Kathak: Aesthetics, History and Influences

in Overview
Published on: 20 November 2018

Siddhi Goel

Siddhi Goel is a Kathak dancer based in Delhi. She holds an M.A. Arts and Aesthetics, from School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she focussed on Dance History and Performance Studies. She has also completed her Diploma (Hons) in Kathak from Kathak Kendra. A disciple of Pandit Jai Kishan Maharaj, she has been learning Kathak for over 15 years and performing actively since the past 5 years. Apart from dancing, her work interest lies in arts management and curation.


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. Big and small courts at Lucknow, Benaras, Rampur, Murshidabad, Jaipur and Raigarh, emerged as major patronage sites. This long standing historical association with courts reflects very strongly in the form’s aesthetics and tehzeeb (a word that can be loosely translated as ‘etiquette’). What survives in Kathak, despite decades on the proscenium stage, is the courtly elegance in its presentation, its confrontational and almost flamboyant directness with the audience, and the highly intimate and interactive nature of its performance. Today, Kathak enjoys immense popularity locally and globally. Kathak is visually identified by its upright posture, eclectic spins, virtuosity, technical repertoire, and abhinaya.


Locating the history of Kathak


Today, Kathak is a recognised Indian classical dance form, and enjoys immense popularity locally and globally. Kathak is visually identified by its upright posture, eclectic spins, virtuosity, technical repertoire, and abhinaya.


While there is sculptural evidence of dance in temple walls (the first temples are from the Gupta period in the 7th century AD), they do not resemble postures of Kathak dance. The bent knees pose of dance in sculptures cannot be attributed to Kathak, which is the only classical dance form that stands out for its straight legs-erect knees posture. This posture enables the dancer to move their feet freely in different patterns and also at very high speed. Additionally, the footwork in Kathak not only comprises of variations in speed but also of executing complex rhythmic patterns by moving the feet in a variety of ways.


Thus, to trace Kathak’s history we need to shift our focus from ancient sculptures to medieval paintings of roughly the 16th-17th century. Kapila Vastyayan has noted that from this time onward we start seeing references in paintings, murals and miniature paintings, of postures looking similar to Kathak (1974). Also, we see a growing presence of musical instruments like sarangi and pakhavaj, which are essential accompanying instruments of Kathak till today. Costumes comprising of churidar, lehenga, and dupatta, which reflect those worn by dancers today and dancers wearing ghunghrus or ankle bells gain visibility. Around the 17th -18th century the tabla appears, which adapts to dance quite smoothly and contributes to its repertoire.


The word ‘Kathak’ has not been used to describe these dances and dancers and the terminology of those dances is very different from today. Thus, in order to study the history of Kathak, one has to trace it to multiple sources and not restrict it to a linear narrative. Kathak today stands on the bedrock of the condensation of several desi (folk) dance styles, Persian dance influences, Bhakti and Sufi aesthetics, and the repertoire of the tawaifs (courtesans), along with the Gharanedar, or hereditary families. All these influences are discussed in detail in the allied article which exclusively focuses on tracing the origins of Kathak from the 18th century onwards.


Patron and audience - Who is the Kathak dancer dancing for?


Most of the times art needs patronage to survive. Whether it is in the form of courts, temples, landlords, individuals, or corporates and governments in the present times, all have in some capacity given livelihood to artists. The patronage systems extend their influence not just socio-politically, but also in the way they shape the aesthetics of the performance.


In the visual and written records that have survived, we find the Kathak dancer is rarely described as performing in front of a deity, which makes it different from the other classical forms. For example, in say Bharatanatyam or Odissi, which were performed in temple ceremonies and the devadasi system whereby dancers were ‘married off’ to the deity at a young age. In these classical forms the dancers are supposed to display the solitude and inwardness of a dancer who is immersed in performing for an invisible god, who is called the ‘ultimate patron’. However, in Kathak the patron and audience are ‘real’, meaning that they are seated in front of the dancer. Thus, instead of getting immersed in themselves as if no one is watching, the dancer establishes a direct and sustained eye contact with the audience and invites the audience into the dance.


