Lucknow Kathak Dance

This article is reprinted from Bansuri, Volume 13, 1996

In this short description of the classical dance of North India, kathak, our intention is not to present a comprehensive picture of an art form: many authors have attempted this already, and although their accounts are sometimes controversial or contradictory, they nonetheless constitute a formidable body of detailed information supplemented with a wealth of photographic documentation of dancers in a myriad of poses (see, for example, Anand 1959, Banerji 1982 & 1986; Kothari 1989; Misra 1991; Samson 1987; Singha and Massey 1967; Vatsyayan 1974). This is also not intended to be an aesthetic analysis (see Saxena 1991). Instead this is a brief, idiosyncratic view of kathak largely through the eyes of its foremost modern exponent, Pandit Birju Maharaj. Birju Maharaj is a direct descendant of a line of dancers who have been intimately linked with the city and culture of Lucknow for two centuries; it was here that this unique style of kathak was born, where it evolved, and where it grew to become the best-known and most pervasive of the various regional styles of this genre.[2] Our aim, then, is to provide a little background and context for Lucknow kathak, and to hint at the beauty and character of the art form itself. Arguably the most important function of a description such as this is to encourage readers to attend a performance and see for themselves kathak's elegant swirling movements, lightning quick pirouettes, its sudden poses, the rapid stamping of feet, and the subtle gestures capable of expressing the fullest possible range of emotions.

The word kathak derives from katha, a story. A kathak is therefore one who tells a story, and from ancient times traditional classes, and later castes, of story-tellers specialized in conveying through dance and music tales from the great Indian epics and scenes from the lives of the gods. Their role was therefore to teach as well as to entertain with the aid of an extremely rich and highly sophisticated poetic literature in Sanskrit and Brajbhasha. The kathak castes had their traditional home in what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh, particularly centring on Benares and Ayodhya. It was from there that dancers were drawn in large numbers to Lucknow during the reign of Asaf ud Daula (1775-97): Sharar (1975: 141-2) has mentioned that in addition to kathaks were "rahas" dancers from Mathura and Braj (i.e. rasdharis, who specialized in the Krishna lila) and Kashmiri bhands. This suggests a rich melting pot of dance traditions all competing for the patronage of the Lucknow court. And of course the mainstay of court entertainers were the dancing girls and their accompanists who performed at all social functions. However, according to Sharar the kathaks were "the real dancers", and he has listed the names of several individuals who became pre-eminent. Among these were Prakashji (fl. early nineteenth century) and his son Durga Prasadji (fl. mid-nineteenth century), ancestors of Birju Maharaj. It is believed that Durga Prasadji taught Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1847-56), at whose court the following legendary incident, or something like it, may well have taken place: [3]

Durga Prasadji was in the service of the King, from whom he received a pension to help with the upbringing of his children. Also in the King's service was a great pakhawaj drummer, Kodau Singh, who was jealous since his family did not share this privilege. When Kodau Singh made his complaint known to Wajid Ali Shah, it was decided that the matter should be settled by a contest between the dancer and the pakhawaji. If the latter were to win he would, as requested, receive the dancer's pension; if not he would forfeit his hands! Durga Prasadji became worried since he was getting old, and he feared that his failure to win the contest would ultimately bring about the end of his family tradition. At this point Durga Prasadji's gifted seven-year-old son Bindadin Maharaj stepped in to beg his father to allow him to compete instead, saying "Since all this is happening because of me, it should therefore be me who dances in the contest". Durga Prasadji finally agreed, and in preparation for the contest Bindadin immediately embarked on the rigorous practice of rhythmic footwork to the exclusion of all else.

A month later everyone gathered in the court in an atmosphere of tremendous excitement. The young Bindadin began dancing in quick tempo, and Kodau Singh accompanied him accordingly. Neck and neck they danced and played for twelve hours. Neither had gained the upper hand. The King had become restless and hungry but the court insisted that he not leave his throne even for a second. Bindadin suddenly doubled his tempo and continued relentlessly for a further four hours. He ultimately danced so quickly that his feet became a blur to the eye. Exhausted and confused, the pakhawaji lost track of the rhythm for a split second and committed an error. Bindadin had won. The line of Durga Prasadji had been saved!

The King summoned Durga Prasadji and asked him to name his reward. Durga Prasadji merely said "I want nothing but that you spare the hands of the Kodau Singh". His wish was granted, but the embarrassed pakhawaji disappeared from public view for quite some time thereafter, remaining in isolation and refusing all food until he nearly starved. Such was the fierce pride of a musician in those times!

