I’ll be honest, I’ve been looking forward to writing this ever since I found out the themes because I myself am an Indian classical dancer. I hope this counts as a valid creation for Hub Asia Week! In this this piece, I’ll introduce the form of Indian classical dance which I do: Kathak. It is one of the eight major forms of Indian Classical dance and is found in North India.
The History of Kathak
The origin of Kathak can be found in the name itself. Kathak derives from the word katha, or story. The very first Kathak dancers were storytellers known as kathakars, who traveled throughout North India. Its earliest mention in literature, in the Natya Shastra, dated to 200 BCE. It developed largely within the Hindu temples. During this time period, Kathak was mostly spiritual and dance was considered a way to worship the gods. This changed when the Mughals, who were Muslim, took over much of India and welcomed the dance as entertainment. In order to please their new masters, dancers added an almost erotic side to their dance while trying to keep the Hindu myths alive. They also made use of the technical aspects of dance such as spins and footwork. The costumes changed as well, with a significant Persian and central Asian influence. During the British Raj, Kathak dancers were often ridiculed. It was wrongly thought of as a base for prostitution. Most Hindu families continued to keep the art alive despite backlash. They also began to train boys more than girls due to the ridicule faced by female dancers. After independence, a movement to reclaim the Indian culture saw a revival of Kathak. The dance continues to grow and develop through both Hindu and Muslim gharanas (styles). Today Kathak is taught all over the world, and both boys and girls are taught.
The three main gharanas of Kathak are Jaipur, Benares, and Lucknow. The Jaipur style favors strong, intricate rhythms and footwork, while the Lucknow style is more expressive and focuses on telling a story. The Benares style, which is supposed to be the oldest style, focuses on the spiritual side of dance.
Aspects of Kathak: Vandana
The three main aspects of Kathak are all represented in a traditional performance. Every performance begins with a vandana, or invocation. The purpose of this part is to offer respect towards the dancer’s guru and the musicians. In Hindu performances, we often dance on prayers and invoke a particular god using hand movements and facian expressions. In Muslim performances, the dancer replaces the invocation with a salami, or salutation.
Aspects of Kathak: Nritta
Nritta is the pure dance, the technical performance. Emphasis is placed on the beauty of the motions, speed, and form. We begin at the slowest speed with a thath, moving only wrists, the neck, and eyebrows. Then we move faster and faster, dancing technical pieces which stress footwork, spins, and hand movements. This section is not danced on a song or prayer, but on a cycle of rhythms called taal. Each piece is perfectly timed to stay on beat and ends on the first beat of the cycle. The beginning speed is the slowest and hardest to master (vilambit), the middle speed is the basic speed beginners learn on (madhya), and the fastest speed is the most energetic (dhruth). It is during the Dhruth Laya that the ghungroos, or bells which adorn the ankles, really amplify the energy of the piece.
Aspects of Kathak: Nritya
Nritya is the slower and expressive part of Kathak. Here is where the origins of the word lie. We tell stories through the movements of our hands and feet and our facial expressions. This section is very free and improvisation is encouraged. The dance expands to include the song which is being danced upon and the dancer aims to impact the audience directly through the dance. Sometimes the dancer will show the gait of a character, which is called gat. Other times, they will dance on a song and act out the story being sung, called abhinaya. There are four factors which directly affect abhinaya, which are vachik (the song, recitation, and rhythm), agnik (the movements of the dancer), aharya (the costume, jewelery, and makeup), and satvik (the dancer’s ability to emotionally connect with the audience).
Comparable Dance Forms
One dance form comparable to Kathak in its influence and scope is Bharatnatyam, the most famous dance of south India. This dance form, while less fluid, has a distinctive extroverted type of expression compared to Kathak’s more subtle ways. Many people confuse Kathak with Kathakali. Kathakali is from the southern state of Kerala and while the names may seem similar, the dance technique could not be more different. However, both forms utilize expression and song in order to tell ancient stories through dance. As for foreign dances, I believe that Flamenco from Spain and Kathak are quite similar when it comes to rhythm and visuals.
If you would like to watch a little bit of Kathak, ignore anything that has to do with Bollywood movies and look for stage performances done by professional dancers. This may sound strange, but the older the dancer, the better. I recommend watching a piece by Pandit Birju Maharaj, a famous dancer from the Lucknow gharana and my teacher’s teacher.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to add relevant information, ask questions, and suggest future posts.
How beautifully these pictures capture the stark contrast between the femininity of the dance and the masculinity of the bare room. It’s as if the dancers are dancing for the room. It’s like Parvati dancing for Shiva. Almost seductive.
(Kalakshetra Dance School, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)
Eminent Indian Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi Dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy - 1964.
Yamini Krishnamurthy debuted in 1957 in Madras. She has the honor of being Asthana Nartaki (resident dancer) of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam. Some critics have observed that Yamini’s dancing reflects rhythm personified. She has a leading place as an exponent of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. She imparts dance lessons to younger dancers at her institute, Yamini School of Dance, Hauz Khas, New Delhi.
Boy, it’s been quite the month for me, from the paxplosion of kaladesh through the actual release of the set this week, and quite the emotional roller coaster. Tides of support matched by tides of hate, lots of questions, comments, and reconsidered positions on where i stand with the set and the game as a whole.
Among the many comments my essay got, one particularly stood out to me. This person, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, said “Kaladesh doesn’t take place in India, it takes place in Silicon Valley”.
When I first read this, I laughed out loud, because I live in Silicon Valley, and the idea was completely hilarious. And then I stopped laughing, because I realized that it was true. Kaladesh really is my culture after all.
A couple days ago, my sister and I were all dressed up in this really beautiful anarkali. We looked HELLA good. We were on our way to an arangetrum which is like this graduation type thing for bharatnatyam (a tradition Indian dance).
We got to the town earlier than we expected to so we thought we’d go to the mall and take a look around. When we were walking into the mall we could see people starting at us and this group of guys laughed at us. In the mall when we walked store to store I could feel people’s eyes on us and judging us because of how we were dressed.
I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that wearing my own traditional cultural clothes out in public was such a bad thing! I never really cared if white people did henna or wore bindis, but now I do. People can wear bindis and tattoos their hands and go out in public because it’s fashion (the new trend), but I get judged for wearing my own clothes! I’m sorry America doesn’t really have a unique culture anymore or your own traditional clothes, but that does not mean I should be judged for wearing mine. No one should be judged for what they wear whether it is just your style or your tradition cultural clothes!
[Padmini] is thrilled with her new job - not only because she is on air at prime time, but also because it is making a world of difference to her and her community.
“I am so happy. The message has gone all over India and the internet,” she says. […]
According to one estimate, India has about two million transgender people and most live on the fringes of society, often in poverty, ostracised because of their gender. […]
Disowned by her family when she was 13, she left home and attempted suicide, but was saved by some people.
“After leaving home, I travelled all over. I enrolled into an undergraduate programme in commerce through distance education, but I had financial problems so I dropped out after two years,” she says.
But, she was not disillusioned. “I learnt Bharatnatyam [classical Indian dance form]. I took part in transgender beauty contests and won them. I then acted in a television serial.” […]
Akkai Padmashali of Sangama, a group fighting for the rights of sexual minorities in the southern city of Bangalore says: “It’s a good move. For the first time, there is an effort to bring transgenders into the mainstream. There are very few right now in mainstream professions.”