Kathak: the athletic mathematics of North Indian classical dance

Kathak is North India’s best-known classical dance style. Traditionally a solo form, it mixes Hindu symbolism, Islamic Mughal ideas, and some decidedly earthy influences too – dancers draw from the sensuality of India’s courtesan traditions as well as from divine mythology.

Modern kathak is globally renowned for matching physical storytelling techniques exacting, explosive movements and a cerebral, pattern-based approach to rhythm. The syllables of its name, rolling with their own sharp edges, reflect the contrasts found in kathak performance – periods of calm and slow grace are interlaced with rapid, percussive footwork, all accentuated by ghungroo ankle bells.

Snapshots of kathak-themed writing reflect at the sheer variety of its communicative powers. Outside reviewers describe “bells pinging almost celestially”, “arms and hands spiraling upward like flames”, and “flashing spins [that] ended on a syllable and stopped on a dime”. Dancers “gloss the turns philosophically, as wandering in search of enlightenment”, or embark on a “vividly projected (mostly from the fingers) vignette about Lord Krishna”. See some of this for yourself here:

Kathak dancers are masters of mime. Brien Siebert, dance critic for the New York Timesdescribes them as “magicians…they explain what they’re going to do, and then when they do it, you can hardly believe it. [Sandip] Mallick gave us a closely observed imitation of a peacock, the Indian national bird. He mimed planting a tree, becoming the tree, chopping it down and becoming its immolation…”.

Today, kathak continues to spread from its Subcontinental roots, gaining new fans around the world and students and constantly assimilating new influences along the way. Pandit Chitresh Das, a Kolkatan kathak master, has in recent years collaborated with flamenco masters (Yatra) and tap dancers (India Jazz Suite) – and the Kathak Rockers troupe fuse tabla-based rhythmic vocalisations with various global pop styles. But it is still best experienced in its classical manifestations: ideally live and close-up. For now, here’s a short clip of Delhi exponent Dheerendra Tiwari to get you started.

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