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Roshan Date’s Kathak-A-dikathak
- Nilima Devi

May 12, 2015

(Originally published by South Asia Research, Delhi, Vol. 34 (3): November 2014, pp. 278-283. Reproduced with permission in

Roshan Date, Kathak-A-dikathak (Mumbai: Indian Education Society, 2010), 30 + 313 pp.

This pioneering book, written in Hindi, one of the major world languages, presents inspiring and unique discussions about the historical relationships between Kathak dance, sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, archaeology and other forms of fine arts. Venturing to discuss a vast array of topics in an introduction and 15 major chapters, this book challenges readers in terms of its agenda, its expressiveness of language and also through its sheer breadth of coverage. The key argument appears to be that since ancient times, human forms of movement and expressions can be and have been identified as forms of ‘dance’ and that from those very early times onwards such forms of movement and related artistic and communicative expressions may be identified as prototypes of what is today known as one of the major classical Indian dance styles, Kathak. Altogether, this constitutes an intriguing resource of rich information, including especially many magnificent pictures, for art lovers, students and teachers. This book provides much inspiration for further research and also helps in guiding dance practitioners’ minds today towards new artistic directions to combine old and new elements.

The foreword by Dr. Brajvallabh Mishra emphasises that this is the first book in the field of Kathak studies to explore these kinds of comparative and historical links. Given that this field of study is marred by politics, with little firm evidence based on literature or history, the daring and painstaking work of the author, which took nine years, is all the more remarkable. The author, herself one of the leading Kathak practitioners in Pune and a senior student of the late Kathak Guru Rohini Bhate (1924–2008), received an Indian government’s cultural scholarship to collect this material and produce the book. It would be unfair to dismiss this project merely as political intervention in rewriting the history of Indian art forms; there is genuine concern here to show the connections of past, present and future.

Extending much wider than to the standard sites of Mohenjo-Daro and other well-ploughed fields, this research extensively portrays the beautiful ancient traditions of paintings and sculpture from different parts of India, especially Gujarat, Saurashtra and Maharashtra and claims that they can be related to dance practice then and now. The book, thus, provides detailed evidence and mature thoughts in connecting and combining manifestations of classical aspects of ancient history, dance, drama and different art forms. To write such a book must have been extremely difficult. There is no template, as this truly pioneering product ventures into an area without established literature and any real history, only based on some people’s saying, with lots of arguments, debates and discussions. The author refers to various art collections and has used them wisely, studying each picture in detail and adding beautiful descriptions of how the ancient patterns may be seen in today’s dance forms. The fieldwork undertaken, in lots of places, to find similarities of Kathak movements and mudras with sculpture and other art forms is unique. No Kathak dancer has ever done anything like this, but studying these chapters today may help dancers to reinvigorate their creativity, to understand more deeply how to use different parts of the body sensibly and offers many insights to practitioners as well as cultural theorists and art historians.

Proceeding chronologically, the first chapter (pp. 1–12) goes into ancient history and seeks to portray dance as one of the first and finest expressions of feelings, a kind of alternative language, signs of which can be deciphered from some ancient pieces of artwork that have been preserved. Some of Northern India’s most ancient civilisations are connected with the Sindhu river, and early development of Indic art forms of dance, painting and sculpture took place there. Inspirations were derived from natural surroundings, animals, trees, water and so on. Ancient cave drawings reflect such developments in society and art, in the author’s submission, perhaps even before the development of more formal language (pp. 3–4). Slowly, through efforts of mind and intellect, looking around and depicting their natural surroundings, birds, animals, trees, rivers, streams of water, the seas, and much else, people also cultivated expressions of various feelings such as joy, fear and astonishment and became more aware of their connections to movement and various forms of communication. Observing nature in good and bad times, people expressed themselves in more stylised forms and received further inspiration, ultimately for what came to be known as dance, elaborating various feelings through body movement, facial expressions and hand gestures. Still later, dance was connected with music, more art works and paintings were inspired by dance, and dance in turn was inspired by paintings and sculpture. One finds ancient sculptures in Mohenjo-Daro of dancing girls, as well as beautiful pictures of nature on their vessels. All this suggests early on that dance, sculpture and painting have a strong relationship; hence, the author argues that Sindhu civilisation occupies an important place within these three art forms, made gradual progress to Vedic times and slowly evolved into literature-based manifestations and materials.

