Kathak: Does every gesture have a meaning?
Indian dance does want to tell stories; but, ultimately, emotion and spirit is what all classical Indian dance cares deeply about.
Each ‘style’ (as in ‘Bharatanatyam’ and ‘Kathak’ featured in BBC Young Dancer) has its demanding, characteristic physical vocabulary and repertoire to express this.
But all share a common, dance-theatre heritage that seems to need not only to joyously dance but also to tell stories, about gods and their exploits, what they do in their fanciful realm - and on earth - to their fans and foes!
That said, of all the classical Indian dances, Kathak is the one that is especially introduced as ‘a storytelling dance’.
The name ‘Kathak’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Katha or ‘story’ and from Katthaka or ‘storyteller’, referred to in ancient and medieval Indian literature.
But ‘storytelling’ and temples though its origin may be, Kathak is the one dance that has a singular DNA, as it were.
An impulse to dazzle us most, with its heart-stopping bursts of rhythmic virtuosity, and to enchant with its delicate, lyrical exploration of romantic, as well as devotional, poetry.
One special period of a history of repeated invasions of India sets it apart from the multitude of classical Indian dances: Kathak is the only Indian dance form to have been directly and deeply impacted by the arrival and rule of northern and central India by the Mughals, an Islamic dynasty from Persia.
Thus, Kathak is legitimately both Hindu and Islamic, and unique in having a historical link to a religion that pretty much ‘officially’ forbids dance and music! To my mind, that would make Kathak an ‘activist’ dance-form, just by its practice!
In fact, the inimitably exquisite Kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui, settled and nurtured in the UK, has a hard time practising and presenting her art in her birth-country of Pakistan.
The same would be true of UK’s Kathak-trained Contemporary Dance god, the prodigiously talented Akram Khan, were he to return to perform in Bangladesh, the country of his parents’ birth.
The delightful Sonia Sabri showcases Kathak as an exemplary British Dance artist in the capitals of Europe.
Yet there was a historically significant time when art and culture, and poetry, music and dance of ancient and ‘Golden Age’ India flourished in Hindu kingdoms down south, as in the Mughal courts, especially during the time of Emperor Akbar ‘the Great’ (1542-1605). He was a true coalition builder who reputedly took a Hindu princess as wife.
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