COVER: The story of Kathak

Published October 4, 2015
India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective

By Margaret E. Walker
India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective By Margaret E. Walker
‘Three Dancing Girls of Hindoostan’ by Mrs. Belnos. 	
                 	             — British Library Board

Photos from the book
‘Three Dancing Girls of Hindoostan’ by Mrs. Belnos. — British Library Board Photos from the book
‘A nautch in the palace of the Ameer of Sind’.	                	            	             — British Library Board
‘A nautch in the palace of the Ameer of Sind’. — British Library Board

By Shumaila Hemani

IN her groundbreaking book, India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective, Margaret Walker dispels myths about the formation of Kathak by arguing that prior to the 1930s a dance by that name did not exist. She develops this thesis by conducting an analysis of historical sources on Kathak combined with her ethnographic research on the community of Kathaks in present-day India to show us how this community developed from a versatile group of musicians, actors and dancers to be singly associated with a dance called ‘Kathak’ in the early 20th century.

Walker’s thesis is situated within a body of scholarship in music and dance research that has emerged as a result of Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism that questioned Orientalist myths about the East, followed by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s book The Invention of Tradition that argued that the traditions that are considered ancient and belonging to a primordial past have actually been systematised in modernity and are modern rather than ancient. As a result, there has emerged a growing body of historiographical work on how certain art forms came to be ‘classicised’ and termed as ancient by agents in modernity.

In the field of ethnomusicology, different researches have pointed out the impact of colonial modernity and nationalism on the classicisation of Indian musical and dance forms: how that impacted hereditary communities of male Ustads of Khayal (Janaki Bakhle’s Two Men and Music) or hereditary female temple dancers called the devadasis in South India (Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures). The current body of research about the tradition of courtesans in Mughal India questions the stigma that these hereditary female performers confronted as a result of nationalism in both North and South India due to various social processes such as the late 19th century anti-nautch movement during the colonial period, the bourgeois domination in arts since the early 20th century, and nationalist legislations in the post-colonial state of India that disenfranchised the performers from their art forms.

In line with Soneji’s research about colonial modernity’s impact on the devadasis, whose art performance was appropriated in the bourgeoisie public sphere and, as argued by Matthew Allen in his article ‘Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance’, invented as an “Indian classical” dance tradition of Bharatnatyam, Walker’s current work opens a significant issue in the dance studies of North India. However, India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective does not focus on the disenfranchisement of tawaifs (courtesans) but on challenging the dominant myth about Kathak.

Walker dismisses the myth that Kathak is a 4,000-year-old ancient dance form emerging from the kathakar or kathakas (storytellers of Hindu mythology) who are also mentioned in early Sanskrit sources. This is the dominant narrative taught to students of Kathak in India and diasporas, and her work opposes the narrative that is mentioned in countless “essays and articles in English and Hindi about Kathak not to mention hundreds of Indian dance websites, [which] tell and retell the chronicle of the ancient storytellers, the decay of their art form, and its eventual revival.”

Her research, based on historical and ethnographic research with the Kathak community, shows that whereas the roots of the contemporary biradari (community) of Kathak hereditary performers date back to the late 19th century colonial records, the dance form was invented in the 1930s by the bourgeoisie cultural reformists who projected themselves as reviving and purifying an ancient and sacred dance form considered to have been practiced by the Kathak biradari for centuries.

According to the dominant narrative, the unbroken line of hereditary Kathak performers from the ancient period had sought patronage in Mughal courts and become teachers of tawaifs or courtesans. Within this narrative, the courtesans were presumed to have learnt this dance from male kathakars and corrupted it into a seductive performance during the Mughal period. As Walker writes: “Through the next 400 years, Kathak dance is said to have become increasingly superficial, debauched and seductive as contests, tricks and gymnastic displays purportedly overshadowed the dance’s original purity of form and style”.

Walker negates this myth by bringing forward renewed readings of historical sources from Mughal as well as colonial periods, alongside her ethnographic fieldwork. Her research reveals that whereas different Mughal treatises refer to several types of gat (dance movements and poses) that are today part of a Kathak performance, none of these treatises refer to a dance form by the name Kathak, nor do they refer to the biradari of Kathak performers.

Even sources such as Ā’īn-i Akbarī that include detailed lists of musicians and dancers, or books by Wajid Ali Shah, do not refer to any hereditary performers called Kathak or any dance form by that name. Walker concludes that contrary to the dominant narrative, Kathak is a recent invention because it is only in the late 19th century, in treatises such as Madan al-Mūsīqī, that one finds the mention of a male Kathak community, who are also acknowledged as teachers of courtesans in the British colonial records.

