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Gat Palta as a Kakshya Vibhajan tool in Kathak
- Sunil Sunkara

March 14, 2020

This essay looks from a 21st CE perspective, the principles of Kakshya Vibhajan as given by Bharata in the Natyashastra, while also trying to identify the principles which trickled into Kathak. The journey of both theatre and dance go hand in hand with the evolution and transformation of the stage - from Bharata's natyamandapam, to the Kathakaars dancing in the chaupal to the modern day auditoriums and stadiums. Through all of this an interesting element that is a unique feature of Kathak is the Gat Palta, which made its way into the Kathak intra-forms approximately 200 years ago, became mainstream during the mid 19th CE and is a versatile element in today's proscenium Kathak. Recently, Dr. Vibha Dadheech published her unique research on 'Gat Nikas' which documented the history, features and uses of the 'Gat Palta'. This essay looks at the 'Gat Palta' from the standpoint of Bharata's Kakshya Vibhajan.

Role of Kakshya Vibhajan
A performing artist these days is familiar with the terms stage centre, stage right/left, upstage/downstage etc. Familiarization with these terms brings the artist, technicians, stage hands, director as well as audience to the same page and more importantly the same alluded geography or place on the stage. Bharata in the Natyashastra was the originator of this very approach through his concept of Kakshya Vibhajan, i.e Zonal Division.

Stage nomenclature

Bharata gives a very detailed description of the construction of the playhouse, but for the purpose of understanding zonal divisions, one has to keep in mind the main components of the stage layout- the rangsheersha (upstage), rangpeetha (downstage), mattavarini and the two doors that lead to the stage from the green room (nepathya gruha) namely the uttar (north door, i.e. stage left) and dakshin (south door, i.e. stage right) doors as depicted in Figure 2. The audience is always considered to be in the east, irrespective of the actual geographical orientation of the stage.

Bharata's design of the Rectilinear Playhouse

The mattavarini has been a source of debate amount scholars. A majority of them depict it as the side stage or verandah to the stage, which is typically an ornate pillared structure as shown in Figure 3. Dr. Puru Dadheech proposes that the mattavarini has to be a special elevated area placed on the rangsheersha. His thought stems from a two-fold meeting of ideas, one following the architecture of temples in north India and another from the greater importance given to the orchestra in Sanskrit theatre and their usual placement on the upstage rangsheersha. Wherever the placement may be, the mattavarini gives us an area which can be used to draw the focus of the audience to certain events or characters is the takeaway from the perspective of a dancer. G.K. Bhat mentions that the mattavarinis were used for playing balcony or terrace scenes and for composing bifocal or trifocal scenes.

Theatre in Sanskrit Drama (G.K. Bhat, 1983)

Bharata gives the simple but effective device of parikramana (walking around the stage in circular or elliptical movement), to suggest change of scene or location. The parikramana has to be accompanied with the appropriate natyadharmi or lokadharmi abhinaya. For example, for a character walking from one room to another in a palace, the parikramana would be a regular walk, which would be a naturally lokadharmi abhinaya, but for a character travelling from one location to another on a horse drawn chariot, one has to use the appropriate angika abhinaya to denote the chariot as well as the movement and speed of the horse, which would fall under the purview of natyadharmi abhinaya. G.K. Bhat highlights that this device is effective in natya when used along with the appropriate zonal arrangements and roll-up curtains. In theatre, Bharata leaves the zonal division to the producer-director who will divide the stage into different portions and carefully adhere to that zoning throughout the play. Abhinavagupta also interprets that the rangsheersha would be slightly raised, giving us two levels to plan the scenes in.

Further, Bharata suggests that the characters who have entered the stage first are to be regarded as being inside, those who enter later will be outside people. They have to use one particular door for making their appearance on the stage and the same door for exit when they finish. M.M. Ghosh mentions that those who enter the stage later must face those already on stage by turning to the right.

Scholars also interpret the dakshin and uttar doors to be the entry/exit door that is representative of the geography of origin of the character. For example, consider the often depicted episode of Sita Haran in Kathak. As per this convention, Raavan should enter from the dakshin door and after abduction lead Sita out through that door. On the other hand, Ram and Lakshman should enter from the uttar door. Though this convention is not strictly adhered to in proscenium Kathak, it is also easy to apply within the gat-bhaav episodes by placing Raavan on stage right and Sita on stage left during this episode.

Sita Haran in Kathak by Chitresh Das Dance Company

Gat Palta in Kathak
As established by Dr. Vibha Dadheech in her research, the gat palta would be classified as a hastak with multiple uses both in a supporting role as well as in the forefront. An older name for the gat palta is paintara (पैंतरा). Though today we see variations of just one main style of the gat palta , there were three kinds of the paintara which originated from the artistic imitation of body movements involved in use of weaponry like gauntlet-swords or sticks (पटा बाजी), knives (बकेती -छुरा-चाकू), discus or wheels (आर्कंग) and a fourth kind that emulated weaponless combat similar to modern day kung-fu (बिन्नोट).

