Kathak: Classical Dance from Northern India

Picture a low platform at the side of the Meany Theater stage with four musicians on sitar—the long-necked Indian lute, tabla—hand drums, an instrument with bellows and keys working the same as an accordion, and voice, plus other small percussion like finger cymbals. A man comes on dancing lightly just with his bare feet, carrying a small tray with incense, which he reverently puts down and then heads to center stage. He talks to the audience, explaining some of what he will be doing doing, and then proceeds to dance.

This is not like any dance most of us have ever seen, even those from southern India, as this comes from the north.

It’s dance which uses mostly hands and feet plus singing at times, the feet creating percussive patterns and rhythms fast and slow, with thuds, taps, and pattering like rain. (There are floor microphones to amplify the surprising variety of sounds.) The hands, fingers and wrists are expressive and graceful as the arms move widely, never angular. The body, sometimes whirling like a dervish, hangs loose over the feet, which only occasionally get lifted one at a time, but the face is as expressive as the hands, with eyes, eyebrows, chin and angle all part of the portrayal of the dance story.

For this is what Pandit Chitresh Das is, a storyteller, and Kathak is the dance style he grew up with, a child prodigy who began his studies aged nine. It’s an improvisational form of dance which includes plenty of engagement with the audience, and within the tradition of which the dynamic Das has expanded his work to include jazz and more as well as starting schools to teach the form. There are several in this country as well as in India.

Watching him Saturday night at the UW World series of Music and Theater performance, it was astounding to think this man is 65. After taking the roles of six characters (including a deer) in the “Ghat Bao: Sita Apaharan,” or “The Abduction of Sita,” vividly creating their wishes, doubts, instructions, courage, plotting and eventually giving a graphic portrayal of being kidnapped, he seemed not at all out of breath.

For Indians, it was the Feast of Diwali on Saturday and in its honor, Das performed an extra dance he was taught as a child, with the down-home title of “The Journey of the Train.” He explained in detail beforehand: the train leaving the station, the track crossings, the bridge, the electric train passing, the small houses en route, the next station; and then danced it with all the patterns in his feet, sometimes anouncing which bit as he reached it. The whole was completely fascinating and anyone who has traveled by train would recognize all of it.

There were other dances by him solo, but his company of eight women performed at beginning and end, in costumes with light skirts which flared out as they twirled and underneath, all, including Das, wore red leggings with rows of bells around their ankles. The cross rhythms in the dance, the fast changes in patterns, sometimes not the same in hands and feet, are sophisticated and difficult to comprehend but appeared easy as all these dancers created them

It was a privilege to see Das and his company, though performances of this caliber are what we expect from the UW series. It was however surprising not to see more than a fair sprinkling of people from India in the audience.

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One thought on “Kathak: Classical Dance from Northern India

  1. Nice write up.

    The reason Indians do not flock to these performances of Mr. Das is because he has crafted this art into a feast for *western* audiences. It is characterized by powerful, short, loud bursts of energy. The dancers are often lacking in humility and subtlety and many of them do not even speak or understand the language of Kathak, which is Hindi. I recommend watching many, many Kathak artists from the entire diaspora of dancers (plenty on You Tube) before declaring Das’ style to be the end-all be all of Kathak.

    My 2 cents, as everyone is entitled to 2 cents. Enjoyed your description.

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