Native to northern India, Kathak is one of the six classical Indian dance forms. An ancient storytelling device, Kathak originated within the Hindu temples as a means of portraying the epic tales contained within the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Hindu scriptures. Poetry combined with rhythmic movement to aid in the worshipful storytelling.
However, the stories didn’t stay within the temple walls for long. Nomadic Kathaks, or wandering storytellers, soon began carrying the dances throughout the country. They added emotional facial expressions to their performances, further developing the dance to include elements of mime. In this way, Kathak transitioned from its secluded, devotional origins to a more accessible, multi-disciplined, entertainment tradition.
During the medieval period, Kathak became an established part of court culture, performing under the special patronage of India’s Persian kings and Muslim moghuls. This sealed Kathak’s transition from colloquial entertainment to classical art form. Behind palace walls, the emotional and graceful storytelling Hindu roots combined with the more technical postures, rhythmic mathematics of Islam. The mesmerizing precise and pulsating footwork, as well as the graceful yet detailed carriage of the upper body, hand placements, and facial expressions demonstrate Kathak’s diverse cultural influences. Thus Kathak developed into a strong dance tradition with elements of both Hindu and Muslim culture present.
One medieval ruler in particular invested himself greatly into the development of Kathak: Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, India. A poet and dancer himself, Shah paid special attention to the emotional expressiveness of the dance. Out of his court came a stylization of Kathak that is today known as the Lucknow gharana. Carefully, the generations of Shah’s chief court dancer Thakur Prasad passed on the Lucknow gharana. Modern Kathak masters of the Lucknow tradition can still trace their lineage back to the court of Wajid Ali Shah, including the world renowned Pandit Birju Maharaj.
Katha Dance Theatre is honored to consider Pandit Birju Maharaj, the living legend of Katha dance, an honorary member of its Board of Directors. Additionally he is an bi-annual visiting instructor at KDT School. Founder and artistic director of Katha Dance Theatre, Rita Mustaphi, is a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj. This special relationship between Maharaj and KDT has fostered a strong teaching tradition and cultural vibrancy at the Katha Dance Theatre.