The word Kathak has been derived from the word Katha which means a story. Kathakars or story-tellers, are people who narrate stories largely based on episodes from the epics, myths and legends.
The emergence of Raslila , mainly in the Braj region (Mathura in Western U.P.) was an important development. It combined in itself music, dance and the narrative. Dance in Raslila, however, was mainly an extension of the basic mime and gestures of the Kathakars or story-tellers which blended easily with the existing traditional dance.
In both Hindu and Muslim courts, Kathak became highly stylised and came to be regarded as a sophisticated form of entertainment.
Under the Muslims there was a greater stress on nritya and bhava giving the dance graceful, expressive and sensuous dimensions.
The nineteenth century saw the golden age of Kathak under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh. He established the Lucknow gharana with its strong accent on bhava, the expression of moods and emotions.
The Jaipur gharana known for its layakari or rhythmic virtuosity and the Benaras gharana are other prominent schools of Kathak dance. The technique of movement in Kathak is unique to it.
The weight of the body is equally distributed along the horizontal and vertical axis.
The full foot contact is of prime importance where only the toe or the ball of the foot are used, their function is limited.
There are no deflections and no use of sharp bends or curves of the upper or lower part of the body.
Torso movements emerge from the change of the shoulder line rather than through the manipulations of the backbone or upper chest and lower waist muscles.
In the basic stance, the dancer stands straight, holds one hand at a level higher than the head and the other is extended out on the level of the shoulder.
The dancer commences with a sequence called That where soft gliding movements of the neck, eyebrows and the wrists, are introduced. This is followed by a conventional formal entry known as the Amad (entry) and theSalami (salutation).
Then follow the various combinations of rhythmic passages all punctuated with and culminating in a number of pirouettes.
The pirouettes are the most characteristic feature of the dance style in nritta portions.
Recitation of the rhythmic syllables is common; the dancer often pauses to recite these to a specified metrical cycle followed by execution through movement.
The nritta portion of Kathak is performed to the nagma.
Both the drummer (here the drum is either a pakhawaj, a type of mridangam, or a pair of tabla) and the dancer weave endless combinations on a repetitive melodic line.
The metrical cycle (tala) of 16, 10, 14 beats provides the foundation on which the whole edifice of dance is built.
In the mime portions (nritya or abhinaya), words are not used in simple numbers called the gata, which is performed in a lyrical manner to gentle rhythm.
These are short narrative pieces which portray a brief episode from Krishna’s life. A poetic line set to music is interpreted with gestures in other numbers, such as the tumri, bhajan, dadra – all lyrical musical compositions.