Kathak (Hindi: कथक, Urdu: کتھک) is a classical dance form from South Asia (originally from North India) and is the national dance of Pakistan. It is a partially narrative and originally solo dance form characterized by fast footwork, spins and innovative use of expressions to portray narratives. Its form today is the product of various influences in the past: mythological tales portrayed by kathakas or ancient itinerant bards, temple and ritual dance, the bhakti movement, and Persian influence of the Mughal courts from the 16th century onwards; and the impact of these elements continues to readily discernible. There are three major schools or gharanas of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage: the gharanas of Jaipur, Lucknow and Banaras (born in the courts of the Kachwaha Rajput kings, the Nawab of Oudh, and Varanasi respectively); there is also a less prominent (and later) Raigarh gharana which amalgamated technique from all three preceding gharanas but became famous for its own distinctive compositions.
The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story,
and katthaka in Sanskrit means s/he who tells a
story, or to do with stories. The name of the form is
properly katthak, with the geminated dental to show a derived form, but this
has since simplified to modern-day kathak. kathaa kahe
so kathak is a saying many teachers pass on to their pupils,
which is generally translated, 's/he who tells a story, is a
kathak', but which can also be translated, 'that which tells a
story, that is Kathak'.
Pure Dance (Nritta)
The structure of a conventional Kathak performance tends to follow a progression in tempo from slow to fast, ending with a dramatic climax. A short danced composition is known as a tukra, a longer one as a toda. There are also compositions consisting solely of footwork. Often the performer will engage in rhythmic 'play' with the time-cycle, splitting it into triplets or quintuplets for example, which will be marked out on the footwork, so that it is in counterpoint to the rhythm on the percussion.
All compositions are performed so that the final step and beat of the composition lands on the 'sam' or first beat of the time-cycle. Most compositions also have 'bols' (rhythmic words) which serve both as mnemonics to the composition and whose recitation also forms an integral part of the performance. Some compositions are aurally very interesting when presented this way. The bols can be borrowed from tabla (e.g. dha, ge, na, tirakiTa) or can be a dance variety (ta, thei, tat, ta ta, tigda, digdig and so on).
Often tukras are composed to highlight specific aspects of the dance, for example gait, or use of corners and diagonals, and so on. A popular tukra type is the chakkarwala tukra, showcasing the signature spins of Kathak. Because they are generally executed on the heel, these differ from ballet's pirouettes (which are properly executed on the toe or ball of the foot). The spins usually manifest themselves at the end of the tukra, often in large numbers: five, nine, fifteen, or more, sequential spins are common. These tukras are popular with audiences because they are visually exciting and are executed at great speed. Other compositions can be further particularised as follows:
- Vandana the dancer begins with an invocation to the gods.
- Thaat (the first composition of a traditional performance; the dancer performs short plays with the time-cycle, finishing on sam in a statuesque standing (thaat) pose);
- Aamad (from the Persian word meaning 'entry'; the first introduction of spoken rhythmic pattern or bol in to the performance);
- Salaami (related to Ar. 'salaam' - a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style);
- Kavit (a poem set on a time-cycle; the dancer will perform movements that echo the meaning of the poem)
- Paran (a composition using bols from the pakhawaj instead of only dance or tabla bols)
- Parmelu or Primalu (a composition using bols reminiscent of sounds from nature, such as kukuthere (birds), jhijhikita (sound of ghunghru), tigdadigdig (strut of peacock) etc.
- Gat (from the word for 'gait, walk' showing abstract visually beautiful gaits or scenes from daily life)
- Ladi (a footwork composition consisting of variations on a theme, and ending in a tihai)
- Tihai (usually a footwork composition consisting of a long set of bols repeated thrice so that the very last bol ends dramatically on 'sam')
Expressive Dance (Nritya)
Aside from the traditional expressive or abhinaya pieces performed to a bhajan, ghazal or thumri, Kathak also possesses a particular performance style of expressional pieces called bhaav bataanaa (lit. 'to show bhaav or 'feeling'). It is a mode where abhinaya dominates, and arose in the Mughal court. It is more suited to the mehfil or the darbar environment, because of the proximity of the performer to the audience, who can more easily see the nuances of the dancer's facial expression. Consequently, it translates to the modern proscenium stage with difficulty. A thumri is sung, and once the mood is set, a line from the thumri is interpreted with facial abhinaya and hand movements while seated. This continues for an indefinite period, limited only by the dancer's interpretative abilities. Shambhu Maharaj was known to interpret a single line in many many different ways for hours.
