Literal meaning of the word kathak is related to katha, the art of story-telling, “Katha Kahe So Kathaka Kahave”, which means “one who tells a story is a story-teller”. According to M. Monier Williams, Katha denotes conversation, story, speech, tale or fable. Katha also means to ‘ sing in praise’, ‘to say or inform something’. Thus, kathakars were originally a caste of story-tellers who were attached to temples in certain parts of Northern India.
These kathakars used to go around the countryside narrating the stories of the Epics and other Legends. The modes employed were poetry, music and dance. All these three arts were closely inter-linked. The aim of kathaks was to educate the people in the knowledge of Gods and Mythological Legends. Historically kathak dates back to the Vedic period which are full of descriptions and stories which give us an insight into the mind of those who wrote or composed jthem. Kathak dance is evolved from religious and mythological concepts.
In Ramayana period, we can see many glimpses of music and dance. The Ramayana tells the story of an ideal heroic prince Rama of Ayodhya and his devoted wife Sita. This ancient tale has been treasured and retold for countless generation in every Hindu house; they worshipped Rama as the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In Ramayana we find a mention of recitors who were specialised in story-telling. Lava and Kusha, the two brave sons of Rama rendered Ramayana in verses composed by Sage Valmiki. While reciting the stories, they also added the element of acting-Abhinaya.
From that time nomadic bards who narrated the Ramayana were known as ‘Kushilavas’. As a matter of fact, the term kushilavas has been associated with dancers and actors. Likewise, many mythological stories were depicted through gestures, postures and abhinaya. The another story of Ramayana which tells us that how Ravana, the king of Lanka worshipped Lord Shiva with song and dance. Also the story of Ravana assaulting Rambha, one of the main Apsaras. According to Kapila Vatsyayan, in Ramayana, the Apsaras are the most important mythological characters who danced and performed both in heaven and earth.
There are various other instances like the stories of the grand act of breaking Shiva’s bow in “Sita Swayamvar”, the evil plotting of Kaikayee, the Banishment of Rama to a fourteen-year exile, Sita’s kidnapping by Ravana and the war that ensued leading to Rama’s victory and Sita’s rescue. Thus, Ramayana is rich in incident and moral concept. We come across many references to perfomances of dances from the Mahabharata. In this period, worship and adoration of Bramha, Vishnu and Mahesh started with music and dance.
Krishna is the ‘Sutradhara’ (around whom the entire Mahabharata developed) and he was an expert dancer. The Mahabharata depicts episodes of Krishna’s life that how he is adopted and raised by a family of cowherds. The stories of his childhood of stealing butter and milkmaids known as “MakhanChori”. His dance of his youth with Radha and Braj narees is known as “Rasa Lila”. His spiritual love dance with Gopis or Milkmaids by the bank of Yamuna river in moonlit night is known as “MahaRaas”. The story of “Kaliya Daman” which tells us how Krishna defeated the poisonous snake Kaliya and danced on his hoods.
The story of “Govardhan Dharan” which tells us how krishna picked and hold the Govardhan mountain to protect the people of Vrindavan from heavy rain. Another important episode of Mahabharata is known as “Vastraharan”, in which Krishna saves the honour of the Pandava Queen Draupadi. The story goes that Dushasana, one of the Kaurava brothers attempted to humilate her by disrobing her. Draupadi called out to Krishna to save her and miraculously, as layer after layer of her saree was pulled, the number of sarees went on increasing. This episode is a popular theme in Kathak dance.
Mahabharata also depicts the story of the five Pandava brothers who were unjustly deprived of their kingdom by their cousins, the kauravas, and of the great battle of Kurukshetra that established the victory of the Pandavas after much suffering and bloodshed. The Mahabharata also describes Krishna’s role as the Charioteer of Arjuna during the battle of Kurukshetra, and his conversation on the battlefield constitutes the text of the Bhagavad-Gita, the celebrated philosophical work. Thus, it is clear that by the time of Mahabharata, the arts of music and dance developed sufficient content, form, style to be taught in a systematic order.
The training also seems to be elaborate with rules and regulations. Natyashastra is an encyclopedic work having 36 chapters and it deals with various topics such as the first 3 chapters deal with the origin of Natya, construction of theatre, Rangapooja, etc. , 4th and 5th chapters deal with the varieties of Dance. The 6th and 7th deal with Rasa and Bhava. From the 8th chapter of the 15th one, the different poses of Dance are being dealt with. The different aspects of Abhinaya are described in 15 to 22 and from 22nd to 28th describe the costumes elaborately.
The chapters from 28th to 34 deal with music and musical instruments and the last two deal with the different characters and costumes. Natyashastra also describes the divine character and dance of the Nataraja, the dancing Lord Shiva who is considered the king of actors and dancers and also the supreme Lord of Dance. The moon which he adorns in his head is the symbol complete control of his senses. The serpents wound around his body is the proof of his complete control over vital life forces. His foot raised high over the wicked demon, a symbol of victory over the ego.
This divine art form is performed by Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati. The Dance performed Lord Shiva is known as “Tandava”, which depicts his violent nature as the destructor of the Universe. The Dance performed by Goddess Parvati is known as “Lasya”, in which the movements are gentle, graceful, erotic and it is also called the feminine version of Tandava. Therefore, according to Kapila Vatsyayan, Bharata attributes to dancing a divine origin, a literary and religious heritage both in thought and technique and aesthetic secular purpose.
