you want to learn Kathakali, but not a requirement. Men and women can participate; it is possible to start at any time.
You are going to be taught by your private teacher for 2 hours every day. The minimum duration of stay should be at least one month to gain basic insight and understanding. To fully learn the role of a Kathakali character and being able to perform a Hindi epos, a beginner usually needs around 6 months, depending on his individual speed. At the Kathakali school for instance, an American jazz percussionist was able to reach a level of Kathakali percussion in just one month which usually takes 6 months to achieve.
Subjects of the Kathakali training include learning the encoded facial, hand and body expressions as well as muscle control, giving massages for flexibility (only for men), Kathakali make-up and maintenance of the hand-made costumes.

Kathakali Lessons:

Private lessons (also for small groups) in Kathakali for 2 hours daily, Monday to Friday.
Minimum Duration: 1 week
Language Requirements: English
Location: Cochin/Kerala, India
Accommodation: Guesthouse

Price: In Tab "Rate"

Read More

  • In our video about Cochin (in Tab "Cochin"), you see a snippet of a Kathakali performance

Feedback from Mathilde from France

During 2 weeks I took lessons in kathakali make-up every morning. The afternoons I had to discover the surroundings.
During the first week, I got familiarized with the make-up technique and in the second week I learned one different make-up per day.
I also learned how to make different colors with mineral pigments. And how to use the glue made from rice mix.
In the evening, I have seen kathakali shows. It's really interesting to see the actors making themselves up, and the complete transformation on the stage during the show. The Kerala kathakali center was like a second home. Everybody is so welcoming.
Staying at Antonio's homestay is really nice. The people are so kind, nice room, and perfect breakfast! It was a pleasure to be there.
Kind regards,



Rate for months April - October:

Convert to USD, GBP, CAD, AUD and other currencies
1 week
1 Person: 295 EUR (single room); 2 Persons: 240 EUR per person (double Room; Single Occupancy: + 20 EUR)
Each extra week
1 Person: 165 EUR (single room); 2 Persons: 120 EUR per person (double Room; Single Occupancy: + 20 EUR)
For all other months:
Plus 20 €/Person/week
Surcharge for room with air conditioning: 60 €/week/room
The price includes:
  • Lessons 5 times a week for 2 hours each with a private teacher
  • Accommodation as booked in guest house in Fort Kochi without meals
  • Airport transfers from/to Cochin International (COK) during arrival/departure
Please contact us if you are interested in accommodation of higher standards.
You can combine Kathakali with Yoga, Kalaripayatt, cooking lessons and Ayurveda. Please contact us for a customised rate!



Accommodation in Cochin



Guest House in Cochin:

You will be accommodated at one of two Guest Houses of middle standard, which belong to the same family and which are located next to each other in a quiet residential area of Fort Cochin, two minutes to walk from the "Maritime Museum". Most rooms have a private bathroom. There is a cleaner once a week and WiFi internet. The rates vary slightly during the year, depending on the season. You can book breakfast for an additional around 80 Rs./day. At one of the Guest Houses there is also a small kitchenette that can be used from participants living in both Guest Houses.
Bed sheets are provided but you should bring your own towels.



Other Projects That Might Interest You:

These projects are suggestions for alternatives that may interest you or those that could be chosen as COMBINATIONS. The combination of projects in different organizations is often possible and usually cheaper than two individual bookings. Please contact us to know more! Check out our other listings in the areas of "World Learner" and "Active Travel" at your travel destination to make your stay even more interesting.


Malayalam is the language of Kerala. Although there are many people with good knowledge of English (much more than Hindi), it is always helpful to have a basic knowledge of Malayalam. You can take lessons (5 times a week for 2 hours each) with a single teacher. Classes are held in Fort Cochin, on the terrace of your property. Just mark in the registration form, "Language Training Required", and let us know your desired number of hours.
The price for 10 hours of lessons: 50 EUR.

Travel Health Insurance

We recommend the following travel insurance that is meant specifically for participants of internships, volunteering, language study, working holiday, and courses abroad. It is available for travelers of all nationalities and usable for all countries, except your home country. You can also add a journey liability insurance.
Just click on the link, fill in the form and you will get a confirmation email.



Check out our video on Cochin!

In this video, you see our volunteers, Sophie and Claudia in Cochin and our coordinator, Antonio. Also featured are some activities that you can do in and around Cochin.


Kerala - the Land of the Coconut Palms:

In Malayalam, Kerala means "Land of the coconut palms". This tropical state in the south west of India is strong in traditions and culture. Ayurveda, the Kathakali, and Kalarippayat (probably the oldest martial art of the world), all come from Kerala. The society of Kerala however, has also been shaped by the trade and cultural exchange facilitated by sailing vessels on the Indian Ocean. As early as in the 4th century, traders brought Christianity and Islam to Kerala and therefore, these two religions have far more followers in Kerala than in other parts of India: around 55% of Kerala's population are Hindu, 25% Muslims and 20% Christians.
Kerala is very attractive and interesting for travelling, offering tropical beaches and islands, house boat tours on the "backwaters", impressive mountains (such as the tea plantation area of Munnar) and National Parks, as well as a rich cultural heritage.

