Posted in For Project 1 Examples

Example 3 Research, Part 4: Indian Classical Dance and Past Influences on Kathak

Reading about kathak dance was a great opportunity to learn more about the fascinating artistic dance forms of India in general (Fig. 1):

“Indian dancing, even in its classical styles, is one of the most ancient forms still surviving. It has of course altered, but its basic elements would appear to be much as they were over two thousand years ago.” (Massey, 1999: 1)


Fig. 1. All eight forms of Indian classical dance

As Bajaj and Vohra (2013: 6) write, Indian classical dance is an umbrella term for various dance forms that have emerged from natya – the sacred Hindu musical theatre styles. The foundation of natya is laid in treatise called Natya Shastra, divided into 37 sections and describes in detail every aspect of three major performance forms including dance, which also combines the other two, music and drama.

In regard to dance performance, Massey (1999: 9) describes another, specific meaning of the term natya. Here, it has a connotation of being one of the three components of dance. Thereby, natya implies the dramatic element of a dance performance, with other two being nritta and nritya. Nritta is concerned solely with rhythmic movement in dancing and is therefore loosely termed ‘pure dance‘. It visualizes and reproduces music and rhythm by means of abstract gestures of the body and hands, unlike nritya, which suggests ras (sentiment) and bhava (mood).”

Massey (1999: 11) also writes about the number of the various gestures in the Natya Shastra, which is remarkable: there are thirteen gestures for the head, thirty-six glances, seven movements for the eyeballs, nine for the eyelids and seven for the eyebrows. The cheeks, the lower lip, each have six gestures and the chin has seven and there are nine gestures for the neck. Among these are hastas – hand gestures, sixty-seven in number. Twenty-four of these are for one hand and thirteen for both hands. Thirty of the hastas are nritta, while other are more in the realm of natya and nritya.

Dance was classified as either margi, which was sacred to the Gods and the dance is devoted to them, or desi, dance for the pleasure of humans, usually performed during celebrations in honour of the princes and in assemblies, fairs and festivals. (Sharma, 2004: 140)

Dancing was further defined as either tandav or lasya in temperament. In connection to the god Shiva, tandav is often regarded as a masculine form. However, tandav actually covers all dance that expresses strength and vigor – whether the dancer be male or female. Likewise, lasya, as the dance of Parvati, the consort of Shiva, is usually thought of being feminine, but it really embodies any dance that expresses gracefulness, delicacy and love – again, whether the performer is man and woman. (Massey, 1999: 8)

Natya Shastra also includes vachik abhinaya, which includes verbal recitation of poetry, singing, music and Vakyaabhinaya (dialogue) in drama. (Varadkar, 2012) It also describes how certain tempos are used to express specific feelings: “In the comic and erotic sentiments the speech tempo should be medium, in the pathetic slow and in other sentiments a quick tempo is appropriate.” (Massey, 1999: 11)

As Massey (1999: 13) points out, various regions of India emphasized different ideas from Natya Shastra. In the South, girls danced to serve the gods and preserve traditions, and dance resulted in a feminine form, suited for solo performances in the temple and later, the court. In the South-West the dancers were generally warriors of the nayar caste, hence the dance there was masculine and emphasized the bhayanaka and vir rasas (the emotions of terror and valor). In the North-East, with people having gentle and restrained nature, the dance reflected into the soft and delicate movements. In the North it was the cultured patrons who were largely responsible for the elegance and allusiveness. The dance I’m going to describe comes from this part of India.

Today, the word kathak refers to the North Indian style of Indian classic dance, but the old meaning of the word was different, derived from ‘katha’ which means story. Kathaks were story-tellers that wandered around the country, back in the Vedic times. They conveyed the stories – the great epics and myths from Veda, to the people by means of poetry, music and dance. (Kothari, 1989: 1)

What is interesting is that the Northern part of India was influenced by many cultures and Brahmins (the caste of Hindu priests and scholars), did not have the same control over society as they had in the South. (Massey: 1999: 16) This is why the dance also shows various influences.

