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My Journey with Kathak

By Bageshree Vaze

In April 1998, I first walked into the compound of the National Institute of Kathak dance, popularly known as Kathak Kendra, in New Delhi. The tinkling of ghungroo bells and the distant boom of the Tabla drums greeted me as I walked along the stoned pathway that led to the back of the centre, to the main dancing hall where the living legend of Kathak dance Pandit Birju Maharaj taught his classes. Having received an Ontario Arts Council professional development grant, I came to Delhi to study this North Indian dance form. My training began by observing the students in Kathak Kendra’s 5-year diploma program. Just as writers learn by reading and musicians learn by listening, one of the main tenets of dance training is to learn by watching.


On the sprung wooden floor under swirling ceiling fans, men and ladies in their twenties danced in salwar kameez suits, dupattas pinned over their shoulders and waists, and ghungroos tied around their ankles. Maharajji sat on a carpet in front of them, propped against bolster cushions and chewing paan. An ensemble of musicians playing the Tabla, Sarangi, and Harmonium accompanied the class. I watched in fascination at the display of vigorous movements, intricate footwork, and lightning-fast spins on the left heel known as chakkars, the signature features of Kathak dance.

Every time I dance, I try to evoke the feeling of being in that room. I felt I had entered a portal into the past, to the darbar era when dancers and musicians were employed by the royal courts; this was the system of arts patronage in India that existed until it was dismantled by the British in 1858.

The Kathak Kendra students’ energy and thirst for achieving command over their art were inspiring, and it was a challenge for me to not jump up and join them When the students had trouble finishing a pattern to land on the sam, the first beat of the rhythmic cycle, Maharajji would chuckle in a goodnatured way, and stand up to demonstrate how to do it correctly. It was exciting to watch this legendary artist who had codified Kathak’s mudra or hand gestural language, and developed the dance form’s interaction with Tabla drum vocabulary.

I had been fascinated with Kathak much before I saw it performed properly. Growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, I saw glimpses of it in movies like Umrao Jaan. However, my Indian dance journey began with Bharatha Natyam, when the St. John’s Hindu Temple began holding classes in this South Indian classical dance style. I studied Bharatha Natyam for many years, completing my Arangetram (graduation recital) and eventually training in Mumbai with the late legendary Guru T.K. Mahalingam Pillai. I also studied Kuchipudi, another South Indian dance style. Yet from somewhere deep within my soul, I always felt I was meant to pursue Kathak. Since I was learning Hindustani (North Indian classical) vocal music – my father was a vocalist, as was his father – I felt more connected to Kathak because of its Hindustani aesthetic.

In 1997, Pandit Birju Maharajji performed with his troupe in Toronto, and then a few months later at Carnegie Hall in New York. I was fortunate to witness these performances. Maharajji made such a complex form seem so accessible by performing compositions that depicted everyday life, such as his famous ‘telephone tihai’ that I decided that if I were to study Kathak, I would learn Maharajji’s style. When I arrived in Delhi, it was the last days of Maharajji’s tenure as Head of Faculty at Kathak Kendra; he had just turned 60 years old and as per Indian law was required to retire. He would continue teaching as part of his institute Kalashram, where he taught until his passing in January 2022.

The origins of the dance form have often been romanticized to date back to the ancient temples of India, but as with North Indian classical music, there are obvious connections to India’s Mughal history. The story of Kathak’s evolution has been described well by scholar Margaret Walker in her essay Kathak in Canada: Classical and Contemporary. When India became an independent nation in 1947, there was a cultural revival to reclaim classical arts and minimize any British or Islamic influences, resulting in an ‘invented history’ of sorts. However, Kathak’s Muslim influences are evident in repertoire elements such as ahmad and salaami, as well as in the angarka or anarkali costuming.

Kathak is one of eight Indian classical dance forms, originating from and associated with North India, in particular with the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha which means a story.

While classical dance and music were performed in the darbar era -- Pandit Birju Maharajji’s father, for example, was a court dancer in the Raigarh princely state -- what we see now as Kathak is largely a product of the twentieth century. Treatises dating back to the thirteenth century describe court dance, including footwork, spins and a gliding walk, but Kathak's main feature today is its dialogue and interaction with the Tabla drums. As Walker has documented, choreographic fragments of past centuries were passed down through the generations - just as Indian classical ragas and melodic compositions have been passed down through an oral rather than written tradition -- resulting in a final fusion of Kathak as it is performed today on the proscenium stage. And Pandit Birju Maharaj is credited in particular as defining the style as hybridity of many artistic disciplines largely due to the fact that besides being a dancer, he was an accomplished percussionist, vocalist, composer, poet and painter.

It’s difficult to describe in writing the beauty of Kathak hand gestural language or the energetic beat language of the Tabla drums, but to watch Kathak is to witness a beautiful painting in process (it is no wonder Maharajji was also a painter). Kathak’s elegant and graceful movements are juxtaposed against hard-hitting footwork: it is the perfect balance of Tandava/Lasya, the integration of masculine and feminine energies. What is commonly referred to as ‘traditional’ Kathak is a solo art form, performed by a dancer with an ensemble of musicians.