Cochin - Historic Port Town

The coastal city of Cochin, with around 600,000 inhabitants, spreads over several islands and peninsulas which are all connected via bridges. Ferries can easily bring you to the other parts of the city. An important island is Fort Kochi, the historic old town, where you will be accommodated. In the past, Fort Kochi was an important Indian Ocean port. The Chinese in the 13th century, the Portuguese in the 15th century and the Dutch in the 17th century left their remains. The town of Fort Kochi with its old courtyards, walls, churches and palaces, has a compelling flair which attracts cultural and wellness tourists; therefore there are many restaurants, hotels and guest houses, handcrafts and esoteric shops, as well as events. At night, it is particularly safe in Fort Kochi, as the Indian police operates its own "tourism police station" with a quirky police uniform museum. The modern and big city part of Cochin is Ernakulam, which is situated on the mainland and has a railroad station, many offices and large shops. Vypin Island is popular for beaches.

Our Coordinator in Cochin

Our coordinator in Cochin is Antonio.

Recreational Activities in Cochin

As a tourist destination, Cochin offers many ways to spend your spare time. These include the famous boat trips with houseboats on the "backwaters", which is available as day trips or as a multi-day offers, in which case you sleep on the boat. A beautiful multi-day trip and a welcome climate change, is also a visit to the tea plantations in the mountains of Munnar. There are several beaches in the area of Cochin, where you can swim.
In Cochin itself, there are many places for Ayurvedic massages, demonstrations of the traditional theater "Kathakali", the martial arts "Kalaripayattu" and folk dances and music performances (as "World Learner", you can even learn these), as well as take yoga or cooking lessons. In Ernakulam, there are large shopping malls and many shops with great deals; Fort Cochin has many tourist shops and a large number of restaurants and cafes. In the late afternoons, locals, Indian tourists and foreign tourists gather on the beach promenade of Fort Cochin to see the sunset.

Getting There


Getting To Cochin

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You book your flight to Cochin/Kochi (COK). There, you will be picked up and taken to your accommodation in Cochin.
You can also see if there is any cheaper international flight to Mumbai, New Delhi, Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Sharjah and then, book a flight separately, oder to Cochin.



Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are there fixed start dates for the project, which I must adhere to?
No, you can arrive at any date and you can hence, plan your trip according to your availability and the prices of flights. We can pick you up from the Cochin airport even at night.
Can I stay longer at my accommodation after my volunteering/internship or arrive earlier?
Yes, this is possible and we will give you our best rates. Just let us know when you arrive and leave and we will let you know the costs.
During my stay, can I travel around the country?
Of course, you can do this - most of our participants do so. However, when the travel destination is too far away, it may not be possible over a weekend; these, we would recommend you keep for before the projects begins or after the completion. You could even plan these out during holidays. Even with an internship visa, it is possible to travel around India.
When is the rainy season and can I travel to India during this time?
The monsoon begins in early June in Kerala, Mumbai, in mid-June and the Himalayan region, early to mid-July and ends in September. The Thar Desert in Rajasthan (location Setrawa), barely gets rain during the monsoon and Jodhpur is rather dry.
During the monsoon, it usually rains heavily for several hours every day. As a result, there are often floods in the streets of the cities, because the drains cannot absorb the amounts of water. An internship or volunteering is possible during the monsoon, and the only nuisance will probably be wet clothes and shoes, which are often difficult to dry because of the high humidity. You might want to carry a few extra shoes and a change of clothes with you (or buy them locally). You can even buy an umbrella or a raincoat locally. An advantage to traveling during the monsoon, is that the fares are cheaper and accommodation during the off season is cheaper.
Can I travel to India as a young woman alone? The media constantly reports of rape - how high is the risk?
For decades, India has been a safe country for women and now the impression, given by the media, is that the number of rapes has skyrocketed and India is unsafe for women. More cases are coming into light now, as women previously would not speak about rape, but are now empowered to do so. Compared to the number of cases in relation to the huge population of India (almost twice as many as the whole of Europe), even if projections of unreported cases are included, there is much less rape than in many other countries. There are 2 cases that happen per 100,000 inhabitants in India (in comparison: Central Europe: 8.1 cases; 14.7 cases in Latin America; 28.6 cases per 100,000 population in the US).
Of course you have to be careful as a woman, as far as the style of dressing and dealing with local men are concerned. In schools, boys and girls are often strictly separated and many young men have no experience in dealing with women who are not their own mother or sisters; your behavior, based on dealing with Western men, might be misinterpreted as “easy” or “loose” behaviour.
Will I be the only volunteer/intern in the project or in Cochin?
The total number of participants that participate simultaneously with an organization depends on the size and activity of the organization and responsibilities of volunteers/interns. We try to avoid too many volunteers/interns in an organization at the same time. It may be that you are alone in your work site, but usually there are, throughout the year, other participants in Cochin, who you can meet in your spare time, if you desire so.
What vaccinations do I need?
Our Info - PDF that you get as a participant, gives detailed information on health care. Also refer to Recommended Vaccinations
Where will I live?
In the tab "Accommodation", you see the housing options.
Does my accommodation have internet facilities?
Yes, the accommodations in Cochin provide wifi at no additional cost.
How can I do my laundry?
Watch our video about Cochin (in the tab "Cochin"). In it, our coordinator, Antonio shows us a laundry service, where the clothes are washed by hand. For a pre-decided price per garment (fixed price for trousers, tops, towels, underwear, etc.), your clothes will be collected from your accommodation and neatly ironed and returned the next day.
Can I cook in the accommodation?
Yes, you can cook at the shared accommodation.
I am a vegetarian. Can I get vegetarian food?
Yes, India is a paradise for vegetarians. Almost all restaurants are clearly marked, whether they are vegetarian ("Veg") or not ("Non-Veg"), and there are separate menus. About 40% of Indians are vegetarians.
What language skills do I need?
You should be able to understand and make yourself understood in English.

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