One of the oldest forms of Indian Classical Dance, the origin of Kathak dates back to 4th century and was traditionally attributed to the travelling writers and poets of ancient northern India known as Kathakars or storytellers. They would communicate stories from the great epics and ancient mythology through dance, songs and music in a manner similar to early Greek theatre. And therefore you see a mixture of hand and foot movements combined with facial expressions as Kathak dancers tell various stories. The eyes and eyebrows work as a medium of expression of the story the dancer is trying to share. The legs and torso are generally straight, and the story is narrated in the form of dance movements, supported by music and, through a developed vocabulary based on the gestures of arms and upper body movement, facial expressions, stage movements, bends and turns. 


Kathak is found in three distinct forms, called “gharanas”, named after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved – Jaipur, Banaras and Lucknow. While the Jaipur gharana focuses more on the foot movements, the Banaras and Lucknow gharanas focus more on facial expressions and graceful hand movements. Each gharana bringing to the audience an eclectic blend of style, body movements, music and expression. Students usually learn from teachers of any one gharana to begin with and master the style. Then as their search for more nuances begins, many of them travel the length and breadth of the globe to seek out teachers from different gharanas and learn from them, enjoy research based conversations and dialogues to explore and dive deeper into how each gharana is different from the other and yet how they all are similar in so many ways. 

The Journey

Kathak as a performance art has survived and thrived as an oral tradition, innovated and taught and from one generation to another verbally and through practice. It transitioned, adapted and integrated the tastes of the Mughal courts in the 16th and 17th century and transformed itself from being a dance which had the fervour of bhakti rasas that were sung in praise of Hindu Gods and Goddesses to sheer entertainment in praise of the Muslim kings. Despite all these interferences, Kathak did not die. Even after the decline of the Mughal empire, courts in Rajasthan enjoyed kathak as a highly respected and reputed classical indian dance form. The Banares gharana too gained prominence as kathak was being extensively performed by tawaifs. Famous tawaifs such as Gauhar Jan, Mallika Jan and even Nanhi Begum were instrumental in the continuation of kathak but have only very few places where their contribution is recognised. Manjari Chaturvedi, the famous Kathak dancer who has travelled over 30 countries,  is now seeking to change the biased narrative of the tawaif through the Courtesan Project aiming to bring them on the same level of respectability that is given to any performing artist today. In the 20th century, Kalka Prasad Maharaj and his sons Acchan, Lacchhu and Shambhu Maharaj, and grandson Birju Maharaj, took the initiative to carry forward the tradition – both as dancers and dance gurus, willing to impart this knowledge to the new generations and to keep the flame of kathak, not just burning but thriving. 

Today, kathak has regained its past glory after a massive downfall. Thanks to the Maharaja family that produced great dancers like Saswati Sen and Sitara Devi, who, with their zestful and fiery performances, have impressed audiences worldwide and the undaunting work of several more artists is being recognised as they continue to carry forward this legacy.