Kathak: The Dance of Storytellers

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    When elegance or nazakat, meets finesse or nafasat, you have a dance form that is truly captivating - Kathak. The classical dance form from North India owes a lot to the last Nawab of Oudh Wajid Ali Shah who was its great patron. Dancer and scholar Rachna Ramya, explores the story of Kathak, its origin, evolution and decline in ‘Kathak: The Dance of Storytellers’, published by Niyogi Books. Here is an excerpt of Kathak’s glory days and then, its sad decline.


    It was during the rule of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822–1887) that Kathak regained its glory. Wajid Ali Shah was the Nawab of Oudh, the region at the centre of present-day Uttar Pradesh. Wajid Ali Shah, during his rule from 1847 until 1856, carried all North Indian art forms to new heights through his generous patronage and artistic talents. Many scholars credit him for the revival of Kathak dance and securing its status as one of the major classical Indian dance styles. Wajid Ali Shah himself was an exceptional musician and dancer. He had studied Indian classical vocal music under some of the great masters of that time, such as Basit Khan, Jafar Khan, and Pyar Khan. He studied Kathak under the great gurus Thakur Prasad and Durga Prasad. Due to the uniquely creative efforts of Guru Thakur Prasad, the Lucknow school of Kathak came into existence. Under Wajid Ali Shah’s patronage, the Lucknow style of Kathak dance prospered and was perfected. Bindadin Maharaj and Kalkadin Maharaj, the famous sons of Thakur Prasad ji, also graced the court of Wajid Ali Shah. The expressive Lucknow style became known for its nazakat or elegance, and nafasat or finesse. Wajid Ali Shah also choreographed dance dramas in Kathak style, which were called rahas, in which he himself danced. The raha probably was the Persian alteration of the dance style Raas Leela. His accompanying royal female dancers belonged to his parikhana or the dwelling of fairies, which consisted of hundreds of beautiful women who were given skilful training of music and dance by the expert teachers of that time. It is believed that Wajid Ali Shah created thirty-six different types of rahas, choreographed in Kathak style. He is also believed to have enhanced the status of thumri, a light classical genre of music. During his time, thumri became a significant repertoire of Kathak dance. Wajid Ali Shah’s pseudonym was Qaiser, but he assumed the name Akhtarpiya for his thumri compositions. He also wrote many romanticized Urdu poems called ghazals, which often depict the agony and rapture of unrequited love. In the court of Wajid Ali Shah, ghazals also became the expressive repertoire of Kathak, where Kathak dancers expressed the sensual and delicate poetry of ghazal. Even in modern times, thumri and ghazal hold a significant place in the repertoire of Kathak.

    Wajid Ali Shah’s patronage to uplift the artistic endeavours of twaifs also facilitated enhancements in the art of Kathak. The twaif community was an artistic section of the feudal society of North India. They were the courtesans who excelled in arts, music, dance, and poetry, and professionally entertained their guests during their mehfils or evening gatherings. These twaifs trained under the same gurus who taught music and dance in the courts. However, their presentation of Kathak differed from the Kathak presented in the courts, and incorporated more playful, enticing, and teasing movements. There was free exchange of artistic ideas between the royal artists and twaifs. Sometimes, skilled twaifs were called to teach in the courts. This freedom of interchange helped in merging the Kathak of two different communities, therefore consolidating the repertoire of Kathak.

    Kathak attained extraordinary levels of elegance and complexity under the patronage of the last nawab of the state of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah.

    Unfortunately, the annexation of Oudh by the British in 1856 imposed very discouraging and damaging consequences on Kathak, and the decline of this dance form became inevitable for some time.


    British Raj, or the British rule, was instituted in the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947. The Indian rebellion of 1857 by the soldiers, employed by the East India Company against the Company’s rules, caught fire and intensified into civilian rebellion and other mutinies. The disorganization of the rebellion gave an opening to the British government to take control of the Company, an action that ultimately resulted in the establishment of British rule in India.

