Temples & dance history: The who, what, when and where of Kathak

Deccan Chronicle.  | Sharon Lowen

Lifestyle, Books and Art

Cover of Kathak Lok: Temple Traditions and History (Photo By Arrangement)

A remarkable journey of discovery, reading like a mystery novel on the trail of a still living temple tradition, fills the opening chapters of Shovana Narayan and Geetika Kalha’s Kathak Lok. Their exploration across 7,000 kilometres, remote villages and dusty pre-colonial records is an extraordinary narrative of the Kathak Lok and its relationship to the origins and practice of the classical dance now called Kathak.This superbly researched work bravely takes up the challenges of scholarly investigations into the multiple competing narratives of the “who, what, where and when” of Kathak.

In the temples that the authors visited, they saw performers who were able to interact and improvise with the devotees to expound the stories. This was possible because their training had been immersed in sahitya, having memorised vast tracts of text along with a deep understanding of philosophical interpretations. References to this community can be found in a pre-Christian era Prakrit inscription, the 13th century Sangeet Ratnakar and accounts of foreign travelers who “call them narrator-actors and sang and danced in temples and villages spreading the message of the divine and disseminating human values”.

This groundbreaking work peels away many of our accepted assumptions about this art form, stunningly revealed as more colonial era views than actual history. It is frankly a humbling paradigm shift to learn that, much as we all value intangible cultural heritage, the actual history of Kathak and its movement from temple and village to court and stage has been hidden in plain sight. Much has been forgotten and all that we have been told is not true. Kapila Vatsyayan called this “an absolutely stupendous field work; most impressive.”

The question of a journalist in Gaya, “are you going to visit the Kathak villages?”, led to the 2011 census to discover that there were indeed 12 villages in UP and Bihar named Kathak. These turned out to be named after the Kathak Brahmins.

Witnessing a performance as part of the recent book launch, I was taken back to memories of many rural performances I recall from around the country. One could sniff the smell of the fields, and the kerosene lamps or halogen lights as these consummate artistes told and enacted the stories. The sash/dupatta constantly changed location as various characters in the narrative was created. All was interconnected to folk narratives and the Kathak we see on stage, yet the import was clear, this was indeed the nritya seva fountainhead.

As the Mughal Empire weakened by the second half of the 18th century, both Hindu and Muslim rulers started to patronise art and culture and Kathaks were invited to court. An 18th century commentary by Priya Das relates the solution of how to perform at the command of the Muslim ruler of Hariya Saray when he would only dance before the image of Hari. He couldn’t bring an idol to the court so “when dancing before the ‘Mir’, he put up before him in place of an image, an inoffensive tulsi garland, a satisfactory idol substitute because the tulsi is regarded as not different from the Lord!”

While training of dancers who performed at Mughal, Jaipur and Awadh courts as well as Raasleela was done by Kathak Brahmins, they themselves only occasionally left their village and temple for posts in Hindu courts. Photographs of Jaipur court records identify them individually as well as their salaries.

The demeaning of Indian culture during the colonial era is well known.  A case in in point was the branding and outlawing of temple dance traditions as prostitution. Many Kathak Lok villages were deserted as the Brahmin practitioners felt pressure to dissociate themselves from this heritage and role as gurus of natya, and confined themselves to just singing or playing musical instruments.

A detailed scrutiny  of the influence of Middle Eastern Islamic performance traditions were systematically shown as not to be found in the Kathak performed by women dancers in Mughal courts, just as the mujra of dancing girls projected by Bollywood is also off-base. A comparison of the 16th century Nartan Nirnaya description of Jakkadi, a Persian dance, took a line by line comparison of rhythm and percussion, movement techniques, costumes, and performance structure to debunk the idea the idea that the dancing girls at the Mughal or other Islamic courts created the Kathak dance. Questions raised include whether this myth was part of the British portrayal of the debauched Muslim court as well as how the story of the Kathak Lok got lost, whether deliberately or by the desire of the Kathaks themselves.

Of course, while the Kathak Brahmins performed to create devotion for the divine in the hearts of their audiences, the dancers they taught as gurus, such as the talented and rich tawaif, danced more to entertain and certainly their art was enriched with local influences. An example given of this is the impact of the vibrant percussion tradition of Rajasthan on the development of the dance and the reduced emphasis on the narrator-actor aspect.

Shovana and Geetika did not set out to prove a point or undermine any gharana but “to understand the existence of Kathak villages and what Kathak and ‘Kathak Lok’ represent”. As Dr B.N. Goswamy says, “a new dimension to the studies of Kathak has clearly been added”.

Kathak Lok: Temple Traditions and History
By Shovana Narayan and Geetika Kalha
Vitasta. pp. 364, Rs.750

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