Bindadin Maharaj (d.1918) and his younger brother Kalka Prasad (d.c.1910) became without a doubt the most celebrated dancers of their time. Whereas their forefathers had tended to specialize in one or other aspect of dance, Bindadin and Kalka Prasad effectively created the modern tradition of kathak by combining and fusing all these disparate attributes into one richly varied style. Even so, Kalka Prasad was noted for his rhythmic prowess while Bindadin became famous for his poetic interpretations and his compositional skill (Kothari 1989: 24). The following anecdote illustrates Bindadin's imaginative approach:

Wajid Ali Shah was holding court to a gathering of poets. One common diversion was for the King to suggest a particular scenario to which the poets would supply the reason it had come about. On this occasion, Wajid Ali Shah's tale was of a young woman who was found the day after her wedding to have the palm of her hand severely burnt. One poet suggested that, inexperienced, she had burnt her hand while preparing a light meal for her husband. Another said that she had burnt herself while lighting an oil lamp. All the other suggestions focused on the woman's practical inexperience in some way or other.

The young Bindadin Maharaj was then called upon for his interpretation, and he began to improvise a verse and to dance it.... The young woman is sitting expectantly on her bed awaiting her husband. She is prepared for a night of love, and yet she is experiencing the mixed emotions of joy, fear, and curiosity. At one and the same time her body experiences both desire and shame. The husband arrives: he begins to undress her, and out of a sense of modesty she quickly extinguishes the oil lamp by pressing her palm over the flame.

The story goes that Bindadin was rewarded handsomely for his performance with precious jewels from an often excessively extravagant Wajid Ali who was himself an accomplished dancer. Indeed, it is said that the King's toes twitched rhythmically in his sleep (Sharar 1975: 138), and that as a boy he would tap his feet incessantly: he was apparently partly deaf in one ear because his exasperated Urdu tutor once slapped him for tapping (Kippen 1988: 20). Wajid Ali choreographed many dance productions inside and outside the court (see Kothari 1989: 25), and strongly promoted the thumri vocal form which, when incorporated into kathak dance, called for elaborate interpretations of the poetic content in order to highlight the multifarious meanings that could at one and the same time be spiritual and erotic. In this way, the abhinaya, or expressive element, in kathak was encouraged and developed, and the acknowledged master of the thumri in dance was Bindadin Maharaj.

Although Bindadin had no male offspring, Kalka Prasad had three sons who, in turn, became the dominant forces in kathak during the early to mid-twentieth century: Acchan Maharaj, Lacchu Maharaj, and Shambhu Maharaj. Acchan Maharaj (1883-1947), "though of a heavy and unwieldy build...was extremely gifted and while performing transformed into a different person, the very model of agility and grace" (Kothari 1989: 32). He specialized in bhava, the expressional aspect of dance that deals with the depiction or characterization of mood. Acchan Maharaj was responsible for the training of his younger brothers, and he was also engaged to dance in several North Indian courts before being invited to teach in the Delhi School of Hindustani Music and Dance from 1936 onwards. Lacchu Maharaj (1901-78) spent much of his life in Bombay creating and directing dance-dramas and choreographing films. He was noted for bringing to kathak "a fragile elegance and beauty. His chals or walks were a treat to watch. The micro movements of the eyes, eyebrows, wrists, fingers and...the movements of the torso and the chest were superb. The delicacy that he brought to his movements put him in a class by himself" (Kothari 1989: 33). Shambhu Maharaj (1910-70) was a charismatic and flamboyant character who danced with great power and energy but who could also bring to a thumri an inexhaustible variety of interpretations which he performed with the subtlest of movements from the sitting position. He enjoyed a glittering stage career, and in 1952 was invited to join the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi where he became head of the department of kathak (Misra 1991: 21).

Birju Maharaj (b. 1937), the son of Acchan Maharaj, studied with his father until the latter's death in 1947. Thereafter he continued his training with his uncles, and not surprisingly he draws together in his own dance style the strengths of each: from his father he claims to have inherited the suppleness of the torso and chest, the play of the neck, head, and face, the precision of the footwork, and the fullness of movement; from Lacchu Maharaj he learned the stylized chals of the gat and the fluidity of movement; from Shambhu Maharaj he adopted the power of movement and the force needed to dance paran. In his own words, Birju Maharaj has likened Lacchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj to the moon and the sun, and Acchan Maharaj the sky. Combined they form his universe. Modern kathak has become an extremely popular art form, and a great many young dancers from India and beyond have been drawn to it both for its purely aesthetic qualities as well as for its ability to combine abstract rhythmic elements (nritta) and the expressive and narrative aspects of movement (nritya). A typical Lucknow performance of kathak unfolds gradually through several stages, each stage establishing a tempo and dynamic quicker and more intense than the last. The slow introductory invocations to the gods (vandana, pranam) are followed by several sections of abstract pieces (thath, amad, and then in much faster tempo tukra, tora, and paran) that emphasize technique and variety of movement. In medium tempo come more expressive pieces that rely on the art of suggestion: gat nikas, where the dancer hints at a series of animal or human characters using chals and poses; gat bhav, story telling; thumri, dadra, or ghazal, where the dancer brings to life a song in that style; and tarana, a recent choreographic genre in which both technical and expressive aspects of dance are emphasized. Technical virtuosity in the form of footwork is usually reserved for the very fastest tempo, and dancers often enter into playful rhythmic competition with their tabla accompanists in the form of a duet (jugalbandi) where one imitates the other, trying constantly to outguess one's opponent. The ultimate aim of the dancer is to develop creative improvisation with the accompanists thereby directing the flow of energy so that it uplifts and involves the spellbound audience before passing back to the performers in the form of warm appreciation.

