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Kathak danseuse Arushi Nishank performing at Lucknow Kathak Sansthan.
Kathak dancer Richa Jain performing the chakkarwala tukra, one of the many popular highlights of Kathak
Kathak performance by Sharmila Sharma and Rajendra Kumar Gangani at the Guimet Museum (November 2007)

Kathak (Hindi: कथक) is one of the eight forms of Indian classical dance. This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakars or storytellers. 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.

The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means 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, she/he who tells a story, is a kathak', but which can also be translated, 'that which tells a story, that is 'Kathak'.

There are three major schools or gharana of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage: the gharanas of Jaipur, Lucknow and Varanasi (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.


  • Repertoire 1
    • Pure Dance (Nritta) 1.1
    • Expressive Dance (Nritya) 1.2
  • History of Kathak 2
    • Change in the Bhakti Era 2.1
    • In the Mughal Period 2.2
    • Later court influences 2.3
    • During the Raj 2.4
    • Today 2.5
  • Gharanas 3
    • Lucknow Gharana 3.1
    • Jaipur Gharana 3.2
    • Banaras Gharana 3.3
    • Raigarh Gharana 3.4
  • Relationship with other art forms 4
    • Kathak Yoga 4.1
    • Flamenco 4.2
  • Ghunghru 5
  • Costume 6
    • Female costume 6.1
    • Male costume 6.2
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Pure Dance (Nritta)

State of 'sam' performed by Manisha Gulyani

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 dance 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, for example splitting it into triplets or quintuplets 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' (pronounced as the English word 'sum' and meaning even or equal, archaically meaning nil) 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, 'ti' 'na' 'ka' 'dhi na') or can be a dance variety (ta, thei, tat, ta ta, tigda, digdig, tram theyi 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:

Music to Kathak is normally provided by tabla and sitar players
  1. Vandana, the dancer begins with an invocation to the divinity. Vandana means prayer, a dance item which is performed as prayer. Before Mughal influence kathak was mostly performed in temple and the form was totally devoted to God. So in those times vandana was too important and it reserved a large part of dance. These days performances generally have Vishnu or Ganesh Vandana, invocation of Ganesha, the Hindu god of beginnings and good fortune.[1]
  2. Thaat, the first composition of a traditional performance; It is the style of standing. 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 into the performance.
  4. Salaami, related to Ar. 'salaam' - a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style.
  5. Kavitt, 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. Lari, 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'.
  11. Toda, a dancer performs to the composition of time beats in a rhythmic cycle, ending with Tehai and arriving on the 'sam', a concluding beat.

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 darbaar 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. For example, Shambhu Maharaj is claimed to have interpreted a single line in many different ways for hours. All the Maharaj family (Acchan Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Achhan Maharaj's son Birju Maharaj) have found much fame for the naturalness and innovativeness of their abhinaya.

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 3rd and 4th centuries BCE which refer to these kathakas. The two texts are in the archives of Kameshwar library at Mithila.

An extract runs as follows:

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

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

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 Harshacharita 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 Central Asia 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 emperors and princely rulers 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 forming 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. Royal courts in Rajasthan enjoyed Kathak as a sophisticated art form, fostering the growth of the Jaipur gharana. The Benares 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

Native Nautch at Delhi, 1864.

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. Kathak first received world's attention in the early 20th century through Kalka Prasad Maharaj, whose sons Acchan, Lacchhu and Shambhu Maharaj, went on carry forward the tradition for the next generation, both as dancers in their own right and later as dance gurus.[2]


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. Different dancers have worked on the form in different ways. 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) has 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. The late Rohini Bhate greatly enriched Kathak's rhythmic repertoire by creating a large corpus of dance compositions, while Durga Lal of the Jaipur gharana was famed for his speed and easy style of performance.


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 of Kathak dance came into existence mainly in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah the ruler of Awadh in the early 19th century. It was in this period that the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak attained maturity, through the efforts of Thakur Prasad Maharaj, the court dancer and guru of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and subsequently by his nephews Bindadin Maharaj and Kalka Prasad Maharaj. Kalka Prasad's sons Achchan Maharaj, Lachu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj also contributed to the further development of this gharana style.

The Lucknow style or Kathak dance is characterized by graceful movements, elegance and natural poise with dance. Abhinaya, concern for movement shape and creative improvisations are the hallmarks of this style. Presently, Birju Maharaj is considered the chief representative of this gharana.

