Dance Forms: Kathak

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Dance Forms: Kathak

Katha means "a story," and one who tells a story, reciting and dancing, is called a Kathak. Prevalent in North India, Kathak dance has a long past. Nurtured in the holy precincts of the Hindu temples, over the centuries Kathak has refined and enriched itself with various hues. References to Kathak are found in the epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. In the medieval period, with the rise of devotional bhakti, the Kathaks began to recite and dance in the temple courtyards, performing various dance-dramas, such as Akhyana, Pandvani, Harikatha, Kalakshepams, and Wari-liba, from different parts of India. Kathak developed as a solo dance form in the North. People belonging to the Kathak caste live throughout eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The great Mughal emperors patronized Kathak artists at their courts, but the content of the dance changed dramatically.

Instead of depicting love stories of Rādhā and Krishna, emphasis shifted to pure and abstract dance. The Mughals brought with them Persian cultural influences as well. The Hindu kings of Rajasthan also patronized Kathak dancers, who enacted epic and purāṇic Hindu tales of divine folly. The dēvadāsi courtesans played a role in sustaining this Hindu courtly tradition.

Kathak's most striking features are footwork (tatkar) and pirouettes (chakkars). The dancers perform on a vertical axis, to exacting time measures. Kathak includes nritta, or pure dance; nritya, or expressional dance; and natya, or drama. In the last category we see the relation between Kathak and the Rasalilas of Brindavan and Mathura, keeping alive the ancient tradition in which divine love stories of Rādhā and Krishna are enacted through dance, dialogue, and music. Many Kathak dancers create the illusion of miniature paintings of Krishna springing to life.

Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawāb of Oudh, (r. 1847–1856) introduced thumri, a light, poetic musical form, to which dancers performed with mime and improvization. Ghazals, poems in the Urdu language recited to music, were also introduced at this time.

Tode, tukde, tihai, andparans are intraforms, recited with mnemonic syllables of the tabla and pakhavaj, the accompanying percussion instruments, and a specifictala, a time measure to which each Kathak is danced. The emphasis is on virtuosity. The music accompanying a Kathak dance is Hindustani classical music. Some gifted dancers also sing while performing abhinaya. Both male and female dancers perform Kathak.

Kathak flowered into two major schools (gharanas), in Lucknow and in Jaipur. The Lucknow school lays emphasis on delicacy of movement, gracefulness, and expression. Kalka and Bindadin and their descendants Acchan, Lachhu, and Shambhu Maharaj were great performers of the Lucknow school. Achhan Maharaj's son Birju Maharaj contributed graceful new bodily movements to further embellish the Lucknow form of Kathak. The Jaipur school stresses vigor and more forceful movements. It has an astounding quality of rhythmic innovation. Its greatest exponents were Hanuman Prasad, Mohan Prasad, Narayan Prasad, and Sundar Prasad.

Other schools similar to Kathak developed at the court of Raja Chakradhar in Madhya Pradesh and in Banaras (Varanasi; also known as Janaki Prasad gharana), though with stylistic differences.

Kathak, practiced as it was by courtesans, was usually looked down upon by India's upper classes. Under British rule, Kathak was contemptuously referred to as "Nautch" and fell into disrepute. Though it was performed in temple courtyards for wealthy landlords, it was denigrated as the vulgar dance of prostitutes.

When Madam Menaka, an upper-class Brahman dance-artist, embraced Kathak dance, she introduced many reforms and refinements that helped to remove the stigma, bringing social approbation to Kathak. After independence, it received government patronage. Children studied Kathak under great masters, moving its modern performances to the proscenium stage. Ancient Hindu religious stories have, however, remained a part of the Kathak repertoire. Both the pure dance and the expressional numbers are now performed, and new choreographic group creations are also part of its modern development.

Sitara Devi, Birju Maharaj, Roshan Kumari, Durgalal Rohini Bhate, Kumudini Lakhia, Uma Sharma, Urmila Nagar, Ram Mohan, Saswati Sen, and Rajendra Ganagani, are all well-known exponents of this art. Kumudini Lakhia has introduced further innovations by choreographing contemporary themes in Kathak.

Sunil Kothari


Kothari, Sunil. Kathak Indian Classical Dance Art. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1989.

Nātyashāstra. Part 1. Gaekwad Oriental Series. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1956.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1974.