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Kathak dance is one of the main genres of ancient Indian classical dance forms. Kathak is one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance forms. Kathak traditionally regarded to have originated from the travelling bards of North India referred as Kathakars or storytellers. The word Kathak is derived from the vedic Sanskrit word Katha which means story. And the person who tells the story is known as Karthakar or storyteller. These Kathakars wandered around and communicated legendary stories via music, dance and songs like the early Greek theatres. The stories they use to tell were from the great epics and from ancient mythology. Kathak dancers tell various stories through their hand and foot movements and most importantly through their facial expressions. Kathak dance evolved during Bhakti movement. The most of the stories they use to tell were childhood stories of Hindu God Krishna. Kathak is the only classical dance form with strong Muslim influence incorporating Sufi whirling, Urdu lyrics, and Indo-Persian attire.

There are three specific dance forms of this genre that is three Gharanas (schools) namely Jaipur, Lucknow and Banaras. The three forms differ from each other on the emphasis given to footwork and acting. While the Jaipur gharana focuses more on the foot movements, the Banaras and Lucknow gharanas focus more on facial expressions and graceful hand movements. Kathak dance form emphasizes rhythmic foot movements, adorned with small bells (Ghungroo), and the movement harmonized to the music. The legs and torso are generally straight, and the story is told through a developed vocabulary based on the gestures of arms and upper body movement, facial expressions, stage movements, bends and turns. The main focus of the dance becomes the eyes and the foot movements. The eyes work as a medium of communication of the story the dancer is trying to communicate. With the eyebrows, the dancer gives various facial expressions. The difference between the sub-traditions is the relative emphasis between acting versus footwork, with Lucknow style emphasizing acting and Jaipur style famed for its spectacular footwork.

History

Kathak as a performance art has survived and thrived as an oral tradition, innovated and taught from one generation to another verbally and through practice. It transitioned, adapted and integrated the tastes of the Mughal courts in the 16th and 17th century particularly during Akbar’s rule, was ridiculed and declined in the colonial British era, then was reborn as India gained independence and sought to rediscover its ancient roots and a sense of national identity through the arts.

The roots of this dance form trace back to Sanskrit Hindu text on performing arts called ‘Natya Shastra’ written by ancient Indian theatrologist and musicologist Bharata Muni. It is presumed that the first complete version of the text was completed between 200 BCE to 200 CE, but some sources mention the timeframe to be around 500 BCE and 500 CE. Thousands of verses structured in different chapters are found in the text that divides dance in two particular forms, namely ‘nrita’ that is pure dance which comprise of finesse of hand movements and gestures, and ‘nritya’ that is solo expressive dance that focuses on expressions.

Russian scholar Natalia Lidova states that ‘Natya Shastra’ describes various theories of Indian classical dances including Tandava dance of Lord Shiva, methods of acting, standing postures, gestures, basic steps, bhava and rasa. Mary Snodgrass states that the tradition of this dance form is traced back to the 400 BCE. Bharhut, a village in the Satna district of Madhya Pradesh, India stands as a representative of early Indian art. The 2nd century BC panels found there illustrates sculptures of dancers in different vertical poses with arm positions that resemble Kathak steps, many of which reflect the ‘pataka hasta’ Mudra. The word Kathak is deduced from the Vedic Sanskrit term ‘Katha’ which means ‘story’ while the term kathakar that finds place in several Hindu epics and texts means the person who tells a story. Text-based analysis indicates Kathak as an ancient Indian classical dance form that presumably originated in Banaras or Varanasi and then spread its wings in Jaipur, Lucknow and many other regions of north and northwest India.

Bhakti Movement Era

The Lucknow Gharana of Kathak was founded by Ishwari Prasad, a devotee of the Bhakti movement. Ishwari lived in the village of Handiya situated in southeast Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that Lord Krishna came to his dreams and instructed him to develop “dance as a form of worship”. He taught the dance form to his sons Adguji, Khadguji and Tularamji who again taught their descendants and the tradition continued for more than six generations thus carrying forward this rich legacy that is well acknowledged as the Lucknow grarana of Kathak by Indian literature on music of both Hindus and Muslims. The development of Kathak during the era of Bhakti movement predominantly focussed on the legends of Lord Krishna and his eternal love Radhika or Radha found in texts like the ‘Bhagavata Purana’ which were spectacularly performed by the Kathak artists.

