Indian Classical dances are a fundamental pillar of the country’s culture and traditions. There are eight classical dances, each a mesmerizing creation of creative and artistic renditions. One such stronghold of Indian art forms is Kathak dance. Kathak, like the other classical dance forms, is much more than just an expression of art. Its origins, history, evolution, as well as, the skill in its performances is a culmination of creativity, mythology, spirituality, philosophy, and science. Each movement means something and is performed in tandem with a rhythm and flow of the body.
What is Kathak?
Kathak comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Katha’, which means story or conversation. The Kathak dancers were kathakars or storytellers who traveled in northern India. They moved from place to place telling stories about Gods, Goddesses, epics, mythologies, and more. The dance form thus involves the unfolding of a tale that is best expressed with the distinct expressions of the dancers. The Kathak dancers are known to have excellent hand and feet work, besides bodily flexibility and expressive facial movements.
History of Kathak Dance
Kathak can be traced back to 400 BCE. Natya Shastra is the earliest written text and perhaps the bedrock on which Indian Classical dances find their basic understanding and execution. Kathak thus finds its earliest origins in the Natya Shastra. Over the years, it was passed orally and through performances from one generation to another. It evolved and branched out according to the surrounding environment and historical empires that came along. For example, under the Rajputs and the Mughal era, Kathak adopted many of their cultural nuances. And thus, over time, Kathak branched into ‘gharanas’ that were dependent on the geographical location and patronage that it received.
Kathak, the Spiritual Beginnings
Most scholars agree that Kathak, as we know it today, began in Varanasi. From Banares Kathak spread to other cities in north India, such as Lucknow and Jaipur.
The Bhakti Movement is also often related to the development of Kathak in Uttar Pradesh, particularly Lucknow. Ishwari, a Bhakti Movement devotee, is believed to have dreamed about Lord Krishna who asked him to create a dance form to worship him. Ishwari thus developed the dance form and taught it to his followers and family. This dance form was passed through six generations in his family and thus formed the Lucknow school or gharana of Kathak dance.
Kathak dances during the Bhakti Movement were centered around the love of Krishna and Radha, as well as other tales from the Puranas. A more common place and practical adoption of this dance were Raslila which emerged in the regions of western UP. The style, gestures, etc. of Raslila dancers resemble those of the kathakars.
The Mughal rule had its impact on the Kathak dance form, as it did on many other cultural aspects of the country. Until the Mughals, kathak was confined to the realms of religion and temples. However, the kathak performances now started taking place in the courts of the kings. It became a form of entertainment for the aristocracy and higher emphasis was given to nritya and bhava or emotions. With time themes from Persia and Central Asia were also added to the dance form. These included swirling movements as seen in Sufi music or outfits that resembled that of Harlem dancers.
With the coming of the British to India, many dance forms were looked down upon and discouraged. Kathak which was then performed in courts and palaces was a mix of the traditional dance form, as well as Persian and Central Asian elements. It was thus derogated to what the Britisher’s called ‘nautch’ dance.
Not only the seductiveness, but the British also had a problem with Hinduism which was an intrinsic part of the traditional Kathak dance form. They wanted the myths and legends to be replaced by European tales and stories. However, the Kathak dancer families continued to preserve the art form. Many Kathak teachers also started training boys in the dance form because of the ‘nautch’ dance concepts envisaged by the foreigners.
Gharanas of Kathak Dance
Broadly, there are three gharanas or schools of Kathak. The Banaras, Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas. The Jaipur gharana evolved from the courts of the Rajput kings and pays more attention to footwork. The Lucknow and Banaras gharana focus on hand movements and facial expressions more. The eyes and eyebrows too are important elements in the facial expressions and thus the core emphasis is on acting in the case of the Lucknow and Banaras gharanas. Whereas, for the Jaipur gharana the emphasis is on the unfaltering footwork.
There are of course, many sub branches of each gharana too.
The Kathak Dance Form
Each classical dance has its own distinctive format and training. Kathak dancing essentially comprises three parts – Nritta, Natya and Nritya.