    Kathak dance faced a major decline during the British Raj to the extent that the Kathak dancers faced social humiliation and disgrace:

    The grandeur of Kathak eclipsed during this period. Apparently the predominantly oriental dance vocabulary of Kathak was misinterpreted by the Western mindset and it became an eye-sore, both literally and metaphorically, for the colonial perception of classical dance. Kathak was demeaned, demoted and even denounced as a lowly dance performed solely for the sensory pleasure of the kings. However, thanks to the herculean efforts of a few twaifs, among whom Gauhar Jaan was a leading light, Kathak somehow managed to survive British denunciation and remained alive, albeit in a fractured and fragmented form.

    The British annexed Oudh in 1856 and Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Matiya Burj in Calcutta. All the kingdoms ruled by individual nawabs and rajas became princely states and were required to submit to the dominion of the British Crown. British authority had no interest in supporting the art of Kathak dance. A very few Kathak gurus were given royal patronage. Most of the royal dancers had to leave the courts and survive in poverty.

    The twaifs were forced to become mere entertainers and they started to lose the artistic substance in their art in order to please the nouveau riche patrons, who were not sensible enough to appreciate arts for art’s sake. These twaifs started to use more erotic elements in their dance, which cheapened the dance for the sophisticated elites. Many of these twaifs were ousted and were perceived as nautch girls by the British. The word ‘nautch’ was the distorted adaptation of the Hindi word naach, which means ‘dancing’. Nautch was in practice during the late Mughal era too, but it was disgraced during the British Raj.

    Kathak performed by the twaifs was demoted to the dishonoured nautch dance and became the means of amusement for sahibs or the higher British officials and the zamindars or the native aristocrats.

    A dinner in the community was usually followed by a nautch performance. So were other festive occasions, such as the celebration of a King Emperor’s birthday and visits of dignitaries to civil and military stations. Nautch girls would also accompany the British army whenever it was on the move, entertaining the soldiers on the way. At times they were also engaged to welcome arriving guests on the highways....Quite often, lonely men would send for nautch girls to entertain them in their own houses. Usually, groups of civilians or soldiers joined hands to hire nautch girls for an evening of amusement.

    Many journals, chronicles, and travel documents by the travellers at that time mention the nautch community. On reading these documents, one can decipher that the nautchwalis or the nautch dancers were mainly condemned for performing for a payment or for being patronized by the feudal rulers. Moreover, the nautch community was later subdivided into various classes due to subtle differences in the dance styles and living styles: mirasi, bai, rumzani, domni, nariyal, and kheloni. There were many misperceptions and misinterpretations about the nautch community:

    It is surprising how a famous Indologist like E.B. Havel, who visited India towards the close of the 19th century, passed an unjust remark on Nautchwalis of Benaras. Probably, he had a biased view and did not study them properly. He observes, ‘The dancing girls of Benaras are generally the unmarried daughters of the Kathak caste—the caste of professional musicians.’ Havel did not know that the teachers in India call their disciples as sons and daughters, and obviously the Kathaks were the dance teachers of the professional dancing girls.

    Nautch dance was not about erotic expressions and vulgar gestures, as perceived by many at that time. There were some sensible and unprejudiced viewers who observed the intricate techniques and appealing aesthetics of nautch dancers.

    Charles Doyley in his The European in India, published in 1813, a very rare book now, gives the following account of a dancing woman of Lucknow.

    It should be understood that the dancing women of India pique themselves entirely on the gracefulness of their positions and motions. They have no variety of steps, the feet being kept parallel and close, one foot advancing, or moving only a few inches, and the other always following it; this however, is done with remarkable exactness as to times which, on all occasions, is regulated by the instruments played by the men, attached to the set.

    Hazratganj-The Heart of Lucknow

    Some others have also mentioned the perfect walking techniques and foot movements of nautch girls. These art lovers obviously noticed the precision and complexity of the dance form, which can only be achieved through dedicated training. The foot movement, body positioning, and aesthetics of the nautch dance were admired and observed by many scholars of that time and can be traced in today’s Kathak performances.

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