The whole world loves a story. And each person tells a story differently. From very early times, the enactment of a story has been a popular form of entertainment. The actor or performer uses several methods to do this. He perfects his skills - which includes recitation, singing, acting, and dancing. In the classical dance forms, the dancer uses hand gestures developed over a period of time, they were called 'stylised'. This meant that although the gestures came from normal human behavior, yet over a period of time they took on the appearance of being slightly removed from it - a thing of beauty, something that has 'style'.
The professional storyteller in any country has a good knowledge of the epic tales and mythology of his own country. He also knows a lot about village legends, local beliefs and village customs. This helps him to feel the pulse of the people. To know what makes them happy, and what makes them cry; what touches their hearts and what it is, that makes them angry, The storyteller, who went from village to village, sitting under the shade of a large tree and gathering people to his side, was a clever actor. He would keep a whole village up all night, talking of kings and demons and of battles lost and won. He had no stage, no props, no lights. His cloths were old and torn. Yet with a scarf and a few bells around his ankle. he would act out a legend. He would make them cry or would bring a smile to their lips. To do this, the storyteller used words. He sang. He beat a rhythm out with his feet. He also used gestures and movements. And also powerful of all - he used 'facial expressions'. He who 'told a story' in this manner, was called a 'kathak'.
A new manner of 'praying' swept across India in the 15th century A.D. For the first time, ordinary men and women expressed their 'devotion' to god, through simple lyrics, group singing and dance. This was a very big change from the ritualistic practices of earlier times. Devotion to the legend of Radha-Krishna spread like a fire across the length and breath of the land. This was called the bhakti movement. Bhakti literally means devotion. In Uttar Pradesh, in an area called 'Braj', the raas-lila developed. The raas-lila was a combination of music, dance and narration. Several people participated in it and the many legends of Shri Krishna and Radha were enacted. Kathak was the style used by the raas-lila groups for the dance element in the presentation.
With the passing of time, the temple was not the only place for kathak. When the Moghuls came to rule in North India, Kathak moved into the palace durbar. The Mughal emperors loved to be entertained with music and dance. The devotional lyric was replaced by very fast rhythm that was brilliant to watch. The expressive poetry was not devotional anymore. It was based on the theme of shringaar or love. In the 19th century, during the reign of Wajid Ali Shah of Avadh, Kathak flourished. Wajid Ali Shah was himself a poet, a dancer and a musician. It was during his reign that the Lucknow gharana or school of Kathak, was founded. The other well-known school of Kathak is the Jaipur gharana.
Kathak is the only classical dance style of North India. It was popular in Uttar Pradesh and from there, spread to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kashmir, Bihar and Gujrat. Generally speaking, the two or three schools of Kathak are not different. Their technique is the same. Only the manner of rendering movements is different. The Jaipur gharana is known for its fast rhythms. The gurus of this style were all excellent tabla and pakhawaj players. They composed beautiful pieces of rhythmic verse, which they passed on to their students and children. These have been preserved by them and are performed by students of this style.
The Lucknow gharana on the other hand, is known for its grace, subtle bhava or expression and its sophisticated use of rhythm. The gurus of this school wrote beautiful verses. All these compositions are performed to this day. The Benares gharana executes movement in medium pace, with emphasis on precision and grace.
Pure dance or nritta is the hallmark of Kathak. Unlike other South Indian dance forms, the Kathak dancer does not open the knees outwards in a sitting position. The basic form is standing. Around the ankles of the dancer are tied numerous ghungroos or bells. The Kathak dancer is no less than a percussionist! She can produce numerous sounds with her feet. Some loud, some soft, some sharp. The speed is at times slow and at other times fast. Usually, the dancer recites a passage of bols or rhythmic syllables. Then, she perform it. These recited and performed passage are called tukdas. These tukdas or todas are an important feature of this style.
The chakkars or whirling movements of Kathak make it a very attractive dance form. Another feature of Kathak is the amazing footwork. A third feature of the style is that the dancer speaks to the audience during a concert. This is done at regular intervals. She explains her moves. She also talks about the composer and her guru. She explains the verse or sahitya.
The instruments you see used in Kathak are the tabla, the pakhawaj, the sitar and the saarangi. When you watch a Kathak presentation and hear these beautiful instruments, you see Muslim-Hindu cultures in total blend. It is the only style of classical dance in India, which took from both these cultures successfully.