- A CLASSICAL DANCE
OF NORTHERN INDIA
by David Courtney, Ph.D.
Kathak is the major classical dance form
of northern India. The word kathak means "to tell
a story". It is derived from the dance dramas of
ancient India. When the patronage shifted from the temples
to the royal court, there was a change in the overall
emphasis. The emphasis shifted from the telling of religious
stories to one of entertainment. Today the story-telling
aspect has been downgraded and the dance is primarily
an abstract exploration of rhythm and movement.
was primarily associated with an institution known as
the tawaif. This is a much misunderstood institution of
female entertainers, very much like the geisha tradition
of Japan. It was a profession which demanded the highest
standards of training, intelligence, and most important,
civility. It is said that it was common for royalty to
send their children to the tawaifs for instruction in
etiquette. Unfortunately when the British consolidated
their hold over India during the Victorian era this great
institution was branded as mere prostitution and was outlawed.
This set the artform of kathak into a downward spiral
that was not reversed until Independence when there was
a reawakening in interest in traditional Indian artforms.
are three main gharanas, or schools of kathak. These schools
are named according to the geographical area in which
they developed. These are the Jaipur, Lucknow, and the
Benares gharanas. Each has a slight difference in interpretation
by David Courtney, Ph.D.
concept of gharana is peculiar to North Indian music today.
The word "Gharana" literally means "house"
and it implies the house of the teacher. It is linked
to the very ancient concept of the Guru-Shishya-Parampara
(linage of teacher /disciple) but with some interesting
The names of the gharanas are almost always derived from
a geographical location. This is usually the city, district
or state that the founder lived in. Two examples are the
Gwalior Gharana (vocal) or the Farukhabad Gharana (tabla).
gharana system as we think of it today is not really very
old. Most of the gharanas today are not more than 100-300
years old. The modern gharanas are generally traceable
to the period when the Mogul empire collapsed.
are found throughout the North in every field of dance,
vocal and instrumental music. They tend to be distinct
among themselves. That is to say that you generally do
not find tabla players saying that they are from a vocal
gharana or a vocalist claiming to come from a kathak gharana.
This is reasonable. One would not expect an accountant
to use his golf skills as and endorsement of his abilities
as an accountant.
In the professional sense a gharana has some of the characteristics
of a guild. It was always understood that tracing ones
linage to a major gharana was a prerequisite for obtaining
a position in the royal courts. The gharanas were entrusted
with the duty of maintaining a certain standard of musicianship.
the artistic sense the gharana is somewhat comparable
to a "style" or "school". Over the
years poor transportation and communication caused the
various gharanas to adopt their own particular approach
to presentation, technique and repertoire.
the past few decades the gharana system has had a negative
impact on the standard of musicianship. Improvements in
communications have made it a professional imperative
for musicians to have as broad of a background as possible.
The secretive nature of the gharana system coupled with
the fact that gharanas tended to specialize in only one
technique or approach is inconsistent with modern pedagogic
and proffesional requirements. Today, musicians who proclaim
loudest that they are "such-and-such" gharana
often have the least rounded background. It is for this
reason that many of the aspects of this system have been
abandoned in modern music colleges in India.
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