Prevalent in the North as a classical dance form, Kathak has a long history. Nurtured in the holy precincts of the Hindu temples, Kathak has over the centuries attained refinement and enriched itself with various hues and embellishments. Kathak means a story teller and it developed as a dance form in which a solo dancer tells and interprets stories from mythology. Kathak is one of the most important classical dances of India. Kathak is said to be derived from the word katha, meaning "the art of storytelling." The Kathak dance form originated in north India and was very similar to the Bharatnatyam dance form. In ancient India, there were Kathakars or bards who used to recite religious and mythological tales to the accompaniment music, mime and dance.
Under the influence of Persian and Muslim traditions Kathak dance assumed the form of courtly entertainment. Under the patronage of medieval rulers and Nawabs a class of dancing girls and courtesans emerged to entertain the palaces and courts. Medieval traditions imparted Kathak a distinct Hindu-Muslim texture. Thus, with the passage of time Kathak went on changing its form and character. This change was also reflected in the dress of Kathak dance.
During the nineteenth century Kathak enjoyed a revival and gained prominence among the kings and zamindars (feudal lords) not only as a form of entertainment but also as a classical art form. Slowly and gradually Gharanas or schools of Kathak emerged. The Jaipur Gharana of Kathak emphasized technical mastery of pure dance. In the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Oudh (a student of Kathak), Kathak dance emphasized dramatic and sensuous expression and developed into a distinct style called the Lucknow Gharana. This Gharana is said to have originated with Wajid Ali Shah's court dancer Thakur Prasadji.
Kathak dances are performed straight-legged and the ankle bells worn by the dancers are skillfully controlled. In Kathak dance the emphasis is more on footwork as against hasta mudras or hand formations in Bharatnatyam dance. Kathak dance can be performed by both men and women. A Kathak dancer is not required strictly to stick to fixed steps and stages in. He or she can change the sequence of steps to suit his or her skill and style of dancing. Modern exponents of Kathak dance are Birju Maharaj and Uma Sharma.
In nritya, the expressional numbers called gats are danced by delicate glances of the eye and by using the art of mime. Themes from life are taken like enacting simple chores of carrying water from the well or walking gracefully, covering a face with a veil and looking through it in a tantalising manner at the lover.
Also, to the lyrics, expressions are shown evoking the rasa or emotion in the spectators, who, if the musical traditions are shared along with the songs, enjoy it by expressing their appreciation with a round of applause.
The themes of Krishna, Radha, Shiva, Parvati and mythological characters find a prominent place in the Kathak dancer's repertoire. Nowadays, experiments are being carried out with group choreography exploring the dance form. Both men and women perform Kathak which is also used to present dance dramas of historical tales and contemporary events.
Because of the linear nature of the passing of knowledge from guru to shishya, certain stylistic and technical features began to fossilise and became hallmarks of a particular school, guru or group of teachers. The different styles are known as gharanas, and these are:
The Lucknow Gharana developed in the courts of the Nawab of Oudh in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It particularly emphasises grace, elegance and naturalness in the dance. Abhinaya or expressional acting, especially improvised, plays a very strong role in this style, and Birju Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj are or were all famed for the naturalness of and innovativeness of their abhinaya.
The Jaipur Gharana developed in the courts of the Kachchwaha kings of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Importance is placed on the more technical aspects of dance, such as complex and powerful footwork, multiple spins, and complicated compositions in different talas. There is also a greater incorporation of compositions from the pakhawaj, such as parans.
The Benaras Gharana was developed by Janakiprasad. It is characterized by the exclusive use of the natwari or dance bols, which are different from the tabla and the pakhawaj bols. There are differences in the thaat and tatkaar, and chakkars are kept at a minimum but are often taken from both the right- and the left-hand sides with equal confidence. There is also a greater use of the floor, for example, in the taking of sam. Though the style developed in Benaras, it flourishes today from Bikaner.
This was established by the Maharaja Chakradhar Singh in the princely state of Raigarh in Chhatisgarh in the early 20th century. The Maharaja invited many luminaries of Kathak (as well as famous percussionists) to his court, including Kalka Prasad (the father of Acchan, Lacchu and Shambhu Maharaj) and his sons, and Pandit Jailal from Jaipur gharana. The confluence of different styles and artists created a unique environment for the development of new Kathak and tabla compositions drawn from various backgrounds.