Kathak Classical Dance

Kathak is one of the eight forms of Indian classical dance. The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories. This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakars or storytellers. Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances, and the influence of the bhakti movement.

Pure Dance (Nritta)

The structure of a conventional Kathak performance tends to follow a progression in tempo from slow to fast, ending with a dramatic climax. A short dance composition is known as a tukra, a longer one as atoda. There are also compositions consisting solely of footwork. Often the performer will engage in rhythmic play with the time-cycle, for example splitting it into triplets or quintuplets which will be marked out on the footwork, so that it is in counterpoint to the rhythm on the percussion.

All compositions are performed so that the final step and beat of the composition lands on the 'sam' (pronounced as the English word 'sum' and meaning even or equal, archaically meaning nil) or first beat of the time-cycle. Most compositions also have 'bols' (rhythmic words) which serve both as mnemonics to the composition and whose recitation also forms an integral part of the performance. This recitation is known as padhant. Some compositions are aurally very interesting when presented this way. The bols can be borrowed from tabla (e.g. dha, ge, na, 'ti' 'na' 'ka' 'dhi na') or can be a dance variety (ta, thei, tat, ta ta, tigda, digdig, tram theyi and so on).

Often tukras are composed to highlight specific aspects of the dance, for example gait, or use of corners and diagonals, and so on. A popular tukra type is the chakkarwala tukra, showcasing the signature spins of Kathak. Because they are generally executed on the heel, these differ from ballet's pirouettes (which are properly executed on the toe or ball of the foot). The spins usually manifest themselves at the end of the tukra, often in large numbers: five, nine, fifteen, or more, sequential spins are common. These tukras are popular with audiences because they are visually exciting and are executed at great speed. Other compositions can be further particularised as follows:

Music to Kathak is normally provided by tabla and sitar players

  • Vandana, the dancer begins with an invocation to the gods.
  • Thaat, the first composition of a traditional performance; the dancer performs short plays with the time-cycle, finishing on sam in a statuesque standing (thaat) pose.
  • Aamad, from the Persian word meaning 'entry'; the first introduction of spoken rhythmic pattern or bol into the performance.
  • Salaami, related to Ar. 'salaam' - a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style.
  • Kavitt, a poem set on a time-cycle; the dancer will perform movements that echo the meaning of the poem.
  • Paran, a composition using bols from the pakhawaj instead of only dance or tabla bols.
  • Parmelu or Primalu, a composition using bols reminiscent of sounds from nature, such as kukuthere (birds), jhijhikita (sound of ghunghru), tigdadigdig (strut of peacock) etc.
  • Gat, from the word for 'gait' (walk) showing abstract visually beautiful gaits or scenes from daily life.
  • Lari, a footwork composition consisting of variations on a theme, and ending in a Tihai.
  • Tihai, usually a footwork composition consisting of a long set of bols repeated thrice so that the very last bol ends dramatically on 'sam'.

Expressive Dance (Nritya)

Aside from the traditional expressive or abhinaya pieces performed to a bhajan, ghazal or thumri, Kathak also possesses a particular performance style of expressional pieces called bhaav bataanaa (lit. 'to show bhaav or 'feeling'). It is a mode where abhinaya dominates, and arose in the Mughal court. It is more suited to the mehfil or the darbar environment, because of the proximity of the performer to the audience, who can more easily see the nuances of the dancer's facial expression. Consequently, it translates to the modern proscenium stage with difficulty. Athumri is sung, and once the mood is set, a line from the thumri is interpreted with facial abhinaya and hand movements while seated. This continues for an indefinite period, limited only by the dancer's interpretative abilities. Shambhu Maharaj was known to interpret a single line in many different ways for hours but all the Maharaj family (Acchan Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Achhan Maharaj's son Birju Maharaj) have found much fame for the naturalness and innovativeness of their abhinaya.