'Katha kahey so kathak kahaye', which means one who tells a story in a dance
form is a Kathak. In India the heroes and heroines of both folk and classic art
are gods and goddesses, kings and queens.
Since ancient times stage performances
of legends with their participation have been the most popular form of public
entertainment. A narrator or actor soon became a real artist who constantly
improved his mastery in recitation, singing and dance. Occupation in these kinds
of art was handed down from generation to generation and could win fame and
respect for performer and his family.
With time the art of narration assumed various spectacular shapes and developed
into folk and classic dramas, both being the expression of joys and troubles in
life. A classic drama, submitted to the laws of the conventional sign language
portrayed different sides of human character with deep understanding. A
professional narrator was a big connoisseur of scriptures and mythology, of
beliefs and customs, of country legends and local stories. He enlivened his art
with poetry and songs that expressed passion growing into abhinaya, a
performance of an episode in a vivid and thrilling manner by using facial
expression. Quite naturally out of this a new art form sprung out and soon
Kathaks became known as experienced musicians and dancers.
According to a legend they were so skillful in their art that at times a Kathak
actor could keep a whole village in suspense by telling a story and using a
scarf as the only accessory. By winding the scarf around his head he became a
brave hero of the narration; by changing a pose and tying the scarf around his
waist he turned into a treacherous malefactor; when he gracefully covered his
head with it he became a beautiful young heroine; if he waved the scarf over his
head it looked like he really rode a black stallion.
Narration was the basic element; celebrations with music and dances were
organized on a village square or in a temple on such occasions as marriage,
birth of a child or a festival. With time the temple ceased to serve as the main
dance center. Social-economic factors always influenced the development of all
art forms and it is especially noticeable on Kathak example.
The flowering of the cult of Vishnu in the northern India in XV century and the
religious movement of Bhakti that followed it, led to the appearance of brand
new poetical and musical forms. Bhakti is the religious movement with deep
social meaning. It reflected the common people’s rejection of the Brahmans’
Hinduism with its exclusive rituals, obscure sacred texts written in Sanskrit
and its strict hierarchy. The movement gave life to a new school in poetry and
music. For instance, Mirabai and Surdas wrote religiously inspired lyrics about
melancholy and partings that expressed desire of a human soul for unity with God.
A theme of Radha’s love for Krishna served as a metaphor for transmitting the
meaning. The Radha-Krishna’s theme indeed became more and more popular and a
rich constellation of its symbols penetrated into different dialects and
languages. Thus in the place known as "Bradj" (Mathura in the western part of
state Uttar-Pradesh) there appeared Raasleela as the combination of music, dance
and narration which served to perform legends about Krishna, especially the
Radha-Krishna theme and stories of Krishna’s rogueries with gopis or
Although Kathak was a strong tradition of worshipping a deity in the Vishnu era,
the Moguls’ invasion gave it a new impulse. A dancer moved from a temple patio
into a palace hall and this entailed changes in the performance manner. The
literary content gave its dominating role to the more attractive body motions.
Drawing attention to erotic elements of dance was similar to a typical
sensuality of new musical forms that also developed at that time to satisfy
tastes of the royal court.
During the era of Mogul emperors’ reign khayal and dhrupad became the most
popular musical forms. As it cleared out, thumri, gazel and bhadjan suited well
for transmitting emotions. Kathak traces its roots back to kirtanas, i.e.
musical compositions used in Raas-lila, and also to the kirtanas of Dhruvapad
School which were performed by singers as a part of a religious ritual in
temples. The fact that these traditions still exist today is the eloquent
evidence of the atmosphere of understanding and tolerance during the Mogul reign.
The era of the great flowering of Kathak falls on the years of Vadjid Ali Shah’s
reign, the last nabob of Avadha. Being a poet, a dancer and a musician himself,
Vadjid Ali Shah was a subtly feeling person whose Muslim education did not
prevent him in any way from appreciating properly the Krishna’s theme in the art.
It was under his patronage that the Lucknow gharana school of Kathak style was
Graceful motions, subtle bhava (expressiveness) and the use of the most complex
are characteristics of Lucknow gharana. Technical virtuosity
and splendor combine with refinement in portraying moods and emotions. With time
gharana was enriched with numerous compositions created by masters of the school.
Bols or rhythmic words of percussion instruments (tabla and pakhawaj) are
rendered in dance motions most thoroughly, but the main peculiarity of the
school is the use of the expressive means of dance.