Nritta is pure dance, Natya is the incorporation of drama and storytelling, whereas, Nritya is the use of facial expressions. Because the entire dance act is the coming together of all these three parts, it not captures attention but is also close to spirituality. It has an aura and power that keeps the audience in a trance-like emotion.
Also, there is a proper sequence of a Kathak performance. Below is a basic layout and format of how a Kathak dance act usually unfolds.
The dance begins with the dramatic entry of the dancer. This is called Amad where the focus is on the introduction of the dancer. Next what follows is known as Thaat, or the section where slow and elegant dance movements set the tone and start of the actual dance. The Tora, Tukra and Paran are the real dancing segments of the act. Here the dancer is in full flow, expressing with their face and eyes and coordinating their leg and hand movements to perfection. The story or katha is all woven and told with the help of dance moves. Parhant is the pen-ultimate segment of the act where again the tempo and speed slow down a bit. The rhythm is soft and delicate. This is followed by the last part of the dance act, called Tatkar. Tatkar is the gorgeous movement of footwork that the dancer performs with precision and sets the stage to end the dance act on a high crescendo to the beat of the rhythm and the ghungroos.
The Kathak act can be performed by a single dancer or a group of dancers. Sometimes, some dancers may use the microphone to interact with the audience too while the dance act is in progress.
Costume And Instruments
Kathak has a unique set of attire that is associated with the dance form. The clothing is usually a riot of vivid and bright colours. Traditional outfits, such as saree or a lehenga with a blouse and a dupatta are often worn by women Kathak dancers. Besides, after the Mughal rule, Anarkali dresses have also become quite popular.
Jewelry is also an important part of the dance attire. Women wear gold, silver ornaments, such as necklaces, earrings, finger rings, bracelts and tikkas. A waist belt is also usually worn known as the kamarbandh. However, the ghungroos are the most vital piece of jewelry, for they not only add to the aesthetic look but also aid in the rhythm of the performance.
Men also perform Kathak and their attire includes a pleated dhoti. Sometimes they may wear a kurta paired with a salwar pant. Men too wear ghungroos.
The instruments used are dependent on the dancer and can range from two to twelve or more. The common instruments are tablas, sarangi, harmonium, etc.
There are several Kathak artists who have been legendary and well-known all over the world. Birju Maharaj is considered one of the most renowned Kathak dancers. He is a recipient of the Padmabhushan and his legacy continues to live in the hearts of art lovers. Other stalwart Kathak artists include Lachu Maharaja, Shambhu Maharaj, Shovan Narayan, Kumari Kamala, Pandit Durgalal, Prerna Shrimala and more.
Also, Waheeda Rahman and Madhuri Dixit are popular Hindi cinema actresses who are great Kathak dancers too.
Kathak, Secular Dance Form
Kathak is both a Hindu and Muslim dance form. Though its beginnings are attributed to the Bhakti Movement, Islamic influences surfaced during the Mughal rule. Today, Kathak is often seen as a secular dance form, where no matter the religion of the dancer, the emotions and sentiments are divine.
The dance begins with a Vandana or the act of respecting the guru. If the performance is by Hindus the hand movements and expressions are a mark of reverence for the Gods. If its performed by Muslims, then the gestures are in the form of a salaam. Either way, the meaning of the act is the same for both.
The stage too may look different depending on the religious inclination of the dance team. In the case of Hindu dancers, there is often a picture of the Nataraj or Ganesha. For Muslims, the stage is usually bare with only the musicians seated in a corner where the audience is seated.
Kathak Dance Today
Post-Independence, the country saw a revival in most of its dance and art forms, including Kathak. Kathak began to be taught as a university subject and the first academic institute set up was the Indira Kala Sangeet University in 1956, where the Kathak classes began. The gharanas continued to flourish and today a more universal style of the dance form exists.
Finally, Kathak is a mesmerizing dance form that has style, elegance, history and meaning. Do watch it live at least once in your lifetime!