Bollywood might have etched kathak as a dance form of the courtesans in cinematic memory, but this appropriation of the Indian classical dance form is like a speck from a huge repertoire.
The purpose of kathak is to tell a story and it traces its origin to north India, going back to the kathaks or professional storytellers of the nomadic bands who wandered from village to village narrating stories from the sacred literatures and folklore. There was a lot of music, gestures, mime and movements in their storytelling; and the dance form evolved, danseuse Ruchika Sharma tells me, “As a way to narrate stories through expressions, mostly mythological.”
“The dance form grew from being performed at temples and festivals to a courtly form, especially during the times of the Mughals and their successors. That’s why we have many mythological characters being played out and represented as a part of a kathak performance. And with increasing Central Asian influences, kathak synthesised previous features along with newer developments.”
“A kathak performance,” continues Ruchika, “usually comprises of an entrance, namaskar or salaami (greeting the audience or patron), technical footwork, bol (verses) based on taal (cyclical rhythm), gat bhav (stylised walk with various gestures), tarana (a fast-paced string of words on which one performs technical kathak) and kavith (a poem narrating stories of different mythological figures and incidents related to them).
“Stories of Krishna, especially the ones related to Radha, form a very important theme. Shiva, Ganesha, etc., are also represented, but Krishna as a motif remains a favourite with his childhood stories, raas-leela and other Krishna-Radha stories — all of which are very dramatically used in kathak performances.”
Kathak, thus, evolved with the passage of time, incorporating traits from cultural encounters in history. Today, it has come to assume stylistic nuances that could be attributed to one gharana or the other.
“The two gharanas — Jaipur and Lucknow — are historically differentiated by their styles. Jaipur Gharana is famous for rigorous footwork (laya-kaari), multiple spins, and at times by emphasis on the Pakhawaj bol. Lucknow Gharana, on the other hand, was developed under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh.
He not only encouraged the dance form, but also wrote beautiful thumris, thus highlighting the sringar (delicate union of beauty and grace) and abhinaya (interpretation of words through gestures and movements) aspects of kathak. That’s what Lucknow Gharana came to be famous for — its beautiful hastak (hand gestures) and graceful poise amongst other things. There is also the Banaras Gharana, which is often seen as a confluence of the two, with some of its own features like taking a spin from both sides, something that we do not see in the other two gharanas,” informs Ruchika.
Stalwarts of the Lucknow Gharana include the likes of Birju Maharaj, Saswati Sen and Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak, who was known for singularly sustaining the tradition of the dance form in Pakistan. Famous exponents from the Jaipur Gharana include Chiranji Lal, Kundan Lal and Durga Lal; while Gopi Krishna was one of the foremost exponents of the Banaras Gharana style. Based on emotions
Talking about her own style, Ruchika says, “I began learning under Guru Madanlal Ganganiji, who followed the traditions of Jaipur Gharana. The footwork and spin-based bols (chakkardar bols) of this gharana continue to spell their charm on me. I am now learning from Guru Nayanika Ghosh, who follows the Lucknow Gharana, which is extremely bhav-pradhan or based on emotions and their expressions.”
“Kathak as a dance form is said to be very similar to flamenco; and at times also jazz (especially the spins),” maintains Ruchika. But unlike most Indian classical dance forms where experimentations are happening, she says that, “Apart from some dancers like Aditi Mangaldas, there are not many who have attempted experimentations. There are times when you see something new being attempted, like by Kumudini Lakhia, but they mostly remain confined to the basics, not questioning it ever.”
Veering attention towards the elegant costumes, Ruchika says, “Before the Persian influence, sari or lehenga was worn by the dancers. The Lucknow Gharana is famous for its angrakhas. Dancers of the Jaipur Gharana usually wear the lehenga while those of the Lucknow Gharana mostly adorn the angrakha. But as a dancer, I have often used the costumes interchangeably; when the performance demands that the technical footwork be visible, I wear the angrakha and for thumri or other abhinaya-based pieces I prefer the lehenga.”
As I note Ruchika’s words, I think of the times when I watched kathak dancers on stage and came back stunned by the beauty of their movements and grace. Images that made imprints long ago come back to me, of beautiful swirling angrakhas and lehengas as dancers gracefully spin to the rythm of the taals while rendering a katha (story) to the mesmerised audience.