History of Kathak
The story of Kathak begins in ancient times with the performances of professional story-tellers called kathakas who recited or sang stories from epics and mythology with some elements of dance. The traditions of the kathakas were hereditary, and dances passed from generation to generation. There are literary references from the third and fourth centuries BC which refer to these kathakas. The two texts are in the archives of Kameshwar Library at Mithila.
An extract runs as follows:
maggasirasuddhapakkhe nakkhhate varanaseeye nayareeye uttarpuratthime diseebhage gangaye mahanadeeye tate savvokathako bhingarnatenam teese stuti kayam yehi raya adinaho bhavenam passayi (Prakrit text, 4th century BC).
in the month of magha, in the shukla-paksha nakshatra, to the north west of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, the shringar dance of the kathaks in praise of God pleased Lord Adinatha.
A 3rd century BC Sanskrit shloka (Mithila, late Mauryan
...anahat...nrityadharmam kathakacha devalokam...
...sound...and the Kathaks whose duty is dance for the divine peoples
There are also two verses from the Mahabharata which also refer
Kathakscapare rajan sravanasca vanaukasahadivyakhyanani ye ca'pi pathanti madhuram dvijaha
(Mahabharata, verse 1.206.2-4, Adiparva)
With the king on the way to the forest were the Kathakas pleasing to the eyes and ears as they sang and narrated sweetly.
Shovana Narayan notes: 'Here the emphasis on 'pleasing to the eyes' is indication of the performing aspect of the Kathakas.' The other verse is in the Anusasanika Parva. In the post-Christian era, there is also reference to Kathak in the Harsha-charita of Bana.
By the 13th century a definite style had emerged and soon technical features like mnemonic syllables and bol developed. In the 15th-16th century at the time the Bhakti movement, Rasalilas had a tremendous impact on Kathak. The form of dance even made its way to the Kathavachakas who performed in temples.
Because of the linear nature of the passing of knowledge from guru to shishya, certain stylistic and technical features began to fossilise and became hallmarks of a particular school, guru or group of teachers. The different styles are known as gharanas, and these are:
The Lucknow Gharana developed in the courts of the Nawab of Oudh in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It particularly emphasises grace, elegance and naturalness in the dance. Abhinaya or expressional acting, especially improvised, plays a very strong role in this style, and Birju Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj are or were all famed for the naturalness of and innovativeness of their abhinaya.
The Jaipur Gharana developed in the courts of the Kachchwaha kings of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Importance is placed on the more technical aspects of dance, such as complex and powerful footwork, multiple spins, and complicated compositions in different talas. There is also a greater incorporation of compositions from the pakhawaj, such as parans.
The Benaras Gharana was developed by Janakiprasad. It is characterized by the exclusive use of the natwari or dance bols, which are different from the tabla and the pakhawaj bols. There are differences in the thaat and tatkaar, and chakkars are kept at a minimum but are often taken from both the right- and the left-hand sides with equal confidence. There is also a greater use of the floor, for example, in the taking of sam. Though the style developed in Benaras, it flourishes today from Bikaner.
This was established by the Maharaja Chakradhar Singh in the princely state of Raigarh in Chhatisgarh in the early 20th century. The Maharaja invited many luminaries of Kathak (as well as famous percussionists) to his court, including Kalka Prasad (the father of Acchan, Lacchu and Shambhu Maharaj) and his sons, and Pandit Jailal from Jaipur gharana. The confluence of different styles and artists created a unique environment for the development of new Kathak and tabla compositions drawn from various backgrounds.