The term ‘Kathak’, as we refer to the classical dance of North India, was originally the name given to the performers, the story-tellers in the temples of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. As the saying in Hindi reads: Kathan Kahe Kathak Kahaye – i.e. he who narrates a story is a kathak. The kathakas re-created stories from the Bhagvadpurana, Ramayana and Mahabharata, heightening the impact of the narration with dance and song.

But, with the devastations of the temples in the 10th and 11th centuries by Muslim invaders, the art of the Kathaks underwent a period of silence for some centuries till it was revived by the tolerant Mughals in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. During this phase of its evolution, the spiritual aspect receded to the background and the virtuosity of the performers became the criterion as it was treated as an entertainment form. Yet the undercurrent of Vaishnavism was still there in the hearts of the Kathaks who adopted a set of new decorative rhythmic patters with a dazzling display of spins and footwork. In keeping with the aura of the royal courts, the story element was stifled almost to the point of oblivion.

In the process, the art of the Kathaks evolved into a sophisticated art wherein the earlier patterns of rhythm used to highlight the narration and Ras performances developed into complicated rhythmic patterns. At this stage, the dance form itself acquired the name ‘Kathak’.

At this stage of its evolution, Kathak acquired a fragmentary character, till patrons like Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh (Ayodhya) found it wanting in the narrative aspect the story element of the original Ras Leelas, performed in the temples. In his attempts to reinstate the story element Wajid Ali composed dance-dramas around the theme of the Ras or Krishna’s Leelas calling it Rahas (as Ras is pronounced in Persian). While he donned the main role of Krishna, his Begums were cast in the roles of Radha and the Gopis!

At the time of Asafudaulla, Wajid Ali’s ancestor, a group of Kathaks from Hundia, near Allahabad, sought the patronage of the Nawab at Lucknow. Their descendants, chiefly Thakur Prasad, worked at Wajid Ali’s court as his main mentor as well as dancer. Thakur Prasad helped Wajid Ali in developing the technique, ushering the Lucknow Gharana (style) of Kathak. Inspired by the encouragement given by the Nawab, Maharaja Bindadin and his brother Kalkadin, nephews of Thakur Prasad, furthered the narrative aspect of developing the Abhinaya or Bhav Batana elements. Maharaj Bindadin composed scores of Thumris portraying the adoration of Radha and the Gopis of Brindavan, for their Lord Shri Krishna.

Incidentally in the 14th and 15th centuries, poets like Surdas who belonged to the Ashtachap poets in the temples of Nathdwara (Rajasthan) mentioned dance syllables like ta, thei, tat in their musical compositions and also indicated some body movements like uraps, thirapa, etc. But the exact style of presentation was not indicated. The Ras Leela performers used the technique, largely influenced by elements of desi or popular patterns. This enriched the repertoire of Kathak too.

Kalka’s illustrious sons, Achan Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, have since contributed to the enrichment of Kathak of the Lucknow Gharana Achan Maharaj’s son, Birju Maharaj, has won universal acclaim as the torchbearer of this Gharana. His nephew and disciple, Munnalal Shukla, is also acclaimed as a wizard of rhythm, like Birju Maharaj.

Nawab Wajid Ali urged his courtiers to write books on the dance system of his time, especially the rendering of Gat, Gat-Nikas and other salient features of Kathak. While Thumris (songs of love) are regarded as Wajid Ali’s contribution to Kathak, he and his courtiers have also written books with descriptions of the dance at his time. Some of the books are Naghmat-ul-Hind, Gunchae Rag, Sautul Mubarak and Maadunul Musiqui.

Just as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah ushered the Lucknow Gharana by extending patronage to Thakur Prasad and his descendants, the rulers of Rajashtan extended patronage to talented dancers from all over the state at their royal court, at Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. This dance style therefore gained fame as the Jaipur Gharana. The earliest exponent of this Gharana is Bhanuji, who gained wide renown for his rendering of Shiva-Tandava.

While the exponents of Lucknow Gharana, being devotees of Krishna, explored the Lasya (or graceful) aspect of Kathak, the veterans of Jaipur Gharana coming from a warrior clan, as well as being devotees of Shiva, dwelt upon the Tandava (or vigorous) aspect of Kathak. Among the scores of Gurus and veterans, Hanuman Prasad, the son of Girdharji, a descendant of Bhanuji, gained recognition for the rendition of musical compositions like Drupad and Dhamar. Amongst Hanuman Prasad’s sons, Narayan Prasad has carried the tradition forward with his rhythmic compositions in Tandav, as well as Kavit-st (poems rendered in rhythm).

