What Is Kathak?

KATHAK is the classical dance of Northern India. Its name derives from the Sanskrit word kathaka, storyteller. Long before Kathak was recognized as a classical dance form, these storytelling kathakas were integral players in the Indian oral tradition. They transmitted knowledge of religious epics and mythology — such as the MAHABHARATA and the RAMAYANA — by a combination of music, dance, acting and narration.Bhakti — devotion — was the principal emotion that the kathakas tried to evoke in their audience.

Rooted in the Hindu ethos common to all styles of Indian dance, Kathak developed into its present, distinct classical form in the Moghul and Rajput courts. Beginning in the Eighth Century, growing numbers of Muslim traders, adventurers, soldiers and rulers from Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan brought their own music, dance and costume styles to India. These influenced the performance practices of indigenous dancers and musicians, who sought patronage in Muslim courts. Meanwhile, Hindu Rajput rulers of Rajasthan also brought temple music and dance into their courts, modifying simple Hindu storytelling styles to reflect court entertainment etiquette, and contributing to the secularization and decoration of Kathak dance.

Modern Kathak descends from two great eighteenth-century Kathak dancers, Thakur Prasad of Lucknow and Janaki Prasad of Jaipur. Two of the major Kathak sytles are named after the geographical locus of the homes (ghar) of these great guru’s: the Lucknow gharana and the Jaipur gharana. Each generation of Kathak dancers identifies himself/herself as “from the house of” his/her guru. It is as if becoming a student of a particular guru from a particular lineage gives second birth to the fledgling dancer, and from thenceforth, all the students of a particular guru are brothers and sisters — guru bhai and guru behen — no matter from what blood line or ethnicity or country they originally were born.

The narrative and poetic repertoire of Kathak continues to expand into the twenty-first century, including epics, devotional, romantic and mystical poetry in all the major languages of North India. Poetry written in Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi and its dialects such as medieval Braj Bhasha and Avadhi reflects the mixed Hindu and Muslim roots of Kathak. The North Indian Hindustani style of classical music accompanies the dance, played by a musical ensemble that can include tabla and pakhawaj drums, sarangisitarsarod, bamboo bansuriflute and vocalists.

Combining the spiritual fervor of the Hindu temple with opulent entertainment from the Moghul and Rajput courts, the Kathak dance tradition in the Twenty-first Century continues to evolve throught the art of Kathak dancers in India and throughout the world. Enriched by contemporary literature, music and performance practice, Kathak responds to an increasingly global culture.