The word signifies “storyteller” and has its roots in the term “katha,” story. In the past, many communities of storytellers from northern India, who regaled spectators with episodes from mythology, legends, and popular tales, incorporated music, mime, and dance into their presentations. Among these communities were the Kathaks, who were both dancers and musicians. After many years, with the rising popularity of the cult for the god Vishnu, hymns, lyrical compositions and sacred songs were created and dedicated to the god. The god Krishna (reincarnation of Vishnu), who inspired Kathak, is often associated with “Natvara,” the devine dancer. The dancers often choose and interpret episodes relating the love between Krishna and Radha, the lovely sheperdess, found in the Gita Govinda.
The sovereigns of Moghol and Hindu courses introduced dance into their teaching, which lead to the transformation of the style. From there, the dance that was originally exclusively devotional became also an entertainment, enriched with new elements, technical virtuosity, and pure dance. We hear often that Kathak could have been the originator of Flamenco; that nomads, gypsies from the Thar desert, brought it with them as far as Spain.
The Kathak technique today is characterized by a complex language: foot claps (tatkar), rapid rhythmic footwork based on complex tempos, rapid pirouettes (bhramaris), poetic expression (abhinaya), and sign language with hands (mudras). With much emphasis placed on rhythm, the dance is built around rhythmic lyrics (bols) that are accompanied by tabla or by the pakhawaj, recited by the dancer before he performs the foot claps with 200 small bells around his ankles. The show, then, is a virtuoso dialogue between the percussionist and dancer.
Jaipur, Lucknow and Benares are identified as the three schools, or gharanas, where the art was based and where the interpretive and rhythmic aspects have been lead to a high degree of refinement.