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See Kāṭhaka for the Vedic school.
Kathak 3511900193 986f6440f6 b retouched

Dancer performing the chakkarwala tukra, one of the popular highlights of Kathak

Sharmila Sharma et Rajendra Kumar Gangani 2

Kathak performance by Sharmila Sharma and Rajendra Kumar Gangani at the Guimet Museum (November 2007)

Kathak (Hindi: कथक, Urdu: کتھک) is one of the eight forms of Indian classical dances, originated from northern India. This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathaks, or storytellers. These bards, performing in village squares and temple courtyards, mostly specialized in recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures, and embellished their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was quintessential theatre, using instrumental and vocal music along with stylized gestures, to enliven the stories. Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances, and the influence of the bhakti movement. From the 16th century onwards it absorbed certain features of Persian dance and Central Asian dance which were imported by the royal courts of the Mughal era.

There are three major schools or gharanas of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage: the gharanas of Jaipur, Lucknow and Banaras (born in the courts of the Kachwaha Rajput kings, the Nawab of Oudh, and Varanasi respectively); there is also a less prominent (and later) Raigarh gharana which amalgamated technique from all three preceding gharanas but became famous for its own distinctive compositions.

The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means s/he who tells a story, or to do with stories. The name of the form is properly कत्थक katthak, with the geminated dental to show a derived form, but this has since simplified to modern-day कथक kathak. kathaa kahe so kathak is a saying many teachers pass on to their pupils, which is generally translated, 's/he who tells a story, is a kathak', but which can also be translated, 'that which tells a story, that is Kathak'.


Pure Dance (Nritta)

The structure of a conventional Kathak performance tends to follow a progression in tempo from slow to fast, ending with a dramatic climax. A short danced composition is known as a tukra, a longer one as a toda. There are also compositions consisting solely of footwork. Often the performer will engage in rhythmic 'play' with the time-cycle, splitting it into triplets or quintuplets for example, which will be marked out on the footwork, so that it is in counterpoint to the rhythm on the percussion.

All compositions are performed so that the final step and beat of the composition lands on the 'sam' or first beat of the time-cycle. Most compositions also have 'bols' (rhythmic words) which serve both as mnemonics to the composition and whose recitation also forms an integral part of the performance. This recitation is known as padhant. Some compositions are aurally very interesting when presented this way. The bols can be borrowed from tabla (e.g. dha, ge, na, tirakiTa) or can be a dance variety (ta, thei, tat, ta ta, tigda, digdig and so on).

Often tukras are composed to highlight specific aspects of the dance, for example gait, or use of corners and diagonals, and so on. A popular tukra type is the chakkarwala tukra, showcasing the signature spins of Kathak. Because they are generally executed on the heel, these differ from ballet's pirouettes (which are properly executed on the toe or ball of the foot). The spins usually manifest themselves at the end of the tukra, often in large numbers: five, nine, fifteen, or more, sequential spins are common. These tukras are popular with audiences because they are visually exciting and are executed at great speed. Other compositions can be further particularised as follows:

Kathak 3394879526 09db68a66e o

Music to Kathak is normally provided by tabla and sitar players

  1. Vandana the dancer begins with an invocation to the gods.
  2. Thaat (the first composition of a traditional performance; the dancer performs short plays with the time-cycle, finishing on sam in a statuesque standing (thaat) pose);
  3. Aamad (from the Persian word meaning 'entry'; the first introduction of spoken rhythmic pattern or bol in to the performance);
  4. Salaami (related to Ar. 'salaam' - a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style);
  5. Kavit (a poem set on a time-cycle; the dancer will perform movements that echo the meaning of the poem)
  6. Paran (a composition using bols from the pakhawaj instead of only dance or tabla bols)
  7. Parmelu or Primalu (a composition using bols reminiscent of sounds from nature, such as kukuthere (birds), jhijhikita (sound of ghunghru), tigdadigdig (strut of peacock) etc.
  8. Gat (from the word for 'gait, walk' showing abstract visually beautiful gaits or scenes from daily life)
  9. Ladi (a footwork composition consisting of variations on a theme, and ending in a tihai)
  10. Tihai (usually a footwork composition consisting of a long set of bols repeated thrice so that the very last bol ends dramatically on 'sam')

