KATHAK - The Classical Dance of North India

  • Brief introduction to Kathak, an Indian classical dance form.

Kathak is undoubtedly the most popular classical dance style of north India. The speciality of this dance is the spins and circular movements that create a rare spectacle. To master this difficult form requires several years of practise. The highlight of the technique is the complex rhythmic footwork, which is considered the mainstay of Kathak dancing. Kathak, has been acclaimed for centuries, as a distinct form of classical dancing and enjoys international recognition too.


Kathak evolved from the Vedic period, with several evidences in the form of literature, paintings and sculptures. It is believed that Kathak originated from the story telling tradition. Incidentally the word Kathak has evolved from the word kathakaar (story teller). Hence varied stories from Hindu traditions were narrated for spiritual and social upliftment, “Katha Kahe, So Kathak Kahalave (Tells a story hence known as Kathak).


The community of musicians and dancers were known as Kathakaar. Buddhist and Jain literartrue also mention the tradition of dancers in Vaishali, Magadh and Kosha. According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, Lava and Kush narrated the story of Ramayana to their father, Lord Rama, without realising that Rama is their father. Besides the story telling aspect, other aspects like hand gestures, expressions and rhythmic footwork was added to attract theatrical appeal, as dance moved from villages to courtyards, palaces and finally to modern day auditorium.


Pinnacle of Kathak

Kathak reached its pinnacle during the Mughal regime. King Akbar encouraged arts and artists that included the great singer Tansen (child of Laxmi Bai and Makrand Pandey). Performers from Persia and Central Asia were also invited to perform. Hence there inter-mingling of cultures and styles which affected the style of presentation and costumes too.


While Mughal dancers were attired differently and commenced with the typical salaami toda (the dance salute), different musical compositions and lyrics Hindu dancers were different and commenced their performance with invocations to their Gods and the dances were normally and naturally so based on Hindu themes. The complete costume and aharya (costumes and make-up) were different too.


Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and Nawab Asaf Ud Daulah were great promoters and contributed their poetic renditions which were interpreted in expressional dancing. Bindadin Maharaj, was another great composer and poet, whose renditions are always performed. Poetic renditions by several saints are also recreated in the dance format

Asavari Pawar 

Gharanas of Kathak

As Kathak evolved from different regions of northern India, different gharanas (schools) of Kathak were also introduced. The most prominent being three i.e. Lucknow, Benares and Jaipur besides the Raigad gharana. Certain technical differences in the style of presentation and different renditions exist due to regional differences. The Jaipur gharana flourished due to Rajput royal patronage, one of the founders was Bhanuji. The Gharana was promoted by Jailal and Sundar Prasad. Pandit Durgalal, his elder brother Devi Lal and the present Rajendra Gangani all belong to the Jaipur Gharana.


The Lucknow Gharana was founded by Thakur Prasad, who was the Guru of poet Wajd Ali Shah. The most popular maestro of contemporary India, Pandit Birju Maharaj, who expired recently, also belongs to the same family. Achchan, Lachhu and Shambhu Maharaj were the great mentors of this gharana.


Jankiprasad Gharana, known as Banaras Gharana, was founded by Sohanlal, Mohanlal, Naval Kishore and Kundanlal. Kathak queen Sitara Devi, daughter of Pandit Sukhdev Maharaj and Nataraj Gopikrisna, belong to this gharana. His performance in V Shantaram’s classic Janak Janak Payal Baje is iconic. Jayantimala and her daughter Rashika Mishra are known exponents of this gharana.

Paullomi Mukherkee.

Music training and Performance

Both classical and folk music have been adapted in Kathak dance, accounting for regional differences and varied dialects. Bindadin Maharaj compositions form the mainstay of the Kathak repertoire plus saint composers like Tulsidas, Surdas, Meera Bhajans or the abhangs of Tukaram, Eknath and Gyaneshwar.


Like other classical dance styles, children start learning for a course, at a young age. It takes a minimum of ten years or more to reach up to the level of Visharad or Alankar. Continuous and persistent practise is necessary. The performance normally begins with invocations known as Vandana, followed with teentaal and several rhythmic sequences. It is followed with an abhinaya (expressions) number, concluding with a Tarana.

Dr Tina Tambe.

Pandit Nandkishore Kapote.

Manisha Jeet.

Devesh Mirchandani

Top dancers

Pt Birju Maharaj was among the best known exponents of this dance form. Asavari Pawar, daughter and disciple of Pt Pratap Pawar has established Kalaasisish academy in New Delhi and performed extensively. Another senior disciple of Pt Birju, Pt Nandkishore Kapote is the recipient of Maharashtra Gaurav and other awards is the director of Nandkishore Cultural Society in Pune. Top New Delhi based dancers include Shovana Narayan Traxi and Uma Sharma. Mumbai based dancers Padma Sharma, Gauri and Tarini Sharma, Asha and Archana Joglekar-Chetan Saraiya is their disciple, Deepak Maharaj is the eldest son of Pt Birju Maharaj, Ravi Kishan Mishra, Anuj Mishra, Dheerendra Tiwari, Uma Dogra, Keka Sinha, Smruti Talpade, Paullomi Mukherjee (only ganda band shagird of Ramadevi Maharaj), Rajashree Shirke (SNA awardee). Young and brilliant dancers like Manisha Jeet. Scientist turned dancer Sunil Sunkara, Bollywood choreographer Devesh Mirchandani.


Brilliant couple Kathak dancers from Bangalore are Hari and Chethana, Nirupama and Rajendra. Dr Tina Tambe is a fine exponent and director of Ninad Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai.


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Guru Vijay Shanker is a professional Kuchipudi, Kathakali exponent, dance teacher, choreographer, actor and arts critic for over four decades, contributing for national and international publications. He is particularly credited for his lecture-demonstrations on Indian classical dancing which is a fine combination of both education and entertainment.


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