Kathak and Social Communication Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 November 2016

Kathak and Social Communication

Social Science and Communication

‘Kathak’ is one of the most popular forms of Indian classical dance. We have grown up watching it in movies from UmraoJaanuptoDevdas. Most young girls in India even start learning kathak right from the tender age of 5 years. However is kathak just a simple cultural product of the country that can be counted among the artistic treasures of this land or is there a larger understanding to the same? Through this article we shall travel through the journey of time and see how a thing as simple and pure as an ancient dance form can tell us the stories of the cultural, religious, political transformations of the country.

The Fifth Veda

Traditionally the Hindu society was divided in five varnas – Brahmins (intellectuals), Kshatriya (warriors), vaishya (merchants), shudra (manual labourers), achoot (untouchables). The purpose of this form of division was to have a more organized society by distributing it on basis of the type of work performed. However with time this became a hierarchical division of the society which led to oppression of the lower caste (shudra& untouchables) by the upper caste members. In this entire struggle for power the holy hindu scriptures (the Vedas) remained as the sole possession of the Brahmins or the educated class. Any attempt to even touch these holy texts by members of the lower caste was considered a crime. Even our holy text of Ramayana narrates an incident where lord Ram (mariyadapurushottam) chops of the head of a person from the lower caste when he attempts to read the Vedas. The shudra’s were forbidden to listen to these puranas (holy texts). (Massey, 1999)

It’s believed that looking at this state of the society gods asked Lord Brahma to devise something which would be accessible to all and bind this society together. This is how the fifth veda or Natya Veda was born. The Hindu epics have stories of brahma teaching Bharata (the then king of Bharat what we know as India) the Natya Veda and later his 100 sons became the authorities of music, dance and drama. The Bharat NatyaShashtra has been variously dated from 2nd century BC to 3rd century AD.

This Veda was common for all sections of society and all genders. Stories and teaching were told through dance. This is where we saw the birth of Kathak as a dance form.


Kathak is derived from the root word Katha which means story. Kathak as a dance form was used to narrate stories mainly mythological stories primarily for the function of educating people. This was the only form in which people of all castes and genders could share their learning. This dance form was spread far and wide through abhinayawhich meaning ‘a carrying to the spectators’.

This form of dance contained various components:(Massey, 1999) Kathak

Sentiment and Mood
Pure Dance
Dramatic Element
Vachik: poetry, song, recitation, music and rhythm
Aharya: costume, make-up, jewellery
Satvik: physical manifestation of mental and emotional states
Angik: gestures of the body

Caste Politics

The Hindu caste divide that Kathak tried to dissolve eventually took another form of dominations. The Brahmins saw this movement as a loss of their
supremacy and power; hence they brought in another angle to the same. According to the Brahmins since dance was nothing but another form of worshiping god they had the supreme say in these matters.

The social anthropology of Kathak dancers in history is thus highly fascinating as it got equated to the priestly caste and even the kathak gurus in the northern belt of india represented the Brahmin status.(Booth, 2005) The Brahmins not only separated this form of dance from its core purpose of binding people across various castes but also hit the gender angle by bringing in the concept of devdasi . These were women who were dedicated to dance and sing only for god. These women were neither allowed to marry, nor have have any form of physical relationships. Thus the power game was won by the Brahmins by playing their cards of caste and gender politics.

Gender Politics

Traditionally Kathak was meant to be a platform accessible to all. It defamiliarises the ordinary sexual and social experience of women and men as people. Indian mythology also reveals various stories exemplifying gender ambiguity, androgyny, sex transformations, male pregnancy, and erotica through some of the metaphorical discourses related to gods, goddesses, heavenly nymphs, and demons, as well as sages, ascetics and yogis. There have been innumerable examples of transcending gender in kathak. Men dressed like women and performed. The concept of gender in the Natya Veda is highly complex. It believes that gender is past our physical being, it is connected with our soul and souls aspire for the realisation moksha which can only be achieved when one can get free from the shackles of bodily existence.

As per the Tantric school of thought the Supreme Being is conceptualised as one complex sex, comprises of both male and female (on the right and left side respectively). In order to attain salvation one must be able to transcend these shackles of one’s sex.(Shah, 1998) Even in the Pre-Vedic literature Shiva is known as ardhanarishwara, which means containing the polarities of both male and female force in the form of Shiva-Shakti. Dance is an important means by which cultural ideologies of gender difference are reproduced.

Through movement vocabulary, costuming, body image, training, and technique, discourses of dance are often rooted in ideas of natural gender difference However as time passed Kathak also came under the purview of the political game of gender and it’s got labelled with the tag of being a dance form only for the females. Even the stories narrated through kathak like the stories of lord Krishna have got adapted. Earlier it was believed that Radha was Krihna’shladini Shakti and not different from him, hence the dance was performed in a semi-circular manner where the same dancer took the roles of both Krishna and Radha. However, now these roles are performed by different actors.(Chatterjee, 1996)


The birth of Kathak took place with the Benarasgharana of kathak which was then ruled by the Rajputs. This dance form then travelled to Jaipur establishing the Jaipur gharana of kathak. Though both these forms were highly dominated by females they still had a great respect in terms of an art of telling stories of god and educating others on the powers of truth , righteousness etc. However when the Mughal’s invading our country and the marriage of JodhaBai and Akbar took place two cultured merged together. The Mughals got dancers from Persia and captured women form india and got them trained in kathak.