Pallabi Chakravorty has provided a very interesting analysis of this aspect. She draws connections between Thumri (an important abhinaya Ang in Kathak) and Sufi Qawwali by examining the terms majlis and mujra. Majlis-i-Sama means a Sufi gathering for listening or meditation. Mujra commonly refers to the performance of the tawaifs, the professional dancing and singing women artists. However, it actually means a ‘choreographed ritual of salutation’ (Chakravorty 2008). Mukul Kesavan (qtd. in Chakravorty 2008) has explained that mujra is derived from majra, which indicates a place where things are made to flow, and a mijrai is a person who pays respect. Overall, the word ‘evokes images of fluidity’, probably suggestive of the dance which is fluid and less binding in structure; and also a supplication to a higher authority (patron or god). In Kathak, the dancer always bows to the patron (king, landlord, nawab) and pays homage to everyone present, as a sign of respect.


Mujra and majlis are both ‘gatherings of sensuous experience and transcendence’ (Chakravorty 2008). Mujra, which has acquired an embarrassing connotation because of its association with the Kotha or courtesan’s salon, suggests the amorous seductive dance of tawaifs, which is often a reduction of their artistic potential and sensibilities.


This furthers our knowledge of the deep influence of Sufi aesthetics on Kathak. Pakistani Kathak exponent Nahid Siddiqui has pointed out that the word ‘thaiyya’ comes only in Kathak and that this word is also found in the poetry of the famous Sufi poet Bulle Shah. His poem ‘Tere ishq nachaya karke ‘Thaiyya Thaiyya’ (Your love makes me dance ‘thaiyya thaiyya’) divests a very potent energy to the word ‘thaiyya’, and it seems to encapsulate the intensity and passion of love and its expression through dance.


This transcendental element in Kathak expands the scope of and blurs the lines between devotion and romantic love, or bhakti and sringara. Attempts have been made to make Krishna the presiding deity of Kathak, mostly in imitation of other dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Odissi, who have presiding deities and where the dancer ‘belongs' to the god before anyone else. However, although Krishna is an inspiration for many Kathak dancers and his leela (divine play) and roop (form) provide rich aesthetic content, he does not preside over a dance performance in any ritualistic  way.


The performance site and setting


The Sufi poet Qutban, author of the renowned Awadhi Masnawi Mirgavati (1503 AD), has mentioned music and dance activities happening in the court of the great Sultan Husain Shah Sharqi of Jaunpur (ed. Orsini, Schofield 2015). While we cannot know what the dance looked like, it is an important source nevertheless because it tells us of the significance of the court as an emerging patronage and performance site for dance.


From such texts and also through oral history, we find that the primary setting for Kathak was probably the homes of zamindars, the palace and court of the local ruler, and also high profile social events hosted by senior British officers and elite upper caste/class Indians.


However, it should be kept in mind that these earlier written sources do not use the word ‘Kathak’ to describe the dances. Terms such as Sudhang, Jakkadi (dance of Persian women), Chain, Natwari Nritya, Nritta, Pillmiru, Naach, Bhav are common names ascribed to such dance-music activities. Communities like Bhands, Bhagats, Naqqals, Kathaks, etc., are shown as engaging in music and dance related activities. Kathak, which today is recognised primarily as a dance form, is in these sources listed as a name of a family/community going by the name of Kathiks or Kathaks.


These are desi (folk or indigenous) traditions that are coming in volatile contact with the courtly tradition and creating an immensely heterogeneous and diverse performance practice, which condenses many influences within it, to finally become Kathak in the 20th century.


Mention of the community of Kathaks does not come before the 19th century, from when onward they become really important players in the history of this dance form, actively dancing in Awadh, and also accompanying as musicians and teaching the tawaifs of those times. Apart from the male dancers, the repertoire of the tawaifs heavily shaped and influenced the aesthetics and repertoire of the performance, as they were the star performers of their times.


A significant aspect of the performance spaces of Kathak is their intimacy. The viewer is sitting quite close to the performer, as most often the space is that of a court or the house of the patron. This space allows a dialogue to be formed between the audience and the dancer. The dancer talks to the audience not only through words, but also through their eyes and facial expressions. They execute very subtle and sophisticated movements of wrists, hands, eyebrows, chest, shoulders, intricate footwork that are best appreciated from close. This courtly inheritance is embedded in the very body language of presentation in Kathak, which involves facing and talking to the audience directly.




