The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Part 8


Feb 4, INDIA (SUN) — Kathak performance depicts adoration of the Divine Dancer, Sri Krsna.

In the previous segment of Miracle Plays, we offered a line-by-line description of the dramatic gestures that comprise a Kathak performance. Today, we look at a second, shorter Kathak poem, and an overview of the state of the contemporary art. The following poem is entitled Asavari, which is a specification of the musical mode in which it is to be sung. It expresses the admiration of the gopis for Krsna as the Divine Dancer. Asavari is also a musical mode, a ragini attached to the bhairav rag. It is considered appropriate for the morning hours from seven to nine o'clock. This Asavari song was composed by the supreme Kathak of modern times, Sriman Binda Din of Lucknow.


1. Ali ri man mohaniyan chavi

O friend, what heart-captivating beauty!

    a. Ali ri - Vocative gesture of the head, turned sharply aside to the right and the flattened right hand is extended in that direction.

    b. man - The right hand is placed on the heart.

    c. mohaniyan - The right hand is extended and becomes itself a symbol of the heart. The left hand seizes this heart and draws it away.

    d. chavi - With a vertical sweep of the hand the Kathak points to the entire range of the stature of the imagined Krsna, i.e., He is beautiful from tip to toe!

2. Drut vilambit deta tal kar, badat avat gati, kukuta thei, kukuta thei

The time, swift or slow, he gives with the hands. While coming he calls out the step, ku-ku-ta the-I, ku-ku-ta the-i.

    a. Drut - Clapping his hands together, the Kathak beats a rapid time.

    b. vilambit - A closed fist is held up, thumb out. This signifies a retarded time, says Nand Kisor.

    c. deta tal - One palm is beaten with the fingers of the other hand, as in Drut above.

    d. badat - The right hand touches the lips, then moves outward and up.

    e. avat - An extended hand is moved inward toward the body.

3. Api te ducand duti aturta prabal gati, kukuta thei, kukuta thei

His radiance is twice that of lightning; very restless is the step, ku-ku-ta the-I, ku-ku-ta the-i.

    a. Api te - The fluttering hands move in arches above the head, in imitation of the tracery of lightning across the sky.

    b. ducand - Two fingers of the right hand are held up and gently fluttered.

    c. duti - The right hand is extended palm down, with the fingers stretched well apart. The hand is moved up and down to suggest beams of radiant light.

    d. aturta prabal - Soft but very rapid clapping of the hands.

    [In ku-ku-ta the-I we have another example of a bol for the regulation of the steps of a dance.]

4. Binda bipul gati upajat anant vidhi

Binda says, he creates many steps in endless ways.

    a. Binda - The right hand is raised to the side of the face. The head is turned toward the right.

    b. anant - The hands make the motions of counting on the fingers in the Indian manner; that is, the thumb counts the tip, first knuckle, and second knuckle of each of the four fingers. An upward movement of hands and eyes then suggests that the total is beyond reckoning.

5. Nitum, nitum sruti badati barsat sur suman

Thou art endless, Thou art endless, the revealed scriptures say. The flowers of the gods rain down.

    a. Nitum - The eyes look skyward. The right hand is extended upward almost to full length.

    b. sruti - The palms, joined together a foot before the face, are opened like the leaves of a book. The head makes the horizontal motions of scanning the lines.

    c. badati - The right hand touches the lips, then moves outward and up.

    d. barsat - The two index fingers trace the wavering downward path of falling flowers.

    e. sur - The right hand points upward to the sky, the abode of the divine beings.

    f. suman - The fingers of the upturned palm cup themselves into the flower sign.

How prominent is the place of Kathaks in traditional Hindu society? How numerous are they, and over how large an area are they found? Despite census reports regarding large communities of them, inquiries made in Mathura, Lucknow, and Banaras indicated that there are very few practicing Kathaks in Uttar Pradesh.

In the Farukhabad at Madar Gate there still lived at last report Nand Kisor's teacher, Babu Ram, over eighty years old but still dancing. With him is his son and student, Larli Lal. The family of Binda Din was long represented in Lucknow by his nephew Maharaj Sambhu Nath Misra, who danced and taught his student Rames Kumar at his house on Bhaironjit Road in Golaganj Mohalla. Later he joined the staff of Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi, where the prominent Kathak Sundar Prasad also worked.

The extinction of the Kathak is not an immediate danger, but the ultimate price of survival will be a drastic and perilous adaptation to the tastes of a new class of patrons. Some Kathaks are trying to appeal to the interests of new circles of wealthy and culture-conscious people in the large cities.

No one has ever written a critical history of the Kathaks, or even compiled the information from which a history might be refined. The earliest notice of these dancers in Western literature seems to have been written only a century and a half ago. In gathering information about the 18th century and earlier times, we do not even have the aid of an organized local legend.

The fame of Lucknow as a center of Kathak dancing has caused many writers to speak of Lucknow as its birthplace, as if this were a self-evident fact. If we suppose Lucknow to have been such a center before the last century, we do so without the support of any evidence. Known patronage by the nawabs of Oudh goes back only a little over a hundred years, and available tradition on the origin of Binda Din's professional line trace it to an 18th century beginning in eastern Uttar Pradesh.


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