As global nomads we all know that people change as they interact with new cultures around them, merging and morphing into a mix of all that they have been exposed to. Taking in what touches them, makes them stronger and turning it into something unique, something of their own. We often think of this as being a new phenomenon, something that is on the rise with globalization when in fact this is a process that we have been witness to for centuries.
Cultures have always been a fluid entity, forging new bonds and characteristics with each new influence. The best examples of these adaptations can be found in art which has always changed according to its surroundings. The story I am about to share with you is of such an art form, that adapted to each new change making it truly cross-cultural.
Kathak is a traditional dance form originating from the north of India. It is still extremely popular and widely performed in the subcontinent. I came across Kathak in movies and on dance reality shows and always had a deep yearning to learn this particular dance. The form is perhaps most identified due to its fast turns and intricate footwork. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I believe my connection with Kathak comes from it being a dance form that cannot be put into one category. It isn’t purely devotional, it isn’t purely Hindu or Muslim, it isn’t only storytelling or only rhythmic patterns. Just like me. I’m a cultural mess of India, U.A.E, Turkey and the US, a mess that cannot be contained in one clean box.
The word ‘kathak’ derives from the Sanskrit katha which means story and thus a large part of kathak is about telling stories. Originally, the dance form was used to share tales found in Hindu mythology, stories of the righteousness and greatness of the many gods found in Hinduism. The dances were performed in temples by one dancer as a solo act. References can be found as early as 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. Dancers took on the roles of both female and male characters, femininity and masculinity were seen as fluid notions.
From the 14th century onwards, a major Hindu religious movement took hold of India, sweeping from the south to the north. The Bhakti Movement called for the rejection of the traditional caste system and advocated a personal devotion to God. It argued that salvation or moksha could be attained by all devotees, including the ‘untouchables’ rather than just those of upper castes as it was previously believed. This great movement gave rise to a new type of religious devotion and came with its own artistic preferences. New songs, prose and poetry were crafted to spread the message and this seeped into Kathak’s tradition as well.
It is believed that it was during this movement that Kathak started focusing more on Raas-Leela or the enactment of stories of Radha and Krishna. The Radha Krishna aspect is perhaps one of the most iconic parts of Kathak even as it is performed today. The dance revolves around the story of divine love between Radha and Krishna a style which became immensely popular in the Indian subcontinent. It is said that it was this movement that brought Kathak to the masses and gave it a more folk style.
The movement of Kathak out of the temple was furthered by the arrival of the Mughals. The Muslim rulers moved the dance from the temple to the palatial court, viewing it more as entertainment rather than religious devotion. The Mughals brought with them dancers from Persia whose influence is also clearly visible in Kathak. Most Indian dances such as Bharatnatyam tend to take the form of a demi-plié, but it is said to be the Persian influence that gives Kathak its straight legs, an aspect essential to the intricate and speedy footwork that the form is known for. Another iconic part of Kathak today is the fast chakkars or spins, which is believed to have been the influence of Sufism and the whirling dervishes.
Perhaps the largest influence of the Mughal period is in the expansion of themes that could be included in the dance. Kathak was now not limited to pure mythology and could be used to tell balads of love and loss. Informal pieces became popular which were led by improvisation and suggestions from the audience. Speed, flourish and skill became key components while subtlety of expression and grace were developed further under the Mughal influence. While the body postures, hand formations and etiquette of the dance remained ‘Indian’, the possible variations were now vast.
More importantly, Kathak provided one of the few bridges between Islam and Hinduism. The Muslim King of Oudh Wajid Ali Shah himself learnt the dance from a Hindu scholar Durga Prasad. Shah adorned peacock feathers and danced as Krishna in Raas-Leela and composed many musical pieces himself. It was under his rule that Kathak saw a major revival and the Lucknow Gharana, one of the major schools of Kathak, was established.
A side effect to this revival was the tradition of the Tawaif. The Tawaif was a courtesan trained in dance, music and etiquette. They were often found in Mughal palaces entertaining guests and teaching young princes the arts and social decorum. Similar to the Geisha tradition in Japan, the primary purpose of a Tawaif was to entertain and sex wasn’t always a part of the contract. The Tawaifs were powerful women, an institution within themselves and were the only women allowed to own property in an India where gender inequality was the norm.
When the British Raj took over India, the Tawaifs were suddenly labeled as prostitutes. Seen as lowly entertainment meant solely for seduction, the British cracked down on the Tawaif tradition. While this was a distortion of reality, it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Left without the patronage and power of yester years, Tawaifs turned to more seductive acts to earn bread and eventually many moved into prostitution. It was during this period that Kathak developed its seductive reputation, a reputation which many Kathakaars and Kathak schools have been trying to renounce. Unfortunately, in popular media such as Bollywood, Kathak is still portrayed as a dance of seduction, stripping it of its rich and sophisticated history.
Curiously, there are a lot of similarities between Kathak and Flamenco. It is believed that Flamenco originated with the Romani people who left India for Europe in the 11th century. On their way to Europe, they passed through Persia, coming across the same Persian influences that left their mark on Kathak. The two dance forms are extremely similar in style and while one developed with Romanis travelling through Persia, the other developed with Persia coming to Indian soil.
Kathak’s story doesn’t stop there and is still being developed as many around the world continue the practice. Students learn both Hindu and Muslim pieces and together perform both a Namaskaar (Hindu greeting) and a Salaam (Muslim greeting). Kathak is the only dance form to have Hindu and Muslim ties, devotional and entertainment ties. It was influenced by the Bhakti Movement from the south of India, from the Sufi tradition, the Persian arts, the Mughal Empire, the British Raj and even good old Bollywood. It broke cultural boundaries between religions and castes and it empowered women in an age when women empowerment was not a popular social cause.
Kathak adapted to its circumstances the way you and I do as we move from city to city, taking in something new whether intentionally or otherwise and giving ourselves a whole new identity. It is through these experiences that we become more open, just as the dance form did moving from temple to court to the masses, becoming less limited in our repertoire with each global change. While Kathak is still known as an Indian dance form, if looked into its history, one cannot cleanly put it into the ‘Indian’ box. This is perhaps where Kathak and I share a bond, we have an Indian core but are embellished by many other global and local influences.