India - Kathak

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Kathak Dance Form of India

The word Kathak is derived from katha, which means "the art of storytelling."
It is synonymous with the community of artists known as Kathakas whose hereditary profession involved narrating the history while entertaining through mime and gesture for dramatic effect. Gradually, the storytelling became more stylized and evolved into a dance form. Their dance, music and mime used to bring life to the great scriptures and Indian epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana apart from the Puranas of Sanskrit literature.

The tradition of the Kathakas was hereditary, passed from one generation to another. A definite style emerged in 13th century with lot of technical features developed. Kathak began to acquire its distinctive shape and features during the Mughal period. It incorporated many forms of dance and music especially from Persia.

Kathak slowly moved out of the temples and into the courts of the rulers of the Hindu maharajas and the Muslim nawabs. From being a devotional act at temple, the Kathak later became a lavish entertainment in Palaces. Muslims also influenced the dance form of Kathak.

It shifted away from the traditional dance form of the Bharatanatyam. Persian influence gave way to the straight leg dance style of Kathak with a new vitality to the footwork. To highlight the flamboyant and elaborate rhythmic footwork, 150 ankle bells were worn on each leg.

During the same period, the chakkars or the spins of Kathak were introduced. Based on personal interpretations and emotional values, the Kathak remained as a solo art form.

During the Bhakti movement in 15th to 16th century, the Kathak dance was influenced by rasalilas. The Kathak performances included Sri Krishna’s myths in the holy land of Vrindavan, and tales of Krishna-Leela of his childhood.

Many emperors both Mugals and Hindus contributed to the growth and development of Kathak into different gharanas, or schools of dance, named after the cities in which they developed. The Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, not only patronised the Kathak dancers, but also learnt the dance taught by Durga Prasad. He used to choreograph, the Rahas and danced with the ladies of his court. He formed the basis of the Lucknow gharana, emphasizing sensuous, expressive emotions.

The Lucknow gharana laid emphasis on the abhinaya and natya elements of dancing. In the Hindu courts of the vast semi-desert of the principality of Rajasthan, kathak developed in the Jaipur gharana (school), a regional style emphasizing the technical mastery of pure dance.

The Jaipur Gharana later became renowned for highly intricate and complex footwork, and fast, sharp, and accurate dancing. Even after the Moghuls, courts in Rajasthan enjoyed Kathak as a sophisticated art form, fostering the growth of the Jaipur gharana. Even the Banaras gharana came into existence in the same time. During the British rule, Kathak had a sharp decline.

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. To Britishers, the Kathak seemed like an entertainment solely designed for the purposes of seduction. But the famous tawaifs such as Gauhar Jan were instrumental in the maintenance and continuation of Kathak, even though it was officially denigrated by the prevailing political opinion.

The Kathak dance, passed down from guru to shishya, has developed different styles, called the gharana. Some of the important gharanas are as follows.

• Lucknow Gharana

The Lucknow Gharana was developed in the courts of the Nawab of Oudh of Lucknow. It is characterized by its nazakat and khubsurti. It is well known for the Abhinay.

• Jaipur Gharana

The Jaipur Gharana was developed in the courts of the Kachchwaha kings of Jaipur. It is characterized by strong rhythmic elements to different talas.

• Banaras Gharana

The Benaras Gharana was developed by Janakiprasad. It is characterized by the natwari bols, which are different from the tabla and the pakhawaj bols.

The main components of modern Kathak include the expressive motion, the rhythmic accuracy, the graceful turning, the poised stances, the technical clarity, the hand gestures or the mudras and the subtle expression or the bhava-abhinaya.

Pandit Chitresh Das created the technique of Kathak Yoga within the tradition of Kathak, bringing harmony of mind, body and soul where the dancer recites the chosen Taalam, singing the melody of the chosen Taalam, and dances precise mathematical footwork and Chhakars (pirouettes) all at the same time.

In Kathak Yoga, one has to dance the mathematical bol pattern without assistance and recite the basic taalam, which requires the dancer to know the mathematics of the dance bols precisely.

Musical Instruments Used To Accompany Kathak
• Bansuri
• Dilruba
• Esraj
• Ghungharu
• Harmonium
• Pakhawaj
• Santur
• Sarangi
• Sarod
• Sitar
• Surmandal
• Tabla
• Tanpura

Modern performance of Kathak includes the presentation of the three phases of life such as the creation as symbolized by Lord Brahma, the preservation as symbolized by Lord Vishnu, and the destruction as symbolized by Lord Shiva.

The conventional Kathak performance follows a progression in tempo from slow to fast, ending with a dramatic climax. The short dance composition is tukra and the longer one is tora. The tukras are composed to highlight specific aspects of the dance. The spins usually manifest themselves at the end of the tukra, in large numbers like five, nine, fifteen, or more.

All compositions are performed so that the final step and beat of the composition lands on the 'sam' or the first beat of the time-cycle. Most compositions also have 'bols' or the rhythmic words which serve as mnemonics to the composition and whose recitation also forms an integral part of the performance. Other compositions are sub-divided as follows.


The dancer begins with an invocation to the gods.


The first composition of a traditional performance of short plays with the time-cycle, finishing on sam in a statuesque standing (thaat) poses.


Derived from the Persian word meaning 'entry', this is the first introduction of spoken rhythmic pattern or bol in to the performance.

It is a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style.


This is intended to show abstract and visually beautiful gaits or scenes from daily life.


It is a poem set on a time-cycle, where the dancer performs the movements that echo the meaning of the poem.


It is a composition using bols from the pakhawaj


It is a composition using bols reminiscent of sounds from nature, such as kukuthere, jhijhikita etc.

It is usually a footwork composition consisting of a long set of bols repeated thrice so that the very last bol ends dramatically on 'sam'.


It is a footwork composition consisting of variations on a theme, and ending in a tihai.

Some of the popular artists of Kathak are as follows.
• Durga Prasad
• Thakur Prasad
• Achhan Maharaj
• Lachhu Maharaj
• Shambhu Maharaj
• Sitara Devi
• Birju Maharaj
• Kumudini Lakhia
• Chitresh Das
• Sundarlal Gangani
• Smt. Savita Godbole
• Pandit Satya Narayana Charka
• Acharya Anupam Rai
• Rohini Bhate


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