Another patron king of Kathak was Rajah Chakradhar Singh from Reigarh (state
Madhya-Pradesh). He favored the development of different gharanas including
schools in Lucknow and Jaipur. Jaipur gharana is notable for its bewitching
rhythms; all masters of this school were the most skillful performers on tabla
and pakhawaj. The basis of motions of Kathak dancers laid in tempo and rhythmic
complexity of such a degree that they often overshadowed the beauty of the
motion. In spite of the heightened interest in the unbelievably fast and complex
pure dance with elements of rivalry (in opposition to expressive dance) Jaipur
gharana gave life to an important angh or a constituent part of the Kathak
narrative tradition – kavittoda which is lyrics in the form of a stylized
singing alternating with rhythmic drum insertions. Among the followers of Jaipur
gharana are Hari Prasad and Hanuman Prasad, the latter’s performance of
bhadjanas (religious poems) became a legend.
Although the successors to the two main Kathak traditions keep the distinctive
features of the directions there are no strict borders among gharanas. The
creative works of great masters influenced both schools. One shouldn’t wonder if
only a real Kathak connoisseur is able to notice the difference in styles and
The third important Kathak School is Banaras Gharana which is also called
Janakiprasad gharana named after its founder. The basis of Banaras Gharana is in
dance syllable formulae (either pronounced orally or beaten on tabla). They are
used for the scenes of pure dance performed in a mid tempo with emphasis on
accuracy and elegancy. The absence of such zealous keepers of traditions as
temples, led to a strong dependence of each generation on the personality of one
guru or a certain family. This caused the periods of quick growing and swift
declines of the style.
Thus by the end of the XIX century Kathak had firmly rooted itself as the only
dance form in the northern India. Covering the states of Madhja-Pradesh, Kashmir,
Bihar and Gujarat, its popularity went far beyond the boarders of Uttar-Pradesh
and Rajasthan where it appeared. The royal court deprived the temple of the
privilege to be the center of art patronage what meant the liberation from the
frames of temple rituals, and this in its turn favored the development of Kathak
into a relatively flexible style of classic dance.
A Kathak female dancer appeals directly to the audience. In an evening show she
performs a series of traditional numbers each requiring high technique and
self-control. What amazes you is the masterly performance of slow and elegant
motions which are sometimes so insignificant that an inattentive onlooker may
not notice them, and as a contrast you are also amazed by unbelievably fast and
vigorous footwork and pirouettes. On the one hand there is peace and harmony; on
the other hand there is vortex and magic of the style.
Pure dance plays the main part in Kathak. Unlike in other classic Indian dances
a Kathak dancer does not move her bent knees out forth or asides, and there are
no deep body bows. In Kathak the Nritta or pure dance is the expression of pure
joy from motion and an easily recognizable self-abandonment in rhythm. With
small bells or ghunghrus on his/her ankles a dancer starts to beat a whole row
of rhythmic sounds and variations with feet. This ability is the fundamental
part of the style.
In Kathak there is no strict order of representing a theme. During the
performance improvisations usually appear with the changes in mood or subject.
However, there exists an established set of compositions out of which a dancer
can choose. They are arranged not in a certain order but according to a dancer’s
In aamada (a Persian word literary meaning "to arrive") a dancer who sticks to
the tradition performs
slightly visible motions with hands and torso only under
the accompaniment of tabla syllables taa thei thei tat-aa thei thei tat.
Although aamad can be performed both fast and slow, it can be called a prelude
to the following and more complex dances. At some moment in the past pakhawaj
bols – dha taka thungaa were inserted into Kathak, and the motions under their
accompaniment became more vigorous and perhaps a little more in a Tandava style,
or male in its mood. The sounds of bols, or syllables of these different drums
have the direct influence on Tandava or Lasya (male or female) dance styles,
achieved by motions of a dancer’s feet.
The most thrilling moment in Kathak is the tremendous dancers’ virtuosity in
executing paranas, tods and tukada, rhythmical compositions that require
quickness, mobility and self-control. Paranas are pieces of pure dance performed
in dhruta or fast tempo under the accompaniment of pakhawaja bols. They are
harmonious and accurate compositions where quicksilver motions correspond with
their mood. The terms toda and tukada are used to denote short fragments of
rhythmic compositions which are usually ascribed to some great guru or
acknowledged master of the style. They form a changeable pattern of a dance that
ends in tihai, the cycle repeated for three times so that the final step and
beat of the composition lands on the 'sam'. To approach sam and to mark it out
as the main point of the cycle is a complex task that requires mathematical
accuracy, and for students these numbers are the main subject of study. To
understand and perform them is the achievement in itself. To perform them
brilliantly one must work hard, be talented and have a deep understanding of
rhythmic variety and meaning.
