From Academic Kids

Kathak is an Indian dance form similar to Bharatanatyam that arose out of the Vaishnava devotees dancing to the episodes from Krishna's life. Originally a Northern Indian temple dance, it was transformed to a court dance in the Mughal era. The new Muslim influence brought with it certain changes to the dance form: what had been a largely devotional practice now became more a courtly entertainment, and to that end various changes were effected. The demi-plié stance of most other Indian dance forms gave way to straight legs, and as many as 150 ankle bells on each leg were worn, to emphasise the newly complex footwork. It was also during this period that the signature 'chakrs' (spins) of Kathak were introduced. The straight-legged position gave a new vitality to the footwork, which wove percussive rhythms in its own right, whether together with or in complement to the tabla and pakhawaj. Although now substantially different from the other Indian dance forms, the roots of the style are the same, and as such it displays a consanguineity with the others, particularly in the hand-formations during story-telling, and some of the body-postures.


Early history

Ever since 1550 B.C.E., Kathak dance has played an influential role in Northern Indian culture. The word Kathak is derived from the word katha, meaning story. The ancient Kathakas, or story-tellers, were traveling bards who were the first to employ this dance in order to better communicate their tales to the masses. Temple audiences used Kathak as a part of the daily tradition of religious worship. In contrast the crowds of listeners in the villages commonly enjoyed performances of stories from the Puranas, including the epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, performed through mime, instrumental and vocal music, drama, and most importantly, Kathak.

Muslim influence

Indian culture has been shaped deeply by the many invasions of Indian history, especially the Moghul invasion of the 15th century. It was during this reign that Kathak dance was impacted most comprehensively, when dancers were enticed from the temples to the courts by gifts of gold and jewels. Patronage soared as a social class of dancers and courtiers emerged in the royal palaces, where dance competitions were held frequently. As the Moghul courts were centered in Northern India, Kathak, more than any other Indian dance-form, was changed to suit the purpose of entertainment. Dancers from the Middle East spread their ideas to Kathak dancers, as they borrowed ideas from Kathak to implement in their own dance. Slowly, the two dances became one, as a common link between the Muslim and Hindu culture. With the advent of a new chapter in Indian history, Kathak began to shift away from other traditional dances, such as Bharatanatyam. Elements of beauty in the copious jewelry and costume of the dancers combined with poetic narration to tell fabulous tales of drama, triumph, and tragedy. The music, regalia, atmosphere, and themes developed through the fusion of cultures in a way that no other dance could.

Change in the era of Radha-Krishna

During the era of fervent worship of Radha-Krishna, Kathak was used to narrate tales from the lives of these figures. Popular performances included Shri Krishna’s exploits in the holy land of Vrindavan, and tales of Krishna-Leela (Krishna’s childhood). In this time, the dance moved away from the spirituality of the temple. The shift towards astonishing rhythmic exhibitions, elaborate footwork, and rapid, but graceful pirouettes was apparent, and instruments such as the tabla and pakhawaj were used to accompany dancers. The straight leg stance was taken from Persian dance to replace the demi-plié, and bells were tied around the ankles to emphasize the flamboyant footwork and turns (chakrs) of the Kathak renaissance. Kathak remained a solo art form, based on personal interpretations, and emotional values.


Many specific emperors contributed to the growth and development of Kathak into different gharanas, or schools of dance, named after the cities in which they developed. The Moghul leader, Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, not only enjoyed giving patronage to dancers, but dancing himself. He brought teachers to his palaces, aiding the expansion of technical vocabulary, and formed the basis of the Lucknow gharana, emphasizing sensuous, expressive emotion. The Lucknow Gharana placed emphasis on the abhinaya and natya elements or expressional qualities of the dancing; it was famed for its subtlety and grace; this contrasted sharply with the Jaipur Gharana, which became renowned for highly intricate and complex footwork, and fast, sharp accurate dancing. Even after the Moghuls, courts in Rajasthan enjoyed Kathak as a sophisticated art form, fostering the growth of the Jaipur gharana, stressing pure technical mastery and sharp footwork. The Benares gharana was also created in this time.


Today, Kathak has regained its popularity after a period of decline during the rule of the British Empire, where it was frowned upon by Victorian administrators. Not only in India, but throughout the world, it is recognised as one of the seven classical dance forms of India. Kathak’s unique history has made it very different from other traditional dance forms, although it still retains the same roots. Presently, this classical dance is characterized by a combination of the temple and court forms, inclusive of both the devotion and romantic form that has shaped it through the years. The influence of theatre dance has presented itself in the movement towards dance productions of stories such as Shakuntala. Expressive motion, rhythmic accuracy, graceful turning, poised stances, technical clarity, hand gestures (mudras) and subtle expression (bhava-abhinaya) are important components of modern Kathak. Modern repertoire includes presentation of the three phases of life, creation (symbolized by Lord Brahma), preservation (symbolized by Lord Vishnu), and destruction (symbolized by Lord Shiva).


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