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Traditional Makeup – Geisha versus Kathakali

Traditional Makeup – Geisha versus Kathakali

Culture defines a person’s identity. It may be defined as the way of living formed by a group of people. Culture is transmitted from one generation to another. Every cultural group has its own way of living, beliefs and values. The various aspects of different cultures are reflected in the food, language, religion, celebrations, clothing, traditional makeup etc. Cultural difference is important because a shared cultural heritage unites the members of the group and brings a sense of belonging. With this article, I share information about the famous Geisha makeup of Japan and Kathakali makeup of India that reflects the cultural difference of the two countries through body embellishment.

Understanding both traditional makeups better:

traditional makeup

Geisha Makeup:

Geishas are traditional female entertainers in Japan who act as hostesses and perform different types of Japanese arts like, dance, music and games. The application of Geisha makeup is a very time consuming and complicated process.


Geisha makeup begins with applying a waxy substance melted in the hands. This waxy or oily substance is applied to face, neck, nape, and chest area. It helps to hold the white powder for a longer time. After this, white powder (foundation) is mixed with water and applied over the areas already covered with wax. In the past, the use of white lead for this purpose was common but as lead is highly toxic, today modern cosmetics are used as a substitute. While applying the foundation, a line of bare skin is left around the hairline to create an illusion of wearing a mask. On the nape, two or three unpainted lines are left.


After the foundation has been applied, a large sponge is used to soak up the extra moisture from the water and the areas of application. The sponge also blends the foundation which starts looking like a flawless mask. Next comes painting the eyes and eyebrows. Eye makeup is done very carefully as a small mistake can lead to the starting of the process all over again. Alterations are almost impossible, if a mistake is done. The eyebrows are painted black with a hint or touch of red. Traditionally a charcoal was used to paint the eyebrows black but today modern cosmetics have taken its place. The edges of the eyes are also outlined with black and red. When a geisha is young (Maiko), the touch of red is greater and it goes on decreasing as she grows up. The red colour can also totally disappear in older stages of life.


The lip makeup is done in last. A small brush is used to fill the lips with colour in a stick. Traditionally colour from safflower was used to paint the lips. Maiko or young Geisha paints only the center lower lip. After the first year, she starts to colour her top lip too but she never fills the entire lip. When a Maiko is transformed into geisha, she starts to paint her entire lips.


Kathakali Make up:

Kathakali is a prestigious traditional dance form of India. Kathakali makeup helps to give the performer a superhuman look. Traditionally, the colors used in Kathakali makeup is obtained from natural substances and herbs. For example, the red color is obtained from powdering stone like Chaayilyam and the yellow color is obtained from powdering Manayola. For white color, rice flour mixed with lime is used. The green color comes from mixing Neelam which is blue and Manayola which is yellow. The stone powders are mixed using coconut oil. To protect the skin from burns, powder Chenchilyam is applied. Kajal is made by burning gingelly oil. Saffron is also used in Kathakali makeup. With changing times, the colors mixing process of Kathakali makeup has changed a lot. It is now done with easily available materials.

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The first stage of the makeup is called ‘Theppu’ where the performer applies basic facial paintings. ‘Chutti’ is put over makeup then. Chutti is a series of ridges (white in colour). It is built on both cheeks starting from the chin on either side. The colour of makeup represents various things as below-

  • Green: Sattivika nature
  • Red: Rajasic nature
  • Black: Tamasic nature
  • Yellow:  Sattivika and Rajasic nature
  • Green: Godliness
  • White: Spirituality
  • Red: Ambition and Violence
  • Yellow: Passivity
  • Black: Evil


Cultural difference is crucial because as a historical reservoir, it is the most important factor behind shaping identity. Every one of us should respect the different cultures and take pride in cultural differences because identifying oneself with a group not only brings a sense of acceptance but also strength and empowerment.

By Vineeta Sinha


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