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Roots of kathak dance


A court or temple dance?

Why is the kathak dance, despite the fact that it comes from royal courts, considered a religious dance? Where did the tradition of dancing mythological stories come from?

That is, the history of the kathak dance, the kind that is passed on to adepts of this art (non-Indologues or researchers). What I learned from the kathak dance theory lessons taught by the then director of the Kathak Kendra Institute in New Delhi – Dr. Chetna Joshi

Kathakkas- a community of musicians and dancers.


Kathak – literally means „to tell”, kathakkas – musicians and dancers from generation to generation, dealing with arts and crafts – formed a community that popularized mythological stories of hinduism.

Foundation myth

In Sanskrit, the word kathak is synonymous with Kaushilav. It is believed that the hermit Valmiki wrote the Ramayana and taught Lava and Kusha, the sons of Rama, to her musical narrative. They first introduced Ramayana at the court of King Rama. From them, those who adapted the tradition of storytelling of Ramayana with gestures and music were given the name Kushilavas, and then Kathakkas. Traditions referenced in the theme of kathak dance.

Bhakti movement – promoting the worship of god Vishnu and Krishna

The beginning of the kathak dance (or more precisely – dances characterized by certain common features, which at the end of the nineteenth century was classified as one style and was given the name – Kathak) is believed to refer to the Vaishnavita movement – followers of Vishnu and his avatar – Krishna, in the period of Bhakti – i.e. a time especially focused on devotion.

The cult of the god Vishnu developed in southern India as early as the 6th-7th centuries.

Vaishnavis – itinerant poets, praised god and passed on mythological stories through singing and dancing, performed to the words of poetry. The Bhakti movement reached the north of India in the 12th century and especially flourished at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. To this day, the most appreciated are the philosopher and thinker and the ascetic Vallabchacharya, the founder of Pushto Marg and many spiritual centers where the followers of Krishna, poets offered their work as a gift to their beloved deity. To this day, we know the names of 8 poets associated with him: the so-called ashtachaap: Kumban, Sur, Krishna, Paramanand, Govind, Chtswami, Chaturbhuj and Nand with the same surname-Das. To this day, the repertoire of kathak dance includes compositions based on their poetry, such as „paad”, which lovingly describes little Krishna, or the song collection „Sursagar” (Sur Dasa) – „sea of ​​melodies”. Created in one of the Hindi dialects – Brij bhasha, which helped popularize poetry among a wider audience.

Then, in the 16th century, the poet Tulsidas was created, who, among other things, translated Ramayana into a dialect, and created compositions still presented by kathaku dancers. Tulsidas also believed that being freed from the wheel of birth and death through faith is possible for everyone, so it is important to spread the faith in a way that is accessible and understandable to everyone.

Raas Lila – Kryshna’s mystical dance with the gopis

Another tradition very closely related to the repertoire of kathak dance developed in the 15th century, namely – Raas Lila.

Raas Lila takes place one night when the Vrindavan gophers, hearing the sound of Krishna’s flute, sneak out of their homes and families to dance together with Krishna. There is one Krishna, the gopis, they surround him in a circle in a dance procession, but to each of them it seems that Krishna is only dancing with her.

According to the faith professing Krishna, this is one of the most esoteric ideas. Romantic love between people in the material world is seen as an illusory reflection of the pattern of the soul striving for union with the higher self. Gopis – shepherds are understood as many shadows of oneself, each of which strives to unite with the pre-matter or universal love that is symbolized by Krishna.

The performances of Rasa Lila were initiated by Swami Uddavaghamanda Devacharya in the 15th century in Vrindavan so that people could better understand the meaning of the written text. The music was Dhrupad style with sitar and pakhavaj accompanying the songs, and the language was still Brah bhasha, a Hindi derivative. To this day, you can see Rasa lila on the stages and to this day they are accompanied by these instruments to the kathak dance. Some researchers believe that Raas lila, although it was a folk dance, is the root of the modern kathak dance. Raas Lila was embedded in tintaali (16-bit melody) or japtala (10-bit), some of the performances contained rhythmic forms such as tora, tukra, paran or tihai. Some believe that Raas lila is derived from Halaali saal, the dance of the god Krishna on the head of the defeated serpent Kaliya, even believing that the syllables (bol) recited and played with the feet by kathak dancers come directly from the sounds made by Krishna’s feet when dancing on snake’s head.

Mughal era

During the reign of Muslim rulers, i.e. in the Mughal era (from 1526 to 1885), artists closely related to the temple worship sought patronage from the Hindu rulers of Rajasthan, others joined the courts of new Muslim rulers, and the others tried to remain only in their tradition.

It should be emphasized that only the first two rulers had roots in Central Asia. The remainder of the Mughal dynasty were already descendants of the Rajputs and Persians. So it was the Indo-Persian culture and so is the kathak dance, which, in the form closest to what we see today, developed only at the courts.

During the fall of the courts and the seizure of power by the English, the situation of artists suddenly changed, especially women. Dancing began to be associated with prostitution and girls from good homes were banned. Hence the tradition of, for example, Tawaif and the so-called nautch girls practically disappeared or was very disgraced. However, little is said about women.

The history that is taught up to the mid-20th century deals mainly with the male line.

Umrao Jaan – court courtesans

Umrao Jaan – this is a romantic example of what the art of women called tawaif looked like – court courtesans with a very high status, who often chose their own patrons – patrons, learned from them sensitivity to beauty, art, music and dance, the future rulers, some tawaif remained even the wives of magnates.

They were educated women, able to talk about art and politics, proficient in mathematics, having philosophical disputes, and their dance and singing were intended to provide sublime entertainment for a high-ranking audience, sometimes it went beyond the official sphere, but sex was not part of the meeting contract from Tawaif. It was only during the fall of Muslim courts that the tawaif lost their positions and patrons, and their art began to be associated with prostitution, which made the name of dance very slandered. The Tawaif were not devadasi. Probably their dance was the closest to the present kathak. And they are the protagonists of many Bollywood productions.

Nautch girls

There were also the so-called nautch girls and boys dressed as women, that is, groups that dance whenever possible. Their tradition is just as old but disgraced. Hence the situation of female dancers at the beginning of the 20th century was terrible. Brahmins from good houses who wanted to dance were often excluded from the „self-respecting” community. From here until mid. In the twentieth century, the history of kathaku as a „high” dance is basically a history of only men …

Change in public opinion

Just once artists such as Rukmini Devi, Sitara Devi, Uday Shankar, under the influence of the European ballerina Anna Pavlova, turned to national roots and dances and fought to raise the importance of traditional dances performed also by women to the name of art. And they could only do it through religion. That is, to transform and select the repertoire so that it would reach the ideals of the high classes of brahmanas. Hence, until today, before the dance recital, oil lamps are lit, distinguished guests of honor are invited and the morale of dance students is high.

Kathak today

Nowadays, kathak is developing and changing all the time. Kumudini Lakhia, the founder of the Kadamb Institute in Ahmedabad, initiated the „contemporary” trend, in which the emphasis is on the individual style of the dancer, not to copy one’s master, but to look for one’s own way. Kathak started looking for the meaning of concepts such as infinity, space, time, instead of just literally, and therefore dogestly „telling about mythology. A deeper search for the roots of kathaku, beyond India, also focused on Sufi practices and kathak often reaches for philosophical texts and topics.

ikona Zweryfikowane przez społeczność
Aditi Mangaldas – Drishtikon Dance Foundation
Kadamb – Institute by Kumudini Lakhia
Aakash Odedra – Rising

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