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India's Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective

25th Apr 2022

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A North Indian traditional dance, Kathak blends acrobatic footwork and dazzling spins with nuanced pantomime and sensitive gestures. Kathak (pronounced as "Kah-tahk") is one of the six Indian classical dance genres that originated in North India.

Kathak began as a narrative mechanism used in Hindu temples to depict the epic tales of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are found in Hindu texts. The worshipful narration was aided by the use of poetry and rhythmic dance.

According to a text-based study, Kathak is a primitive North Indian classical dance form that is thought to have started in Banaras or Varanasi and expanded to Jaipur, Lucknow, and many other parts of the North and Northwest India.

Kathak - A Narrative of Ancient Hindu Culture - Learn about its history before you join online Kathak Classes

The origins of this dance form can be traced back to Bharata Muni's ancient Indian theatrologist and musicologist Bharata Muni's Sanskrit Hindu literature on performing arts, 'Natya Shastra.' The earliest complete version of the text is thought to have been finished between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

However, some sources suggest a range from 500 BCE to 500 CE. The literature has thousands of poems organised into chapters that split dance into two types: 'nrittya,' which is a pure dance that focuses on the delicacy of hand movements and gestures, and 'nrittya,' which is a solo expressive dance that concentrates on expressions.

Kathak - In The Modern Perspective

According to Natalia Lidova, a Russian academic, 'Natya Shastra' describes different theories of Indian classical dances, such as Lord Shiva's Tandava dance, acting methods, standing positions, gestures, basic steps, bhava, and rasa. According to Mary Snodgrass, this dance form's history dates to 400 BCE.

Bharhut, a village in Madhya Pradesh's Satna district, is regarded as a sample of early Indian art.

The sculptures of dancers in various vertical attitudes with arm positions that approximate Kathak steps, many of which represent the 'pataka hasta' Mudra, were discovered on 2nd century BC panels.

Ishwari Prasad, a devotee of the Bhakti movement, developed the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak. Ishwari was from the village of Handiya in Uttar Pradesh's southeast. It is said that Lord Krishna appeared to him in his dreams and urged him to develop "dancing as a form of worship."

So he taught the dance form to his sons Adguji, Khadguji, and Tularamji, who in turn taught their descendants, and the tradition was passed down for more than six generations, carrying on this rich history known as the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak in Hindu and Muslim literature.

Kathak and Its Popularity Since Ancient Times

Kathak dance is sometimes touted as a successor of an ancient Hindu devotional tradition. On the other hand, the stories did not stay within the temple walls for very long. The dances were rapidly carried throughout India by nomadic Kathakars or roaming storytellers.

They developed the dance to include aspects of mime and theatricality by adding emotions and facial expressions to their performances. In this fashion, Kathak evolved from a solitary, religious tradition to a more accessible, multi-disciplined entertainment tradition.

The repertoire and movement language of the dance, on the other hand, reflect a different story of syncretic roots and hybrid history: it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, religious and entertaining, and male and female.

Adoption of Kathak by Other Cultures

The Mughal courts and nobles were well aware of this ancient classical dance form, mostly associated with Hindu epics. The dance performed in Mughal courts, on the other hand, took on a more sexual shape, with little relevance to the older themes that expressed religious or spiritual ideals.

The dancers made improvisations primarily to entertain the Muslim audience with sensual and sexual acts that, while different from the age-old dancing notion, included a hidden message such as Radha-Krishna's love story; the repertory eventually expanded to include Central Asian and Persian themes.

Fame and Popularity of Kathak

Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, India, was a mediaeval ruler who spent heavily on the development of Kathak. Shah, a poet and dancer, devoted significant emphasis to the dance's emotional expression. The Lucknow Gharana, or school, evolved from his court and is now renowned as a stylisation of Kathak. Thakur Prasad, Shah's chief court dancer, was followed by generations of dancers to pass on the Lucknow lessons.

Modern Lucknow Kathak masters, like the world-renowned Pandit Birju Maharaj (1938–2022), may still trace their heritage back to Wajid Ali Shah's court. Pandit Birju Maharaj is the son of Acchan Maharaj and a scion of the famed Maharaj family. He is regarded as the foremost proponent of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin Gharana.

The Final Wrap

Kathak has roots in rural theatre, embodied rhythmic repertoire and courtesan performance, and its history is inextricably linked to India's empire, colonialism, and freedom.

So, are you interested in learning Kathak dance courses? If you are planning to enroll in Kathak Classes, do consider both online Kathak classes and physical classes, as nowadays, both of the learning modes are equally popular.