Who Were The Kathaks, Kathak?


Guru Shovana Narayan turns the light on the community of sermonisers who utilised gesticulation and mime to tell a story that evolved into the dance form.


The term ‘kathak’ opens up a debate. Does it indicate the storyteller (devoid of dance or music)? Does it indicate story-telling through dance and music? Is it indicative of profession only distinct from an art form? What is the difference between ‘kathak’, ‘kathik’ and ‘kathavachak’?

Many discussions have been devoted to understanding the kathaks, who they were, and whether they were different from the kathavachkas, kathiks and kathakars. During the course of village tours in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it emerged that the terms ‘kathiks’, kathaks’, ‘katthaks’ and ‘kathakkad’ were interchanged frequently, denoting the synonymous nature of the terms. Local practices indicated that it was purely an urban mindset and a manifested intellectual approach that tried differentiating between the terms. This leads to a question.  What is the difference between the dance form kathak and the community of kathaks?

The Oxford Dictionary states that kathak is a “type of northern Indian classical dance, with alternating passages of mime and dancing”. It also states that its origin lies in the Sanskrit term “kathaka”, ‘professional storyteller’, and from kathā ‘story’. As per Sahitya Darpana of Acharya Vishwanath (13th century), the kathaks fall under the Kanta Sammit Updesh tradition that seeks to evoke emotional response through the path of performing arts, distinct from the propounders of Veda Sammit Updesh and Purana Sammit Updesh who, as kathavachaks, evoke intellectual response.

It is widely acknowledged that Luv and Kush, sons of Lord Rama, were among the earliest examples of kathiks or the Kanta Sammit Updesh narrators. In this league, the example of Kallu Kathak from Lambhua cannot be forgotten. A regular performer in the temples of Ayodhya till before his death, a curious distinction was made in references to him. As long as he was a performer, he was Kallu Kathak, but later in life when he just retold stories without supporting enactment, he came to be known as Kallu Kathavachak.

Ancient literature mentions the term kathak at various places. To begin with, the oft-quoted Adi Parva verse from the Mahabharata states:

कथकाशचापरे राजन् श्रमनश च वनौकस:

दिव्याख्यानानि ये चापि पठन्ति मधुरम द्विजा:

(महाभारत, आदिपर्व, १: २०६: ३)

kathakāś cāpare rājañ śramaṇāś ca vanaukasaḥ
divyākhyānāni ye cāpi paṭhanti madhuraṃ dvijāḥ

{With the king on the way to the forest were the kathakas, pleasing to the eyes and ears as they sang and narrated sweetly ….}

(Mahabharata, Adiparva, 1: 206: 3)

This verse was written in the context of persons and men of great learning knowledgeable in the Vedas, and men with great skills who had accompanied Arjuna to the edge of the forest when the Pandavas were sent to exile. Amongst these were the kathaks. Indirectly, there is an allusion to the skill of the kathaks.

An examination of the Adi Parva verse indicates the categories of learned men: those knowledgable in Vedas and Vedangas, of spiritual leanings, thinkers, devotees, and those well-versed in the Puranas, and the kathakas. Examining it against the distinction given by Mahant Mithilesh ji, it is amply clear that the kathaks mentioned in the Adi Parva belonged to the Kanta Sammit Updesh group of narrators who appealed directly to the emotions of the receiver through the path of performing arts.

What set Arjuna apart from his brothers? It was his knowledge and skill in performing arts. Against this background, would the presence of the kathaks be unnatural?

An indication about the profession of kathaks and their skill can be gleaned from the later 13th century reference in the Sangeet Ratnakara. The term ‘kathak’ has been mentioned in verse 1348 of Sangeet Ratnakara which is as follows:

कथका बन्दिनश्चात्र विद्यावन्त: प्रियंवदा:

प्रशन्साकुशलश्चान्ये चतुरा: सर्वमातुषु II 1348 II

Kathaka bandinashchatra vidyavantah priyamvadah

Prashansakushalashchanye chaturah sarwamatushu

{They are the kathaks, the reciters of ‘stutis’, the learned and the speakers skilled in the art of speaking well, are knowledgeable in the presentation of ‘kavya’.}

Sangeet Ratnakar (13th century) dwells on discussion relating to seating arrangements for a dance performance, specifying the seating of council of ministers, the chiefs of the armed forces, ladies of royalty and the learned including the ‘vaagyakars’ — the artistes. Herein, the ‘vaagyakars’, the kathaks seemingly occupy a high position. The ‘kathaks’ are distinguished from the ‘stuti’ reciters, the learned and the speakers. Such distinction also reflects the spirit of Arthur Berriedale Keith’s classification of the ‘kathaks’ as ‘dharak kathaks’ (those who recount tales utilising gestures and mime, donning the mantle of the character — ‘patra ko dhaahran karke’) and ‘pathak kathaks’ (those who are just narrators or reciters).

