Ancient Religious Traditions

in Kathak Dance and Music

All forms of Indian performing art portray a religious possession. These art forms being deeply spiritual and devotional are entwined together so intensely and thus are inseparable. As in the so often stated statement of Sharangdev from 'Sangget Ratnakar,

"Geetam, Vadyam tatha Nrityam
Trayam sangeet muchyate",

which means that Music includes all three forms of arts i.e. Vocal music, Instrumental music and Dance, therefore they are interlinked. One of the most prominent dance forms of North India, Kathak dance and Hindustani classical music, both find their origin in old Hindu Mythology.

Where origin of music is assigned to Lord Brahma and Goddess Saraswati, the origin of Kathak dance is associated with a number of episodes from the deeds of Lord Shiva and Parvati. Indian ancient history is full of such divine episodes of the evolution of art forms. There are innumerable tales & stories relating dance and music with God.

Brahama the creator of Universe gave birth to art forms and taught other Gods and Goddesses. Bharata muni is said to have brought music and dance to the earth and taught the immortals various art forms including Drama, Music and Dance. Bharata in around 300 A.D. composed a treatise on Dramaturgy namely 'Natyashastra'. He included several chapters on Dance and Music. Out of 36 chapters 7 chapters are devoted to dance. In his treatise, Bharata talks about 'Rupa' or 'Natya' that was performed by 'Natas' or actors, mainly men who imitated various aspects of Gods and Goddesses, that portrays the ancient influence of Hindu mythology on dance and music. Also in that era, the artists of Kathak, were mostly men and performed the role of both the male and the female. These dancer artists preserved this art form along with its traditions even after the Mughal rule. The idea of men performing dance was mainly wrapped up with the idea symbolizing the victory of good over evil and power with which men are generally associated.

Temple Traditions: Devadasis

The religious nature of dance and music expresses intense devotion, ecstasy and divinity Kathak dance is of a unique origin itself. It is well known as a dance of story tellers. It was performed in the praise of Deities in the temples. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient temple traditions of music and dance. The performance of the dancers vividly expressed devotion and love of the devotee towards God and was considered the most appropriate means to be one with God. Women dancers who used to obey all religious rituals of the temple including its maintenance, were known as 'Devadasis'. They were primarily dedicated towards devotion of God and performed dance and music as religious offerings to the Deities. As the name suggests through conjunction we can explore its meaning as 'Dev' and 'Dasi' that means slave of God. They were so dedicated towards their deities that it was considered that a devadasi is a woman married to God, who is her divine husband. In ancient times women had less or no opportunity to study and therefore the profession of a devadasi gave them opportunity to study and to continue to be married life long. Brahmins who were expert in Music, Dance, Literature and other streams of study taught them. These dancers used to express stories and tales from ancient epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas through their dance and song. It was necessary for a dancer in ancient times to have enough dexterity in singing along with expressive skills of dance. In Dhrupad, which is an ancient genre of classical music, the dancers expressed the meaning of its lyrics or poetry through their 'Nritya'. In his book 'Kathak dance through Ages' Projesh Banerji states that '

"Dhrupad was not merely a mode for
music to which essentially it belongs, but
as a mode for expressive gestures which
we enter in dancing"

The dancers used to sing while they danced and religious themes were enacted through abhinaya simultaneously. Dhruvpad, Dhamaar, Bhajan. Keertan, Hori, Vandana, Pada all were sung and danced upon. This devotional dance was also given the name of 'Dhrupad Nritya'. In the words of famous Indian Kathak dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai dance was done not just to please God but to teach the right way of Living.

Kathaks : The Storytellers

The art of storytelling through expressions brought them their name as 'Kathaks' that means 'Kathakars' or one who narrates stories. In the temples they performed dance and music in the praise of Lord as a ritualistic offering. This art form dominated the temple rituals and was considered as divine. The clothes, gestures, movements, expression and poses all reflected the images of God and Goddesses and a devadasi was held with high esteem, regarded as sacred and chaste in the form of 'Shakti'.