The trajectory of a performance will usually begin with an invocation to a deity such as Shiva or Saraswati, and continue with fixed rhythmic patterns such as thaat, ahmed, uthaan, tihai, paramilu, and paran. A particular rhythmic cycle is chosen and exploration begins in the vilambit, or slow tempo, continues in madhyalaya, medium tempo, and finally in drut or fast tempo. A dancer will end a composition by striking a pose to hit the sam, the first beat of the cycle, and this explosive effect makes Kathak highly dramatic. Instruments such as the Sarangi, Harmonium and Sitar play a nagma or lehera, a melodic line that repeats to demarcate the rhythmic cycle, while the Tabla artist plays both fixed compositions and interacts with the dancer in improvised sequences. A dancer recites rhythmic patterns, and this recitation is known as padhant. It is imperative in the Kathak style that the dancer vocalize rhythmic language, and this is unique to Kathak, as the other Indian classical dances do not require a dancer to recite rhythmic language on stage.

There are repertoire elements in Kathak that focus less on rhythmic complexity, such as the Gat Nikaas, evocative of the darbar era, in which a dancer performs the gliding walk or the chaal. Gat Bhav allows the dancer to demonstrate abhinaya or facial expression. A traditional Kathak presentation will often feature a lyrical piece such as a thumri and often culminate with a lively fantasy of movement known as a tarana.

The traditional system of training in Indian classical arts is known as the Guru-Shishya parampara, wherein a student lives with their Guru, but with the advent of Independence in 1947, the Indian government set up institutions for the learning of classical arts. Kathak Kendra was first established in 1955 as part of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, and in 1964 it became part of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

The late Pandit Shambhu Maharaj, the uncle of Pandit Birju Maharaj, was the first head of faculty at Kathak Kendra After he died in 1970, Pandit Birju Maharaj Ji took over this position During his tenure, Maharajji adapted what was traditionally a solo form by choreographing group pieces.

Maharajji and Pandit Shambhu Maharaj practised the Lucknow style of Kathak, but eventually the Kathak Kendra faculty expanded to include exponents in the Jaipur style or gharana of Kathak.

Kathak Kendra is the premier institution for learning this art form, but now Kathak schools exist all over India and in all corners of the world (just as other Indian dance styles have become transnational art forms)

One will find differences in the different gharanas of Kathak (just as one finds in the different schools of Bharatha Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, etc.); some of these are minute differences in the angles of arms, footwork and chakkar techniques, or the use of the upper body in the Lucknow style. Generally, however, there is an overriding aesthetic common to all Kathak interpretations, especially in its interaction with the Tabla drums. It would be impossible to name all the notable Kathak legends but they include Gopi Krishna and Sitara Devi of the Benares gharana, Kumudini Lakhia, Maya Rao, Rajendra Gangani, Saswati Sen and many others. Contemporary Kathak choreographies range from the retelling of epic stories such as The Mahabharata or Ramayana to explorations of social and political themes, and collaborations with other dance languages (such as Flamenco).

There is a popularly held notion of Kathak and Indian classical arts as ‘traditional,’ yet they are living art forms. In my study – I trained primarily with Jaikishan Maharaj, and with Maharajji himself -- I learned rhythmic compositions created by my teachers, and not anything written down in a book. I witnessed how they composed rhythmic patterns on the spot, and I came to know Kathak as an art that is created in the moment. Hence, Kathak is not simply a reflection of the past, of a transplanted Indian identity, or in the case of Canada, a ‘multicultural’ dance form. Kathak evolves all the time with individual interpretations, and contemporary expressions reflect the present moment while drawing on traditional foundations.

Over the past two decades I have had the great privilege of studying with other exponents in movement and rhythm including Pandit Pratap Pawar, Pandit Puran Maharaj and the late Srimati Maya Rao. In 2010 I performed as a solo artist in Maharajji’s annual ‘Vasantotsav’ festival at Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi, with Chief Guest Sitara Devi in the audience. And with such blessings, I continue my Kathak practice as one that is constantly evolving by composing and choreographic new rhythmic and melodic material, interacting with other styles and aesthetics, and producing theatrical productions.

In particular, I have tried to enhance Kathak practice by producing music that can be used for performance and teaching. The greatest challenge for dance artists is how to access music. In the 1980s, Maharajji released an album of music for Kathak dance, which included his famous Kalavati Tarana (to this day many dancers perform on that song) but beyond this, there are virtually no commercially-available recordings for dance. Kathak presentation ideally features live musical accompaniment, but it is often untenable for dancers to engage musicians; dancers must have the financial resources to cover musicians’ fees, and there are a handful of full-time musicians who perform for Kathak dance outside of India. The only other option is to produce professional-level studio recordings, and this is also not feasible for dancers on a regular basis.

Therefore, in 2007, I began using my vocal and composition skills to produce music for Kathak dance performance and training, beginning with my album Tarana (released by Times Music under the name Khanak). Later albums include Ragas and Rhythms, Avatar (9), and Kalashree. In these recordings I have adapted and sung traditional compositions as well as original songs and arranged them as they would be performed for Kathak choreography by interweaving melody with rhythmic compositions. Recorded at Toast and Jam Studios in Toronto and featuring a stellar lineup of musicians (Vineet Vyas, Ajay Prasanna, Murad Ali to name a few), these recordings are digitally accessed by dancers around the world through platforms such as Spotify and ITunes. Many of these choreographic interpretations can be found on YouTube, and in 2016, a dancer performed one of these songs at London’s Wembley Stadium on the occasion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom.

I have recently completed a video project entitled Tarana, co-produced by the Aga Khan Museum, in which I have performed the choreography of some of my Kathak recordings. Technology and digital platforms have connected artists especially during the pandemic and are proving to be powerful tools in cultivating the global field of Kathak. Pursuing any art form is a lifelong journey. The story of Kathak is one of resilience and evolution and my journey with it continues.

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