Shila Mehta performing kathak



“Kathaa kahe so Kathak” ('That which tells a story, that is Kathak')

Kathak is one of the nine forms of Indian classical dance, originated from Northern India and areas which are now part of Pakistan. The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit wordkatha meaning story.  This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as 'Kathakaar', or storytellers. These bards, performing in village squares and temple courtyards, mostly specialized in recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures, and 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. Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances. From the 16th century onwards it absorbed certain features of Persian dance and Central Asian dance which were imported by the royal courts of the Mughals. The Mughal rulers brought this dance style to their courts which enforced the competition between dancers. This resulted in developing complex rhythmical patterns and turns.

There are three major schools (gharanas) of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage: the Jaipur Gharana, the Lucknow Gharana and the Benares Gharana. There is also a less prominent (and later) Raigarh Gharana which amalgamated technique from all three preceding gharanas but became famous for its own distinctive compositions. Kathak can be divided in two subcategories: Nṛtta and Nṛtya.

The Pure Dance (Nṛtta)

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 danced composition is known as a tukra, a longer one as a toda. 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' (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).
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.

The Expressive Dance (Nṛtya)

Aside from the traditional expressive or abhinaya pieces performed to light Classical music, 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 ('court') environment, because of the proximity of the performer to the audience, who can more easily see the nuances of the dancer's facial expression. A thumri (semi-classical Indian song) 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.