Similarly Jailal and Sunder Prasad, the sons of Chunnilal, have won worldwide recognition as the country’s top dancers and gurus having passed on the rich treasures to their descendants and disciples. Durga Lal, disciple of Pt. Sundar Prasad, was considered the torchbearer of this Gharana, till death snatched him away. Rajendra Gangani, the son and disciple of Kundan Lal, an excellent guru, is now regarded as the foremost representative of Jaipur Gharana. 

Some well-known disciples of the two Gharanas who are propagating the brilliance of Kathak are: Mohan Rao Kalyanpurkar, Madame Menaka, Pooviah sisters, Shirin Vajifdar, Damayanti Joshi, Roshini Bhate, Maya Rao, Chitra Venugopal, Kumudini Lakhia, Roshan Kumari and Uma Sharma.

While the Lucknow Gharana and Jaipur Gharana were the well-known styles, through which Kathak evolved from the temple to the theatre, there are yet some centres which have won recognition for nurturing the development of the dance form, namely, the Raigarh royal court under the patronage of Raja Chakkardhar Singh. Sukhdev Prasad, of Banaras, is a well-known exponent whose daughter Sitara Devi and grandson Gopi Krishna are universally renowned for their scintillating performances. The other branch of the Banaras Gharana was nurtured by Janaki Prasad. Hazari Lal and his wife Sunayana Hazari Lal and Krishna Kumar are the reputed exponents of this style.

The gurus of the Gharanas, especially of Lucknow and Jaipur, have worked on the present repertoire of Kathak which has elements of the three-fold representation mentioned in ancient treatises, namely, Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (dance with bhav) and Abhinaya.

Accordingly, the repertoire seen in the theatres in present times devlops thus: Opening with a Vandana (Invocation), the dancer moves on to Thaat-sthanak or stances which signify the presence of the dancer on stage. Amad, the introduction of the dance style, utilises the main motifs of Kathak – Tukras, Parans and Parimalus pure dance sequences of rhythmic patterns woven with syllables of dance, pakhawaj and other percussion instruments respectively. Gat-Bhav portrays a story to the accompaniment of tabla and Lehra (melody played on either sarangi or harmoniums to indicate the basic-time cycle of the dance pattern). This sequence, according to some scholars, was introduced by Kathaks with no supportive text to replace the Dhrupad and Dhamar (compositions) of the earlier times. A few others opine that Gat-Bhav is a revived form of Lasyanga mentioned in the ancient treatises like Natya Shastra and other texts. The unique feature of Gat-Bhav is that a story is rendered by a dancer who portrays the roles of all the characters in the story. The change of character or role is established through a Palta. No words or song support the rendition of the story.

Abhinaya is the next sequence, also called Bhav Batana, where the words in Thumri as well as its melodic pattern of rendering are developed through variations of expressional dance. Earlier, the dancer sat down while performing. In recent times, it is danced like an item.

The finale is brought up with a Tarana, a musical composition, the melodic patterns of which are traced in lyrical movements embellished with Tatkar or footwork. The Tatkar or footwork., is then further developed both in speed and complicated rhythms.

In earlier renditions, in the time of the Gurus, Shri Shambhu Maharaj and Pt. Sundar Prasadji, as I have seen, there seemed to be a sense of tranquility or unhurried ease about the presentation. In other words it had the quality of visualizing the accompanying music in dance, when the Thaat, Amad, Gat-Nikas and, even the sequences of dynamic Tukras, Parans and Parimalus were rendered.

In recent times, some not too welcome features have crept into the presentation of Kathak performances where the emphasis is on rhythm, a cursory treatment being given to the expressional content. The dancers seem to be keen to draw the audience’s attention to their virtuosity in the rendition of Tihais (and Paltas) and receive loud applause!

In the first item of Vandana or invocation itself the dancers come to the mike placed for footwork and break the mood of the devotional compositions with a display of their virtuosity. Even in Gat-Bhav the accent is on speed giving the expressional content is a real backseat! It is sad that the subtle nuances of the expressive content get overpowered compared to other styles of dance has no Abhinaya!” I hope this phase dictated by the age of microphones will soon be remedied by the power of the vision of our gurus like Maharaj Bindadin and others.

Kathak, as we have seen, has withstood the test of time and adversities renewing itself ceaselessly to blossom into a beautiful art symbolizing the synthesis of two fine cultures of our country, the Hindu and Muslim.