Kathak, the classical dance style from north India conjures up visions of scintillating footwork and lightning chakkars (pirouettes). The word Kathak is derived from the word Katha which means a story. In ancient times the wandering bards used to go from village to village and recite chiefly the two epics- the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In order to make their art more attractive they started adding song and dance into it.
Sometimes during the Muslim invasion the Persian influence came into the art brought in by the dancing girls who were called tawaayafs and thus a very spiritual dance slowly started turning into a court presentation. Today, what we see in Kathak is a blend of these two streams. It has the courtly atmosphere at the same time it is highly spiritual.
With the advent of the Muslim rulers, from temple dance Kathak turned into a concert dance. This resulted in two different streams developing – one relying on the Hindu patronage in the court of Jaipur and the other with the backing of the Muslim, courts of Delhi, Agra and Lucknow. Yet in both these streams Kathak came to be treated as a solo art where the touch stone of excellence was the virtuosity of the solo dancers, specially his command over laykaari or footwork.
Specially, in the Jaipur-stream the emphasis almost totally shifted on nritta making the style a vehicle for forceful mechanical display. While the Muslim patrons had no overpowering preference for mere rhythmical pyrotechnique; they fancied an art that was full of human sentiments and worldly situations. Thus their brand of Kathak laid stress on nritya full of bhava. Thus this Kathak turned out to be more graceful and sensuous. This stream came to be recognized as the Lucknow Gharana and it came into existence in the time of Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh – The chief architect was one Thakur Prasad whose two sons Kalka and Binda Din perfected it.
It is Wajid Ali Shah’s contribution to the development of Kathak which is noteworthy. He was an accomplished dancer and musician and a good poet in Hindi and Urdu. He spent lavishly on dance and music, much to the disgust of the British of the East India Company, who dethroned him and exiled him to Calcutta and annexed his principality Awadh. Till his death he lavished his pension on Kathak and music.
A noteworthy facet of the Kathak nritta is the chakkar or the pirouette or spin, which is performed at a lightning speed and which and in a superbly balanced flourish and pose.