It is often quoted that Kathak comes from Kathavachan or storytelling. Apart from the hugely popular Lucknow Gharana family, there is another family related to the Lucknow Gharana, who practise Kathavachan. Their form is very different from the stage Kathak today, but their familial links with Pandit Birju Maharaj, the head of the Lucknow Gharana and regarded as the senior most exponent today, makes it important for us to study the Kathavachan.


There is a member of the Lucknow Gharana family who is not often spoken about in the mainstream Kathak today- Shitala Prasad. Ashok Maharaj and Tripurari Maharaj, two brothers from this family run two schools in their native town Rae Bareilly-


The two brothers run two schools:


-‘Kalika Bindadin Paramparik Kathak Natvari Lok Nritya Kala Kendra’ in the home village of Raghav Pandit


-‘Ashok and Tripurari Maharaj Shiksha Parmparik Kathak Natya Sanskritic Kendra’ in Ram Nagar

(Walker, 2014).


Walker describes the Kathavachan performance she witnessed in 2003 and it deserves to be quoted at length:


...Tripurari’s presentation began with a short sung prayer to Krishna and moved into an approximately 15-minute performance that combined story-telling in heightened speech (katha) with sung poetry (kavita, in this case about Radha and Krishna), expressive gestures, mime and instrumental interludes on the harmonium and the tabla. The instrumental sections used a variety of the eight-beat folk tal kaharva, and the harmonium repeated one or another of the kavita’s phrases as a lahra or cyclical melody. These sections formed a type of punctuation in the performance, and during them Tripurari walked around the performance space, often executing a type of dance step by tapping the toes of each foot before he stepped. (Walker, 2014:24-25)


Interaction, which is such an integral aspect of modern day Kathak also resonates quite strongly here in Kathavachan:


...He interacted with the ‘audience’, who were other family members and performers seated around the classroom’s periphery, by gesturing and frequently bidding them ‘Look!’ (Dekha!). The audience responded to certain statements with enthusiastic shouts of ‘Jai!’ There was little in Tripurari’s performance, however, that corresponded with stage kathak. He occasionally took a posture with his elbows bent, hands held in front of his chest and body tilted, but more often gestured in a very natural way directly to the audience... He performed no actual ‘dance’ items, but during one instrumental interlude presented a detailed mime segment as a woman washing the front of her hair, applying powder, eye makeup and lipstick. Finally, the performance moved into a fast instrumental section, during which Ashok sang and Tripurari performed his sedate toe-taping walk. (Walker 2014:24-25) (Bold mine)


However, it is an observation worth noting that a Kathak recital today could be all about the technical pure dance nritta compositions , without any abhinaya, and still be called Kathak. Whereas if a performance is ONLY about storytelling like this one was, it might be seen as a completely different dance style altogether (Walker,2014)


Kathak Gharanas


Lucknow, Jaipur, and Benaras are the three Gharanas of Kathak, their names deriving from the places that they flourished in. The word Gharana comes from the Hindi word ‘ghar’, which means house. Thus, for a Gharana to exist, the art form must be practiced by hereditary artists of the same family or biradari. David Neuman (1990) in his extensive work on musicians in North India has identified two requirements in order to classify a Gharana: firstly, the community should be practicing endogamy, i.e. marrying within their social group, and secondly, they need to have a core family or a leader.


While the Kathak dancers from Lucknow and Benaras do fulfil these requirements, the Jaipur Gharana does not, in terms of a core leader. However, in the present times, that does not matter as both the Lucknow and Jaipur Gharana enjoy immense popularity and limelight. It can also be said that Guru Pandit Rajendra Gangani has emerged as a very strong family leader, spearheading his hereditary style of dancing.


