What is Kathak Dance?

Native to North India, Kathak (pronounced “Kah-tahk”) is one of six Indian classical dance forms. Kathak originated within Hindu temples as a storytelling device for portraying the epic tales from Hindu scriptures, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Poetry was combined with rhythmic movement to aid in the worshipful storytelling.

However, the stories didn’t stay within the temple walls for long. Nomadic Kathakars, or wandering storytellers, soon began carrying the dances throughout the India. They added emotions and facial expressions to their performances, further developing the dance to include elements of mime and theatricality. In this way, Kathak transitioned from its secluded, devotional origins to a more accessible, multi-disciplined entertainment tradition.

During the medieval period, Kathak became an established part of court culture, performed under the patronage of India’s Persian kings and Muslim moghuls. This sealed Kathak’s transition from colloquial entertainment to classical art form. Behind palace walls, the emotional and graceful storytelling inherent in its Hindu roots combined with the more technical postures, rhythmic elements and mathematical influences of Islam. The mesmerizing, precise, and pulsating footwork, as well as the graceful yet detailed carriage of the upper body, hand placements, and facial expressions demonstrate Kathak’s diverse cultural influences. Thus, Kathak developed into a strong dance tradition that incorporates elements of both Hindu and Muslim cultures.

Pandit Birju Maharaj. Photo: Anjana Nair

One medieval ruler in particular invested himself greatly into the development of Kathak: Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, India. A poet and dancer himself, Shah paid special attention to the emotional expressiveness of the dance. Out of his court came a stylization of Kathak that is today known as the Lucknow gharana, or school. Generations of dancers followed Shah’s chief court dancer, Thakur Prasad, to pass on the Lucknow teachings. Modern Kathak masters of the Lucknow tradition can still trace their lineage back to the court of Wajid Ali Shah, including the world renowned Pandit Birju Maharaj.

A living legend and master of Kathak dance, Pandit Birju Maharaj has had a deep and profound influence on KDT’s artistic mission and teachings. Because KDT founder Rita Mustaphi is one of his longtime disciples, he is an honorary member of KDT’s board and a biannual visiting instructor at KDT’s School. Their special relationship has helped foster KDT’s strong educational tradition and cultural vibrancy, as well as its goal to push the boundaries of Kathak dance.