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. The Jaipur gharana has many more branches and offshoots than the Lucknow style and requires a detailed tree diagram to show these. However, in the last century, the work of the Jaipur gharana dancers Jai Lal, Sunder Prasad and Narayan Prasad, Kundanlal Gangani and Sunderlal Gangani and Durga Lal was instrumental in developing the gharana. Presently the prominent artist of this gharana is sangeet natak academy awardee Rajendra Gangani son of Kundanlal Gangani, sangeet natak academy awardee Gitanjali Lal wife of Renowned kathak dancer Devi Lal, Prerana shrimali & celebrity kathak dancer Pratishtha Sharma desciple of Rajendra Gangani.

Banaras Gharana

The Banaras 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.

Raigarh Gharana

This was established by the Maharaja Chakradhar Singh in the princely state of Raigarh in present Chhattisgarh in the early 20th century. The Maharaja invited many luminaries of Kathak (as well as famous percussionists) to his court, including Kalka Prasad 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. Some of renowned dancers of this gharana are Late Pt. Kartik Ram, Late Pt. Kalyan das Mahant, Late Pt. Phirtu Maharaj, Late Pt. Barmanlal, Pt. Ramlal, Prof. Dr.B.D.Manik,Dr.Mohini Manik, Bhupendra Bareth, Manav Mahant, Dr. Vijiya Sharma,Sunil Vaishnav, Vaasanti Vaishnav,Dr. Rakhi Dubey, Yasmin Singh, V. Anuradha Singh, Alpana Vajpeyi, Suchitra Harmalkar, Monica Pandey Bohre, Mohini Moghe, V Annapurna Sharma, etc.

Relationship with other art forms

Kathak Yoga

Performance by Arushi Nishank at London Kathak & Yoga Concert in Nehru Center, London.

Kathak Yoga is a technique common in Kathak that was named by Pandit Chitresh Das. The dancer has to recite the taal, sing a melody, and perform complex footwork and spins in the same composition; frequently two or more of these elements occur simultaneously. The aim is to unify the various aspects of Kathak, so 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 Flamenco, a southern Spanish dance style that received much influence from the local gypsies, 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 entered Spain via Eastern Europe, having first passed westward through Iran (then Persia) and the fringes of the neighboring Ottoman Empire. In these places, they encountered the very same influences that were to later arrive in India through the Mughal incursions and have such an impact on Kathak. Thus, Flamenco and Kathak received the similar stylistic influences in two very different circumstances: The itinerant Romanis carried their Indian art forms' traditions with them and absorbed new influences as they traveled, while Kathak stayed rooted in India and received the same input as a result of those influences (Persian) 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 dance elements on to an Indian base — working in two ways.

Now 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 without much need to dilute either style to accommodate the other.


Arushi Nishank performing with 300 Ghungroos

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. The ghaghra is a long, very full, gathered skirt with a broad gold or silver border. Narrow silver or gold bands radiate all the way from waist to hem. The choli, worn with the ghaagra, is usually of a contrasting color and has embroidered sleeve-bands.

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. The skirt may also be cut on the round but beginning just below the bust; this style is known as 'Anarkali' after the eponymous dancer who popularised it. Beneath the top, 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 sometimes also worn on the waist.

Male costume

The traditional costume for men is 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


  1. ^ Mr. Reginald Massey (4 January 2014). India's Kathak Dance Past, Present, Future. Abhinav Publications. p. 52. GGKEY:DDUCX0QEAPX. 
  2. ^ Gassner, John; Edward Quinn (2002). The Reader's Encyclopedia of World Drama. Courier Dover Publications. p. 453.  
  • 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.
  • Williams, Drid (2004). "In the Shadow of Hollywood Orientalism: Authentic East Indian Dancing" (PDF). Visual Anthropology 17 (1): 69–98.  
  • Massey, Reginald (1999). India's Kathak Dance - Past, Present, Future. Abhinav Publications.  
  • 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
  • Narayan, Shovana (2004) Kathak, Wisdom Tree, ISBN 9788186685143

External links

  • Famous Kathak Dancers
  • Kathak Dancer Naheed Siddiqui, Pakistan
  • Kathak Dancer Hasita Oza, USA
  • Kathak Jewelry
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