The Jaipur Gharana of Kathak seems to come not from Jaipur, but from the Churu district in North Western Rajasthan (Walker 2014). While the Lucknow Gharana has a strikingly clear vertical family tree going back to nine generations, with near precise historical references (barring the first two generations of it), the Jaipur Gharana family make up is a bit unclear. Pandit Rajendra Gangani, the hereditary leader of the Jaipur Gharana is the son of Pandit Kundan Lal Gangani. While it does not have a clear genealogy beyond this, the Gharana has flourished through a large number of families engaged in music and dance. It boasts of several families and extended communities with almost all its members practicing either dance or playing the tabla or pakhavaj.


Their dance style is strikingly in contrast to the Lucknow style, with its focus on fast pirouettes and spins. But today’s dancers try to maintain a fine balance of all aspects of Kathak in their performance.  The lack of a linear genealogy has clearly not affected their performance opportunities or space in Kathak today, and some of the biggest names in Kathak, like Damayanti Joshi, Roshan Kumari, Sunaina Hazarilal, Prerana Shrimali, Urmila Nagar, etc, come from the Jaipur Gharana.


The Lucknow Gharana is currently spearheaded by Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj. Regarded as the seniormost ‘authority’ on Kathak and the patriarch of the fraternity, ‘Maharaj ji’ as he is fondly called has had a career spanning seven decades and continues to perform even today. Representing the seventh generation of dancers from Uttar Pradesh, this Gharana is believed to have developed under the patronage of smaller courts like Rampur, Murshidabad and Lucknow. Though it is commonly understood that Bindadin Maharaj and Kalka Prasad were court dancers at Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s court in Lucknow, the books written by Shah himself (Bani and Saut al Mubarak) do not mention their names either as dancers or teachers in the court (Walker 2014).


However, it is true that they did live in Lucknow. Bindadin Maharaj died in 1912 and is believed to have been born between 1836-1845 and the reign of Wajid Ali Shah lasted from 1847-1856 after which he was exiled to Kolkata. Thus, Bindadin Maharaj would have only been a young boy in Shah’s court (and Kalka even younger), and probably created the compositions he is credited with after Wajid Ali Shah’s exile in 1856.


Birju Maharaj explains that the Kathaks did not accompany Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata and stayed back in Awadh. Kathaks have been described in a few British Censuses as ‘teachers and accompanists of dancing girls’, and it is possible that they made their living in Lucknow by teaching the tawaifs, who were owing to their popularity, were often very rich and among the highest taxpayers of the time (Walker 2014). 


Bindadin Maharaj was the teacher of the famous courtesan Gauhar Jaan, the first female artist to be recorded. A rare archival video from 1991 of R.K. Shukla (the maternal uncle of Birju Maharaj) in the archives of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi, shows Shuklaji telling the audience that Shambhu Maharaj, the son of Kalka Prasad was the teacher and accompanist of Akhtari Bai, famously known as Begum Akhtar.


Thus, the Lucknow gharana has been shaped as much by the repertoire and aesthetics of the tawaifs as the Gharana family, as they were working in close conjunction with each other.


Lucknow Gharana boasts of probably the largest variety of bols and also the most elaborate and deep expanse of the abhinaya ang; another takeaway from the courtesans who sang, danced and emoted as part of their performance.


Bindadin Maharaj is said to have composed hundreds of abhinaya based pieces like Thumri, Bhajan, Dadra, Hori, etc. Most of his creations make Krishna, his leelas, and his divine love with Radha as the base and are intensely beautiful, melodious and passionate renderings of the vast spectrum of human emotions. It is fascinating that his compositions have been passed down orally and are still sung and performed by students and performers. His poetry carries his signature or pen name ‘Binda’ and like the Bhakti poets, it too is a deeply personal address to the divine, fusing the erotic with the spiritual in an emotional dialogue with his own god unmediated by any priestly class or religious ritual.


A few of his Thumris and Dadras can be seen in Guru Malti Shyam’s video on Thumris that is a part of this module.


The Benaras Gharana comes from the city which is one of the most important seats of Shiva, and thus shows a visible influence of the Shaivite school. However, the influence of Shiva on this  Gharana does not come from Benaras alone, but also from Nepal. The King of Nepal was an ardent supporter of the arts, and Sukhdev Maharaj, one of the leading Gurus of the Benaras Gharana was employed as a court dancer there (Vatsyayan 1974).


