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KATHAK, The Visible Expression of Rhythm

The emphasis on footwork and fast turning movements beguile the eye.

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Kathak, like Bharata Natyam, is considered to be one of the classical dance styles of India. From Dance Dialects of India:
The predominant style of Kathak dance is Nritta - pure dance, footwork is its distinctive characteristic. The beauty of Kathak dance is the perfectly harmonized plastic patterns of the arms and curves of the body that give visible expression to the rhythm patterns of the feet. Variations in tempo, permutations of the timing cycle in cross rhythms, rapid turning movements and sudden still poses are the technical formulae of Kathak. Flow of movement, grace and poise are its aesthetic qualities.
As footwork is the basic element of Kathak dance, strings of bells, at least one hundred for each foot, are tied around the ankles to mark the rhythm patterns of the feet. The slap of the feet on the floor can be distinctly heard. Drums provide the accompaniment... A simple tune continuously repeated is played to mark the time cycle.

Kathak has contributed largely to Bollywood, especially in older films. From India's Dances:

Indian films have used dances which were supposed to be Kathak, but are best described as having drawn some inspiration from Kathak. The discrepancy arose not necessarily because the dancers did not know Kathak...but because directors had to take into account [those] who are not interested in subtleties... Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar.. had a notable Kathak sequence which featured the remarkable Roshan Kumari.


From Dance Dialects of India:
The origin of Kathak dance is traced in ancient literature to the story-tellers, the Kathakas, who recited Kathas or stories from sacred Puranas and epics with expository gestures and dance. Kathak as a classical dance form was a religious art performed in temples and royal dunbars of the Rajastan States in medieval India.
From India's Dances:
From the eighth century the new dynamic force of Islam appeared on the continent... Islam preached that all men were brothers under One God, that there was only one path to heaven which lay through the teachings of the Prophet, and that it was morally dangerous to make representations of living things. This attitude was seriously to affect Kathak dancing, which was not only concerned with many gods and goddesses but also portrayed them in human form. This made the dance doubly sacrilegious to the Muslims and therefore it was vehemently condemned. The Kathaks had to find Hindu patrons, often Rajput princes of Central India, or disperse into the countryside where they could safely continue to dance in heir traditional manner. With the passage of time, under less severe rulers, these Kathaks were to be permitted once more to dance with impunity.

In the 16th century, Vallabhadaya led a revival of Vaishnamvism in North India. Dance, music, poetry and painting inspired by devotion to Krishna flourished. Group dances to Kirtanas, devotional songs describing the dance movements of Krishna ( the perfect dancer), became popular and exist even today.

From Dance Dialects of India:

The gestures, whirling movements and pauses, and the groups of rhythm syllables in the texts of the Kirtanas are primary folk elements that developed a more elaborate classical form in Kathak dance.

From India's Dances:

The rise of the Vaishnavite cult...had an important bearing on the development of Kathak. This [cult] embodied the worship of Vishnu... In his incarnation as Krishna he was the chief subject of music and dance.. The art of mediaeval India was dominated by the Krishna theme and legends about him became a permanent feature of the Kathak repertoire.

The 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar was a great patron of art, literature and architecture. In the early part of his reign he was anti-Hindu, but later became more tolerant and incorporated Hindus into his army and his administration. From Dance Dialects of India:

The Mughal emperor Akbar was a great patron of Hindu music and dance in the 16th century. The masters of Kathak dance came into prominence as dancers and gurus of dancing girls at Akbar's court in Delhi. The Mughal rulers cared nothing for the Radha-Krishna legends and mythological themes of Kathak dance. The religious aspect of Kathak and its traditional music were therefore discarded in court dances.

Aurangzeb, emperor in the 17th century, was not a patron of the arts or of Hindus, feeling that the best Hindu was a dead Hindu. Court musicians and dancers sought patronage with regional rulers and deputies (Rajas and Nawabs).

The decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the European powers saw the gradual decadence of Kathak as a public form of entertainment. Nevertheless, it was preserved as an artistic practice for the daughters of wealthy families. From India's Dances:

Most of the petty princes and warlords had little appreciation of the fine arts and so Kathak degenerated into voluptuous and sensual styles. Although there was an attempt to retain the basic graces of Kathak, the tendency was increasingly towards lasciviousness, and the performer became notorious as women of easy virtue. It was this debased from of Kathak which the European adventurers called 'nautch', which was a corruption of the Indian word for dance, naach.
This infamy touched even the temple dancers... The true spirit of Kathak, however, survived in spite of these social stigmas. High caste Hindu girls, especially in Rajastan and Bengal, had to be accomplished in the arts in order to make a good marriage. They were therefore tutored at home, often to very high standard, but their attainments were reserved exclusively for the pleasure of the family.
However, there was at least one area in India where Kathak was appreciated for what it was: Oudh (or Avadh).

