Introduction to Kathak

Kathak is one of the most popular and old classical dance form across the world. India has 8 traditional classical dance forms, among these Kathak holds a prominent position. The word Kathak is derived from the word ‘Katha’ i.e., a story.

An artist impression of a pose in Kathak

“Seedhi haat ki gatt”

“Katha Kahe so Kathak kahalave”

The word Kathak stands for storytelling, and the above line expresses the same. Katha – means story and Kathak – means storytelling, hence the line states Kathak is a form of storytelling. Kathaka is the name of the community of musicians and dancers. Centuries ago, these kathakas wandered around the countryside narrating the mythological stories to people through dance, music and poetry, therefore all these art forms are closely related to each other. The act of storytelling further evolved into an art form, which came to be known as ‘Kathak’.

Representation of a group of Kathakas

Image Reference: nrityashiksha.com


History of Kathak

Kathak community came into existence right from the Vedic period. Scriptures like Ramayana has mentioned people who narrate stories and sing at the same time. Ramayana also mentions the court performances of artists, during the celebration of Lord Ram’s birth. During the Gupta period, there was a rise in the construction of temples, which encouraged holy rituals and spirituality. Therefore, Kathakas got a chance to connect dance with spirituality. They started performing in temples in many songs which praised the lord. Here a new term was also introduced i.e., ‘Devadasis’.

Devadasis were women temple dancers, who dedicated their life to dance in front of God, which was restricted to the premises of the temple. This tradition was carried on for centuries, until the Mughal period.

Kathak is one such dance form which has gone through many social and political changes. It is can be called as the only dance form which has absorbed the changing environment in a graceful manner and has evolved itself.


Mughal Period

During the Mughal period Kathak experienced a lot of changes. Many temples were destroyed by the Mughal emperors. As a result of Mughal invasion, many kathak artists were scattered across the country. They had to practice their art form under the Hindu patrons or the Hindu Royalty. This way court dancing was introduced in Kathak, where art was not just a spiritual connect but it also became a mode of entertainment. Kathak artists were protected under the Hindu Royal’s court and hence it became a highly technical and stylized art form.

Due to its religious association, the Muslim rulers considered Kathak inappropriate for their patronage. Hence, they invited artists from Persia and Central Asia for their Entertainment. They had a unique style of Dancing. These dancers adopted some aspects of Indian art forms which were acceptable to the Muslim rulers. While the Indian artists learnt few aspects of dancing from the foreign artists.

Court Performance of Artists in a Mughal court

Image Reference: livehistoryindia.com


Golden Period of Kathak

A huge change occurred when Emperor Akbar married the Rajput princess who allowed Hindu dancers and musicians to perform in the Royal court, thereby receiving royal patronage. This is known as the Golden Era for Kathak. Kathak expanded from its boundaries of Hindu myths and flourished as an independent art form. It became a secular art form, which focused on variations of Rhythm, fast footwork, swift pirouettes and graceful gestures.

Emperor Jalal-ud-din-Muhammad Akbar


Nawab Wajid-Ali-Shah

During the period of Nawab Wajid-Ali-Shah gained a lot of support from the ruler himself. Nawab Wajid-Ali-Shah was an Accomplished singer and person who loved and supported art forms like Kathak. Kathak performers depicted the connection of a person to the Paramatma or the Supreme lord through their performances.  He composed Musical compositions like Thumris depicting the romance of Radha and Krishna. In fact, Wajid-Ali-Shah was so passionate about these art forms that he ignored his royal duties which resulted in the annexure of his kingdom by the Britishers. Hence the fall of Mughal Empire and the rise of European rule led to the downturn of Kathak.


Gharanas of Kathak

Kathak majorly belongs to four “Gharanas” or family of dance. This was named after the place where Kathak established itself as a classical dance. The four Gharanas are as follows:

  • Jaipur Gharana
  • Lucknow Gharana
  • Banaras Gharana
  • Raigad Gharana

The Gurus of these Gharanas imparted a personality or a distinctive style to Kathak and hence some gharanas are known for the ‘Nrittanga’ i.e., footwork and techniques while some gharanas focused on the ‘Nrityanga’. For example, Jaipur gharana is known for its speedy footwork and mastering the rhythm aspect while Lucknow gharana follows more graceful hand gestures and is more influenced by the Mughal period.

Many gurus belonging to different gharanas have become the pioneer of Kathak. They are very successful in this field and they have enhanced the name of Kathak to world class level. Late Pt. Bhirju Maharaj is the perfect example to describe a kathak artist, who has also been awarded Padmavibhshan,  the highest civilian award in India, for his hard work and contribution towards this field. On 17th January 2022 he left this world and embarked on a new journey.

Jugal Bandi between Zakir Hussain and Pt. Birju Maharaj

Today’s Kathak is a beautiful amalgamation two cultures. It represents the revolutionary changes it has experienced through the dance form. Kathak is a combination of devotional and sensual aspects expressed through the eyes of art.

Blog information referred from the book ” Dance trial” by Sangeetacharya Vaishali Dudhe.

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