Toda and tukada form the most part of an evening show. The mastery of a good
dancer is estimated by complexity and skillfulness of such compositions and by a
dancer’s ability to effectively perform them. Tihai enters into a composition
without being noticed, the way it is achieved is also the measure of mastery. A
dancer ends tihai and stops the rotary motions on certain tact and in accurate
pose. It is not easy to do that, taking into account the previous vortical
movements. But at the same time, if motions are performed on a high level one
will see a soft elegancy and triumph, rejoicing and joy.
Quicksilver footwork in paran, tukada and toda alternate with chakkara (rotation).
A female dancer must perform repeated rotary movements in a fast tempo around
the vertical axis. Outwardly this slightly reminds ballet's pirouettes. The
Kathak technique also requires to place one foot along the central line of the
body and to slightly raise the other one while executing the turns. Rich riyaz (experience)
and mastery are required to perform these chakkaras. One can easily tell a good
dancer from a bad one by the speed of turns, by continuation of the motions
started in turns and by the feeling of balance necessary for the quick stop in
the end. There can be a lot of pirouettes and a dancer often starts performing
them on one place and then moves around the stage circle without stops. However,
spectators are mostly impressed not by the quantity of turns but how at the end
of a complex number of pure dance a dancer impeccably makes exactly three
chakkaras and immediately freezes in a beautiful pose.
The word tatkaar is used to denote a motion when a dancer stamps his/her foot on
the floor producing a sound that reminds "tat". A Kathak dancer improvises only
with feet, it being known that no other style besides perhaps Spanish flamenco
has ever reached such perfection. But even flamenco can hardly be compared with
Kathak in terms of mathematical and rhythmical mastery.
Nowadays the complex footwork obviously distinguishes as the strongest and the
most developed element of the style. However, it would be untrue to say that the
art of pantomime is absent or limited in Kathak.
Facial expression in Kathak is the wonderful opposition to such south-Indian
styles as Kathakali and Bharata Natyam where mimicry is stronger and more
expressive. Refined manners characteristic of Kathak are its distinctive feature,
though one must not consider them as the evidence that abhinaya is insignificant
or is absent at all.
The method of "associative ideas" is widely spread in Kathak. When portraying a
certain action a
dancer only outlines the situation connected with it. The style
has many interesting examples of using this method. For instance Shravan, the
rain season, is portrayed by means of motions associated with the rainy weather.
To completely understand this, a spectator must be acquainted with the customs
and the landscape of the area where the idea was taken from. To portray the
season of rains a female dancer looks in the sky as if she is frightened by dark
clouds and lightning; she shows how it starts and keeps on raining, how a
peacock dances happily; she plays a scene where a maiden who was rushing to meet
her sweetheart gets wet and hides from the rain in a fright, and then a hero
comes and tries to comfort her. The main idea is the same – the beginning of
rain, but with the help of the associative ideas and motions a dancer pictures a
row of actions and events from people’s lives.
The rhythm is the richest and the most expressive element in Kathak. Some of its
fine points require great attention of a spectator. One may say that Layakari or
a rhythmical virtuosity has developed into an extremely complex kind of art.
Requirements claimed to a Kathak dancer are extremely high. New horizons are
open, a change of ideas is undergoing, dancers have opened the riches of other
gharanas, all this has gradually lead to the enrichment of the arsenal of their
expressive means and widened frames for their creativity. Ways and methods of
Jaipura and Lucknow gharanas can be found with the dancers of both traditions,
this was impossible earlier. There is an impression that the blending of various
elements in Kathak is taking place on every level. The mixture of Hindu and
Muslim cultures in this style as if blessed Kathak and endowed it with a
balanced approach and made it the most "natural" of all the Indian classic
dances. Other classical styles either lack the Muslim cultural character or see
its weaker manifestation. Self-abandonment and at the same time restraint are
characteristic of Kathak. This underlines the brightness of the style and adds
irresistible charm to it.