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Kathak

Telling a story

Kathak is a North Indian classical dance. In ancient times, storytellers used mime and gesture for dramatic effect. Gradually, this became more stylized and evolved into a dance form. This took the form of Kathakalakshepam and Harikatha in southern India, and the form of Kathak in the north. 

Thus, the main feature of this style is the telling of stories by the means of dance. The dancer represents all the characters of the story with the help of a repertoire of gestures, facial expressions and graceful movements of the limbs. Kathak, like the other Indian traditional dances of Odissi and Bharatnatyam, began as a devotional dance form based on the Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on devotional dance. The stories that were initially performed in Kathak were primarily based on Hindu mythology, often with themes involving Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. 
 

The Mughal influence

With the advent of the Mughals, this dance form underwent a radical transformation. The Mughals brought with them an entourage of dancers and musicians from Persia and Central and Western Asia. While these artistes borrowed some elements and features from Indian dance and music, they, in turn, had a deep influence on Indian dance forms and music. Kathak, as we know it today, is the result of the fusion between the Hindu and Muslim cultures. Kathak is also believed to have ties to the Flamenco and gypsy traditions in Spain, as well as various North Indian folk dances.

The Persian and Muslim influences altered the dance from a temple ritual to a means of royal entertainment. The emphasis shifted from the religious to the aesthetic. The Muslims gave greater importance to nritta or the pure dance aspect and less to abhinaya, which is the expression and emotion. It was through the patronage of the Mughal rulers that kathak took the form it has retained ever since, characterized by rhythmic footwork and spectacular spins. The Mughal influence also resulted in the move away from strictly Hindu mythological themes, the Kathak dancers also dramatized themes from Persian and Urdu poetry. 
 

The tawaifs

At the time of the Mughals, Kathak was performed by tawaifs, who were female entertainers similar to the geishas of Japan. The tawaifs were highly trained artistes. It was a common practice for members of the royal family to send their children to tawaifs to learn the intricacies of etiquette. However, there is a popular misconception today that tawaifs are prostitutes. This can be traced back to the days of the British, who thought the tawaifs were nothing better than common prostitutes and consequently outlawed them. As a result, kathak as an art form went into a downward spiral and would have been lost to modern society if it weren't for a revival of interest in traditional Indian dance forms that occurred post-Independence. 
 

Nritta and nritya

There are two aspects to this dance form - Nritta and Nritya. The former, refers to the technical, abstract aspect of the dance with a tremendous sense of rhythm and joy of movement. The beauty of this part of Kathak lies in the exact rendering of the rhythmic patterns, given by the instruments, through graceful body movements and mastery of the artist's footwork. 

Nritya, or abhinaya, refers to the explanation of a story or a song through facial expressions, gestures of the hands and symbolic postures of the body. The Kathak style is not totally rigid, however; it allows the artist to use a variety of free movements, thus leaving the interpretation of a story to the dancer's power of imagination and creativity. This north Indian dance form is inextricably bound with classical Hindustani music, and the table or pakhawaj accompanies the rhythmic nimbleness of the feet. 

Kathak has an exciting and entertaining quality with intricate footwork and rapid pirouettes being the dominant features of this style. The costumes and themes of these dances are often similar to those in Mughal miniature paintings. Here, the accent is more on footwork as against the emphasis on hasta mudras or hand formations in Bharatanatyam. 
 

An actual performance 

A traditional kathak performance is performed solo by a dancer dressed in Persian costume, and will include the following repertoire: amad (the dramatic entrance of the dancer on stage), thaat (slow, graceful section), tukra, tora, and paran (improvised dance compositions), parhant (recitation of rhythmic patters), and tatkar (footwork). 

This dance form is distinguished by an upright stance with knees straight. The upper body movements are fluid and subtle, with the strength of the dancer more concentrated in the lower body, governing intricate and rapid drumming of the feet. The traditional costume accentuates the rapid-fire pirouettes that are a hallmark of the style. As in all classical forms, small brass bells are worn on the ankles to mark rhythmic steps.  Kathak is the only form, however, that can boast of dancers who wear up to 200 such bells on each ankle.

The repertoire of Kathak is deeply connected to the classical music tradition of northern India. Often there will be a part of performance that features an exchange of rhythms between the dancer and drummer. The abhinaya is far more restrained than in the southern styles.
 

The gharanas

There are three main gharanas or schools of Kathak -  the Jaipur, Lucknow and Banaras schools. Each has a slight difference in interpretation and repertoire. The Jaipur gharana espoused a command of complicated pure dance patterns. This gharana stresses technical items like toda and tukda, and ancient story telling. The Lucknow style is famous for graceful expression of romantic feelings. It is characterized by precise, finely detailed movements and an emphasis on the exposition of thumri, a semiclassical style of love song. Nowadays, however, performers present a blend of kathak based on the styles of both gharanas.

Today, the maestros of this dance form include Pandit Birju Maharaj and Uma Sharma. Pandit Birju Maharaj is an exponent of the Lucknow gharana who pioneered the concept of large-scale dance dramas. In recent years, choreographers such as Kumudini Lakhia and British-based Nahid Sidiqui have explored the vocabulary of kathak to express contemporary themes. Other dancers have created performances showing the links between kathak and European dance traditions such as flamenco and gypsy dance.

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