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Tracing the Journey of Kathak in India



To think of Kathak is to hear the gentle chiming of the ghungroos as the dancers walk onto the stage; the lift of the curtain and beaming lights highlighting graceful ghagra skirts and dupattas as the dancers take the stage with resonating claps of feet against the floor harmonized with the vibrant ringing of ghungroos and loud. Clear tabla and harmonium play live on stage in tandem with the bol and taal (beats and rhythm). Narrating stories of Krishna’s nakhra (mischief)and Radha’s fond exasperation at him, Kathak dancers bring a lively presence to storytelling through the sound of ghungroos, the well-known chakkars (spins)and expressionist acting.

Birth of Kathak 

‘Katha kahe so Kathak’ one who tells stories is a storyteller.

Believed to have first emerged in ancient Northern India, Kathak was a storytelling technique before it became a dance form. Storytellers or Kathakars of the time often travelled village to village and throughout kingdoms in order to spread their art. Occasionally stopping at temples and local resting places, they began reciting stories of Indian mythologies in public spaces and temples. Not only did the Kathakars narrate stories orally but they also borrowed elements of music, dance and theatre. Encouraged by the pundits from the temples, they also began narrating stories from Indian epics and mythologies such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas and the Vedas. Rising popularity of this style of storytelling led to the emergence of Kathak as a distinct dance form. The influx of Hindu mythologies into Kathak performances began steering the direction of Kathak towards a religious tone.

cc. 1700s – miniature painting
Source – Sunil Kothari’s Kathak, Indian Classical Dance Art

This change towards the religious direction became most distinct during the Bhakti Movement. Emerging in the 8th century AD and spreading northwards until the 15th century, Kathak adopted attributes of this movement by incorporating ideals of worship and devotion. This influence is seen most distinctly in the Lucknow tradition of Kathak. Attributing the movement to the devotee, Ishwari from Handia village in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, it is believed that Lord Krishna appeared in Ishwari’s dreams and asked him to develop dance as a form of worship for him. Devoting himself to changing the direction of Kathak, Ishwari founded the Lucknow tradition of the dance which is known for its tales of Radha and Krishna. Eventually travelling out of Lucknow, these stories became the basis of Kathak. Flipping characters through abhinaya (acting), stories of Krishna’s mischief, of Radha and the gopis’ exasperation and the push-and-pull of Radha and Krishna all came to life during Kathak performances.

Mughal Era

The arrival of the Mughals in India in the 14th century AD ushered in with it, the Golden Era of Kathak. Akbar’s reign observed distinct amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic cultures to create a symphony of most of the art forms we see today. With temples taken over by Islamic rulers, Kathakars were eventually absorbed into Mughal courts. The most distinct change in Kathak during the Mughal Era was the shift from a folkloric, religious art form to a syncretic practice meant for entertainment and spectacle. The main aim of art and performance shifted towards pleasing the Emperor and Kathak mirrored the same by changing itself to favour fast rhythms and graceful motions. Static stories of devotion were replaced with abstract dancing exemplified in rapid tatkar (footwork) and elegant, eye-catching hand motions. With Kathak becoming primarily a form of aristocratic entertainment, Kathakars performed in the grandiose durbars and royal halls of Mughal rulers.

Dancing girls from Baz Bahadur’s place at Malway performing Kathak dance before Akbar (from ‘Akbarnama; 1561). Source – Victoria & Albert Museum, London

From dance moves to aesthetics, Kathak integrated aspects of Persian traditions into itself. Female dance attires changed from simple sarees to long flowing skirts and anarkalis to highlight the chakkars during performances. Persian instruments also found their way into the dance tradition with performers dancing to the pakhawaj, tabla and taal. For the aristocratic Mughal court, the language shifted to Urdu.

Perhaps one of the most distinct aspects of Kathak during the Mughal era was the presence of female Kathakars and the tawaif (courtesans) culture of the Mughal era. Since the main dancers of the time were the tawaifs, Kathak became highly sensualized in order to favour the male gaze. As a result, themes of nakhra (mischief or playfulness) and ched-chad (teasing) were prevalent. On a similar note, the Nayika-bheda – an archetypal classification from the Natyashastra of romantic heroines and their relationships with the nayaks (hero) – also became a key subject for female dancers in order to gratify the men. With entertainment as the focus, dancers began using suggestive gestures and played with nazar (eye-contact) to maintain the sensuality of the performance. The tawaifs held a position of respect in society and their close association with the royal household made them akin to nobility.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah

It would be amiss to speak of the history of Kathak without mentioning the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (reign: 1847 – 1856). Reigning as the last Nawab of the region of Awadh in current day Uttar Pradesh, his contribution towards the dance form remains unparalleled. In contrast to the tawaif form, Wajid Ali Shah tried to reform Kathak into a more aesthetically focused dance.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh

He developed two distinct forms of the dance, namely the Rahas which focused on creating dance dramas and the Raas which focused on its aesthetic. Being an avid dancer himself, he often choreographed performances and danced with the women in his court.  During his time, the thumri became a significant repertoire of Kathak and later, also of the distinct style of Kathak in Lucknow.

The Lucknow gharana, which established itself after the surrender of the Nawab to the British in 1856, integrated most of the Nawab’s elements of Kathak. It became distinct for its nazakat (elegance) and its nafasat (finesse), and is characterized by its focus on grace, beauty and abhinaya. Expressional acting was central to the Lucknow style.

