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India's Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective

25th Apr, 2022

Originating from the northern parts of India, Kathak is probably one of the most beautiful dance forms in India. Though many people think for one to achieve excellence in this form of dance, you must start your training from a young age, this is not true. With dedication and determination, one can easily master the art form, despite their age.

What is Kathak? History and evolution of Gharanas of Kathak

Kathak as a dance form includes a lot of intricate hand and footwork and the proper use of emotions or gestures. Although it popularly originated in the northern part of India, it spread across to other parts of the world in significantly less time.

Kathak is a prevalent dance form, beginning as a narrative mechanism used in Hindu temples to depict the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Despite there being a lot of confusion regarding the origin of Kathak, it is a primitive North Indian classical dance that is thought to have started in Banaras or Varanasi and Expanded to other parts of North and North Western India.

Origin of Kathak

The origins of this dance form, as said in the ancient “Natya Shastra” by Bharata Muni, was to have originated from between 400 BCE to 500 CE. It was believed that dancers picked the form up whilst trying to depict the stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with musical narration. These dancers soon started to travel and began to portray the art form to different Temples in the Northern part of the Indian subcontinent.

Once the nomad kathak dancers started to go out, Kathak, as a dance form, could be seen performed in places other than the temple. Sometimes, there were even special performances in the royal court or the Shahi Darbar. Such was the royalty of the dance genre that even during the execution of the lovely royal festivals, Kathak dance performances were a must.

It has to be said in this respect that it was during the mediaeval times that Kathak became much more separate than just channelizing devotional thoughts and feelings. It was at this time that Mughal courts, as well as Persian courts, made sure that Kathak was given the attention and the respect that it deserved as a dance form.


The “Natya Shastra” describes different theories of Indian classical dances, Kathak being one of them. It is said that “Bharhut”, a village in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district is said to be the place where this dance form originated.

From time to time, great proponents have made sure that Kathak gets the kind of impetus that it deserves, and they have been significant players in ensuring this is done. One such name that is very important to mention in this respect is Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was one of the most celebrated rulers of Lucknow and probably a very invested, culturally inclined person. He gave a great amount of time and resources towards the development of Kathak.

There are no correct answers if you want to know who invented Kathak dance. At the same time, it is essential to mention that Kathak as a dance form has continuously evolved, and to date, there are different cultural adaptations in other parts of the country.

Kathak in Ancient Times

Kathak dance is frequently described as the heir to an old Hindu spiritual tradition. The tales, on the other hand, did not stay within the temple walls for long. Nomadic Kathakars or travelling storytellers quickly spread the dances throughout India.

They expanded the dance to include mime and theatricality by including emotions and facial gestures into their performances. Kathak evolved from a lonely, sacred practice to a more accessible, multi-disciplined entertainment tradition in this way.

The dance's repertoire and movement language, on the other hand, provide a distinct tale of syncretic beginnings and hybrid history: it is both Muslim and Hindu, devout and entertaining, masculine and feminine.

Though there was a large misinterpretation of the art form, Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow was a mediaeval monarch who invested extensively in Kathak's growth. Shah, a poet and dancer, placed a high value on the emotional expression of the dance. His court gave rise to the Lucknow Gharana, or school, which is now known for its stylisation of Kathak. The Lucknow training was passed down via generations of dancers after Thakur Prasad, Shah's main court dancer.

Other Cultures and Kathak

This old classical dance form, largely linked with Hindu epics, was well known to the Mughal courts and aristocracy. Dance in Mughal courts, on the other hand, took on a more sensual character, with little resemblance to earlier themes that reflected religious or spiritual values.

The dancers improvised largely to delight the Muslim audience with sensuous and sexual deeds that, while unlike the age-old dancing concept, had a hidden message such as Radha-love Krishna's narrative; the repertoire ultimately grew to include Central Asian and Persian themes.

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Gharanas in Kathak

Once one has an idea of the origin and development of Kathak as an art form, it is important for one to get familiar with the Gharanas in Kathak.

When Kathak first originated as a dance form, it was a unified classical dance form with no segregations. However, with time there were cultural adaptations that led to the development of the three different dance gharanas:

1. Lucknow Gharana

The Lucknow Gharana of Kathak was founded by Ishwari Prasad, a follower of the Bhakti movement. Ishwari was from Handiya, a village in Uttar Pradesh's southeast. Lord Krishna is claimed to have appeared to him in his dreams and encouraged him to adopt "dance as a form of devotion."

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.

The Lucknow Gharana is distinguished by a strong emphasis on the component of Abhinaya, which is the emotional portrayal of a certain choreography.

2. Jaipur Gharana

According to popular historical accounts, the Jaipur dance Gharana originated in the courts of the Kachwaha rulers. When the Rajasthani type of dance had a minor influence on Kathak, it steadily moved from the courts to other sections of the state.

One of the most essential characteristics of the Jaipur dance Gharana is that a lot of emphasis is placed on technicalities, which you must learn. Dancers are constantly trained to pay close attention to their footwork, and if they do not focus on this specific dance style, they will not be able to achieve much in the area.

The precise footwork is highlighted, as are the turns as equally difficult positions. Ghoomar, a Rajasthani traditional dance that incorporates several intricate poses and postures, is a general similarity between Kathak and Ghoomar.

3. Benaras Gharana

The most beautiful form of the Kathak dance Gharana is the Banaras Gharana which is quite obsolete today. It was widely believed that such is the charismatic nature of the beginner's Kathak Gharana that people from around the world used to come to Banaras to witness the dance performances of these beautiful dancers. One of the essential features of the Banaras dance Gharana is the use of the Natwaris or the dance Bols, which are very different from the tabla.

It is because of the Natwaris or the dance Bols that the Benaras dance Gharanas are indeed so popular. You will see a striking difference between the barracks dance Gharana and the other two forms of dance Gharana like the Lucknow and the Jaipur, and there is a very over-emphasis on the use of the floor. It was believed from the inception that out of the three dance Gharanas we have mentioned, the Banaras style of Kathak dance is the most difficult to pick up.

To Wrap Up

To conclude, the original purpose of Kathak and how it evolved over the years, would make it much easier for one to make sense of the chronology. It is essential to make sure that one has some idea about the dance forms that are popular in India and have been a part of their culture.

If you are interested in learning Kathak, do consider both online Kathak classes and physical classes offered by us here at KAFQA academy!

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