To the untrained ear or eye, footwork is often an exhilarating but nonetheless bewildering experience Ð like the story of Bindadin Maharaj and the pakhavaji, a veritable blur to the eye. Yet footwork is not simply a succession of flat slaps on the ground, rather it comprises at least a dozen steps for each foot that in combination with the ghunghrus, or ankle bells, produce quite different sounds. For instance, a flat step (represented with the quasi-onomatopoeic syllables ta, tig, di, etc.); a flat step pushed from back to front (thei); the heel pushed from back to front (tat); heel down (ki, gi, etc.); striking with the outer portion of the foot (ghi); toes striking the ground behind (na); a synchronous combination of ta with the left foot and tat with the right (khran); and so on.[5] All are present in the following tisra jati (i.e. triple time) parmelu paran, though some of the steps change depending on their position in the rhythmic phrase or as a result of the addition of upper-body movements:

X tat tat tat trika dhan dhan

0 jhiji kita jhiji kita ||: jhiji kita

X tho thoran -ga taka thunga tak

0 tigda digdig thei Ð tigda digdig

X thei tigda digdig thei tigda digdig

0 thei :|| x3

The designation parmelu indicates that a variety of sounds, some imitating nature, are being used: for example, jhijhi depicts the jingle of the ankle bells; thorang is the rumble of thunder; tigda digdig thei is the strut of a peacock. Other designations signify different qualities: for instance natwari always includes the step khran, and is a composition linked to the god Krishna. In kathak, each syllable is designed not merely to represent the sounds of feet and bells but also to be in harmony with the strokes of the accompanying percussion instruments. During a performance pieces of abstract dance may be recited before their execution, and the dancer may employ variation in intonation in order to sketch out in sound the approximate contours of the movements s/he will use. This parhant, or recitation, is also a medium of communication with the percussionist(s) who must match, stroke for syllable, what the dancer recites. Furthermore, the parhant enables the audience to visualize and appreciate the rhythmic patterns before they are revealed in dance movements.

Different gharanas (i.e. schools) of dance not only demonstrate general technical differences, but significant stylistic preferences. For instance, the rival Jaipur style is said to emphasize the abstract rhythmic element of dance far more than its expressive content, and to such ends places footwork prominently at the beginning of the performance. Nevertheless, so powerful has the influence of Lucknow been, and in particular the artistic dominance of Birju Maharaj and his family, that nowadays there is a great deal more homogeneity in Indian kathak dance styles than in former days.

The Kathak Kendra in New Delhi where Birju Maharaj teaches is a perennial hive of activity from which many of the new generation of dancers have been emerging for the past few decades. Guru Munna Lal Shukla, a close relative of Birju Maharaj, also teaches at the Kathak Kendra: he has for some years been the subject of important new research into the Lucknow school of kathak by his Canadian student Deepti Gupta.[6] Besides dancers of the Lucknow tradition, the Kathak Kendra's policy has been to employ dancers of the Jaipur tradition also. Of course, although Lucknow has its own Kathak Kendra where excellent dancers such as Kapila Raj (student of Lacchu Maharaj) and Ram Mohan (son of Shambhu Maharaj) have taught in recent years, and a programme in dance at the famous Bhatkhande Music College under Professor Purnima Pande, kathak has become popular throughout India and abroad. Although it is not possible to mention all the talented dancers of the modern era, some of the most notable are Sitara Devi (Bombay), who has performed in many films; Rohini Bhate (Pune); Kumudini Lakhia (Ahmedabad); Maya Rao (Bangalore); Uma Sharma (Delhi); Rani Karna (Calcutta); Rina Singha (Toronto); Chitresh Das (California); Joanna Das (Toronto); Vijai Shankar (Calcutta and Japan); Saswati Sen (Delhi), arguably Birju Maharaj's most famous disciple, who danced in Satyajit Ray's celebrated film on Lucknow, The Chess Players; and Veronique Azan, a Delhi-based French dancer who also studied under Birju Maharaj. Other students have taken kathak far beyond India's borders: for instance it is taught at the Peking Opera and in many schools in Europe and North America.

