The language of the songs used for Kathakali music is Manipravalam. So most of the Kathakali songs are set in ragas based on the microtone-heavy Carnatic music. There is a distinct style of plain-note rendition in Kathakali Music which is known as the Sopanam style. This typical Kerala style of rendition takes its roots from the temple songs which is used to sing at the time when Kathakali was born.
The Kathakali Music has some similarity to the larger body of South Indian Classical Music (Carnatic Sangeet) however the instrumentation is decidedly different. Its local colour is strongly achieved by the use of instruments such as chenda, idakka, and shuddha madalam.
Music is central to a Kathakali performance. It sets the mood and triggers emotions resonant with the nature of the scene. It also the beat speed with which the actors play their parts.
Some major musical patterns, according to Clifford and Betty, that go with the moods and content of the scene are:
- Cempata : (most common and default that applies to a range of moods, in battles and fights between good and evil. And also to conclude a scene)
- Campa music : (depict tension, dispute, disagreement between lovers or competing ideas)
- Pancari : (for odious, preparatory such as sharpening a sword)
- Triputa : (thought provoking, scenes involving sages and teachers)
- Atanta : (scenes involving kings or divine beings)
- Muri Atanta musical style : (for comic, light hearted, or fast moving scenes involving heroic or anger-driven activity).
As with the acting style, Kathakali music also has singers from the northern and southern schools. The northern style has largely been groomed by Kerala Kalamandalam in the 20th century. Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambisan was the over-arching Kathakali musician of those times. and also he was a product from that institute.
His prominent disciples include:
- Unnikrishna Kurup – Kalamandalam
- Gangadharan – Kalamandalam
- P.G. Radhakrishnan – Kalamandalam
- Rama Varrier
- Madambi Subramanian Namboodiri
- Tirur Nambissan
- Sankaran Embranthiri – Kalamandalam
- Hyderali – Kalamandalam
- Haridas – Kalamandalam
- Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan
- Bhavadasan – Kalamandalam
The other prominent musicians of the north is:
- Vasu Nedungadi – Kottakkal
- Parameswaran Namboodiri – Kottakkal
- P.D. Narayanan Namboodiri – Kottakkal
- Kottakkal Narayanan
- Anantha Narayanan – Kalamandalam
- Sreekumar – Kalamandalam
- Palanad Divakaran
- Kalanilayam Rajendran
- Kolathappilli Narayanan Namboodiri
- Kalamandalam Narayanan Embranthiri
- Madhu – Kottakkal
- Babu Namboodiri – Kalamandalam
- Harish – Kalamandalam
- Vinod – Kalamandalam
In south, some of them are equally popular as in the north these days. That list includes Pathiyur Sankarankutty.
Southern musicians of the older generation includes:
- Cherthala Thankappa Panikker
- Thakazhi Kuttan Pillai
- Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup
- Thanneermukkam Viswambharan
- Mudakkal Gopinathan
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