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.
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
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
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
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