The Rhythm Keeper Of India’s Timeless Pirouette


Indian classical dances use a large vocabulary of gestures, emotional response and movements that are universal in nature, and Kathak is a true representative of a bridge between Europe and our country.  

By Guru Shovana Narayan

I read Theatrum Arithmetico – Geometricum published in Leipzig, in 1721, with great interest. Here, explanatory pictorial usage of the single hand and combined hand gestures linking each gesture to personalities in the Bible, prophets and the Roman empire were clearly enunciated. What fascinated me? The pictorial representation of the various hand gestures, some of them being accompanied by emotional responses on the face that conveyed so much in unambiguous terms that it made the explanatory text below each illustration quite superfluous. As an illustration, I would like to quote a few examples from this book, for example, the ‘pataka’ (flat palm) denoted ‘be still’ while ‘katakamukha’ opening into ‘alapadma’ was utilised to denote ‘as wanting to speak’ or ‘to say something’.  A ‘musti’ (fist) denoted ‘a definite attitude’ and the ‘hamsapaksha’ ‘an invitation’.  The ‘hamsasya’ pointing downwards was utilised to indicate ‘a miser’, while ‘sikhar’ denoted acceptance. All these usages were reminiscent of the Indian classical dance scenario.

Vocabulary of gestures

Gestures are language. They cannot be divorced from emotions, for the two together create and communicate an idea or a feeling or thought. While the universality of emotions and gestures cannot be disputed, equally undisputable is the fact that few gestures may convey different meanings in different cultural contexts. But emotions and emotional responses cannot change even in the context of cultures. This feature, a continuing reality, binds ages, cultures and continents.  A smile is a smile conveying friendship and sympathy. On the other hand, anger is anger whose meaning is unmistakably loud and clear. Do we need to a language of words to convey the meaning of anger?

Solo in nature, Indian classical dances use a large vocabulary of gestures that combined with emotional response, convey various meanings. Each situation and each character has to be described while enacting sequences from the lives of deities. This developed over a period of time into a well-refined and codified language of gestures, including hand gestures that became inextricably associated with Indian dances.

In the European context, ritual dancing of yore had already given way to secular dance.  In the 18th century, the classical ballet finally found its niche in communicating stories through a number of dancers, bypassing the need for usage of hand gestures to convey a meaning. The extensive recorded codification of limbs, hand gestures and emotions enunciated in the over two thousand years old Indian treatise of theatrics, the Natyashastra, was interwoven with the world of performing arts.

Stance, gravity and movements

Going further in this voyage between India and Europe, Kathak can be stated to be a true representative of a bridge between Europe and India. Reasons are many. First, it lies in the stance adopted by all three forms (Kathak, Flamenco and Classical Ballet). All of them use the natural manner of standing as the basic position. Deflections and various seated or half-seated positions are but part of dynamic movements in all three. While being stylised, all three maintain close links to naturalness. In terms of gravity, while Kathak and Flamenco seem rooted to the earth, classical ballet seeks to break ties with gravitational pull. However, Kathak differs from Flamenco in the ‘bearing’ of the body. In terms of treatment of arms, the three are quite similar. To amplify, I may add that the stretched-arm movement, so characteristic of ballet, also finds an echo in the ‘sama’ position and stretched movement of Kathak. Another movement common to all three dance forms is that of the two fully flowering open hand gestures crossing each other at chest level. There are several other examples reflecting similarity of movements.

So conditioned are we to a particular way of thinking, that if the same movements are seen danced without the accompanying culturally-associated music, it may seem to be a case of performing another style of dance, but if the same set of movements is repeated with one’s own culturally-accepted musical score, then, hey presto! It can be nothing but the ‘original’. And this speaks of our pre-conditioned mindset! I make this statement not without a base, for my group of dancers and I have had this experience at two of our performances of Moonlight Impressionism. When the choreography was danced to our traditional Indian music, it could be nothing else but ‘traditional’, but when the same choreography was danced to compositions of Debussy and Ravel on the piano, it was termed ‘exotica’ and ‘innovative’ for having attempted to translate ballet steps!

Pirouettes and time cycle

Another feature strikingly similar between Classical Ballet and Kathak is the element of pirouettes. Among all Indian classical dance forms, Kathak utilises five kinds of pirouettes — including the ‘chakra bhramari’ (spinning like a top) out of the seven classified in the exalted Natyashastra. Ballet dancers too are known to exhibit their prowess in this field. What may differ is the motivation behind the execution of pirouettes. For a Kathak, it is considered to have originated by the philosopher Kathaks of yore in visual interpretation of the philosophy of the cycle of life and death, whereas, such philosophical nuances may not be applicable to Ballet.

Pirouettes are common to Ballet and Kathak and footwork, ‘zapateado’ and ‘tatkar’ — common to Flamenco and Kathak. The myriad combinations of heel, toe, kick and flat foot, tapping out the most amazing rhythmic patterns are breathtaking features of both the dance forms. From the fiery stamping to the mere whisper of the ankle bells is unique to Kathak alone — among all Indian dance forms. The 100 to 200 ankle bells on each ankle of the Kathak, along with the loud sound of the bare feet do the same job that is done by the heeled shoes of the Flamenco. Claps provide the beat as well as the time cycle to Flamenco, the tabla and the ‘lehera’ on the harmonium provide the necessary beat and time cycle respectively to a Kathak.

Song and dance

Another commonality between Kathak and Flamenco is the use of songs and text in dance rendering, a feature absent in Classical Ballet. These texts largely revolve around the longing of the soul for union with its beloved; hence there is pain, anguish, sorrow and joy – all part of living and loving! There is passion and romance in union as well as in separation. The familiar images of Lord Krishna and Radha are symbolisms of these very feelings, as the dancer attempts to elevate himself as well as the viewer to that state of sublime bliss in its eternal quest to be one with the Divine.

Reflecting on the word ‘Kathak’ derived from the Sanskrit words ‘katha’ (story) and ‘kathakar’ (storyteller) that finds mention as a group of Brahmin dancers in texts of fourth century BC and in three verses from the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the element of story-telling is also paramount in Classical Ballet. But while Kathak retained its devotional flavour of pre-Christian era in addition to the secular flavour imparted to it during the medieval period of Indian history, Classical Ballet was a product of secular medieval era of Europe.

The Natyashastra has codified theatre in four compartments of communications namely through movements of limbs (‘angika’), through speech (‘vacika’), through ancillaries such as costumes, stage sets, music and artefacts (‘aharya’) and through emotional responses (‘sattvika’). While ‘angika’, ‘vacika’ and ‘sattvika’ have been discussed, the last element of discussion on ‘aharya’ remains. Kathak utilises long ankle-length skirts-blouses (‘lehenga-choli’ or ‘ghaghra-choli’), ‘dhoti’ as well as the tight-fitting trousers-long calf or knee length tunics or frocks (‘pyjama-kurta’ or ‘pyjama-angarkha’). Third century BC as well as fifth century AD panels from northern and central India clearly depict all the three costumes being in vogue even two thousand years ago. They continue to be in vogue today, representing an unbroken tradition. The long skirts and blouses are reminiscent of Flamenco artistes, while the knee-length frock and tight-fitting trousers are reminiscent of Classical Ballet costume.

Kathak, Classical Ballet and Flamenco continue to reflect the truism in these lines of Rudyard Kipling’s Ballad of East and West. Universality of mankind and emotions in the truest of sense.

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.


— The author is a world-renowned maestro of Kathak