How Kathak has historically served as a medium of storytelling that cuts across classes-Art-and-culture News , Firstpost


Throughout history, quite unlike most classical art forms, Kathak has seldom been performed as an offering to a deity, instead from its earliest stages, it has been a recital directed at an audience comprising its patrons as well as the common people.

Indian classical dances – celebrated across the globe for their enriching and mesmerizing virtuosity – can be traced back to centuries-old ways of storytelling, performed as much for entertainment as for the spread of cultures and knowledge. Each classical form is built upon layers of complex histories that often converge at the intersection of culture, art, politics, and even conflict, readingjusting its structures and boundaries in the light of revolution and reform. Consequently, varying styles of the art form find new homes and families to become gharanas, yet other dance forms are added to the ever-dynamic definition of what constitutes as classical.

This series is an attempt to reacquaint the connoisseur and engage the uninitiated in the vibrant facets of the eight classical dance forms of India by offering a glimpse into the history, performance, attire, behavior, and musical accompaniments that give colour, form, and rhythm to these cultural legacies.

In the first essay, a look at Kathak, the dance of the kathakars.


Katha kahe so kathak kehelave…

(Narrate a story and that shall be Kathak…)

One of the most globally renowned dance forms hailing from India, and the only Indian classical dance with origins in the northern part of the country, Kathak has enjoyed a fascinating history that begins as early as the 16th gold 17th centuries in the performance practices of the traveling troupes called the kirtankars gold kathakars.


Tea kathakars were bands of storytellers who would journey from province to province narrating tales of gods and demons, of conflict and peace by employing gestures and expressions from daily life to create an emotive experience that was at once thought-provoking and relatable.

Undoubtedly, lok dharmi abhinayaor an aesthetic of expression so intimate with everyday life taken from its antecedents, the kathakars, has become a defining feature of Kathak, that in its current interpretation has been unafraid to stretch the contours of abhinaya in order to explore multiple complex socio-cultural debates relevant to modern times.

For throughout history, quite unlike most classical art forms, Kathak has seldom been performed as an offering to a deity, instead from its earliest stages, it has been a recital directed at an audience comprising its patrons as well as the common people. Inevitably, as a direct result of tumultuous monarchical and political upheavals, the kathakars found patronage and protection under rulers and zamindars in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, in the houses of both Rajputs and Mughals, and the dance form transformed to incorporate such movements and rhythmic structures that were a culmination of several indigenous folk styles, Persian influences, the art of the tawaifs or courtesans, and the Bhakti and Sufi movements.

So too, numerous newer musical accompaniments were added to the simple beats of the cymbals or manjira played by the kathakars. In its more formalized structure, now attuned to the grandeur of court life, Kathak was performed to the beats of the table and the pakhawaj, the sweet notes of the harmonium, and even on occasion, the melody of the flute. These instruments continue to accompany a Kathak recital even today.


As with most other art forms in India, gharana or the passing down of art within the family line by following its own distinct style and flavor is a part of Kathak’s traditional set-up too, and the dance form is divided into three major schools, that of Lucknow, Jaipur, and Benaras.

Where the Lucknow gharana and his deans Pt Shambhu Maharaj and Pt Birju Maharaj were known for their transcendental abhinayathe Jaipur school led by Pt Rajendra Gangani is noteworthy for its focus on fast spins [chakri] and complex footwork.

The Benaras gharana has roots in the Shaivite school, and in its purest form, leans towards movements of the tandav style that are forceful and strong, and consist of athletic elements like tuck jumps or gliding on the knees. Sitara Devi, the dean of the Benaras gharana is known for carrying the legacy of this school into post-independent India while her nephew, Pt Gopi Krishna carved a history of his own most notably for the fast tempo of his performances as well as his portrayal of a dancer and artist in Hindi cinema through works like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje [1955].


During the colonial era, Kathak, much like most Indian art was nearly rendered invisible, yet in its post-Independence revival, much of the vast repository of Kathak has been recovered, and can still be broadly split into two categories, namely the nrita and nritya or the technical and the emotional.

