Posted in For Project 1 Examples

Example 3 Research, Part 5: Modern Kathak Performance

Today, there are three famous gharanas of kathak (Fig. 1) – the Jaipur (bottom), Lucknow (top right) and Benaras (top left).

Fig. 1. Three kathak gharanas

Kathak is traditionally danced by a soloist, either man or woman. Around the players ankles are bells called ghunghurus (Fig. 2). Lower-pitched (male) bells are worn on the right, the higher-pitched (female) bells on the left ankle. Girls usually wear 101 and men 151 on each ankle. Great care is taken over this so that the bells, which are ‘tuned’ to produce a pleasant tone when sound simultaneously, and not in a blurred jangle. The ghungurus actually inspired me to write my example – although I used finger cymbals to imitate them.


Fig. 2. Ghunghuru bells

Accompaniment is usually provided by a singer and two musicians. The singer accompanies only certain parts of the programme, as there are parts with no singing and in others the dancer takes the role of a singer as well. One musician gives the rhythm – meaning percussion, either tabla or pakhawaj, the other the melody – lehra which is played by sarangi or harmonium, just like for tabla solo. Occasionally, tanpura – drone, may also be added.

Structure of a kathak performance differs from gharana to gharana, in the same way that the various tabla gharanas give diverse forms to their recitals. However, here again, there can be a basic pattern. A Kathak recital usually begins with the opening in the form of vandana. This is a salutation – a prayer in addressing a god or goddess. The praises to the dedicated god or goddess, have dance syllables blended in with the words. It is sung slowly with no time measure, sometimes followed by higher density rhythmic sections with drums, generally the dance stays true to its characteristic slow lyrical movements. Here is a sloka (2010: 105) salutation to the goddess Saraswati:

“With face like the full moon, with long, flowing hair, wearing white robes, seated on a lotus flower, playing the vina, all worship thee, Saraswati, for with your music and learning, you remove all sorrows from the world.”

Here is a short video demonstrating Saraswati vandana, the performance starts on 0:34. (Kathak Exponent – Garima Bhargava/ Saraswati Vandana, 2012)

Another popular vandana is dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, who represents good luck and symbolizes the dispelling of misfortunes.

Here is a video of Ganesh vandana and below that, a Vishnu vandana.

Although vandana used to be the first item danced, the normal practice now is for it to be only played or sung, before the dancer enters. Hence, the first actually danced item is often rang manch ki pooja where the hands are cupped together above the head and the fingers open out like a flower in the pushpanjali hasta, as the hands come down towards the chest. They are then tilted forwards as if offering flowers to the stage. Then follows the water offering and obeisance to the presiding deity. It ends with a namaskar which is the Hindu salutation. Here is a video of rang manch which starts at 1:48 after guru vandana (vandana dedicated to teacher).

Vandana and Rang manch are a form of Hindu worship and before kathak went to the Muslim courts they were, the only opening items. Vandana was unacceptable to Muslim patrons as it was, but even the rang manch, which is purely nritta, still had religious associations. For this reason, it had to be rechoreographed to embody the Muslim salutation or salaam – called the salaami: “In the salaami the right hand only is used and the left is kept at the side. The fingers are held together and very slightly bent. The thumb rests across the palm. The hand is then raised to touch the forehead while the head is bowed as a mark of respect.” (1999:53)

After these openings, is amad, which is the Persian word for ‘entry’ or ‘coming’.  Amad corresponds somewhat to the alap in Indian music, in that it establishes the atmosphere. It’s not an opening, rather it’s the introduction to the dance that is to be performed, just like peshkar in tabla solo – it introduces bols and movements that are to be used later. It starts with a signal from the dancer to make a small rise in tempo, only for a bit – so it is still quite slow.