Gradually with the advent of Muslim rule the situation of devadasis deteriorated. They were employed by kings and other rich men, for the purpose of entertainment. They became mistresses and queens of the Kings and were no more associated with religion or piousness. 

Religious Aspect: Dance and Music

Hindu mythology so deeply influenced Kathak and music in the ancient traditions that we find the associations of musical instruments with Gods and Goddesses such as Vina is divinely associated with Goddess Saraswati, Expression of rhythm, the Damru is so inseparable with the image of Lord Shiva. The enchanting flute is symbolic of Lord Krishna and one cannot forget to associate Ektara with Narad Muni.

The words or bol in Kathak dance form like Ta, Thai, Tat are associated with Krishna's dance on the hood Kaliya; in music the words Hari Om Narain that are rendered in the elaboration of alaap mainly in Dhrupad are associated with the praise of the Almighty. These words with gradual changes came to be sung as Nom, Tom, Na, Re etc. Tala, the rhythm is associated with Lord Shiva and Parvati. Through conjunction of the word tala, we notice that the words 'Ta' signifies 'Tandava' the cosmic dance of Shiva and 'La' signifies Lasya the dance of Parvati. Vishnu Kalia Mardan dance is another famous dance that is associated with an incident from the life of Lord Krishna's victory over the giant demonic snake. All the literature forms and relics of dances are connected with themes and ideas underlying the stories of the victory of good over evil, by Gods and Goddesses; the destruction of demons and the victory of truth i.e. God.

As stated in Upanishad that - rasa is Brahma, the rasa that is the basic essence of art forms, is considered to be divine. We also find that ancient Indian temples were constructed with human images carved on rocks and stones as the images of God. One of the most famous statue of "Natraj" Lord Shiva is portrayed with gesture of cosmic dance Tandava that very well exemplifies it. Though Indian art forms underwent several changes during foreign invasions we still find the unchanged traditional nuances in Dance & Music.

The Unchanged Tradition

Talking of the present scenario, the beginning of a Kathak performance still commences with a prayer or a devotional tribute to Devi Saraswati, lord Ganesha or Krishna. This can be traced back to the ritualistic religious traditions of the temples. Dance and music both are an intricate weaving of expressions encapsulated with rasa and therefore are well connected. Hindustani music accompanies Kathak Dance and both compliment each other with an aura of rasa and emotional representations; raga and dance through gestures and abhinaya exhibiting all three essential aspects of Kathak which are namely, 'Nritya', 'Nritta,' 'Natya'.

Kathak is an innovative classical dance style therefore we see that dancers ornament their expressions with their own capacity and imagination. In Hindustani classical music ornamentation is carried to bring out the inherent internal beauty of a raga. A mutual understanding of the dancer and accompanist is of foremost importance. Thelehra (a musical piece that swings from sum to sum), that accompanies a greater part of the dance performance is as vital support to the dancer as the accompanying rhythm. 

The traditional divinity merged with sustained pleasure as an inherent aspect of Indian classical music and dance elevates the artist beyond a mere experience of a performance. Purely associated with emotions, Kathak dance and Hindustani Music compliment each other. The purpose of the aesthetic experience including movements, gestures, emotional display through abhinaya with rasa in both music and dance altogether is to attain eternal bliss.

Kathak dance and music went through varied changes and took the form of Indo-Moghul culture fusion as romanticism crept in almost all art forms. Though the patronization of Kathak and Hindustani Music by Muslim rulers changed its religious face, essentially the history of Indian art forms with religious rituals remain unchanged, thus is still in practice. In the words of famous Indian Kathak dancer Shovna Narain.

"The basic legacy 
of narration and emotional presentation 
continues even today 
in Kathak performances".


More by :  Dr. Venus Tarkaswar

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Views: 3757      Comments: 1

Comment nyce info...very gyd info..!! luv kathak

23-Nov-2012 09:08 AM

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