It’s from this time onwards that Kathak got labelled as the courtesans dance what we today call as tawa’if or prostitutes.(Massey, 1999) The costumes changed and the new gharana of Kathak was born which is today the most famous one – Luckhnowgharana. The dressed changed from the ghaghra (like a long skirt) to chudidar. The dresses were tighter at the bust and presented the women as a sexually desirable object. A lot of change took place in the basic hand movements and presentation if the dance and a dance that used to tell the love story of Krishna and Radha at one time became a dance form with movements meant to entice men. In the whole power struggle and caste politics it was the women who suffered the most and were heavily exploited.


During the British colonial rule dance became a tool of rebellion and political resistance. It demonstrated unity and power. The dancing women’s position changed from ‘pure and pious’ to ‘fallen and sinful’ and hence either victims or perpetuators of the evil of dance. Women were encouraged to display their beauty, energy, skill, sensuality and seductiveness in dance. Thus for the fear of saving there girls from the being looked on as an object of desire dance became a tabooed activity for members of society especially the upper caste. This mindset exists even today, as we don’t see many girls from the upper class of society taking up dancing. However these mind sets are changing gradually.(Reed, 1998)


As per Natyashashtra an acharya or teacher should have an intrinsic knowledge of vocal and instrumental music, dance, rhythm and movement. He should further have imagination, intelligence, creative faculty, memory, sharpness and capacity to shape the taught. The shishyas, or the taught, on the other hand should be intelligent, retentive, appreciative, devoted, enthusiastic and must have an innate desire to excel. This form of teaching has been continued over time however the essence of the relation has got lost with the loss of the pure and pious status of dance.


Today Kathak has been attributed with various new meanings on the global platform like
* Traditional heritage of India
* Carrier of Indian culture
* Indianness
* Recounting the significant past

Today kathak has become a cultural commodity that gets sold in form of a few dance shows and performances however it has lost its original purpose and ethos(Royo, 2004)


Kathak has always been used as an important tool in cinema. In 1955 classic, JhanakJhanakpayalBaje by V. Shantaram the film’s hero, Ghirdar competes for artistic supremacy in Kathak dance against another dancer Ram Prasad. Ghirdar’s triumph is ensured during the last series of rhythmic systematic turns or chakkras which he performs elegantly, however his opponent is left all dizzy. Ghirdhar here is from Varanasi, the birthplace of kathak and the ultimate hindu city and his opponent is from Agra the Mughal capital which is associated with the more popular kathakgharana of lucknow. Thus kathak was used to demonstrate a state of communal tension in the country.

This art form was also reduced to mockery when UstadHalimJaffar Khan, who worked on Kohinoor, and other films, with Naushad Ali (Kohinoor’s music director), explains that the singing in this scene was undertaken by Niyaz Ahmad: “Naushad spoke to him about this scene. He said, ‘Please forgive me Khan-saheb, but for this scene please sing some tans and things, but in a comic way, in a foolish way.’ And Nyaz Ahmad agreed to do that” Even in later films kathak remained as a dance of the prostitutes through movies like umraojaan.

And even today when we have become more liberal in our thinking and claim to have crossed these old regressive practices the choreographers still use kathak in a ovie like devdas only for the character of chandramukhi, who plays a prostitute. Also today’s concert stage kathak is more focused of fast, complex, rhythmic footwork and tracing handwork rather than the old ethos of the dance which had its core around freedom, liberalization, unity, storytelling, love and expression of oneself.(Chakravorty, 2006)


A cultural dance form created to unify everybody and give everyone a freedom to expression eventually got used as a tool for playing out caste and gender politics. Whether it was the sufferings of the women or the link of the dance to the Bhakti movement, Kathak has transformed with all these interactions. The various stakeholders of the society have also used this to their convenience as and when required. Initially the Brahmin established their supremacy over this pure and pious form of expression an today they are the ones who have started the movement to label this as a fallen and sinful act. Thus we have seen the journey of nation through one form of dance and the story of Kathak through the nation.

Booth, G. (2005). Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in. Asian Music, Vol. 36, 60-86. Chakravorty, P. (2006). Dancing into Modernity: Multiple Narratives of India’s Kathak Dance. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 38, 115-136. Chatterjee, A. (1996). Training in Indian Classical Dance: A Case Study. Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 13, 68-91. Coorlawala, U. A. (1992). Illustrating Kathak. Dance Chronicle, Vol. 15, 88-93. Lidke, J. S. (2006). Devī’s Dance: The Interweaving of Politics, Mysticism, and Culture in Kathmandu Valley. International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 10, 35-57. Massey, R. (1999).
India’s kathak dance, past present, future. Delhi: Abhinav Publications. Pillai, S. (2002). Rethinking Global Indian Dance through Local Eyes. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 34, 14-29. Reed, S. A. (1998). The Politics and Poetics of Dance. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol 27, 503-532. Royo, A. L. ( 2004). New Directions in Indian Dance. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 36, 135-138. Shah, P. (1998). Transcending Gender in the Performance of Kathak. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 30, 2-17. WALKER, M. (2010). Courtesans and Choreographers: The (Re)Placement of Women in the History of Kathak Dance. New Delhi: Routledge.

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