Kathak is a form of classical Indian dance that can be traced back to the Hindu storytellers – kathakars – of medieval northern India. Passed from generation to generation, stories celebrating the lives of religious deities were sung or recited, often with a dance element included.
By the sixteenth century Kathak had become a form of entertainment in the Mughal courts. Here, under the influence of Persian dance and music, Kathak’s spiritual emphasis gave way to secular elements such as popular dance and folk stories.
During this period, it was often performed by tawaifs, or courtesans, who greatly refined the art. Tawaifs occupied a position in the feudal courts not unlike that of Japanese Geishas and were trained from youth to a very high standard in both the performing arts and literature.
Under British rule, Kathak declined. It was seen as base and unwholesome by the Victorians. Tawaifs were denigrated as immoral and the form regarded as existing purely for the purpose of seduction.
Despite this period of cultural repression Kathak survived, kept alive by dedicated tawaifs. By the early twentieth century it was being carried forward by a new generation of dancers and dance gurus.
Nowadays Kathak is officially recognised as one of the eight forms of classical Indian dance. Popular in India once more, contemporary Kathak is a synthesis of its varied past, combining everything from its spiritual roots to folkloric elements, mythological themes and courtly traditions.
Conventional Kathak performances often start slowly, progressing to an ever faster tempo and ending in a dramatic climax. They include a combination of short and long dance compositions – tukras and todas. Most compositions also use bols, rhythmic words which can be recited either as a reminder for the dancers or as an integral part of the performance.
Rhythmic patterns in Kathak can be complex. While a percussive instrument such as the tabla may express the rhythmic cycle, dancers often engage in rhythmic play within a time cycle, creating a counterpoint to the underlying rhythm.