The influence of Shiva shows in the dominant ‘tandava’ style of dancing, which is forceful, strong, and places emphasis on footwork. This is also the only Gharana which carries an acrobatic element in its dancing, with elements such as dancing on plates, splits, jumps, going around in circles on one’s knees, etc., are still performed by some dancers.


Unlike the other two Gharanas which are deeply inspired by the madhurya bhav bhakti of Vaishnavism, this Gharana seems to reflect the strong influence of Shaivism, but also incorporates bhakti of Krishna and Vishnu in its repertoire.


Sukhdev Maharaj had three daughters: Tara, Alaknanda and Dhanlakshmi (Sitara Devi). The doyen of Benaras Gharana was Sitara Devi, who passed away in 2014. She was by all means a star performer of her time, famous for her boldness and flamboyance on stage. She resisted all kinds of moral policing and wore ‘bold’ outfits in the 1950s and 1960s when it was considered indecent for women to even dance. She gave several high profile solo recitals and acquired prestige and fame which was unprecedented for a female Gharana leader, and reserved only for male Gharana leaders.


Tara’s son Gopi Kishan was another stellar dancer from the Benaras Gharana, known for his speed, footwork and spins. He is famous for his dancer roles in iconic movies like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) and Baiju Bawra (1952). His cousin Sitara Devi also danced extensively in films such as Mother India (1957), Aabroo (1943) and Badi Maa (1974).


In the discussion on Gharanas and their history, it becomes imperative to mention the Raigarh Court and the king of Raigarh, Raja Chakradhar Singh. Raja Chakradhar came to power in 1924 and reigned until his death in 1947. While the influence of the courts and zamindars had started declining and artists were beginning to lose patronage from the 1920s, Raigarh was one of the rare places that continued to support artists till much later.


Raigarh seems to be the place where dancers from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan came face to face, as they came looking for patronage and performance opportunities. Walker has proposed that the actual division of the Gharanas happened in the 1930s at the Raigarh court. She argues that having a distinct identity that can be differentiated regionally and stylistically had obvious benefits in obtaining more patronage opportunities. This is not to deny the history of the respective Gharanas before the 1930s, but rather points to the process of creating and projecting social identities, and establishing a distinct identity of oneself and one’s group.


Guru Rajendra Gangani of the Jaipur Gharana provides us further information on this division of Gharanas:


...My father told me that when Raja Chakradhar came to Raigarh, Narayan Prashad Ji took my father to him. Jailal Ji Dada was also there. Raja Chakradhar Singh had also invited Acchan Maharaj Ji. So three or four gurus from different places were there. During that time, dancers in Wajid Ali Shah’s court changed it into Natvari Nritt and made it a darbari nritt. They named it Lucknow gharana to show that it was a distinct tradition. When that style was being developed, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur told his dancers to dance in temples but not in courts. So dancing in temples continued in Jaipur and it came to called the Jaipur gharana. (Walker, 2014:107)


We know from oral history that the Nawab of Rampur Hamid Ali Khan was an important patron of the Kathak family. His reign from 1896-1936 saw the attendance of several star artists like Gauhar Jan, Ahmad Jan Thirakwa, and also the Lucknow Kathaks. Acchan Maharaj is known to have worked in his court and Birju Maharaj has on many occasions candidly talked about how he used to dance in the Rampur court as a child. Walker has shown us that the court documents of 1933 mention Lachhu, Bachhu, and Baij Nath as dancers.


Kathak today


Dancers usually begin their recital with an invocation to the divine and then establish the tal in which they will perform: teental (16 beats), jhaptal (10 beats), dhamar (14 beats), ashtamangal (11 beats) are being the most commonly performed tals.


Dancers begin with the vilambit laya (slow tempo) after establishing the tal, and usually execute some footwork in the tal before proceeding to perform thaat. aamad and paran aamad follow, after which the dancer moves to drut laya (fast tempo). It is in the drut laya that the full expanse of the virtuosity of Kathak can be displayed. However, dancers of the Jaipur Gharana are immensely skilled in presenting great vistaar or elaboration of nritta in the vilambit laya as well.