Mughal Era

This ancient classical dance form that was majorly associated with Hindu epics was well acknowledged by the courts and nobles of the Mughal period. The dance performed in Mughal courts however adapted a more erotic form without having much reference to particular themes applied earlier that communicated religious or spiritual concepts. Improvisations were made by the dancers predominantly to entertain the Muslim audience with sensuous and sexual performances which although were different from the age-old dancing concept but contained a subtle message in it like the love of Radha-Krishna. Eventually Central Asian and Persian themes became a part of its repertoire. These included replacements of sari with a costume that bared midriff, adding a transparent veil in the costume that typified the ones wore by medieval Harem dancers and whirling while performing as done in Sufi dance. By the time the colonial European officials arrived in India, Kathak already became famed as a court entertainment and was more of a fusion of ancient Indian classical dance form and Persian-Central Asian dance forms with the dancers being referred as ‘nautch girls’.

Colonial Era

Emergence of colonial rule in the 18th century followed by the establishment of the colonial rule in the 19th century saw decline of various classical dance forms which were subjected to contemptuous fun and discouragement including Kathak. Eventually the social stigma associated with nautch girls added with highly critical and despicable attitude from the Christian missionaries and British officials, who held them and the Devadasis of South India as harlots, disgraced such systems. The Anglican missionaries were critical about Hinduism manifested from the proposition of Reverend James Long who suggested that Kathak artists should embrace European legends and tales associated with Christianity and do away with the Indian and Hindu legends. The Christian missionaries launched anti-dance movement in 1892 to stop such practice. 

The book ‘The Wrongs of Indian Womanhood’ by Marcus B. Fuller published in 1900 caricatured the facial expressions and sensuous gestures emoted during Kathak performances in Hindu temples and family functions. The nautch girls were not only disgraced by the newspapers and officials of colonial rule but were also suppressed economically by pressurizing their patrons to cease financial support. The Madras Presidency under the British colonial rule banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910. The Indian community disapproved such ban apprehending persecution of such rich and ancient Hindu custom on the pretext of social reform. Many classical art revivalists questioned against such discrimination.

Revival

The movement to end the colonial era and for an independent India, also witnessed a revival of Kathak and more broadly, a cultural ferment and effort to reclaim culture and rediscover history.

The Kathak revival movements co-developed in Muslim and Hindu gharanas, particularly by the Kathak-Misra community. Of these the Jaipur and Lucknow sub-traditions of Kathak have attracted more scholarship.

The oldest Kathak department at a degree college (university) was formed in 1956 at Indira Kala Sangeet University, a public university located in Khairagarh where Dr. Puru Dadheech instated the first Kathak syllabus. It was inspired by the syllabus of Mohanrao Kallianpurkar at Bhatkhande College.

According to a BBC Arts article, Kathak is unique in being practiced by the Muslim community of the India, and thus has a “historical link to Islam.” Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a Muslim and a disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das in the Lucknow school, considers Kathak as a “confluence of Hindu and Muslim cultures”, and has presented her performance in Pakistan. In contrast, states BBC, “Nahid Siddiqui, settled and nurtured in the UK, has a hard time practicing and presenting her (Kathak) art in her birth-country of Pakistan”.

While most scholars consider Kathak as an ancient art, some such as Margaret Walker suggest the modern Kathak is a 20th-century phenomenon, more a form of cultural revival, if one relies on the music-related Indian documents.

