Kathak’s Descent into the Abyss

Arts & Culture

Kathak has evolved over time but not always in desirable ways.

Ritika Gondhalekar

January 18, 2018: Culture evolves with time and that’s so true of Kathak, one of India’s oldest dance forms. If the Mughals transformed Kathak from a form of worship into a preferred style of courtly entertainment, Bollywood has, in keeping with the times, debased this classical dance form by making it little more than a cabaret.

“The Mughals regarded dance as only a form of entertainment and didn’t consider it a form of worship,” says well-known Kathak dancer Shama Bhate. “Although women, accompanied by male singers, continued to perform Bhajans and poetry that depicted scenes from mythology, the spiritual essence was lost.”

Bollywood has played a major role in popularising Kathak through movies like Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam in the seventies but, over time, commercialization has come at the cost of authenticity.

Says Uma Rele, principal of Nalanda Dance Training Centre and a renowned Mohiniyattam dancer, “The incorrect presentation of Kathak generally reduces it to a mujra sequence in a movie, something that should never be the case.”

Varada Pandit, another Kathak exponent in Mumbai, rues that “There are many parents and students who are under the impression that the Kathak showed on screen in Bollywood films is its purest form, which is dangerous as it is not.” When you start with a misconception, you’re unlikely to be willing to suffer its rigors.

She says that often students leave the class within two months as saying they’re getting bored. “They are enrolled by their parents who tell them they’ll soon be able to dance like Madhuri Dixit. The most common query we encounter from parents is how often would we be able to arrange stage shows!”

Pandit says that girls who grasp technique fast or have a liking for dance often lose interest as learning classical dance forms need immense patience as the process is slow.

In Bollywood’s imagination, Kathak consists of many chakkars (spins) and a lot of tatkaar (footwork). That, metaphorically, corresponds to its portrayal of this dance form in a persistently negative light, by associating it with fallen characters.

Bollywood has maligned classical dance forms because it has singularly failed to understand their essence. This is evident when we look at the portrayal of the courtesan in Kathak. Even though the nayika (courtesan) is popular, people are unaware of her true nature or all the dimensions of her character.

Films such as UmraoJaan have created the impression that courtesans were just prostitutes and simple objects of pity in the eyes of society. But, in reality, the courtesan was highly educated and deeply conversant with art and literature.

“Due to such a bad portrayal of Kathak, people prefer to enroll their kids in Bharatnatyam or Odissi which are referred to as ‘respectable’ dance forms,” says Narang, founder of Sharada Sangeet Vidyalaya, an institute in Mumbai that imparts classical dance education.

Yet, Kathak is becoming increasingly popular. Says Swapno, who’s in charge of Indian classical dance programming at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai,“All our shows go house-full. Sometimes we even have to request the performers to repeat their performances to satisfy audience demand. I don’t understand what are our Indian dance forms lack, why do we prefer to learn Western dance but not our own?”

Today, although Kathak has evolved as a dance form and has gained a far wider audience than it has ever enjoyed, people do not seem to accept it for it for it truly is — a perfect blend of music, dance, poetry, stories and acting that reflect the entirety of India’s cultural heritage.


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