Improvisation plays a central role in the art of Kathak, especially in Kathak’s storytelling aspects. The Kathak artist captures the fleeting nature of a story’s emotional development only when responding in the moment of performance to mental images, bringing them “from inside out” through facial expressions and body gestures.
One of the most challenging styles of improvisation is baithak, when the performer sits, listens to the words of a poem, and responds with torso, arms and face. No fancy footwork or choreographic patterns distract from the concentration on the inner life of the character. As the same line repeats multiple times, the dancer progresses from a depiction of the meaning of each single word (bol batana), to the creation of a physical scenario and emotional landscape (bhav batana).
Ghire ghire aye badare…a thumri written by the Lucknow’s style’s greatest poet, Bindadin Maharaj, provides an ideal vehicle for a baithak performance. The simple description of a stormy night suggests an extended emotional scenario. Swirling black clouds encompass the sky with heavy rain clouds, mirroring the inner turmoil and oppressive loneliness caused by the absence of the heroine’s beloved. The fleeting thoughts and emotions of a woman in love — lonely … fearful … hopeful … joyful — are reflected in her every gesture and expression. Lonely because her bed is empty, fearful that she has been abandoned, hopeful as she imagines the sound of approaching footsteps, joyful at the promise of love’s union – the heroine experiences a lifetime of complex emotions within the circumscribed limits of four lines of poetry.
bhav – being, existence; natural state, character or quality; disposition, temperament; way, manner; intention, purpose; meaning, purport; emotion, feeling; outward indication of emotion or meaning; expression; gesticulation.
batana – to inform; to state, to tell; to describe; to point out, to explain; to show; to indicate by gestures.
Clouds are gathering…lashing, rumbling, raining….
Dense black clouds surrounding….
My bed is empty, my heart frightened….
Binda, my body trembles…,