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A storytelling form, Kathak has cultural elements of both Hindu, Muslim gharanas

By Swati Pillai*
Artists have a responsibility to offer an experience that will both reach audiences at their current state of mind and understanding and take them a notch higher. Kathak is the only dance form influenced by both Hindu and Muslim cultures. When it started in temples hundreds of years ago, it arose as a form of storytelling, moral instruction and a prayer offering to the Lord.
In Kathak, the audience is offered a visually and mentally uplifting experience. The music and the dance combine bodily modulation with rhythmic accuracy, playing with one’s mind while touching the heart. With the rhythm being an important aspect of Kathak without challenging the visual side of the performance, this unique aesthetic combination demonstrates the wonders of Indian classical dance culture.
I feel I was born to propagate Kathak in bringing its past glory. India is one culturally rich country, where almost every state has its language, cuisine, and dance forms. When it comes to dancing, India has traditional, classical, folk, and tribal dance styles, and all are simply amazing. As classical dancers, most of us do have the divine power in the back of our mind, and we offer our dance as a prayer to the Lord, as well as to entertain the audiences through that prayer.
All the incredible classical dances that originated in the country during ancient times are very special and precious. Among all these dance forms one is Kathak. Throughout history, quite unlike most classical art forms, Kathak has seldom been performed as an offering to a deity, instead from its earliest stages, it has been a recital directed at an audience comprising its patrons as well as the common people. Late Pandit Birju Maharaj’s perseverance, sincerity, passion for teaching, and incorporation of daily life examples into his teaching are admirable.
I believe teaching is a continuous learning process for a teacher. Indian classical dances celebrated across the globe for their enriching and mesmerising virtuosity can be traced back to centuries old ways of storytelling, performed as much for entertainment as for the spread of cultures and knowledge.
Each classical form is built upon layers of complex histories that often converge at the intersection of culture, art, politics, and even conflict, readjusting its structures and boundaries in the light of revolution and reform. Consequently, varying styles of the art form find new homes and families to become gharanas, yet other dance forms are added to the ever-dynamic definition of what constitutes as classical.
I would say my teaching style is a mix of being both warm and demanding. My love and passion for dance reflect my teaching style. I provide caring and emotional support but also have high expectations from my students. Having said that, I make sure my students are having fun in the classroom by finding the right balance between their artistic development and enjoyment. I try to be a positive role model so my students not only learn this beautiful form of Indian classical dance but also use discipline and practice in their lifestyles.
My breath and my joy is Kathak. Dance has been a breakthrough for me personally. Through dance I found myself, and within myself, I found God.” Swati believes it is important to think deeply about the form, continue training rigorously, and attempt one’s own interpretations to shape your journey. She stated that evolving with the dance form to find your own artistic voice is truly important.
I love sharing the craft that I have acquired by observing my gurus. My ultimate goal in teaching Kathak dance is to cultivate inner peace, a positive attitude and composure through expressions. I feel blessed to practice and share various aspects of a ‘Kathakaar’ , a storyteller by expressional and rhythmic Kathak compositions with my students.
Kathak is commonly regarded as one of the seven classical dances of India and is the only one from North India. Kathak has been enriched greatly by the contributions of musicians, dancers, professional women artists, and court and landlord patronage. Kathak is an elegant dance form of Northern India and revolves around the concept of story-telling related to Indian ancient and mythological culture. It is further characterised by intricate footwork, body movement and precise rhythmic patterns.
Kathak performances include Bhajan and Urdu ghazals because this is commonly used in both the codes as well as in temples too
Kathak is one of the 8th major forms of Indian classical dance. The origin of Kathak is traditionally attributed to the travelling birds in ancient Northern India known as kathakers or storytellers. The term Kathak is derived from the vedic Sanskrit word Katha which means story and kathakar which means the one who tells a story or to do with stories. Wandering Kathak communicated stories from the great epics and ancient mythology through dance, songs and music.
Kathak dancers tell various stories through their hand moments and extensive food work, the body moments and flexibility but most importantly through their facial expressions. It has both the influences of Hindu and Muslim Gharana and cultural elements in it. Kathak performances include Bhajan and Urdu ghazals because this is commonly used in both the codes as well as in temples too.
Kathak is found in four distinct form called Gharana name after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved they are Jaipur, Banaras, Lucknow and Raigarh. Teaching has been a sacred and relaxing experience for me. By teaching, I learn and by learning, I get inspired to teach more. I would say the hardest part of my job is to learn and try to understand different students' perspectives. It is definitely hard to match kids’ exuberant energy.
India, in any terms, shines like a unique brilliant star in the horizon of classical dance. It is here that the classical dance forms are considered to be bhakti yoga path to spirituality and worship; it is in this sub-continent alone that our deities are also revered as classical performing artistes.
In its delineation, it breathes the fragrance of our Indian philosophy and practices of life such as yoga. Where every Indian classical dance is rooted in the rhythms of the taal, Kathak is in fact the only one in which the taal itself is brought to life.
Some of the most well-known taal structures like the tritaal [16 beats], jhaptaal [10 beats], chautaal [12 beats], and dhamar [14 beats] are often taken to the stage by a performer and highlighted through compositions like thaat, amad, toda, paran, and tatkaar [footwork]. Evolving with the dance form to find your own artistic voice is truly important. My gurus have inspired me to keep questioning, find new ways of expressing creativity. People might love it or hate it, but one must have the courage to dance your own dance, to express your truth.
It is important to think deeply about the form, continue training rigorously, and attempt one’s own interpretations to shape your journey. I personally look up to being an international artist with new innovations without taking the main essence of Kathak so that I can spread and teach whatever I have learnt can be beneficial for the next generation to retain their interest in Kathak.
It would be great if I can make something which is like complete package for them so that they can get connected to God meditate and learn about the spiritual knowledge about culture and of course the main routing of Kathak but today I feel vindicated world dance day is widely accepted by the dance community organisation and most importantly by the audience.
I hope when my students leave the classroom they feel energized and eager to come back to the next class. I also hope every dance practice session is a stress reliever for my students after their busy day at school or at work. Finally, my hope is that they take away the joy and happiness from dance that will ultimately provide a more focused approach in whatever they choose to do.
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*Budding classical Kathak dancer

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