Kathak on the Rise

What do tap dance and the ancient classical Indian dance form kathak (pronounced kuh-thuk) have in common? Kathak guru Pandit Chitresh Das has teamed up with tap star Jason Samuels Smith for a series of performances illustrating the similarities between the two artforms that will start touring this month. Not only are contemporary artists pushing the boundaries of kathak technique, but more traditional training is also becoming available worldwide. Here, DS gives you some history and details about this nearly 2,000-year-old dance form, as well as a look toward its future.


Ancient Roots


In Hindu mythology, dance is divine. It’s said that Lord Shiva’s tandava dance simultaneously created and destroyed the universe, and that when Krishna danced on the head of a serpent, his feet made the first sounds in kathak: ta, thei, tut. These sounds, when vocalized, are called bols, and represent the sounds of both the feet and the drums. They are used in myriad combinations and permutations to compose dance sequences.


In the middle ages, wandering bards called kathakas told epic stories using dance, song, mime and poetry. Kathak continued to evolve through the 15th century, gradually incorporating elements of dance and music from both Hindu and Muslim cultures. By the 17th century, the form was predominantly practiced and passed down by courtesans. Under British rule in the 19th century, Indian classical dance was outlawed, and dancers and gurus were ostracized. However, in the early 20th century the strong movement toward independence from Britain fueled a revival of the traditional arts among the educated class. Dance became a voice for political and social expression as well as national pride; in the early 1940s, Sri Prohlad Das, father of Pandit Chitresh Das, created one of the first revolutionary dance dramas, depicting India’s independence as a new dawn.


The Basics


Kathak comes from an oral tradition, and has been taught via one-on-one relationships between gurus and students for hundreds of years. The four elements that must be mastered in kathak dance are tayari (technique with precision), laykari (mastery of rhythm), khubsurti (beauty) and nazakut (delicacy). The goal of the training is to be able to perform a two-hour solo accompanied by live music including elements of invocation, story, song, footwork patterns and improvisational exchange between dancer and musician.


Kathak is known for its fast, powerful footwork and spectacular spins, called chakkaras. Hand positions (mudras), steps, expression and mime are all used to illustrate love songs and songs of devotion and to tell traditional stories; kathak uses less codified mudras than other Indian dance styles like bharata natyam, and relies more on naturalistic expression. During the dance, the soloist can change character, even from male to female, by executing a quick turn to the right or left called a palta. Kathak dancers wear ankle bells called ghungroo that turn the feet into musical instruments. Each ghungroo has between 101 and 150 jingling bells woven into a rope that is tied around the ankle. The dancer traditionally performs solo, and is accompanied by tabla (a pair of drums, treble and bass); sitar, sarangi or sarod (string instruments); and, often, a singer. The dance is performed to a rhythmic beat cycle that is maintained by one musician while the tabla player plays different patterns on the drum and the dancer reproduces these patterns with the feet.


Looking ahead


Today, gurus such as Das, who first came to America on a Whitney fellowship in 1970 to teach kathak and now divides his time between India and the U.S., are ensuring that the artform is shared around the world. And, although the traditional style is thriving, kathak is also evolving. For instance, Das is teaching his disciples an innovative technique called Kathak Yoga, where the dancer continuously sings the underlying cyclical melody while dancing complex compositions.


In September 2006, the Kathak at the Crossroads festival in San Francisco, sponsored by the Chitresh Das Dance Company, aimed to examine the relationship between the traditional dance form and its contemporary offshoots, in addition to offering performances by kathak masters.


Charlotte Moraga is a kathak dancer and educator living in San Francisco. She can be reached at ckathak@yahoo.com.

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