Kathak dance, one of the seven classical dances of India, hails from the northern part of the country, and is the only one of the seven to blend both Hindu and Muslim aesthetics. It is a storytelling art form dating back over a thousand years. The name comes from the word “kathaka,” storyteller. Kathakas were wandering minstrels who danced the stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses in village after village. Then a temple-based, devotional dance, kathak went on to be incorporated into the Muslim courts of the Moghul Empire as a courtesan art, where it was heavily influenced by Persian traditions. The establishment of the British Raj in the 1800s drove kathak, proclaimed “immoral” by the colonists, underground, where it survived primarily in the Red Light districts of major cities such as Calcutta. It re-emerged in the 1920s and 1930s during the national movement to revive Indian arts, and now is a well-recognized dance form practiced on stages around the world.
Kathak today is a highly sophisticated art characterized by intricate footwork, expressive movement of the hands and face, rhythmic intensity, swift turns and elegant stances. Wearing rows of small, brass bells on each ankle, the dancer alternates between recitation, footwork, fixed compositions, improvisation and story telling. During a performance, the dancer also engages in playful, spontaneous interchange with the musicians. The exchanges are intensified as the artists challenge each other through their individual mastery while simultaneously building towards a culminating crescendo of dance, drum and music.
Some kathak video links:
An example of kathak in film (Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players)
Choreography and performance, Chitresh Das Dance Company
India Jazz Suites (Collaboration of Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith)
Portion of a kathak solo by Pandit Birju Maharaj
Saswati Sen, disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, storytelling
Charlotte Moraga, disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das