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Kathak happens to be the major classical dance forms practiced in northern India.It is characterized by rhythmic footwork, under the weight of hundreds of ankle bells, spectacular spins, and the dramatic representation of themes from Persian and Urdu poetry alongside those of Hindu mythology. Kathak arose from the fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures that took place during the Mughal period (1526-1761). More than any other South Asian dance form, Kathak expresses the aesthetic principles of Islamic culture. The influence of Kathak is also visible in the Spanish flamenco tradition.

The word Kathak means "to tell a story". It may be traced back to the dance dramas of ancient India. Kathak is believed to have originated in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. It was originally performed by a community of people called Kathakaras or story-tellers.

The nomadic bards of northern India in bygone eras, frequently performed in village squares and temple courtyards, mainly recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures and the epics, they would embellished their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was quintessential theatre, using instrumental and vocal music along with stylized gestures, to enliven the stories.

Though originally inspired by religion, the Mughal courts and the Rajput rulers in northern India greatly influenced the development of this majestic art form. A shift from religious commitment to entertainment became predominant in the courts. The rhythmical patterning and embodiment of romantic poetry were given prominence to please the kings and the nobility. Kathak was transformed into a sophisticated chamber art during this period. Professional dancers of Kathak worked at refining its dramatic and rhythmic aspects, regaling their elite, esoteric audiences with their mastery over rhythm and highly stylized mime.

During this time, there emerged three different schools (gharanas) of Kathak, each named after the geographical area of its development. These schools, flourishing even today, are the Jaipur, Lucknow, and the Benares gharanas, each depicting a slight difference in terms of interpretation, repertoire and costumes.

Kathak - from the temples
to the royal courts...
Basic features

The dance usually commence after an invocation to Lord Ganesha (Ganesha Vandana). A dance piece contains the following elements: Thata, the opening sequence, Amad which corresponds to the Alarippu in Bharata Natyam, Paran which is considered the piece de resistance of the dance and finally the Tarana which corresponds to the Tillana of Bharata Natyam.

A notable feature of Kathak is the intricate footwork and the highlight of the dance is the Tahai, a spinning at great speed while rooted in one spot. Unlike Bharata Natyam, which is a bastion of the female, Kathak is performed by both men and women.

The main instruments used with Kathak dance are the tabla (two-drum ensemble), pakahawaj (an ancient barrel shaped drum with two playing heads. It is essentially a north Indian version of the mridangam), sarangi (a stringed instrument played with a bow), flute, and sometimes violin and sitar. The music compositions are based on lyrics such as Thumri, Dadra, Ghazal among others.

Kathak as it is practiced today is characterized by fast rhythmic and brilliant footwork set to complex time cycles.The dance movements include numerous pirouettes executed at lightning speed and ending in statuesque poses. The interpretative portion, based on tales of Radha and Krishna and other mythological lore, contains subtle gestures and facial expressions.

Like other classical dances Kathak too is based on Nritta and Nrittya. Nritta means pure dance without any meaning. It focuses on a tremendous sense of rhythm and joy of movement. The beauty of nritta in Kathak lies in the exact rendering of the rhythmic patterns, made audible by musical accompaniment and the dancer's intricate footwork. The spectators can only marvel when from a crescendo, the dancer restricts his/her movements to emit the solitary tinkle of just one bell - among hundreds of bells in the ghungroos fastened to his /her anklets.

Nrittya emphasises Abhinaya, communication of the meaning and emotion of a story or a song, through facial expression, gestures of the hands and symbolic postures of the body.

In Kathak, the lack of rigidity allows an artist to use a variety of free movements, thus leaving interpretation of the poem or story to his/her power of rhythmical improvisation, imagination and creativity.

Costumes and ornaments

Kathak originated in the Hindu temples and is inextricably linked with the Hindu legends mythology and scriptures. Hence the dancers’ costumes according to the Benaras and Jaipur gharanas which strictly adhere to the temple culture and traditions comprise a ghaghra/lehnga-blouse-dupatta ensemble. Irrespective of the schools, the blouses/shirts are invariably full-sleeved. The dupatta is draped over and tied across the breasts and the waist.

With the advent of Mughal rule, the costumes acquired certain Islamic touches and characteristics. Accordingly, even today, the female dancers wear a flared knee length dress over a churidar, with a dupatta thoroughly draping the head and shoulders. Many a times they don a cap along with the dupatta. Like other dance forms, Kathak dancers wear a lot of chunky jewelers including dozens of necklaces and chains.



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