Jaipur Gat Palta depicted by Dr. Vibha Dadheech

The gat palta is done to the bols of the tatkaar or the beej akshar of Kathak - Ta Thei Thei Tat, Aa Thei Thei Tat. In the current context, there is a difference in the method of executing a gat palta in the Jaipur and Lucknow gharana. Within the framework of 'Ta Thei Thei Tat', the Jaipur style dancers emphasize the 'Tat' with their right foot, letting it slip out in its natural direction while the right hand moves towards the left side creating a linear division while the Lucknow style dancers tuck the right foot behind the left on 'Tat' , simultaneously tucking in the right hand near the left hip. The stepwise delineation of both styles of the palta is given in the illustrations by Dr. Vibha Dadheech.

The Lucknow style gat palta is said to be similar to the 'Pata Baji' paintara while the Jaipur style one is similar to the 'Baketi' paintara. The paintare are also reflected in the paramparik movement vocabulary of Kathak such as the meend which is suggestive of the use of the discus and jalabhramari which is said to come from the 'Binnot' paintara (also seen in Buddhist studies).

Lucknow Gat Palta depicted by Dr. Vibha Dadheech

The popular lakshan geet written by Bindadin Maharaj of Lucknow - niratata dhang ang sudhang mentions the kavach palta, which is a unique name given to the Lucknow gharana gat palta. It establishes a parallel between this gat palta and the action of drawing a sword from behind a shield (kavach). Lucknow Kathak exponent Renu Sharma researched the dance terminology in Kathak that is seen in the poetry of the astachhap poets, under the guidance of Dr. Puru Dadheech. She establishes the link of the term kavach palta to the rasadhari dance tradition which is the penultimate step in the evolution of Kathak as we know it today. The utpatti position taken in 'Thei' is also called the 'kavach' position.

Role of the Gat Palta
The first role of the gat palta is to announce the beginning of a new gat or gat-bhaav. Even to the uninitiated Kathak audience, the gat palta is designed in such a way as to create neutral space on stage. Dance in Kathak is about painting pictures in space and moving space, as often quoted by Kathak transformationalists Pt Birju Maharaj and Kumudini Lakhia. In this context, the gat palta both through its design and its usual fast speed of execution, acts towards creating a neutral template on the stage canvas.

The popular quote on Kathak, 'Katha kahe so Kathak kahave' draws attention to the storytelling aspect of Kathak from which it derives its name. This aspect of Kathak is explored in the gat-bhaav which truly stands at the cusp of nritya (laya-taal-bhava ashrayam) and natya (rasa-bhava-ashrayam). This is where the gat palta denotes three important roles.

1. To denote the beginning of a new episode within the story
2. To change from one character to another
3. To change from one location (kakshya) to another

In Kathak, a combination of the gat palta and parikramana may be used. For example, in the popular gat-bhaav of makhan chori, Yashoda leaving the house with her pitcher and going towards the riverbank would be shown using the parikramana which would be interrupted by the gat palta leading to the appearance of baby Krishna. Krishna may appear outside the house, which would lead the dancer to depict his antics of breaking and entering. Alternatively, the dancer may choose for Krishna to appear within the house, ready to break the pot of butter carefully stowed away by Yashoda.

In conclusion, one has to keep in mind that the development of the gat palta is an important aspect that is a result of the solo storyteller format that the katha vachaks have followed. While Bharata talks about the zonal divisions as applied to the number of characters in natya, within the boundaries of the solo Kathak presentation, the gat palta is the most important tool to establish kakshya. Its mainstream presence in every gharana of Kathak is testimony to the essence of the Natyashastra and the trickling down of Bharata's concepts in spite of the number of socio-political-economic issues that threatened the survival of the traditional performers of Kathak over the centuries.

Acknowledgement to Dr Vibha Dadheech for contributing pictures from her recently published book 'Gat Nikas' and for her insights into the essay.

- Bhat GK, 'Theatric aspects of Sanskrit drama,' Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1983
- Dadheech Puru, 'Kathak Nritya ke Pracheen Ang,' Bindu Prakashan, 2020
- Dadheech Vibha, 'Kathak nritya ka apariharya ang - Gat Nikas,' Bindu Prakashan, 2020
- Ghosh MM, 'Natyashastra of Bharatmuni -Text, commentary of Abhinava Bharati by Abhinavaguptacharya and English Translation', New Bharatiya Book Corporation, 2006
-Saxena Sushil Kumar, 'Swinging Syllables, Aesthetics of Kathak Dance', Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1991
-Sharma Renu, 'Lalit Tribhang', E-Book,, 2018

A chemical engineer who has pursued his doctorate in biofuel research, Sunil Sunkara holds a masters degree in Kathak from Bharata College of Fine Arts and Culture, Mumbai, and Nritya Nipun from Bhatkhande Sangit Vidyapith, Lucknow. He performs regularly as well as pursues research in Kathak apart from curating dance events and regularly writing on various facets of dance through both print and online medium.

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