Expressive Dance (Nritya)

Aside from the traditional expressive or abhinaya pieces performed to a bhajan, ghazal or thumri, Kathak also possesses a particular performance style of expressional pieces called bhaav bataanaa (lit. 'to show bhaav or 'feeling'). It is a mode where abhinaya dominates, and arose in the Mughal court. It is more suited to the mehfil or the darbar environment, because of the proximity of the performer to the audience, who can more easily see the nuances of the dancer's facial expression. Consequently, it translates to the modern proscenium stage with difficulty. A thumri is sung, and once the mood is set, a line from the thumri is interpreted with facial abhinaya and hand movements while seated. This continues for an indefinite period, limited only by the dancer's interpretative abilities. Shambhu Maharaj was known to interpret a single line in many many different ways for hours.

History of Kathak

The story of Kathak begins in ancient times with the performances of professional story-tellers called kathakas who recited or sang stories from epics and mythology with some elements of dance. The traditions of the kathakas were hereditary, and dances passed from generation to generation. There are literary references from the third and fourth centuries BC which refer to these kathakas. The two texts are in the archives of Kameshwar Library at Mithila.

An extract runs as follows:

maggasirasuddhapakkhe nakkhhate varanaseeye nayareeye uttarpuratthime diseebhage gangaye mahanadeeye tate savvokathako bhingarnatenam teese stuti kayam yehi raya adinaho bhavenam passayi (Prakrit text, 4th century BC).
in the month of magha, in the shukla-paksha nakshatra, to the north west of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, the shringar dance of the kathaks in praise of God pleased Lord Adinatha.

A 3rd century BC Sanskrit shloka (Mithila, late Mauryan period):

...anahat...nrityadharmam kathakacha devalokam...
...sound...and the Kathaks whose duty is dance for the divine peoples

There are also two verses from the Mahabharata which also refer to Kathaks:

Kathakscapare rajan sravanasca vanaukasahadivyakhyanani ye ca'pi pathanti madhuram dvijaha
(Mahabharata, verse 1.206.2-4, Adiparva)
With the king on the way to the forest were the Kathakas pleasing to the eyes and ears as they sang and narrated sweetly.

Shovana Narayan

Noted Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan, recipient of the Padma Shri

Shovana Narayan notes: 'Here the emphasis on ‘pleasing to the eyes’ is indication of the performing aspect of the Kathakas.' The other verse is in the Anusasanika Parva. In the post-Christian era, there is also reference to Kathak in the Harsha-charita of Bana.

By the 13th century a definite style had emerged and soon technical features like mnemonic syllables and bol developed. In the 15th-16th century at the time the Bhakti movement, Rasalilas had a tremendous impact on Kathak. The form of dance even made its way to the Kathavachakas who performed in temples.

Change in the Bhakti Era

During the era of fervent worship of Radha-Krishna, Kathak was used to narrate tales from the lives of these figures. Popular performances included Sri Krishna’s exploits in the holy land of Vrindavan, and tales of Krishna-Leela (Krishna’s childhood). It was in this time, the dance moved away from the spirituality of the temple and began to be influenced by folk elements.

In the Mughal Period

It was when the dance reached the Mughal court after the 16th century that Kathak began to acquire its distinctive shape and features. Here it encountered other different forms of dance and music, most especially dancers from Persia. Dancers were enticed from the temples to the courts by gifts of gold, jewels and royal favour. Patronage soared as a social class of dancers and courtiers emerged in the royal palaces, where dance competitions were held frequently. The environment of the North Indian Mughal courts caused a shift in focus for Kathak, from a purely religious art form to court entertainment. Dancers imported from the Middle East spread their ideas to Kathak dancers, as they borrowed ideas from Kathak to implement in their own dance. Kathak absorbed the new input, adapting it until it became an integral part of its own vocabulary.