The dancer is first seen in one of the characteristic kathak poses and then, “bends and sways, arms describing circles and figure-eights. These simple flowing movements are performed symmetrically, to the right, then to the left. They fill up the whole measure, but again end in a pose on the sam beat. Between the ending pose and the next figure, the dancer uses the feet and bells in time to the music, either ‘in place’ or moving around the stage. These might be called ‘rest-measures’ that connect the various rhythmic figures all through the performance, for the dance as a whole is continuous.” Very often the amad blends imperceptibly into thaat. (2004:165)

Thaat uses gentle and delicate movements, such as when “neck glides subtly from side to side in time with the taal”, and the tremulous fingers, wrists, and eyebrows heighten the beauty of this section. Just before the end of the measure, in a flurry of arm moves, footwork and show of temperament, the dancer beats a syncopated phrase and comes to rest in a different pose with one arm extended overhead, the other stretched to the side or forward, always stopping with a glance toward the audience on the first beat of the next measure. This continues for several slow measures, while the drummer tries to match rhythms or suggest a new rhythm for the dancer to follow. In the Lucknow gharana the thaat is performed on one spot, and only the upper half of the body may be swayed very slowly from side to side. The thaat of the Jaipur gharana is different, in that the dancer glides gracefully first to one side and then the other. The sum is beautifully marked by a sharp turn of the head.

Thaat leads to the gaths. The tempo of the music is increased and the sarangi plays a faster lehra, but the dancer still moves lightly on its surface and the dance itself is performed at a slow speed, unhurried and composed. Gaths introduce nritya for the first time and the dancer takes up one theme after another. The first gaths to be danced are gath nikas, which sketch the story that is to follow. Even though nritya elements are predominant, gaths often begin with nritta walks toward the audience. This nritta element is an opportunity “to display the charm and feminine wiles of the court dancer: seductive poses, subtle use of eyes and gliding neck movements and the swirl of the costume. Each walk ends with a retreating step, although eventually, the nritya and natya element is added.”

Hence, in gath nikas, the dancer comes forward for a few beats until the beat before khali with a dramatic pause of following few beats, while holding a characteristic pose. Only then is the nritya added – from the sum dancer begins a chaal or gait. They give a clue to the character of the person being depicted and suggest the type or class of the nayika (heroine) and nayaka (hero). By means of chaals the dancer also portrays various moods, birds and animals. Examples are the peacock gait, the deer gait and the swan gait. The sound of the ghungurus – the small bells around dancer’s ankle, after that short silence which followed the nritta walk, also adds to the excitement of the chaal.

After a brief introduction in the gath nikas, the story unfolds more elaborately in the gath bhava. Since a single dancer has to portray more than one character it is essential to have some means of separating them and demarcating the several actions. This is achieved by another nritta figure called the palta, where dancer moves from a half-turned position in one direction, through a complete revolution of the body, to a half turned position in the opposite direction.

The subject matter of gaths falls into three sections, namely, those which deal with simple actions, those that portray Krishna, and those based on mythological characters and episodes. For example, the simple action of drawing the veil over the face is called the ghungat gath. In gath bhava the dancer would show the emotional state of a girl when she performs this action – whether she was genuinely shy or simply being coy. A Krishna gaths tell different stories, such as the Kaliya Mardana which shows how the giant serpent Kaliya was subdued by Krishna who then danced triumphantly on its hood. The mythological gath would be Sita Harana, based on an episode from the Ramayana that tells of Sita’s abduction. Take a look at this lovely demonstration:

Up to this point the tempo of the dance has been fairly slow, therefore nritya items like bhajans, ashtapadis, dadras, and thumris may be introduced at any point in the performance so far. These are all light classical vocal forms, here used as the interpretive dance. Thumri is sung describing love between Krishna and Radha and the dancer repeats the stanza in a mime, with the name also suggesting graceful stamping of the foot. Similarly, dadra, like thumri has love lyrics. It is sung in dadra tala, set to light raga or folk tune. Dancer once again mimes the lyrics, just like in the two following forms: bhajan – a devotional song, by the 16th century poet Tulsidas and ashtapadi – Indian hymns with eight-line music, from a Sanskrit verse from the Gita Govinda by Jayadeva (Keyt 1956: 274) that tells the love story of Radha and Krishna.

With the gaths over, the dance progresses into faster nritta passages in various complex rhythms. These take the form of tukras. Tukra means piece or fragment, and it is usually short, lasting for about six or seven measures of the taal. At the end of a tukra the dancer assumes one of the typical Kathak positions and holds it for one bar. It can appear in all speeds, hence amad and salami fall into the category of slow tukras. The ones that appear after the gaths, are usually in medium tempo, where the dance figures take on an energetic aspect: “The arms become whip-like, the hands seem to strike at invisible walls. There are many fast-stepping or pivoting turns at the end of a danced figure, ending in a pose on the sam beat.” These figures always end in a tihai, which mentioned previously in the post about solo tabla.

