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Kathak comes from the word katha meaning story. Kathak was originally performed by the traveling bards of north India who were known as Kathakars or storytellers. These storytellers went from village to village enacting stories from the epics and mythology through drama, dance, and music. Kathak dancers use their feet and hand movements along with facial expressions to tell a story to their audience. Kathak became popular during the Bhakti movement. The Radha-Krishna theme was a favorite among the Kathakars. They also combined the Raslila with their traditional dance sequence. In the courts of the Mughals and Hindu kingdoms, Kathak evolved with greater stress being given to nritya and bhava making the dance more expressive, sensuous, and graceful.
There are three gharanas or schools of Kathak namely the Jaipur, Banaras, and Lucknow gharanas. The Jaipur gharana focuses on foot movements whereas the other two emphasize facial expressions and graceful hand movements. In this dance form, the legs and torso of the dancer is held straight and emphasis is on rhythmic movements of the foot made noticeable by the jingling of the ghungroos. The dancer tells the story with the help of facial expressions, amazing spins, bends and turns, and stage movements. The eye and feet movements are of the greatest importance in this dance form. The dancer uses her eyes, eyebrows, and facial expressions to communicate the story.
Some of the basic Kathak steps are the urap where joy is depicted with high jumping postures. Thirap or thirip is where the dancer is at an angle or diagonal. The wrist movement is called the kasak and the rhythmic movement of the breast is called masak. Lag is a posture which shows 2 body parts joining gracefully. A Kathak performance begins with the invocation or vandana where the dancer comes on to the stage and offers his respect to the guru and the musicians. A Hindu performer uses mudras and facial expressions to invoke the Hindu gods and goddesses whereas a Muslim performer begins with a salami or salutation. Kathak performances can be solo or team performances. There is a lot of speed and energy in the dancing, the dancers may even interact with the audience to explain something, recite a song, or tell an anecdote. The nritta begins with elegant and slow movements using the neck, eyebrows, and wrists following which speed and energy increases with spectacular footwork and turns and gestures highlighting tora, parhant, tukra, and paran through each sequence of bol. The dancer also synchronizes her footwork in tune with the music with finally a sharp turn of the head indicating the end of a sequence.
The costumes of Kathak dancers vary in the Hindu and Muslim communities but they complement it well with traditional gold jewelry and the ghungroos. Male dancers wear a silk dhoti with a silk scarf and simple jewelry. The instruments usually accompanying a Kathak dancer are the tabla, hand cymbals or manjira, sarangi, and harmonium. Birju Maharaj and Sitara Devi are the most famous dancers of this dance genre.