Kathak Dance is a North Indian classical dance. Kathak performances represent stories from Indian mythology which includes abstract dance elements and focus on footwork set to complex rhythmic Style.
The Vaishnavite culture that swept North India in the 15th Century with the bhakti movement contributed to a whole new range of lyrics and musical forms. The Radha-Krishna theme proved immensely popular along with the works of Mirabai, Surdas, Nandadas, and Krishnadas. Ras Lila’s rise, particularly in the Braj region (Mathura in Western Uttar Pradesh), was a significant development. It combined in itself music, dance, and the narrative. Ras Lila’s dance, on the other hand, was mostly an extension of the Kathakars’ or storytellers’ basic mime and gesture, which fit well with the existing traditional dance.
Kathak is divided into three different styles known as “gharanas,” which are named after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved: Jaipur, Banaras, and Lucknow. The Jaipur gharana emphasizes foot movements, whereas the Banaras and Lucknow gharanas emphasize facial expressions and graceful hand movements. The Kathak dance form is distinguished by its emphasis on 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 gestures such as arm and upper body movement, facial expressions, neck movements, eye, and brow movement, stage movements, bends, and turns. The eyes and foot movements become the primary focus of the dance. The dancer’s eyes serve as a medium for communicating the story he or she is attempting to tell. The dancer makes various facial expressions with her brows. The difference between the sub-traditions is the relative emphasis on acting versus footwork, with Lucknow style emphasizing acting and Jaipur style famous for its spectacular footwork.
Kathak dance originates from Northern India, and ‘Kathak’ itself derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Katha’, meaning story.
Kathakas were storytellers who traveled around India telling epic tales of gods and goddesses such as the Mahabharata to locals. Kathak dancing is an art form that pays homage to Indian history and enhances Indian culture. Kathak dance originated in the 4th century BC when sculptures of Kathak dancers were engraved in written scripts and sculptures in ancient temples.
The Kathak tradition in India dates back to 400 BCE. The Natya Shastra, attributed to sage Bharata, is the earliest surviving text with Kathak roots, and its first complete compilation is dated between 200 BCE and 200 CE, though estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.
The dancers are depicted in a vertical stance in the 2nd century BC panels discovered in Bharhut, with their arm positions already evoking today’s Kathak movements. The majority of the dancers have one arm near their ear in a “pataka hasta” position (Murda). The hasta was reduced to the bust level in subsequent years.
While there is sculptural evidence of dance in temple walls (the first temples date from the Gupta period in the 7th century AD), the postures do not resemble Kathak dance postures. Kathak is the only classical dance form that stands out for its straight legs-erect knees posture, so the bent knees pose of dance in sculptures cannot be attributed to it. This posture allows the dancer to move their feet freely in various patterns and at a high speed. Furthermore, Kathak footwork includes not only variations in speed but also the execution of complex rhythmic patterns by moving the feet in a variety of ways.
The term ‘Kathak’ has not been used to describe these dances and dancers, and the terminology used in those dances is very different from what is used today. To study the history of Kathak dance, one must trace it back to multiple sources rather than limiting it to a linear narrative. Kathak is built on the foundation of several desi (folk) dance styles, Persian dance influences, Bhakti and Sufi aesthetics, and the repertoire of the tawaifs (courtesans), as well as the Gharanedar, or hereditary families. All of these influences are discussed in depth in the related article, which focuses solely on tracing the origins of Kathak from the 18th century onward.
The costumes vary among Kathak dance performers, and find their sources in either Hindu or Muslim culture.
Kathak Dance Costume Requirements like any other traditional Indian dance is a combination of stunning costume, jewellery, and make-up. The Kathak costumes were initially ghaghra (long skirt), Choli (Blouse), and a veil. Gradually, it gave way to churidhar, pyjamas and angrakha. 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.
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The Lucknow Gharana is a Kathak style founded by Ishwari Prasad, a Bhakti movement devotee. It has an unusual origin story. Lord Krishna is said to have appeared in his dreams as a resident of Handiya village in southeast Uttar Pradesh and instructed him to develop “dance as a form of worship.” He then taught the dance form to his sons, who then passed it down to their descendants.
This tradition has been passed down for more than six generations, ensuring the continuation of this illustrious legacy. By Indian literature, it became known as the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak. It was inspired by the legends of Lord Krishna and his eternal love Radha as depicted in texts such as the ‘Bhagavata Purana.’ Radha and Krishna’s stories were beautifully captured and depicted in folk plays known as “rasalila” performed by Kathak artists.
As the Indian freedom movement progressed in the early twentieth century, efforts were made by Indians to revive national culture and tradition, as well as rediscover India’s rich history, in order to resurrect the very essence of the nation. Kalkaprasad Maharaj was instrumental in bringing an international audience to Kathak at the turn of the twentieth century.
According to Bruno Nettl, a modern Kathak, in all three major sub-traditions known as Lucknow, Benares, and Jaipur styles (Gharana), consists of three main sections: the invocation, one pure (abstract) dance recital, and one expressive dance.
The dancer comes to the stage and pays respect to his or her guru and the musicians on stage during the invocation (Vandana). If the team is Hindu, the dancer(s) will use facial expressions and hand gestures (mudra) to invoke Hindu gods and goddesses, whereas a Muslim performance will replace the devotional expressions with a salami (salutation).
Kathak’s expressiveness can also be found in other Indian classical dances. Its origins can be traced back to the Natyashastra text, which defines drama in verse 6.10 as “that which aesthetically arouses joy in the spectator through the medium of the actor’s art of communication, which helps connect and transport the individual into a super sensual inner state of being.”
The Natya connects through abhinaya (literally, “carrying to the spectators”), which is the application of body-speech-mind and scene, in which the actors communicate to the audience through song and music, according to Natyashastra. Drama, according to this ancient Sanskrit text, is an art form that engages all aspects of life in order to glorify and gift a state of joyful consciousness. According to Massey, another important ancient text that has influenced Kathak is Nandikeshvara’s Abhinaya Darpanam (second century CE).
The three Gharanas of Kathak are named after the cities where they flourished: Lucknow, Jaipur, and Benaras. Gharana is derived from the Hindi word ghar, which means “house.” As a result, in order for a Gharana to exist, the art form must be practised by hereditary artists from the same family or baradari. In his extensive work on musicians in North India, David Neuman (1990) identified two requirements for classifying a Gharana: first, the community should practise endogamy, i.e. marrying within their social group, and second, they must have a core family or a leader.
While Kathak dancers from Lucknow and Benaras meet these requirements, the Jaipur Gharana lacks a core leader. However, in today’s world, that doesn’t matter because both the Lucknow and Jaipur Gharanas are extremely popular and well-known. Guru Pandit Rajendra Gangani has also emerged as a very strong family leader, spearheading his hereditary style.
Kathak, like all major Indian Classical Dance forms, begins with the performer invoking Hindu gods and goddesses through a series of hand gestures known as “mudras” as well as facial expressions. “Nritta” is pure dance in which the dancer first performs a sequence involving elegant and slow movements of various body parts such as the brows, neck, and wrists, after which she adjusts her speed according to the beats of the music.