On October 4 at Reynolds Theater, Duke Performances hosts a rare visit from Indian classical dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj. The maestro is the world’s leading Kathak dancer; the eighth generation of one of its founding lineages. Balancing pure technique and expressive storytelling, with intricate footwork and spins, Kathak requires no foreknowledge to be enjoyed, but the entertaining façade conceals layers and layers of formal and historical complexity. To explore some of them, we spoke with Raleigh resident Hasita Oza, a veteran Kathak dancer, teacher, and disciple of Rohini Bhate, herself a pupil of Birju Maharaj’s uncle. We learned how Kathak is not only a site of cultural preservation, but also a record of inevitable change.
The Thread: What is Kathak?
Hasita Oza: Kathak is one of the classical dance styles of India. It was born and developed in Northern India. The word “katha” in Sanskrit means “story.” In ancient times, professional storytellers in Northern India, called Kathak, recited stories from epics and mythology with elements of dance. These storytellers used temple courtyards on festival nights, embellishing their stories with hand gestures and their facial expressions with vocal music, instrumental music, and percussion. These stories meant to keep the culture alive.
During what time period did Kathak begin?
There are so many different opinions and histories that we don’t really know. In the Ramayana, one of our ancient epics, there is a mention of the word katthakar [“storyteller”]. Some date it to Vedic period. There are also literary references in the 3rd and 4th centuries, but no clear evidence of a style is mentioned. Some studies say that it was shaped in the 13th century.
Birju Maharaj is 8th-generation Lucknow Gharana, which was developed in the 17th century. Besides the Lucknow school of Kathak, there are Jaipur, Benaras, and Raigarh schoolss
Are these styles associated with different regions or teachers?
Lucknow school was developed in the city of Lucknow, Jaipur in Jaipur, and so on. The teachers impart the style they learned from their guru. The schools vary significantly in terms of movement type, dance vocabulary, intricacies of rhythm, and repertoire. Now the boundaries between these schools are diminishing, due to many students’ learning from various gurus and different Gharanas.
Can you tell us more about Lucknow?
Lucknow was developed when India was invaded by Muslim kings. At first, Kathak dance was only performed in temples, for God. It was very holy. Every song was for worship, singing his glory. When those kings came, they provided patronage to all these dancers. They said, “Dance for us, and we will provide you everything.” Whoever took patronage in the court were Lucknow dancers. This is where the sensuous aspect entered which was very opposite of what the form originally was. Instead of saying, “O Krishna, you are so beautiful,” they would say, “O King.” It became about human relationships rather than divine. But there was positive also; Muslims helped Kathak in so many ways, in terms of patronage and contributing the emotional aspects, the love songs. All that came from them, as did the concept of pure notes, like in “do re mi fa so la ti do.”
When did this invasion happen?
They invaded for a long time, coming and going, from the 7th century onwards. Later on, they started establishing in Northern India. They brought their dancers and music with them, and that’s where this fusion with Persian music and dancing started happening over centuries. A new Kathak style emerged by the 13th century, incorporating changes from the Sufi and Muslim cultures. All other styles of Indian dance are very different from Kathak, because they remain untouched. We have a monumental work, the Natya Shastra, which was written in the first century. All the styles follow that book, which talks about everything: hand gestures, eyes, feet; literature, architecture, all the fine arts. No one knows how Kathak was originally, but we know now that it is different than the rest of the styles. The main difference is that we don’t bend our knees, which is the basic position in other styles. Researchers say this change happened when the Middle Eastern dancers and also the Sufis, who spin in their meditation, arrived. Kathak has a lot of spins and those probably happened from them.
Could you tell us about the formal structure of the dance?
It has two main parts. One is technique (Nritta) and the other is story (Nritya). The basic format begins with an invocation, which could be to any god or goddess. That falls into the Nritya aspect, where emotions are emphasized through facial expressions, gestures and body movements. The second part is taal, a rhythm cycle of certain beats. That falls into the Nritta aspect: pure dance where aesthetics of movement and rhythm are emphasized, without the intention to convey meaning.
What instruments do the performers generally use?
Tabla, harmonium, sitar, flute, and others.
What kinds of stories are told?
The story could be about how handsome Krishna is, or it could be something like little Krishna stealing butter in “Maharaj ji is Makhan Chori.” When the milkmaid leaves the house to do her chores, these little boys and Krishna enter and the buttermilk and butter are hanging in the clay pot, which is so high. They make a ladder, break the pot, and eat everything. The milkmaid returns and sees all the mess and scolds Krishna, and he says, “I didn’t do anything; they smeared it on my face.”
So there are comical stories as well as serious ones?
Yes, this is a fun kind of story which is very popular. There is another story, which is from the Mahabharata, where there are two cousins, both kings, fighting over who should get the kingdom. They are playing chess and saying whoever wins has to surrender their crown. One king does that and then says, “Okay, let’s play again. This time if you lose, you have to give me your wife, Queen Draupadi.” He loses again and he has to surrender his wife. Then the other king’s brother disrobes her, and she prays to Krishna, who with his magic provides so much fabric to her that he is just disrobing and disrobing until he gets exhausted. I haven’t seen this piece in years, but that was one of Birju Maharaj’s masterpieces when he was young.
Could you tell us about Birju Maharaj’s importance in this world?
He is the king of Kathak. He is master of rhythm, the most graceful; his expression is very beautiful and dramatic. He is a complete dancer. When I saw him when he was young, he was a hypnotic personality. A genius.
Is there anything else we need to know to fully enjoy Kathak?
Though the dance looks very grounded, with a lot of footwork, spins, body movements, and stories of gods and goddesses, it is spiritual in nature. It goes beyond physical movement. As it is said in the Natya Shastra: It is for the liberation of an individual or to uplift the spirits of mankind.