Wajid Ali Shah and his wives watch a dance drama; Lucknow, c.1850
from – Ishqnama . Source – Royal Collection Trust

Alongside Lucknow, Jaipur and Banares also developed distinct gharanas and dance styles. The Jaipur gharana flourished during the Kachwaha rulers of Jaipur in Rajasthan. It focused more on technical aspects of the dance by developing complex footwork, multiple chakkars and manipulating the taal (rhythm). The Benares gharana, developed by dancer Janaki Prasad, stresses upon the utilization of beats. It stands out for its chakkars which are taken from both the left and right side; unlike the other two which only spin from the left. During British occupation, each of these styles proliferated and developed in tandem with one another.

India’s Colonial Era

The colonial era of India was not particularly kind to Kathak. The onslaught of the direct rule of the British in the 19th century brought with it Victorian ideas of morality which directly affected dances of India. Initially, the British wrote detailed accounts of tawaifs and dancers of India and enjoyed performances by the women.

Nautch being presented at official functions and events

However, the surrender of Nawab Ali Shah in 1856 and the 1857 War of Independence led to a severe decline in North Indian kingdoms and the courtesans, dancers and musicians from royals courts fell to the lower ranks of social classes. The British rebranded the dance forms as North Indian ‘nautch’ (anglicized from ‘nach’). Female performers were particularly targeted and associated with low culture and ‘loose morals’. The seductive gestures and expressions, especially in the Kathak performances gave all the more reason for the British to further the orientalist notion of Indian culture being ‘erotic’ and ‘uncivilized’. The women were associated with the reason for declining culture of India, not just by the British but also by Indian people who were educated in colonial British space. This gave rise to a strong anti-Nautch movement which led to the Devadasi Abolition Act, dissolving all kinds of public performances. Some artists grabbed the opportunity to reinvent themselves as thumri and ghazal singers with the birth of All India Radio in the early 20th century. However, Kathak was largely run underground and was passed down simply as an oral tradition among families until the end of the colonial period.

‘Three dancing Girls of Hindoostan’ – painting by Mrs Belnos depicting different Nautch girls in various positions of the dance.

The Post-Colonial Revival of Kathak

Towards the end of the British rule, dancers from various gharanas attempted to revive Kathak and North Indian nautch with new respectability. Post-independence, several classical dance forms were recognized formally again, including Kathak. The revival of Kathak can be attributed significantly to hereditary male performers – descendants of Kathak performers and teachers from Mughal courts. The male dominance of the Kathak space became distinctly clear with the rise in national dance academies which favoured the gurukul system and held the male hereditary dancers at a much higher pedestal – for instance, renowned Kathak dancers such as Acchan Maharaj and Birju Maharaj are both descended from the dancer, Binandin Maharaj who was raised in the royal court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and is considered to be one of the architects of the Lucknow gharana of Kathak. In contrast, female Kathak dancers descending from courtesans of Mughal courts were erased from history entirely due to their continued association with hypersexuality. Over time, upper caste women began taking their place in the Kathak sphere. For instance, Madame Menaka, an upper-class Brahmin woman became an icon in the revival movement of Kathak. She reestablished social acceptance of Nautch in India in the early 20th century and experimented extensively with Kathak to make it a publicly presentable dance form. 

Madame Menaka
Birju Maharaj

The revival movement was also influenced by religion and caste-based discrimination at the time. Consequently, Kathak has gone back to its roots of Hindu devotion and has brought back stories of Radha-Krishna and the gopis as its primary focus. Dancers now begin performing by a short invocation to Hindu gods as well as to one’s guru – a contrast to the Mughal era when Kathak performances would begin with a salami. The dance has also reverted back to partial Sanskritization and distanced itself from the sensuality of Mughal era Kathak. 

There was also a distinct lack of codification of rules in Kathak during the revival movement and as a result, 20th century dancers experimented extensively with dance style and expression. However, national dance academies started being established in the mid-20th century which cultivated a need to convert Kathak into a classroom level dance form. Dancers from the Lucknow gharana such as Pandit Birju Maharaj played an active role in this codification and as a result, the rules of the Lucknow style of Kathak emerged superior. This created a hegemonic standardization and homogenization of Kathak to favour the Lucknow gharana while the Jaipur and Banaras ones have become marginalized and localized. The post-colonial revival of Kathak resulted in a loss of several attributes that once prevailed within the Kathak history. However, the dance form is still regarded as one of the most respected and favoured classical dances of India. With rising popularity, it has also made its way into mainstream Indian entertainment – as seen through popular Bollywood songs such as Kaahe Chhed Mohe (2009),Mohe Rang Do Laal (2016) and Ghar More Pardesiya (2019) which heavily use Kathak for traditional and aesthetic performances, with overzealous attires and expensive sets for added appeal. Kathak, as a dance form, stands out due to the amalgamation of attributes borrowed from all aspects of its history – in the harmony of Hindu and Islamic influences, the Sufi dance movements, the Persian instruments and the flowing skirts all come together to create the symphony of the ghungroo and the clap of the foot, coupled with graceful chakkars, abhinaya and intricate storytelling.

Experience Further

Prominent Bollywood actress and Kathak dancer, Madhuri Dixit performs an elaborate Kathak choreography in the music video of the Devdas (2002) song Kaahe Chhed Mohe (“Why are you teasing me?”). The performance holds all distinct aspects of Kathak – Dixit is seen adorning a deep red ghagra to accentuate the flow of the choreography as she, and the rest of the women perform in the middle of a court, all the while engaging with the men present.  Her expressions depict a shy sensuality which goes to with the song’s lyrics which speak about Krishna teasing Radha and her exasperation regarding the same. 

Featured Image Credits: Three Nautch Girls photographed cc. 1860-70 by Charles Shepherd

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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