Pure dance or nritta compositions like tukras, paran, parmelu, tihai, gatnikas and gatbhav, all usually presented in Drut Laya, and also Vilambit Laya for Jaipur Gharana dancers. Once the tempo has been decided, the dancer is free to present as many compositions as he/she likes according to the time available. Jugalbandi, a friendly competition between the percussion player and the dancer is also a popular piece in a Kathak recital.


Depending on the dancer, either midway or towards the end of the recital, they present an abhinaya sequence, which is a Thumri, Dadra, Bhajan, or some other literary composition set to tune. Between the slow and fast tempo there is madhya laya or medium tempo in which the dancer does tez aamad and natvari tukda. However, madhya laya is mostly performed in dance classes and less on stage.  These components can be viewed in the ‘Lucknow and Jaipur Gharana of Kathak’ video in this module.


The order of presenting pieces on stage however did not ‘always’ exist from the earlier times, as it is believed to be. It was Maya Rao, the student of Shambhu Maharaj and the first student at Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, who created this format of presentation. Maya Rao had already learned dance and was teaching and choreographing in Bangalore, when she came to Delhi and was perturbed by the lack of structure and curriculum in teaching. She remembers that Shambhu Maharaj would teach her things ‘as they occurred to him’ and not in any structure (Walker 2014).


Perhaps when the dance was being practiced by the Kathaks and tawaifs it did not need a fixed structure and could be open-ended and improvised. But once Kathak had entered institutions and had been opened to people from all communities instead of just those within the family, it had to be shaped into a curriculum in order to be taught. Maya Rao also choreographed the first Vandana in Kathak, the Saraswati Vandana. Walker writes that Shambhu Maharaj and Nirmala Joshi encouraged her to choreograph on Sanskrit shlokas (For more, see Walker 2014:123-125).


Today it is very common to have Kathak-based choreographies on Sanskrit poetry, drama, shlokas , etc., but it is almost never credited to Maya Rao, as is the case with most women artists whose contributions are not recognised or are credited to a hereditary male dancer. Today, most Kathak dancers probably do not even know that the format in which they perform was created by a non-hereditary woman many decades ago.


Another female Guru worth mentioning here is Reba Vidyarthi. She also came to New Delhi to learn Kathak but the faculty was so impressed by her performance that she was recruited as faculty instead. Many of today’s leading performers like Malti Shyam, Saswati Sen, Vaswati Mishra trained under her initially before being trained by Birju Maharaj. It was Reba Vidyarthi who was responsible for designing the Diploma (Hons) curriculum that Kathak Kendra follows till today.


The order of the initial exercises of movements and footwork that Kathak dancers are taught in the beginning of their training, such as urdha hasta chakra, jal bhramari, and so on, were also created by Reba Vidyarthi. Till date these exercises have passed through hundreds and thousands of bodies of Kathak dancers but probably few would ever know that they were designed by her. As Walker (2010) has noted, the legacy of Vidyarthi stays only in the bodies of the dancers she trained and not in ‘tangible’ dance choreographies or recitals.


In an archival video at Sangeet Natak Akademi of a lecture-demonstration she gave, Vidyarthi is shown to be interviewed by Guru Prerana Shrimali and demonstrating her teaching methodology. Just as they work to promote senior Gharana family artists, Doordarshan and other cultural organisations should share this valuable archival material of artists such as Vidyarthi and by doing so recognise their unsung contributions.


The range of what Kathak covers today is very vast and versatile. From dance dramas, to contemporary experiments, fusions, conventional recitals and theme based compositions, Kathak is an indispensable part of every major dance festival in the country and enjoys immense popularity nationally and internationally.




Chakravorty, Pallabi. 2008. Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India. Calcutta: Seagull


Orsini, Francesca and Schofield, Katherine Butler. ed. 2015. Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers


Vatsyayan, Kapila. 1974. Indian Classical Dance. Publications Division Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Govt. of India

———. 2011. Asian Dance. New Delhi: B.R. Rhythms


Walker, Margaret E. 2010. ‘Courtesans and Choreographers: The (Re)Placement of Women in the History of Kathak Dance’. In dance matters: Performing India, edited by Pallabi Chakravorty and Nilanjana Gupta, 279-300. New Delhi: Routledge


———. 2014. India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective. New York: Routledge