Kathak, down the ages

Kathak, down the ages

Kathak, one of the eight forms of Indian classical dances, originated in Uttar Pradesh. According to Nandini Mehta, a Bangalore-based kathak dancer, kathaks or kathakars were storytellers who sang and danced in praise of Hindu gods in temples.

With the arrival of Mughals in India, kathak entered the Mughal courts in the 16th century and with the passage of time, it transformed itself from being a dance which had the fervour of bhakti rasas to sheer entertainment in praise of the Muslim kings.

“Muslim emperors demanded songs and dances in praise of them. This is how kathak switched its loyalty from gods to kings. During this process, it also came under the influence of other forms of dance and music, especially Persian,” says Nandini.

Murali Mohan Kalva, who along with Nandini runs the Nartan Academy of Dance and Music (NADAM) in Bangalore, said, “There was an exchange of ideas between dancers imported from the Middle East and kathaks, thus making new inputs an integral part of kathak.
And, as kathak became richer in its form and style, more text and body postures were included. Despite the transformation, roots of the style remained intact,” says Murali.

One of the styles, the tribhangi position, is common to most Indian dance forms. It was also during this period that the signature chakkars (spins) of kathak were introduced, and as many as 150 ankle bells were worn on each leg to emphasise on the distinctive and elaborate footwork.

According to Nandini, the Nawab of Awadh invited teachers to his palace to expand the technical vocabulary of kathak. Today, what sets the Lucknow gharana apart from other gharanas is its emphasis on sensuous and expressive emotions. In stark contrast, Jaipur gharana gained popularity for its highly intricate and complex footwork. “Even after the decline of the Mughal empire, courts in Rajasthan enjoyed kathak as a classy art form, which further gave fillip to the growth of the Jaipur gharana,” Nandini informs. The Benares gharana too gained prominence as kathak was being extensively performed by tawaifs.

However, the decline of the Mughal empire and the advent of the British rule wasn’t favourable for the growth of kathak. The dance form deteriorated; it lost its sheen of classicism. Kathak became mujra which had more of vulgarity than grace. Mujra started being performed at special locations, and many Hindu families shunned this form of dance. “Despite all these interferences, Kathak didn’t die... it survived,” adds Nandini.

According to Urdu poet and painter Tilak Raj Tilak, who penned Kathak ki Kahani-Mujre ki Zubani, an ode to courtesans, which was recently performed by the team of NADAM, “Kathak is a way of dancing whereas mujra is a way of dancing and singing which is usually accompanied by harmonium and percussion. Mughal kings took good care of their courtesans. They even sent their wards to these tawaifs to learn good manners. It was like a learning centre for these royal descendants.”

After the decline of the Mughal empire, courtesans had a tough time surviving. In order to fend for themselves, many tawaifs were forced to come out of their “protective shells” built around them by the kings. Some of them felt they had to preserve their culture at any cost. “The skill was being passed on to the younger generation. So the role of tawaifs in preserving the art form shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Murali.

Famous tawaifs such as Gauhar Jan were instrumental in the continuation of kathak. In the 20th century, Kalka Prasad Maharaj and his sons Acchan, Lacchhu and Shambhu Maharaj, and grandson Birju Maharaj, took the initiative to carry forward the tradition — both as dancers and dance gurus.

Today, kathak has regained its past glory after a massive downfall. Thanks to the Maharaja family that produced great dancers like Saswati Sen and Sitara Devi, who, with their zestful and fiery performances, have impressed audiences worldwide. Another famous danseuse, Kumudini Lakhia, along with Birju Maharaj, introduced the relative innovation of multi-person choreographies in kathak. Rajashree Shirke, a disciple of Madhurita Sarang, a student of Birju Maharaj, is trying to revive the old tradition of storytelling in temples by kathakars.

“There was a time when people couldn’t differentiate between kathak and bharatanatyam. Today, kathak is being highly appreciated and performed on a common platform with flamenco and tap dancing; it’s a novelty in itself,” says Nandini.

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