Kathak, “The Story Teller”
I will let you all in a secret at the very onset. My knowledge of dance forms is limited to only Bollywood dances and songs, extended generously to just being acquainted with the names of some of the hugely popular dancers. I have heard of Shambhu Maharaj, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Sitara Devi and, of course, Madhuri Dixit. So when I decided to write about Kathak, a popular and renowned form of Indian Dance Form, I was as you would understand, wondering to myself how I would be able to fill the pages.
That is when I switched on my phone and started watching a Kathak dance performance. My head automatically oscillated in slight swings, my feet found rhythm unknown to my mind and my smile widened almost involuntarily as I watched her elegantly outstretch her hands and lift her face to the sky. Yes, Kathak is undoubtedly one of those dance forms where grace combines with expressions and both seamlessly blend into each other to tell you a story in a way never heard or seen before.
The ‘Kathakars’ or storytellers, of northern India, were a group of artists, who through music, dance and mime told religious stories of Rama and Krishna. Under the patronage of the temples, especially during the Bhakti period in the 14th century, the Kathakars flourished. Stories from the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana were told through this fascinating medium of art. One of the most popular expressions of the kathakars during this time was Raslila. The story of Krishna and his many devotees’ love was depicted with mime, music and of course dance.
However, with the coming of Mughals in India, the dance form of Kathak changed and added many new nuances to suit the royal court. It now became an art that was for entertainment and presentation for the Muslim and Hindu kings. Under the influence of the durbar (royal court), more emphasis was laid on expressions and sensuousness.
One of the most important patrons of Kathak, is Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh. Under his rule, Kathak grew tremendously into a stylized form of dance. The development of dance under him gave rise to a new school or Gharana for Kathak, called the Lucknow Gharana. There was more weight given to bhavas or expressions. When miming a story to music, expressions have to play a key role. The dancer narrates a story without actually speaking at all. The eyes, head and hand movements and emotions on their faces are key to perfect story telling. The Lucknow Gharana stresses more on the manifestation of emotions.
Where Wajid Ali Shah was a main proponent of the Lucknow Gharana, the kings of Jaipur and Rajasthan laid more importance on pure dance, thus, initiating the Jaipur Gharana. Since Kathak is story telling through dance, the Jaipur gharana gives importance to dance moves and skills, called nritya.
A single story can have many interpretations. In Kathak, dancers are given the liberty to interpret lines and express accordingly. Sometimes, a single line in the bhajan or thumri can be expressed in multiple ways. The most famous dancers of our times are renowned for the way their facial and hand movements can arise emotions and understanding of lines from songs in myriad ways.
The emotions of love, heartbreak and passion are stories that are sung as bhajans or thumris and enacted through dance as Kathak.
I watch the Kathak dancers elucidating these stories as the tabla beats in rhythm with the tapping of the ghungru and the paran (composition) interlacing with perfect timing. I gape at the graceful choreography and feel the same emotions of the dancer, till I finally hold my breath for the ‘sam’, the conclusion.
In every dance, there is a story to be told and in every story there is dance.