In due course, detailed studies of dance are recorded in the Natyashastra, whose 4th, 6th and 13th chapters are considered most important. Later sections of this chapter outline the author’s perspective of how gradually dance was born (p. 7) and became reflected in Vedic and especially later in the shastric literature. The author dates the Natyashastra between the second century BC and the first century AD (pp. 8–9). She also briefly covers the Abhinaya Darpanam of the fourth century BC (p. 9), which provides guidance on important usages of techniques from the dance point of view. The Sangita Ratnakara of Sarangdeva (12th century) while focused mainly on music, also talks about dance in chapter 7 and mentions the word Kathak. Date also examines shastric paintings (pp. 10–11) in her search for visual representations of early dance forms. Chapter 1, thus, seeks mainly to explore the early origins of dance among ancient people, in the light of evidence from sculptures and paintings. There is of necessity much conjecture here, while the author’s key argument is all along that all these ancient art forms reflect a gradual sophistication of human experiences and expressions of nature through different artistic representations, including movement and, ultimately, forms of dance.

Chapter 2 (pp. 13–24) further investigates the changing relationships between dance and shastras over time. The research undertaken on Vastu sculptures relates to dance mudras and poses and is described in various artistic ways. There is a lot of controversy on the word ‘kathak’, which some connect with the caste system, others with story-telling. From the Buddhist, Jain and Sanskrit literature, we get to know about the classical tradition of dance; hence, it is said that literature is the first proof of the history of Indian dance. Indeed, through this literature we become more familiar with the word kathak (p. 15), which then gives rise to the certainly not uncontroversial argument that among all classical dance styles, Kathak must, therefore, be the oldest. Date also proposes that Kathak as a spiritual dance form can trace its tradition back to the Ramayana (p. 15) and the first presence of kathakars (story tellers through the medium of dance) is also recorded in this literature (p. 15). Date, thus, claims that the Natyashastra Parampara, dance and singing traditions must be older than even the Vedas (p. 21), as they are mentioned in the Vedas. This, too, will not be uncontested, but some evidence is clearly there.

Intriguingly, many names for ancient kathakars are found. Date claims on this basis, too, that the history of today’s North Indian classical Kathak dance is very ancient (pp. 15–17), as the word Kathak developed specifically from the word kath (story telling), connected to presentations of dance, music and playing of instruments. Out of these groups, with many names, one set of practitioners developed that gave more complete attention to dance. From here, Date’s argument becomes that from that time onwards the journey of Kathak as an identifiable art form began (p. 15). The word Kathak is thereafter found in many sources, including the Mahabharata and of course in many Puranas.

During the time of Sarangdeva, kathakars were steeped in the knowledge of dance and literature. Over centuries they acquired and held respectable positions in temples and king’s palaces (p. 16) and there is some evidence of ancient specialist literature (p. 16) and the re-telling of Ramayana and Mahabharata episodes through their storytelling. No attention is in the present work paid to the many related more popular forms of storytelling, which of course co-existed in regionally coloured styles like Lavani and the many folk dances, like Ghummar in Rajasthan. Sudhakalash of the fourteenth century indicates, however, that somewhere during his time the downfall of the art of kathakars began (p. 16). The negative spiral of the deterioration of standards, often referred to as kaliyug, did not bypass the richly represented and wide field of dance.

Reconstructing the history of Kathak dance is obviously a gigantic task (p. 18). Date seeks to divide Kathak largely into three time periods: (1) from Vedic times to the first century AD, until the time of the Natyashastra, which inspired such dancers; (2) from the first century AD to the tenth century AD; and then (3) from the tenth century AD to today. The argument here appears to be not only that Kathak is just as old as other classical dance styles, but that its practice inspired the Natyashastra itself (p. 18). It is believed that such forms of Kathak were practised by Brahmins (p. 19), though other groups also took it on as a profession. Date’s research clearly confirms that Kathak came to be known under many different names, that up to the tenth century such performers were sponsored by various courts and experts also taught dance to princes and princesses, as well as devadasis in temples (p. 19).

From the tenth century ad onwards, in many parts of India, Hindu-based dance tradition is widely portrayed to have suffered as a result of increased Muslim interventions, and Date portrays this too. As the royal and temple patronage of dancers declined significantly, some dance practice was partly diverted away from various bhakti traditions towards more secular forms of entertainment and other forms of cultural communication. As the artistic nature of dance performances was partially transformed, it acquired a new shine and a different character, making Kathak more distinct from other classical dance styles of India (p. 20); it became court dance (darbari). Here is confirmation that some prominent characteristics of Kathak dance as known today clearly derive from Mughal-dominated cultural environments. At the same time, local Vaishnavite traditions were preserved in temples and have continued to develop their own distinct poetic traditions within the wide range of dance forms known as Kathak (pp. 20–22). Hence, the late medieval period of Kathak dance became a beautiful and even more plural rich artistic field. Today’s Kathak dance is a reflection of such immensely diverse traditions (p. 20) and today’s dancers remain open to new influences, still involving dance, drama, singing and instrumental performances in different combinations, now including global and ‘contemporary’ influences.

