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Kathak: An Imperial Legacy of Theater and Rhythm

Kathak: An Imperial Legacy of Theater and Rhythm

By Guru Shovana Narayan (Padmashri and Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee)

Passions run high when discussions on the influence of Kathak in films ensue. Popular perception from traditionalists usually seem to suggest that Kathak should refrain from becoming ‘populist’ for that is what commercial cinema connotes. Yet, there have been instances when reputed artistes have either performed or contributed to films in terms of choreography. These passionate debates prompt me to introspect on the evolution and manner of inclusion of Kathak in Hindi Cinema.

The Vintage Chapter of Kathak

It is well-known that the themes portrayed in early Indian Cinema, dwelt largely on mythological, devotional and historical issues that later included social themes. Importantly, these were musical plays or operas in character having been influenced by the ‘nautanki’, ‘tamasha’ and ‘jatra’ genres. This is understandable as most of the initial film makers came from Maharashtra, Bengal and the Gangetic belt such as Bhatavdekar, F.B. Thanavala, Hiralal Sen, Jamshedji Madan, Phalke to name a few. Not to be forgotten is the fact that the genre of musical play replete with drama, music and dance, is evident in the Natyashastra. Furthermore, when a film is made by a dancer then it reflects the training of the dancer. Herein, one can remember the 1948 film of Uday Shankar “Kalpana” that had his unique trademark of fusion of styles but also the story line being portrayed in the genre of dance play!

Revered dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar's 1948 classic "Kalpana" is set for screening at the 65th Cannes International Film Festival May 17, 2012 | Photo Courtesy: India Forums

Revered dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar’s 1948 classic “Kalpana” was screened at the 65th Cannes International Film Festival on May 17, 2012 | Photo Courtesy: India Forums

Even though small films were made since the turn of twentieth century, yet it was the 1932 film “Indra Sabha” that had elements of Kathak. The reason for including Kathak in Indra Sabha was understandable, since this dance play had originally been commissioned by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. This play that had been staged in Lucknow in mid-nineteenth century, was written by Agha Hassab Amanat and had several dance sequences.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had a personal interest in Kathak, So much so, that he had himself learnt Kathak from a traditional Brahmin Kathak Guru, Pt. Thakur Prasad (great-grandfather of Pt. Birju Maharaj). With such an illustrious traditional Kathak Guru and his two brilliant performer sons—Kalka Maharaj and Bindadin Maharaj—in his court, it was natural that the choreography of the musical play was based on Kathak. This was reflected in the film too.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]Most of the mythological stories had northern and central India as their natural setting and hence looking towards Kathak for inspiration, was obvious.[/su_pullquote]

It was a similar case with the 1940 film “Nartaki” by Debaki Bose that had been inspired by the historical tale of Roop (known as Roopkosha)—a dancer of Sunga period in Patliputra. The setting of Bose’s film was in the sixteenth century, however since it showcased the Gangetic plains, here too, the dances were inspired by Kathak. On the other hand, the film “Raj Nartaki” that was made in two languages—English and Hindi—in 1940, had Sadhona Bose in the main lead who reveals another important facet. Sadhonaji, who had received her initial training in Kathak had to learn Manipuri for the film as the story was set against the back drop of Manipur.

What these reflected was the requirement of the story and geographical setting of the story and the choice of dance form. But what about the desire of the film makers to portray a dance even when it was not an integral part of the story?

Herein, one can cite the example of the dance duet between Padmini and Ragini in the 1960 film “Kalpana”. The two Travancore sisters portrayed their training in Bharatanatyam in a dream sequence, which to quote a critic of that time was “… actually very clever, because it shows the two women doing Bharatanatyam to show their love for their god….”

Courtesans and Devadasis

What is interesting are the differences that crept in later on, in the portrayal of Bharatanatyam and Kathak-inspired dances. The term ‘nautch dancers’ given by the colonial masters, applied to both genre of performers, namely the courtesans and the ‘devadasis’.

Both, courtesans and devdasis, were performers who were sexually exploited by noblemen, rulers and the public. But, the surroundings in which they received patronage imbued the former with a colour other than the Hindu religious overtone of the latter.

Where was the difference when a devadasi performed in the courts of the rulers including Muslim rulers of Hyderabad, including non-Hindu items such as the ‘salamatoru’, and the performances of the dancer-courtesans?

Besides rhythmic items, the verses of enactment by both genres of performers (courtesan dancers and the devadasis) were dedicated to Hindu gods. Another forgotten fact was that the devadasis were as much kept on the fringes of society as were the courtesan dancers. Had it not been so, the Anti-Devadasi movement would not have been a great success in southern India in the twenties and thirties of the last century; which eventually led to the restructuring and rechristening of ‘sadirattam’ and ‘dasiattam’ to Bharatanatyam. This aspect was pushed in the hinter-ground in the new wave of sanitization that came about in the thirties, the period of restructuring, and again in later decades, when more film makers and actresses came from Southern regions.