A.B. Keith in the Sanskrit Drama and Alfred Hillebrandt have stated that the ‘granthikas’ were audile (audatory). Even the Sahityadarpana, in the context of literature, differentiates between katha and aakhyaan. The Sanskrit English dictionary mentions kathak to be “a chief actor”. Though the term ‘kathak’ is not visible in Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, Patanjali had elaborated ‘granthikas’ to be ‘rhapsodists’ whose medium of expression was ‘shabda’ (uttered verse).

In 1869, Max Mueller and earlier Sylvan Levi, whose views were in consonance with Keith’s, were in no doubt that the Atharvaveda tells of men who sing and dance. There was “a priori no fatal objection to assuming that the period of the Rgveda knew dramatic spectacles, religious in character, in which the priests assumed the roles of gods and sages in order to imitate on Earth the events of the heavens”.

In the Jain tradition too, the kathak is referred as “kathaka aakruti nibah” — the one who imitates and sketches out the character is a kathak. The next question arises of “who imitates and how”. There is indication to the use of mime and gesticulation. This is also reflective of ‘citrabhinaya’ used in Natyasastra as simple and brief presentations.

The Mahabhashya of Patanjali states that ‘sailalins’ are ‘natas’ ( ‘sailalino natah:’ ); not mere pantomimists but were also adept in the art of music, laying the seed of kathak. The 10th century Kaiyata equates the ‘granthikas’ of Patanjali’s Mahbhashya to the ‘kathakas’, elaborating that the ‘granthikas’ as ‘kathakas’ utilised elements of drama in their narration.

ग्रंथिकेश्व इति कथकेश्व इत्यर्थ: ( कैयट कृत भाष्यप्रदीप)

granthikeshva iti kathakeshva ityartha:” (Kaiyata’s Bhashyapradipa)

The Prakrit inscription of the Mauryan period mentions the kathaks as a community of devotional dancers.

‘मग्गासिर्सुखपक्खे नखत्ते वारानसिये नयरिये

उत्तर्पुरथिमे दिसिभागे गंगाए महानदिये तटे

सव्वोकथक भिन्गार्नतेनम तीसे स्तुति कायम

एही राया आदिनाहो भावेनम पस्सयि’

(प्राकृत अभिलेख, चौथी शताब्दी ईसा पूर्व, हस्तलिपि अभिलेखागार, कामेश्वर सिंघ दरभंगा विश्वविद्यालय ))

maggasirasuddhapakkhe nakkhhate varanaseeye nayareeye

uttarpuratthime diseebhage gangaye mahanadeeye tate

savvokathako bhingarnatenam teese stuti kayam

yehi raya adinaho bhavenam passayi

(ancient Prakrit inscription, 4th century BC, Manuscript Archives, Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga University)

{in the month of magha, in the period of shukla paksha nakshatra, to the north of Varanasi (region between Vara and Asi), on the banks of the Ganges, the shringar dance of the kathaks pleased Lord Adinatha.}

Similar to the reference of the Adiparva, the term ‘kathak’ appears in Bana’s Harsacharita (in 6th century AD). Herein too, the term ‘Kathak Jaysen’ finds mention among the group of artistes such as vocalists, music teacher, flautists, the vigorous male dancer and the graceful lady dancer, musicians skilled in different instruments to name a few. It seems logical to surmise that Kathak Jayasena belonged to the category of ‘dharak kathak’ of Keith!

Differences in the category of dancers have been classified in the census conducted during the colonial period by William Crookes in 1892, according to which “Kathaks were story-tellers, singers, dancers, musicians, who are Hindu Brahmans (males) by faith”. Similarly, in 1872, James Princep in his Census of Population of the City of Benaras states that the occupation of the kathaks is ‘music and dancing masters’.

It is evident, since 4th century BC and from the time of the Mahabharata, till date, there is a continuous thread that identifies kathak as a group of Brahmin sermonisers who utilised gesticulation and mime to tell a story that evolved into the dance form Kathak.


— The author is a world-renowned maestro of Kathak

Featured image: www.shovananarayan.in