An art of storytelling, constructed through music, text, and vocals.
Kathak is a north Indian classical dance form that draws upon ancient Hindu temple traditions and Mughal era court sensibilities. It is an art of storytelling, constructed through music, text, and vocals. Like other Indian classical dance styles, it began as a devotional form of expression rooted in the concepts of the Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on performing arts dating back to roughly 200 BC.
One of the earliest references to kathak is found in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit scripture dating back to around 500 BC, where the kathakaa are mentioned as storytellers and entertainers. These dancer-actors would recite or sing poetic verses depicting episodes from religious epics, while expressing their meaning using mime, hand and body gestures. Short dance sequences using simple rhythmic phrases would link each verse and the performer would sometimes be accompanied by a percussionist.
Textual studies suggest that kathak as a classical dance form likely started in Benares and from there migrated northwest to Lucknow, Jaipur and other parts of northern India. The Lucknow gharana attributes the style to a Bhakti movement which centred primarily on the divine reverence of Krishna, his consort Radha and the gopi based on episodes from texts such as the Bhagavata Purana found in the Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism.
Northern India was invaded by the Mughals around the 16th century. Babur, the first Mughal emperor, promoted the sophistication of Indian civilisation and instigated religious harmony. The meeting of Indian, Persian, Mongol and Arabic cultural traditions nurtured an atmosphere of artistic splendour, and kathakaa were encouraged to perform in the royal courts. The predominantly expressional and dramatic content of these performances evolved to include elements of traditional Persian music and dance. Subsequently, pure dance developed as a major part of the form to emphasise the abstract beauty of the synchronisation of rhythmic musical patterns and movement, incorporating Islamic philosophy where the representation of God is formless. Stylised technical hallmarks such as chakkar, complex footwork, clean lines and fluid upper body motions transpired, and the structure of this new repertoire was greatly influenced by Hindustani music explaining the abundance of tabla and pakhawaj bol. The narrative aspect of the dance form was simultaneously upheld as kathakaa usually belonged to families who studied religious scriptures.
During the British Empire’s rule of India, the practice of classical dance was not encouraged due to its religious connotations. Kathak also acquired an unwholesome image seen simply as an art form of seduction associated with tawaif, who were in turn linked to prostitution. However, this community were highly educated in the arts and did much to preserve the form through cultural hardship. Devoted families also continued to nurture and pass on their cherished art form over generations.
Following independence from the British Raj, a great revival of cultural heritage occurred in India. Over the past 70 years, with the establishment of institutes promoting the awareness of classical Indian art and culture, kathak has come into the fore as a revered dance form internationally.