From Dance Dialects of India:

Music and dance received lavish patronage from the Nawabs of Oudh in the 18th and 19th centuries. A number of musicians of repute adorned the royal court and were highly respected by the Nawabs... Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was a true connoisseur of music and dance and an accomplished musician and Kathak dancer. He originated the Thumri style of music, and composed lyrical love songs (Thumris) in a classical style...[he] also composed a Kathak ballet, Rahas, in which he took the role of Krishna. Because of his love of dance he neglected affairs of state and in 1856 the British Government deposed him and took over his kingdom. He was exiled to Calcutta on a generous pension, and he continued to extend patronage to Kathak dance.
From India's Dances:
By the end of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire had declined to such an extent that the Governors and tributary Nawabs and Rajas were independent in all but name. Delhi had been the centre of culture...with its decline, its poets, musicians and artists gradually began to leave. In Avadh the Nawabs now saw an opportunity to transfer its glories to their own capital, Lucknow. The migrants from Delhi were welcomed and given pensions and grants, and a new centre evolved. Lucknow now became synonymous with elegance and aesthetic appreciation. When Wajid Ali Shah ascended the throne in 1847 at the age of twenty, the court circle already included artistic proteges of all kinds. He was by nature inclined towards the arts and resolved to outshine all his predecessors. The young Nawab devoted himself to this end with an energy which now seems suicidal... Wajid Ali Shah's passion for these arts was carried to a point where he neglected his state duties. This lack of interest in political affairs made it possible for the English to annex his kingdom and he was sent into exile.

Modern Revival of Kathak Dance

Kathak took its place in the revival of traditional Indian dances in the 1930s.

From Dance Dialects of India:

The decade that began in 1930 marked the revival of Bharata Natyam and Kathakali in South India, and the emergence of Kathak dance as a contemporary dance form.
The first to appreciate the richness and lyric beauty of Kathak dance was the well-known dancer Menaka, an educated Brahman girl who took up dancing as a profession. She became a qualified exponent of Kathak dance and created several ballets in Kathak style with a professional Kathak dancer as her male partner. The musical setting of the ballets was classical. Menaka presented her ballets in India and toured Europe. Later she established a school of Kathak dance. The Kathak masters associated with her have continued to teach traditional Kathak dance in is expressive and pure dance forms. (Menaka passed away in 1947.)
From India's Dances:
The first dancer of genius to break this embargo [the disrepute of Kathak at the turn of the 20th century] was Menaka. Her achievements were truly outstanding - trained under the best gurus, she revived Kathak as an entertainment worthy of public support and what is more, she gave to it the imprimatur of social acceptability in its homeland, and also introduced it to other countries.
From Hindu Business Line:
KATHAK as a dance form appears to blend with musical sounds that are seemingly unfamiliar to it. And kathak dancer Gauri Sharma is increasingly working at blending the art form with sounds that may not necessarily form part of the traditional art. "I experiment with music and sound,quot; says Gauri Sharma who believes that kathak can adapt itself to any sound without compromising on the traditional art, primarily because of its accent on footwork. quot;I work with sounds, not with movement, but juxtapose movements to give it a contemporary feel without diluting the form," says Gauri Sharma."


Unlike Bharatanatyam, the Kathak costume [which is most generally used] was not revised in the 20th century. From India's Dances:
In the time of Akbar's son Jehangir, the dancers adopted the dress which was popular in the early part of his reign...whereas the fashions of the nobility changed, the dancers retained this costume and it has been in use ever since. It consisted of the chust pajama (tight trousers) in a bright colour, over which was worn a high-necked diaphanous dress, the angarkha. The soft, flowing, bell-shaped skirt was of full length and, like the sleeves, was left unlined. For women, an embroidered waistcoat of rich satin emphasized the body line. Men wore a double-breasted angarkaha that fastened on the left over their chust pajama. The women also wore a gossamer orhni (transparent scarf, a.k.a. dupatta). The palms of the hands and bare feet were dyed with henna... the full skirt fanned out at every fast movement, accentuating the fluidity of the dance, and yet was transparent enough to reveal the outline of the figure and perfection of the pose when the dancer was still... The jewellery worn with this costume is rich and varied. Bracelets, armlets and necklaces are of gold. The heavy earrings, also of gold, are set with precious or semi-precious stones. A jeweled tika is suspended in the middle of the forehead.
Another costume which is becoming increasingly popular is the sari. The normal wear hangs over the left shoulder, but for dancing is taken round the waist and allowed to hang down from it on the left side so as to show off its full beauty. An orhni is worn over the choli and draped over the left shoulder. The jewellery worn with the sari is much the same as that which goes with the Hagar and orhni, the only addition being an ornate girdle or belt which emphasizes the slim line of the whole ensemble.


Conquest of North India by Muslim invaders
Vallaghadaya revives Vaishnavism.
Akbar ascends the throne.
Aurangzeb ascends the throne.
Wajid Ali Shah becomes Nawab of Oudh.
British depose Wajid Ali Shah.
Menaka re-establishes Kathak in India.
Menaka dies.


The legendary Durga Lal.

Durga Lal, again. What a charmer!

The legendary Roshan Kumari in the film The Music Room (Jalsaghar).

The legendary Uma Sharma.

Wonderful duet between a Bharatanatyam dancer and a Kathak dancer that showcases both and highlights the differences.
Maura Enright, Proprietor
©by Maura Enright
Last updated 2017.01.07
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