That is to say, a typical contemporary Kathak recital is made up of three segments: the vandana [an ovation to the divine]tea taal [a rhythmic cycle in which are embedded smaller compositions]and the abhinaya [particularly a thumri or a gatabhav that tell stories].

Where every Indian classical dance is rooted in the rhythms of the taalKathak is in fact the only one in which the taal itself is brought to life. Some of the most well-known taal structures like the trital [16 beats], jhaptaal [10 beats], chautaal [12 beats]and dhamar [14 beats] are often taken to the stage by a performer and highlighted through compositions like thaat, amad, toda, per year, and tatkaar [footwork].

Interestingly, under royal patronage, an artist would enter the performance hall dancing the amad, choreographed in a manner that would enable the performer to cover the length of the stage and arrive at the center to offer the mujara gold Salaami to the esteemed patron. Now, as the performer has already stepped onto the stage during the vandanatea amad follows much later into the recital whereas the uthaana shorter composition, signals the beginning of the taal.

Sounds produced by the table and pakhawaj play an important role in the taal vocabulary so that a lot of the softer phrases like taa thaaii tatta, tiga da diga diga, kdaan are in fact produced by the table and the words of the per yearthat is the stronger sounds of dha kid tak — dhuma kid tak, dhet dhet traka, dha kida dhaan are the domain of the pakhawaj.

Tea taal gives form and structure to these phrases woven into its rhythmic cycle performed at a tempo gradually rising from the vilambit [very slow] to the drita [very fast]. This laya or speed of the rhythm cycle is central to a Kathak recital as are its stellar components of spinning or chakkar and the footwork or tatkaar. Performed at great speed to exquisite precision, the knee-erect posture of Kathak lends itself perfectly to the execution of both, and a recital would be incomplete without either.

What elevates the footwork, adding a rhythmic and melodious tonality to it are the ghungroos tied around the dancers’ feet, crucial to Kathak’s attraction. An exponent may wear 100 to 150 ghungroos on each ankle that shine bright against the churidar-kurta and dupatta given by the performer. The attire of a Kathak dancer also consists of a lehenga, particularly worn during recitals, that leans towards the lasya bhaava such as the song of hori, that describes the festival of colors celebrated by Krishna and the gopis in Vrindavan or a thumri [a verse narrating the lore of Krishna] gold has bhajan.

Know Your Classical Dances How Kathak has historically served as a medium of storytelling that cuts across classes

For its part, a stunning component of Kathak’s abhinayaother than this enduringly popular thumri, is the gatabhav. It is here that an artist can breathe life and depth into complex characters, and freed from verse and poem dance only to the rhythm of the taal.

In the hands of a brilliant artist, the gatabhav is the performance that binds the connoisseur to the performer in a wordless dialogue, where the lone dancer assumes multiple roles, invokes the rasas of sorrow, pain, ecstasy, and joy, creating a transitory effect that draws the audience into the story.

As such, the gatabhav is a medium used to narrate layered vignettes found in mythology like Jatayu Moksha of the Ramayana gold Draupari Cheerharan of the mahabharata gold Kaliya Mardan of the Bhagwat Purana. Artists also use the gatabhav to talk about other ideas like nayika bheda [shades of a woma]stories from the life of Gautama Buddha or even contemporary discussions around caste politics and the gender debate.

Today, Kathak continues to be one of the few art forms performed across genders, known for its breathtaking group choreography that is often employed in Hindi cinema; its dynamism lying as much in the fluidity of its emotive vocabulary as in its practice by stalwarts who relentlessly explore new mediums of performance and expression that expand the very ambit of this classical dance.

Know Your Classical Dances How Kathak has historically served as a medium of storytelling that cuts across classes

Know Your Classical Dances. Illustration by Poorti Purohit

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe writes about art, culture, books, and entertainment. Currently, she has returned to school to study the intersections between gender, culture, and development. The writer is a Kathak Visharad practicing and performing the classical dance form for over a decade.

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