According to Sunil Kothari’s book on dance in Rajasthan, the special characteristics of classical dance in that region, strongly supported by local rulers, developed during the eleventh century (pp. 21–22). Shastric practices were re-incorporated and most of the literature on music, singing and instrumental accompaniment was put together under the label of sangita (p. 22), generating a new specialist literature. Also during this time distinct characteristics of different types within the Jaipur school tradition (gharana) emerge, as well as a specific Muslim-dominated Lucknow gharana (p. 22). Much of the actual practice from that time is, of course, not recorded and we have no clear-cut proof, but again, through sculpture and especially paintings, more reliable visual representations are available and these will need to be further studied.

Numerous subsequent sections of this book (chapters 3–15) focus on finer details of different technical aspects of Kathak dance, putting them respectively in relation to literary documentation and visual representations in other North Indian art forms. Chapter 3 discusses various aspects of pure dance (nritta), such as use of body postures (anga), ways of walking (chari) and hand gestures (hasta) in Kathak, along the lines of Natyashastra, chapter 8. Surprising visualisations of today’s Kathak style arise when one views such ancient North Indian sculptures and medieval paintings, with similarities carried into modern Kathak, so richly illustrated with pictures throughout this book. Chapter 4 represents gatnikas poses of Kathak displayed in the ancient sculptures of Sanchi, which represent the spring festival, again bringing out similarities with Kathak dance poses of today. Chapter 5 focuses further on dance sculptures and decorative aspects (shringar).

Chapter 6 relates ancient storytelling through dance to poses and mudras of various gods and goddesses. Richly illustrated, chapter 7 discusses the qualities of different female characters (nayikas) in the Sanskrit literature, their reflections in Hindi poetry and the influence on different art forms. Nayika-shringar and related sentiments are covered in chapter 8, presented as connected to nature, changing according to seasons and environmental contexts. Chapter 9 connects the various roles of the nayika-sakhı to the Radha–Krishna theme. Chapter 10 presents other nayikas, especially various representations of Apsaras in sculptures. Specific dance statues and sculptures are discussed in chapter 11, while chapter 12 relates circular raslıla performances to popular religious and ritual practices, richly illustrated as connected to Kathak poses and bhakti elements. Chapter 13 returns to shringar and emphasises the ancient connections of nayak–nayika through purusha–prakriti representations of different gods and goddesses with the yugal (couple) element in human dancing. Chapter 14 emphasises specifically reflections and presentations of nature and its seasons through paintings and sculptures depicting dance. Chapter 15 provides a summary overview of various aspects and forms of Kathak history in different regions, focused on storytelling. Date’s research shows that during the eighth and ninth century, these forms crystallized and were all along modified in later centuries to adjust to different audiences and occasions.

While there is no written ancient shastra specifically on Kathak, Date finds that during the thirteenth century some books were written in Northern India specifically on dance, influenced by the older dance treatises. Hence, this hybrid dance tradition has experienced continuous change, both in terms of literature and artistic representation as well as practical performance. Today’s dance artists should look at those earlier dance statues and seek to understand current practices as partly inspired by elements of such older patterns, while feeling free to add new elements to their dance form.

Years of diligent research confirmed for the author that all major aspects of Kathak dance as practised today have strong ancient roots. The book contains a rudimentary bibliography and further research tools, and will hopefully serve as a useful basis for further research. This particular study uncovers a rich repertoire of artistic elements and historical remnants, which as a bricolage can be used and recreated by today’s performers. This is an inspiring message, but probably it remains rather difficult to access and implement for most dancers, simply because this topic is so complex, and also the temptations and pressures to become ‘contemporary’ are today so overwhelming.

Nilima Devi, MBE, heads Centre for Indian Classical Dance, Leicester, UK. She studied Kathak at the College of Performing Arts, M.S. University, Vadodara under the tutelage of Pt Sunderlal Gangani. A key influence on her artistic and choreographic works has been late Pt Durgalal (Delhi), Kumudini Lakhia (Ahmedabad), and late Rohini Bhate (Pune), who were guest resident artists at CICD.

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