Kathak began to shift away from other traditional Indian dances, such as Bharatanatyam. The demi-plié stance of most other Indian dance forms gave way to straight legs taken from the Persian dancers. To emphasize the flamboyant and elaborate rhythmic footwork as many as 150 ankle bells on each leg were worn. It was also during this period that the signature 'chakkars' (spins) of Kathak were introduced, possibly influenced by the so-called whirling dervishes. The straight-legged position gave a new vitality to the footwork, which wove percussive rhythms in its own right, whether together with or in complement to the tabla or pakhawaj. By this stage, the varied influences had introduced great flexibility into Kathak in terms of presentation and narrative dance. As it moved away from the temple through folk dances to the court, it gathered many accretions of the themes on which the narrative dance could treat, resulting in a broader catchment of material for abhinaya pieces, and a less stylised and slightly informal presentation style which often incorporated improvisation and suggestions from the courtly audience. The fusion of cultures developed Kathak in a singular manner, but although it was by now substantially different from the other Indian dance forms, the roots of the style remained the same, and as such it still displays a consanguineity with the others, particularly in the hand-formations during story-telling, and some of the body-postures, for example the tribhangi position, which is common to most Indian dance forms.

Later Court Influences

Many specific emperors contributed to the growth and development of Kathak into different gharanas, or schools of dance, named after the cities in which they developed. The Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, not only enjoyed giving patronage to dancers, but danced himself, taught by Durga Prasad. He himself choreographed a dance, Rahas, that he danced himself with the ladies of his court. He brought teachers to his palaces, aiding the expansion of technical vocabulary, and formed the basis of the Lucknow gharana, emphasizing sensuous, expressive emotion. The Lucknow gharana placed emphasis on the abhinaya and natya elements or expressional qualities of the dancing; it was famed for its subtlety and grace (nazakat). This contrasted sharply with the Jaipur gharana, which became renowned for highly intricate and complex footwork, and fast, sharp, and accurate dancing. Even after the Moghuls, courts in Rajasthan enjoyed Kathak as a sophisticated art form, fostering the growth of the Jaipur gharana. The Banaras gharana was also created in this time.

During this period, Kathak was also extensively performed by tawaifs, who themselves developed the art in parallel to its refinement in court. They frequently performed abhinaya on lighter classical music of such as dadra, kajri and tappa as well as thumri. Given the tawaifs' environment, their performance style of Kathak also differed from the court style, involving more of what in Kathak is termed naKhra ('mischievous playfulness'). As the dance teachers of these tawaifs were also often the dance teachers of the court dancers, there was a fairly free interchange of ideas between the two milieus, and this helped consolidate the repertoire of Kathak.

During the Raj

The advent of British Rule in India sent Kathak into sharp decline. The Victorian administrators publicly pronounced it a base and unlovely form of entertainment, despite often privately enjoying the pleasures of the tawaif. Indeed, by associating Kathak solely with the tawaifs and then associating the tawaifs with out-and-out prostitution, Kathak acquired an unwholesome image: the entirely British concept of nautch. Kathak was, to Victorian eyes, an entertainment designed solely for the purposes of seduction. During these times of cultural hardship, the role of the tawaifs in preserving the art forms should not be underestimated. Famous tawaifs such as Gauhar Jan were instrumental in the maintenance and continuation of Kathak, even as it was officially denigrated by the prevailing political opinion.