First, around the 5th century BC, new religion appeared. It was founded by Prince Siddharta, who founded Buddhism. His teaching spread, especially under the Emperor Ashoka, to most of the countries of Asia. Under its peaceful nature, Kathaks continued spreading the Vedic tales and practice their art. Then, after Alexander’s incursion into India in 326 BC, the northern part of the subcontinent was subjected to new invasions: “Each of these peoples left the imprint of their racial and cultural characteristics on the population of Northern India. The patronage of the arts must also, to some extent, have passed from religious leaders into the hands of kings and princes, although the themes would undoubtedly still have found their inspiration in the scriptures of the Hindus.” (Massey, 1999: 16)

In the 8th century, however, newly emerged Islam, unlike Buddhism, had a different attitude which is “seriously to affect Kathak dancing, which was not only concerned with many gods and goddesses but also portrayed them in human form. This made the dance doubly sacrilegious to the Muslims and therefore it was vehemently condemned. The Kathaks had to find Hindu patrons, often Rajput princes of Central India, or disperse into the countryside where they could safely continue to dance in their traditional manner. With the passage of time, under less severe rulers, these Kathaks were to be permitted once more to dance with impunity” (Massey, 1999: 17)

By that time, new movements appeared, both in the Hindu and Muslim religions. Islam turned to Sufism, and Hinduism to Bhagti. Both were mystical in intent and preached toleration. Much of the Bhagti- poetry inspired nritya parts of kathak performances, but the most important was the rise of the Vaishnavite cult. This cult preached the worship of Vishnu, the god of preservation. “His incarnation as Krishna was the chief subject of music and dance. The art of mediaeval India was dominated by the Krishna theme and legends about him became a permanent feature of the Kathak repertoire. All these mythological episodes were excellent subjects for poetry, music and dance.” (Massey, 1999: 18)

Golden era of kathak dance started in the Mughal period, when despite Islam, emperors fostered Hindu arts. Massey (1999: 21) poetically describes:

“The flower which resulted from the Islamic seed sown in the rich soil of Hindustan, displayed the color of both cultures. The lotus had met with the rose.”

Massey (1999: 22-23) further writes that the Hindu dancers who found their way to the courts became influenced by new styles. The themes of the dances were no longer limited by the themes in Hinduism. The wider repertoire emerged to include imperial, social and contemporary themes. Music also changed. Kathak was first performed to Vedic chants, and later to religious songs in the prabhand style. Keertans and dhrupads were added in the 15th century and all of these were interpreted through gesture and mime.

But then, the dancers began to concentrate more and more on nritta and its brilliant variations of rhythm, “heightened by tantalizing pauses and lightning pirouettes“, so it became a convention to use a single phrase of music, called the lehra, which I mentioned in the tabla solo recital post. In the video below (Pandit Swapan Chaudhury – Jhaptaal Solo, 2010), lehra starts around 0:46.

Lehra, with its dignified nature and minimal ornamentation, is convenient because, as it repeats over and over, it helps keep the taal, aiding and providing space for the dancer and drummer to play with the various intricate rhythmic variations without destraction.

Here, I just wanted to give a brief introduction to Indian classical dance and the various past influences of different cultures on kathak dance. Next, I will describe a typical modern kathak performance.


Fig. 1. All eight forms of Indian classical dance. [Pinterest] At: (Accessed on September 28 2016)


Pandit Swapan Chaudhury – Jhaptaal Solo. (2010) [user-generated content, online] Creat. Vijai Kumar. 21 March 2010, 9mins 59secs. At:


Bajaj, T. and Vohra, S. S. (2013) Performing Arts and Therapeutic Implications. New Delhi: Routledge

Kothari, S. (1989) Kathak, Indian Classical Dance Art.

Massey, R. (1999) India’s Kathak Dance, Past Present, Future. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications

Sharma, K. P. (2004) Folk Dances of Chamba. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company

Varadkar, S. (2012) The Glimpse of Indian Classical Dance. [Kindle edition] From: (Assessed on September 16 2016)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s