As long as traditional Kathak dancers choreographed and performed, the portrayal of Kathak was perhaps more realistic. One has to see Roshan Kumari’s dance sequence in the film ‘Jalsaghar’ of 1958 where she performed a traditional ‘Chaturang’ item of Kathak, replete with tora, tukra, paran, tihai, lari, Krishna-inspired gat bhava and a kavitt dedicated to Lord Krishna. Gopi Krishna and Choubey Maharaj in V Shataram’s 1956 film “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje”, performed traditional Kathak pieces in the exuberant and vigorous Benaras Gharana Ang.

A gorgeous Kathak dance in Jalsaghar (aka The Music Room) performed by Roshan Kumarii, 1958 | Photo Courtesy: White City Cinema

A gorgeous Kathak dance in Jalsaghar (aka The Music Room), 1958 performed by Roshan Kumari. | Photo Courtesy: White City Cinema

Schism Between Kathak and Bharatnatyam

Most of the settings of mythological stories happened to be the Indo-Gangetic belt and therefore the influence of Kathak movements was a natural corollary. But over the years, it became easy to portray licentiousness with a ‘mujra’ that was identified incorrectly as Kathak and anything religious with Bharatanatyam, thus fostering a myth about the non-licentious nature of the devadasis contributing to widening of schism in the portrayals of the two streams. This comes out vividly in the 1960 film “Kalpana” where the main dance number performed before Lord Shiva is inspired from Bharatanatyam whereas the scene in ‘angarkha’ costume is ‘mujra’ style.

Costumes that the artistes wore in films, became another source of mental alignment to one dance form or the other. The ‘angarkha’ costume was associated with the debauch nautch from the North while the dhoti style of costume got associated with temple art form, once again accentuating the schism in thought between the nautch dancers of north and south.

The Kathak Twirl: The upper angrakha and the lower tight fitting churidar | Photo Courtesy: Tumbler

The Kathak Twirl: The upper angrakha and the lower tight fitting churidar | Photo Courtesy: Tumbler

Even though costume designers made trips to Ajanta and Ellora caves in order to gather inspiration especially when doing historical or mythological films but that the frescoes revealed only the frontal part of the costumes and were not 3D, escaped attention. The crucial rear part of the costume was influenced by the ‘calendar art’ style, namely the divided ‘dhoti’ style that had become prominent from the twenties of the last century. This style, native of Maharashtra, was introduced in the 18th century to southern regions during the reign of Maratha ruler Serfoji and had quickly been adopted by the upper classes of society.

Bharata Natyam is a classical dance form from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, dating back to 1000 B.C. The pleats in these costumes opens beautifully when the dancer forms a particular postures

Bharata Natyam is a classical dance form from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, dating back to 1000 B.C. The pleats in these costumes open beautifully when the dancer forms particular postures. | Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

Perhaps the 3D statues of dancers housed in obscure Patna Museum and such others escaped notice of these costume designers, for they speak a different story. These sculptures tell a tale of existence of ‘angarkha and tight pyjama’ costume as well as the ‘lehenga’ costume as early as the third century BC (Mauryan period). Even the famous 3rd century BC Didarganj Yakshi, when seen from the front would seem to suggest a ‘dhoti kind of costume’ but when seen from the back (as she is a full-fledged 3D sculpture), she reveals a ‘lehenga kind of costume’! An example in mis-portrayal is the 1966 film “Amrapali” that had veteran Gopi Krishna, the traditional Kathak artiste as the dance choreographer. While the movements were inspired from Kathak, the costume spoke a different tale.

Since 1959, with V Shataram’s film “Navrang” which was Kathak-based and few isolated choreographic pieces by traditional Kathak guru, Lacchu Maharaj and such others, portrayal of Kathak in films went through a dark phase for a long time. Dances in later day films of the sentries, eighties, nineties and in this century, became more and more hybrid examples of popular western dance movements inspired by discotheque dance, Michael Jackson dance moves and Middle-Eastern hip and belly swings, metamorphosed into something seemingly ‘Indian’ with an ‘Indian-ness’ that has come to be known as “Bollywood Dances”. If there was a suggestion of licentiousness in historical terms, it was ‘mujra’ that they turned to. But, that too has been unnecessary as the new genre of Bollywood dances gives ample scope for presentation of all moods and occasions.

Recently, few film-makers have been tapping the storehouse of Kathak Gurus again. Hopefully, the vision of such film-makers of today who have gone the extra mile to get great traditional Kathak Gurus, will eventually be that much-needed step towards imparting credibility and creating an awareness for the need of correct portrayal of Kathak in films.

Guru Shovana Narayan, Padmashree, Sangeeta Natak, Bihar Gaurav, Delhi Government’s Parishad Samman, Japan’s OISCA awardee among many others, is a Kathak Guru, performer, choreographer, activist, author-researcher-scholar.

Featured Image Credits: Aurindam Mukherjee via Flickr

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