Repertoire

The three main sections of a Kathak dance are invocation and ‘Nritta’ and ‘Nritya’ mentioned in ‘Natya Shastra’ and followed by all major Indian classical dance forms. In the invocation part the dancer offers respect to her guru and musicians on stage and invocation to Hindu gods and goddesses through mudras or hand gestures and facial expressions if the group follows Hindu tradition. In case of Muslim groups, the dancer gives a salami or salutation. ‘Nritta represents pure dance where the dancer initially performs a thath sequence exhibiting elegant and slow movements of eyebrows, neck and wrists following which she slowly ups her speed and energy in multiples as she completes a sequence of bol. Each bol comprising of short sections includes spectacular footwork, turns and gestures encompassing tora, tukra, parhant and paran among others. She performs to the musical beats and tempos, perfectly synchronizing her footwork sequences called tatkars, thus creating a rhythmic sound with the ghunghru, and usually mark completion of each sequence with a sharp turn of head. In ‘Nritya’ the dancer communicates a story, spiritual themes, message or feelings through expressive gestures and slower body movements harmonized with musical notes and vocals.

Costumes

The costumes vary among Kathak performers, and are either Hindu or Muslim.

The Hindu costume for female dancers has two variations. One is based on a Sari, but is worn in a style different from the customary style that goes over the left shoulder. A Kathak artist generally wraps the sari around the waist and it hangs down from the left. A blouse called choli covers the upper body. The artist may wear a scarf (called orhni in some places). Hair, face, ear, neck, hand, wrist and ankle jewellery, typically of gold, may adorn the artist. A tika or bindi in the middle of forehead is common. The second variation of a Hindu Kathak dancer uses a long, full (just above the ankle), light-weight skirt usually with embroidered border that helps highlight the dance motion. The skirt is contrasted with a different color choli, and a transparent scarf typically drapes over it and the dancer’s head. Jewelry is typically present in the second variation.

The Muslim costume for female dancers also uses a skirt, but includes close fitting churidar pyjamas and sometimes a long coat covering hands and the upper body. The head has a cover scarf and the jewelry is light.

The Hindu costume for male Kathak performers is typically a silk dhoti draped around the waist, then usually covered with a silk scarf tied on top. The upper body may be bare, show the Hindu thread, or be covered with a loose jacket. Kathak male artists also wear jewelry, but often of stones and much simpler than the female artists

Instruments and Music

A Kathak performance may include a dozen classical instruments depending more on the effect and depth required for a particular performance. However some instruments are typically used in a Kathak performance like the tabla that harmonise well with the rhythmic foot movements of the dancer and often imitates sound of such footwork movements or vice-versa to create a brilliant jugalbandi. A manjira that is hand cymbals and sarangi or harmonium are also used most often.

The ancient music genre of India, Dhrupad, was re-introduced into Kathak for the first time by India’s senior Kathak exponent Mahamahopadhyay Dr. Pandit Puru Dadheech. He is India’s first Kathak dancer to bring back ‘Dhrupad’ on the formal Kathak stage and this composition in 28 matra. Shankar Pralayankar, his Dhrupad composition, has the unique status of regularly being sung in concerts by ‘Dhrupad’ maestros the Gundecha Brothers.

Famous Exponents

Imminent personalities associated with Kathak include among others the founders of the different gharanas or schools of this form of classical dance namely Bhanuji  of the Jaipur Gharana; Janaki Prasad of the Benaras Gharana; Ishwari Prasad of the Lucknow Gharana; and Raja Chakradhar Singh of the Raigarh Gharana. Shambhu Maharaj was a renowned guru of the Lucknow Gharana. His brothers Lachhu Maharaj and Acchan Maharaj were also stalwarts in the art of Kathak. One name that has almost become synonymous with modern day Kathak dance is Pandit Birju Maharaj, a scion of the legendary Maharaj family and son of Acchan Maharaj. He is considered the leading advocate of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin gharana. Sitara Devi was another star of this dance form described as Nritya Samragini that is the empress of dance by Rabindranath Tagore and she continues to retain her Kathak Queen title even after death. Other eminent Kathak artists include Roshan Kumari, Shovana Narayan, Maya Rao and Kumudini Lakhia to name a few.