Indian Dance - Kathak

Kathak is the major classical dance form of northern India.  The word kathak means “to tell a story”.  It is derived from the dance dramas of ancient India.  When the patronage shifted from the temples to the royal court, there was a change in the overall emphasis.  The emphasis shifted from the telling of religious stories to one of entertainment.  Today, the story-telling aspect has been downgraded and the dance is primarily an abstract exploration of rhythm and movement.

Kathak was primarily associated with an institution known as the tawaif.  This is a much misunderstood institution of female entertainers, very much like the geisha tradition of Japan.  It was a profession which demanded the highest standards of training, intelligence, and most important, civility.  It is said that it was common for royalty to send their children to the tawaifs for instruction in etiquette.  Unfortunately, when the British consolidated their hold over India during the Victorian era, this great institution was branded as mere prostitution and was outlawed.  This set the artform of kathak into a downward spiral that was not reversed until Independence when there was a reawakening in interest in traditional Indian artforms.

This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakars or storytellers. Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances, and the influence of the bhakti movement. From the 16th century onwards it absorbed certain features of Persian dance and central Asian dance which were imported by the royal courts of the Mughal era.

The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories. The name of the form is properly कत्थक katthak, with the geminated dental to show a derived form, but this has since simplified to modern-day कथक kathak. kathaa kahe so kathak is a saying many teachers pass on to their pupils, which is generally translated, she/he who tells a story, is a kathak’, but which can also be translated, ‘that which tells a story, that is ‘Kathak’.

There are three major schools or gharana of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage: the gharanas of Jaipur, Lucknow and Varanai (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.

There are three main gharanas, or schools of kathak.  These schools are named according to the geographical area in which they developed.  These are the Jaipur, Lucknow, and the Benares gharanas.  Each has a slight difference in interpretation and repertoire.