Today, Kathak has regained its popularity after the period of decline during the rule of the British Empire (where it was frowned upon by Victorian administrators), and it is now one of the eight officially sanctioned classical dance forms of India. Kathak's current form is a synthesis of all the input it has had in the past: court and romantic aspects sit comfortably side-by-side with the temple and mythological/religious. The work of the Maharaj family of dancers (Acchan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj and one of the great current dancers still alive today, Birju Maharaj) and his students including Saswati Sen have been very successful in spreading the popularity of Kathak. Another disciple of Acchan Maharaj is Sitara Devi, daughter of Sukhdev Maharaj of Banaras. Her lively, zestful and fiery performances have impressed many audiences. Shambhu Maharaj also trained Smt. Kumudini Lakhia, who, along with Birju Maharaj, has introduced the relative innovation of multi-person choreographies in Kathak, which was traditionally a solo dance form. She has gained a strong reputation for combining purely classical movements and style with distinctly contemporary use of space.


Because of the linear nature of the passing of knowledge from guru to shishya, certain stylistic and technical features began to fossilise and became hallmarks of a particular school, guru or group of teachers. The different styles are known as gharanas, and these are:

Lucknow Gharana

The Lucknow Gharana developed in the courts of the Nawab of Oudh in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It particularly emphasises grace, elegance and naturalness in the dance. Abhinaya or expressional acting, especially improvised, plays a very strong role in this style, and Birju Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj are or were all famed for the naturalness of and innovativeness of their abhinaya.

Jaipur Gharana

The Jaipur Gharana developed in the courts of the Kachchwaha kings of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Importance is placed on the more technical aspects of dance, such as complex and powerful footwork, multiple spins, and complicated compositions in different talas. There is also a greater incorporation of compositions from the pakhawaj, such as parans.

Banaras Gharana

The Benaras Gharana was developed by Janakiprasad. It is characterized by the exclusive use of the natwari or dance bols, which are different from the tabla and the pakhawaj bols. There are differences in the thaat and tatkaar, and chakkars are kept at a minimum but are often taken from both the right- and the left-hand sides with equal confidence. There is also a greater use of the floor, for example, in the taking of sam. Though the style developed in Benaras, it flourishes today from Bikaner.

Raigarh Gharana

This was established by the Maharaja Chakradhar Singh in the princely state of Raigarh in Chhatisgarh in the early 20th century. The Maharaja invited many luminaries of Kathak (as well as famous percussionists) to his court, including Kalka Prasad (the father of Acchan, Lacchu and Shambhu Maharaj) and his sons, and Pandit Jailal from Jaipur gharana. The confluence of different styles and artists created a unique environment for the development of new Kathak and tabla compositions drawn from various backgrounds.

Relationship with Other Art Forms

Kathak Yoga

See main article: Kathak Yoga
Kathak Yoga is a technique created By Pandit Chitresh Das, and is not related to Yoga. The dancer has to recite the taal, sing a melody, and perform complex footwork and spins all within the same composition, and frequently with two or more of these elements occurring simultaneously. The aim is to unify the various aspects of Kathak, so that the dancer is constantly aware of the precise relationship of whatever composition is being danced (whether a song or a dance composition) to the rhythm cycle.


There are many striking similarities between Kathak and the Flamenco dance of the Spanish gitanos, most notably in the lack of much deviation from the vertical axis, percussive footwork, and dependence on (sometimes complex) rhythmic cycles.

It is generally supposed that the Romani people emigrated from India sometime in the 11th century. One group would later enter Spain via North Africa, having first passed westward through Iran (then Persia) and the fringes of the Ottoman Empire. In these places, they encountered the very same cultural influences that were to later arrive in India through the various Mughal incursions and have such an impact on Kathak. Thus, flamenco and Kathak both received the same cultural ingredients but in two very different circumstances: the itinerant gypsies carried their Indian art forms' traditions with them and absorbed new influences as they travelled, while Kathak stayed rooted in India and received the same input as a result of those influences (Persian and aspects of Middle-Eastern dance) being imported by a new regime. The similarity of Kathak and flamenco is therefore explained by the same process (the grafting and mixing of Persian and Middle-Eastern dance elements on to an Indian base) working in two different ways.