As with any living tradition, kathak has always continued to evolve: amad and parmelu were not always part of the dance tradition, particularly in the pre-Muslim era; and the temple and the village square have given way to the court and theatre and different styles of dance presentation. Soloists still dominate in the genre, as always, but increasingly common are elaborately choreographed productions involving kathak dance troupes Ð for instance, Krishnayan, and Katha Raghunath Ki (presented in Delhi in 1978 by Birju Maharaj). Perhaps most important of all, the themes on which dance items are based have evolved with the times, especially during the 1970s and 1980s: these include abstract ideas as well as topical issues such as the different rhythms in nature and social life (Talatmika, choreographed by Birju Maharaj in 1988), life and death (Udgaar, choreographed by Rohini Bhate in 1987), and physical and mental handicap (Setu, choreographed by Kumudini Lakhia in 1987).

To conclude, the kathak dancer is a story-teller, not a mime. He describes the strut of a peacock, but he neither mimics nor becomes the peacock; he reproduces the essence of the movement of a character or animal, yet he neither mimics nor becomes that character or animal. He takes from each being or situation that which characterizes or symbolizes it, and puts that into dance. Throughout, it is the dancer's intention to suggest rather than to make explicit Ð and there is always room for the active participation of the imagination of the audience. The kathak dance tradition of Lucknow is undoubtedly one of India's finest cultural achievements, and with so many outstanding exponents nationally and internationally it will continue to tell its stories for generations to come.


1 The authors gratefully acknowledge the generous assistance of Padma Bhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj who, through his long-term student Andreine Bel, has supplied much of the information for this paper.

2 There are two other styles of kathak: the Jaipur school, and the Janaki Prasad school which originated in Bikaner (Rajasthan) and then developed in Benares.

3 It should be emphasized that tales of the past are rarely accurate historical accounts of actual events: although there may be elements of truth in them, they are more likely to be reinterpretations and recreations of the past designed to glorify members of one's own lineage in order to enhance or reinforce one's own prestige (see Kippen 1988: 84-5). Furthermore, many stories have clearly been circulating for thousands of years with just the names of the personalities involved changing from era to era. As far as this present anecdote is concerned, Kodau Singh did indeed compete with other musicians in the court of Wajid Ali Shah (see Imam 1959: 25), but there is nothing in these accounts to suggest that he ever played with Bindadin Maharaj. Since Kodau Singh was a musician of the highest repute, defeating him indicates almost super-human ability.

4 The attribution of this poem, and even this event, to Bindadin Maharaj is challenged by many dancers who cite other sources and point to the fact that Bindadin's pen-name does not appear in the poem.

5 There are several different technical interpretations of these syllables. These ones correspond to Birju Maharaj's interpretation.

6 The authors are grateful to Deepti Gupta for providing information from her Masters research on the Lucknow kathak gharana, York University, Toronto).


Anand, Mulk Raj (ed.), Marg (Special issue on kathak), 12, 4, September, 1959. Banerji, Projesh, kathak Dance Through Ages. New Delhi, Cosmo Publications, 1982. Banerji, Projesh, Dance in Thumri. New Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 1986.

Gupta, Deepti, Lucknow Gharana Kathak: State of the Dance Tradition. M.A. thesis, York University, Toronto, in preparation.

Imam, Hakim Mohammed Karam, MaÔdanul Moosiqui. (Translated as "Melody through the centuries" by Govind Vidyarthi.) Sangeet Natak Akademi Bulletin, 11-12, (pp.13-26, 33), 1959.

Kippen, James, The Tabla of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of a Musical Tradition. Cambridge Studies in Ethnomusicology, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Kothari, Sunil, Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art. New Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 1989.

Misra, Susheela, Musical Heritage of Lucknow. New Delhi, Harman Publishing House, 1991.

Samson, Leela, Rhythm in Joy: Classical Indian Dance Traditions. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Saxena, S. K., Swinging Syllables: Aesthetics of Kathak Dance. New Delhi, Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1991.

Sharar, Abul Halim, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture. (Translated and edited by E.S. Harcourt and Fakhir Hussein.) London, Paul Elek, 1975.

Singha, Rina and Reginald Massey, Indian Dances: Their History and Growth. London, Faber and Faber, 1967.

Vatsyayan, Kapila, Indian Classical Dances. New Delhi, Publications Division, 1974.

James Kippen edits Bansuri, and is a professor in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. His research on tabla drums focused primarily on Lucknow where he inevitably encountered India's most famous kathak tradition.

Andreine Bel is a French dancer and choreographer who has studied Lucknow kathak dance with Birju Maharaj for nearly twenty years. She currently lives in New Delhi.

Großen Angebot an verschiedenen Gongs und Klangschalen


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