It has also been mentioned in Natyashastra, how to interpret the different moods of man accompanied by Bhava, Raga and Tal – all directed to create rasa or emotion in the spectators who are called “Rasikaas”. From the 7th and 8th century, “Sangeet” occupied a prominent place in the society. The art of sculptures also made great strides and most of the sculptures depicted various dance poses. Temples were the places of origin whereas the dancers or the priests danced in praise of the Lord enacting various mythological stories. Temples sprang up where the devotees gathered to pray to the Almighty God or hear stories about Him.
The Temple connection is well established as can be seen in the art of “Kathavachakas” who carry on the tradition to this day in the North in the Temple boundaries and in open spaces. With the passage of time, in the medieval period, the Bhakti movement influenced all over India. The vast spiritual empire established by Vaishnavism in the North embraces life in its totality. The fine arts found a fuller expression by the 15th and the 16th centuries A. D. Literature, music, dance, painting and other fine arts flourished with the patronage extended by the temples, priests and devotees.
In particular the Rasa Lilas in Braj and the neighbouring areas of Mathura in the North sustained the tradition that centered round Vishnu and his recognization as Krishna. The Bhakti movement inspired a whole new school of poetry, dance and music. Krishna and radha are the presiding deities of Vaishnavism and it was on the basis of Leelas of Krishna that precious and distinctive art heritage of Vaishnavism was built up. Mirabai, Surdas and Tulsidas for e. g. wrote powerful devotional verses on longing and separation, expressing the yearning of the human soul for union with God.
They chosen the themes was the love of radha for krishna. Krishna Leela though brought out in high relief by Vaishnavism but it had its origin in the past and it can be traced easily to the periods of Mahabharata and Bhasa. In Braj, the Rasa lila’s developed as a combination of music, dance and narration that was used to enact the Krishna Legends – especially the Radha-Krishna idea and stories of Krishna’s youth with the gopis or milkmaids. Hence, the earliest compositions in kathak were based on the religious and stylised music of North India, notably the Dhrupad, Keertan, Hori, Dhamar, Pad and Bhajan.
According to Mohan Khokar, Keertans are similar style to dhrupad, but they may, unlike the latter, also be sung in chorus. Keertan is a spiritual practice belonging to the path of Bhakti (devotion). Keertan more specifically means the chanting of sacred sounds or mantras. The Rasa Lila miracle plays of Braj were formerly staged to the accompaniment of keertan music only. Keertans were meant both for singing and dancing. Whereas Bhajans are strictly devotional songs and are in praise of deities such as Krishna, Shiva, Rama, Ganesha, Durga, etc.
The songs are rendered in ragas, but improvised tunes are also freely used. Stories and episodes from scriptures, the teachings of saints and description of Gods have all been the subject of Bhajan. Bhajans of Mirabai, Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir, the Ashtachhap poets and other composers are a part of kathak repertoire. Some of the Famous Bhajans of Mirabai is the following: “Baso more nanun mein nandlal, Mor mukut makrakrit kundal, arun tilak diyo bhal, Mohni murat – saavari surat, naina bane bisaal, Adhar sudha – ras murli rajat, ur baijanti maal.
Chhudra ghantika kati tat sobhit, nupur sabad rasaal, Mira’ prabhu santan sukhdai, bhagat – bachhal gopal” With the advent of the Mughals, the Hindustani music underwent a drastic change. The stylised music absorbed the Mughal influence in a remarkable manner. The dancers moved from the temple courtyard to the palace dubar and this necessitated changes in presentation as Muslim kings could not enjoy the bhava of Bhakti Rasa. Kathak received encouragement at the hands of Nawabs and Rajas. Whereas formerly it was religious and devotional in mood and temperament, now it turned into a means of entertainment.
The forms like Thumri, Dadra, Ghazal evolved and became a part of the Hindustani music. The word “Thumri” has been derived from a combination of two terms i. e. ‘thumak’ (or the chaal) and ‘rijhana’ (or to please). Thus, together meaning graceful stamping of the foot. Thumri is a verse that has Krishna and Radha or Krishna and Gopi’s as its central theme. It is essentially based on the divine romance portraying both aspects of separation and union. The last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah was an accomplished dancer and musician. He composed thumries in classical style and these were sung by the kathak dancers.
His contemporaries and the court musicians like Kadarpiya, Akhtar Piya, Lallan Piya, Sikandar Piya and others contributed to its popularity. Although he was a muslim, he liked the Radha-Krishna themes. He himself presented a dance on the Rasa Lila which he called ‘Rahas’. His famous thumries are the following: “Babul mora nehar chhuto jaye, Chaar kahar mil, doliya uthave, Apna begana chhuto jaye. ” Another Thumri: “Jab chod chale lucknow nagri, Tab hale ‘ali’ par kya guzri, Mahal mahal mein begum rove, Jab hum guzre duniya guzri. ”
According to PeterLamarche Manuel, Bindadin Maharaj is regarded as one of the most important figures in the development of Thumri as well as Kathak. The kathak Masters Bindadin and his brother Kalka Prasad composed Thumries that were suitable for kathak dancing. Some of the famous Thumri of Bindadin Maharaj is the following: “Mohe chhedo na, nand ki suno challa, Badi der bhai, ghar jane de mohe.