The natwari type of tukras are usually danced first. Natwar is one of the epithets of Krishna the dancer, and the boles of these tukras are said to reproduce the sounds created when Krishna danced on the serpent Kaliya’s hood. A tukra that is repeated three times successively at the same speed it is called a chakkardhar tukra. Actually, in tabla playing we come upon chakkardhar as well. It always connotes the repetition of three, whether the repeated part is a short composition or a phrase. A tihai that is repeated three times, very popular in kathak and tabla solo, is called chakkardhar tihai. (Fig. )

In the Jaipur gharana of Kathak, there is a type of tukra which is also danced three times, but in this case the speed is doubled with each repetition. Each rendering of the tukra should be an exact reproduction of the first in all but with faster speed. Since this tukra must start slowly, it comes in the early part of a performance. Very similar to the tukra is the torah, which also consists of nritta bols and appears in different tempos. An example of a slow torah is Rang Manch ki Pooja. In the later sections, torah is danced very fast. There is also kavita torah, performed to the recitation of a poem. The drum and dance bols corresponds to words and is thus danced with syncopated footwork, while miming the lyrics.

For example:

tata tita krita Ra — dha – On the river-bank speaks Radha,

dhina, dhina nata krita dhya – ta – daily, daily, of Krishna, she speaks and meditates,

krita kritata lcritata dhina ja — ta saying, saying, saying as days pass,

tina drigana to these two

base driga driga driga Ra — dha eyes come, come, come to Radha.

After these, dance becomes faster, and in the parans, nritta dance figures become even more syncopated and complex. The dance syllables used here are the drum syllables of the pakhawaj, which as we’ve seen, can be also played on tabla and usually ends its solo recital. The dancer recites a phrase of boles and then dances it as the percussion accompanist repeats it. The dancer then recites a longer and more complex phrase and dances this, and so on. It can be the other way round, with percussion player calling the phrases. This may result in a friendly competition between them of ‘going it better and faster than you’.

The sound ghunghurus are beat with dynamics of loud and soft, slapping the whole foot or brushing a heel, or drawing the toes across the floor, making the bells whirl: “There is variety in the inner tempo of the footwork, sometimes beating seven beats against the eight bets of the drummer; nine against eight and so on.” The dancer’s torso may bend forward or back, and here, we see a characteristic movement that distinguishes Kathak from other classical Indian dance forms: a gradual ‘Mist’ or spiraling movement of the spine. The gradual twist of the body may be likened to certain movements in nature, such as that of a vine winding itself around a tree. The parans are filled with an abundance of these spiraling movements, executed with lightness and speed.

The next part of the recital is usually the paramelu, which is even faster. Here we find a mixture of  syllables of the percussion instrument that blendtogether with the dance boles and including some from sounds of nature, such as bird sounds. Paramelus are danced at great speed and come to a climax with the pure footwork of the tatkar.

Tatkar ends the performance and displays the technical virtuosity of the dancer. The Jaipur gharana is especially noted for the brilliance of its tatkar. I wanted to conclude this with a video that inspired me to write my example – a kathak performance in jhaptaal:


Fig. 1. Three kathak gharanas. (top left) [user-generated content, online] At: (Accessed on October 2, 2016)

Fig. 1. Three kathak gharanas. (top right) (2012) [user-generated content, online] At: (Assessed on October 2, 2016)

Fig. 1. Three kathak gharanas. (bottom) (2007) [Wikipedia] At: (Accessed on October 2, 2016)

Fig. 2. Ghunghuru bells. [Pinterest] At: (Accessed on September 29, 2016)


Kathak Exponent – Garima Bhargava/ Saraswati Vandana. (2012) [user-generated content, online] Creat. dianajimena9. 28 August 2012, 2mins 17secs. At: (Accessed on 3 October 2016)


Lalli, Gina (2010) ‘A North Indian Classical Dance Form: Lucknow Kathak’ At:…(Accessed on) Article January 2004 with 10 Reads. DOI: 10.1080/08949460490273997. pp. 100 – 113

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

Massey, Reginald (2004) India’s Dances: Their History, Technique, and Repertoire. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications

Keyt, George (1956) ‘The Gita Gavinde of Jayadeva’ In:

John D. Yohannan A Treasury of Asian Literature. New York: New American Library




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