Walker’s ethnographic research with the Kathak biradari of Lucknow and Jaipur gharana of hereditary Kathak performers in contemporary India shows that historically this biradari had instrumentalists (sarangi and tabla players), and actors as well as dancers of devotional theatre. There is no evidence that this biradari was associated with a particular dance form called Kathak or with teaching a dance by this name to the courtesans in the Mughal courts. The historical treatises mention that kathakars were accompanying courtesans but they were not the only biradari, and musicians from other musical castes such as the Bhand or Kalavant also provided accompanists to the courtesans. Therefore, the exclusive association of the Kathak biradari with a dance called Kathak as conceived today is a recent assumption.

She concludes: “It is very probable, therefore, that the caste now called Kathak arose through a process of ‘category climbing’ that began when a group of performers in what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh began to call themselves Kathaks. Sometime in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, they gradually claimed ownership of a term that had been broad-ranging, applicable to members of any number of performing groups.”

Walker further states that prior to the 1930s, there is no mention of a dance called Kathak in any document. The earliest record of a dance by the name of Kathak is found in 1933 when Leila Sokhey called the dance she was learning from her gurus “the Kathaka dance”, and later in 1937 La Meri referred to it as “Kathak” in the Hindustan Times. Later, in 1941, La Meri’s book The Gesture Language of the Hindu Dance became the first document that disseminated the story of Kathak that the author refers to as “the dominant narrative” and which continues to be disseminated in different Indian academies.

Therefore, the history of Kathak is related to the history of presenting an Indian national dance on the Western stage that Uday Shankar and his troupe had initiated since the 1920s. The presentation of Indian dances was tied with their ideological presentation as Hindu dances following the Orientalist dances of the late 19th century in which Western choreographers presented Indian dances as ‘Hindu’ on the Western stage. All the dances classicised during the 1930s as India’s national dances, inc­lu­ding Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kath­akali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and eventually Odissi, followed such ideological constructions inspired by Hindu mythology.

Walker locates the invention of Kathak in the context of classicisation of other Indian dances and argues that it was the middle-class females and cultural revivalists who sought to purge dance practice from its immoral associations by presenting the courtesans as the ones who distorted an ancient and sacred Vedic dance. While the nationalist myths and legislations expelled the tawaifs into shame and oblivion, the males from the Lucknow Kathak biradari who accompanied the courtesans appropriated their performing art and came onto centre stage.

The tawaifs were in fact not dancers of Kathak or any other dance form, as Walker writes. Even though the British presented the tawaifs as ‘nautch girls’, travel accounts and research show that the tawaifs were mainly singers of ghazal and thumri. At some point in the performance, they would rise and show slight movements of the body with gestures; however these historical documents do not reveal that they were dancing the dance movements that are today identified as Kathak. Moreover, the British iconographies of ‘nautch girls’ show several pictures that depict the tawaifs in sitting or walking postures. However, Walker, based on her experience in dancing Kathak, states that the kind of dress they wore i.e. wide-legged pyjamas, layers of fabric, full skirts, tight vests and screens of gauze would make many of the fast footwork in drut (very fast tempo) performances of present Kathak form impossible to execute because of the heavy attire. By dispelling the claim about the Vedic roots of Kathak, Walker’s seminal book not only reveals the process of construction of Kathak but also invites the readers to rethink the performing arts of the tawaifs who were further marginalised as a result of the bourgeois nationalist myths.

With her focus on India, Walker does not mention at all the counter-narratives of Kathak that emerged after Partition in Pakistan. The country’s Muslim cultural elite responded to the Hindu narrative of Kathak by disseminating the idea that this dance form was brought to Mughal India from Uzbekistan and therefore has Muslim origins. She also does not look into the kind of narratives of Kathak that may be held by Pakistani students of Kathak or by renowned Kathak dancers such as the late Ustad Ghulam Hussain Kathak or his student Nahid Siddiqui who struggle to negotiate the place of dance in the Islamic public sphere.

Nevertheless, Walker’s book is an erudite work of scholarship that involves renewed readings of historical sources and a novel interweaving of historical and ethnographic material. Her conclusion that Kathak is a syncretic dance that was formed through hybrid processes of colonial modernity and nationalism rewrites a more grounded history of the dance of Kathak, showing the impact of colonial modernity and Indian nationalism in the invention of this dance form.

India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective


By Margaret E. Walker

Ashgate Publications, UK

ISBN 978-1409449508




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