Now of course the two traditions have had some seven or eight centuries in which to diverge; yet it is remarkable that the similarities between the two remain such that there have been many successful collaborative performances between Kathak and flamenco dancers (notably Sandra La Espuelita) without much need to dilute either style to accommodate the other.


Ghunghru or ghunghroo are the small bells the dancer ties around his or her ankles. The Kathak bells are different from those of other Indian dance styles, as they are not affixed to a pad or strip of leather, but rather are individually woven along a thick string. The usual number of bells is 100 on each ankle, although for the initial stages of learning or for children, 25 and 50 belled strings are widely available to allow the dancer to get used to them.

There is a more or less accepted upper ceiling of 150 bells on each ankle. Greater figures than this tend to involve the topmost circle of bells being tied further and further up a dancer's calf. This is generally regarded as unsuitable, because it is at some distance from the point of impact, giving rise to the upper levels of bells being prone to delayed sounding given the intervening space and amount of leg. Greater numbers are also unnecessarily difficult to control since they are more likely to sound at unwanted moments, being affected by the movement of the whole of the lower leg, rather than just the ankle.


As the dance style itself has changed to reflect the different milieus in which it found itself, so too has the costume and performance dress of the dancers.

Female costume

Traditional (and perhaps more specifically Hindu) costume sometimes consists of a sari, whether worn in an everyday style, or tied up to allow greater freedom of movement during dance. However, more commonly, the costume is a lehenga-choli combination, with an optional odhni or veil. The lehenga is loose ankle-length skirt, and the choli is a tight fitting blouse, usually short-sleeved. Both can be highly ornately embroidered or decorated. The lehenga is sometimes adapted to a special dance variety, similar to a long ghaghra, so that during spins, the skirt flares out dramatically.

Mughal costume for women consists of an angarkha (from the Sanskrit anga-rakshaka 'limb-keeper') on the upper body. The design is akin to a chudidaar kameez, but is somewhat tighter fitting above the waist, and the 'skirt' portion explicitly cut on the round to enhance the flare of the lower half during spins. Beneath this, the legs are covered by the chudidaar or figure hugging trousers folded up giving the look of cloth bangles. Optional accessories are a small peaked cap and a bandi or small waistcoat to enhance the bust-line. A belt made of zari or precious stones is also worn on the waist.

Male costume

The traditional costume for men to be bare-chested. Below the waist is the dhoti, usually tied in the Bengal style, that is with many pleats and a fan finish to one of the ends (although it is not unknown for dancers to tie the garment more simply). There is the option of wearing a men's bandi too.

The Mughal costume is kurta-churidar. The kurta can be a simple one, or again, adapted for dance to incorporate wider flare, but is usually at least knee-length. Men may also wear an angarkha (see Female Costume, above). Particularly older variety costumes include the small peaked cap too.

See also


  • Kothari, Sunil (1989) Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art, New Delhi.
  • Kippen, James and Bel, Andreine Lucknow Kathak Dance, Bansuri, Volume 13, 1996
  • Pt. Birju Maharaj (2002) Ang Kavya : Nomenclature for Hand Movements and Feet Positions in Kathak, New Delhi, Har-Anand, photographs, ISBN 81-241-0861-7.
  • Reginald Massey (1999) India's Kathak Dance - Past, Present, Future, New Delhi, Abhinav, ISBN 8170173744
  • Bharti Gupta (2004) Kathak Sagar, New Delhi, Radha Pub., ISBN 81-7487-343-0
  • Sushil Kumar Saxena (2006) Swinging Syllables Aesthetics of Kathak Dance, New Delhi, Hope India Publications, ISBN 81-7871-088-9
  • Shivvangini Classes Shiva Mathur(Lucknow Kathak Dance)
  • Dr.Puru Dadheech Kathak Nritya Shiksha, Bindu Publications, Indore , MP, India

External links


id:Kathakml:കഥക് mr:कथकfi:Kathak te:కథక్ tr:Kathak ur:کتھک

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