The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Part 5


Nov 12, CANADA (SUN) — The Art of Kathak.

"I have never seen, nor do I hope to see, better acting then I saw once in Lucknow, when an old man … a poet and dancer and a teacher of many … sang a Herd-Girl's 'complaint to the mother of Krishna'. Before an audience of pupils and neighbors, this old man sat on the ground and sang his poem. Picking up a scarf, he used it as a veil… and no one could have remembered that he was anything but a shy and graceful young girl, telling a story with every sort of dramatic gesture of the hand and eyes.

She told how Krishna had stolen the butter and curds, what pranks he played, every sort of naughtiness. Every feature of the face, every movement of the body and hands was intentional, controlled, hieratic; not all his own devotion to Krishna spoiled his art to the least degree.

But such an action-song as this did not belong to him, or depend on his genius for its being. Even though he may have composed the particular words of it; it belonged to the race, and its old vision of Sri Krishna, the cowherd god. Nor would it, or any Indian acting, have had much significance for an audience not already familiar with all its episodes and ideas and all the conventional gestures (dramatic symbols) expressing them."

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy penned the above memory-picture more than half a century ago. He is now an old man indeed who has seen Binda Din in person. But Binda's fame still re-echoes in North India, and the kathak's profession which he followed still lives on. Many publications of the last forty years have drawn attention to the sophisticated kathak dance and have described its footwork and timing, but Coomaraswamy's description brings out a feature of the art which has not been given sufficient attention: that the kathak is an actor as well as a dancer. Here we shall deal with the dramatic aspect of the kathak's work.

In various parts of India there are persons called kathaks who are not of the profession we are discussing here. Evidently the name and the art have undergone a long and complex evolution and, as a result, the kathaks of Maharashtra and Bengal differ significantly from those of North India. The kathaks of Maharashtra are mentioned by a writer of Western India as popular sermonizers upon the Ramayana. In Bengal there is a class of Brahman reciters of similar name and function who declaim the epics and Puranas and explain them in Bengali.

This type of lector-expounder is well known in North India but not by the ancient name of kathak. He is called a kathavacak. On any day of the year one can find a kathavacak at work somewhere in Vrindavan with a cluster of listeners about him. His function is still the public reading of sacred and semi-sacred texts in Sanskrit or Hindi. The kathak with whom this article deals follows a related profession, but one which is clearly distinguishable from that of these reciters and expositors.

A second confusion in names arises from the fact that many in North India are entitled to be called kathak because of their caste, but are not kathaks by livelihood. Ethnological manuals show that a kathak caste, usually dignified with a place among the lower orders of brahmans, is fairly well represented throughout eastern Uttar Pradesh. The traditional caste occupations are dancing (in which they are credited with superior artistry) and serving as teachers, managers, and musical accompanists to dancing-girls. But the caste shows great mobility, perhaps because hereditary selection cannot prevail strictly in a profession for which unusual talent is a requisite.

Many have been admitted to the occupation and to the caste who were not kathak by birth, and on the other hand, we find evidence that hundreds claim the caste name who could not possibly be kathaks by profession.

Lastly, a clear distinction is not always kept between the true kathak and certain persons who have studied with kathaks for a time and are then able to dance more or less in the kathak style. Among these are a number of artists of the modern stage and screen who occasionally perform a kathak dance. They are not kathaks. Nor is the traditional dancing-girl of North India, the nacni, a kathak. Often her teacher is a kathak, but she herself may be of any caste origin, and her place in his house is that of a trainee, not that of a full disciple. He imparts to her as much of his art as will be appropriate to her calling. The kathak remains, artistically as well as socially, superior and apart.

The traditional centers of the art have been the temples of the gods and the courts of the rajas, and an occasional free-thinking nawab. There, the kathaks enjoyed the appreciation of cultured Hindu audiences, were free to dwell upon Hindu religious themes, and were formerly more amply supported.

In the next segment of this series we'll look at the two portions of a traditional kathak performance, which is comprised of fifteen minutes of pure dance (nrityagat, which is an extended song uttered in words while simultaneously illustrated in symbolic gestures.

Adapted from the book "The Miracle Plays of Mathura" by Norvin Hein.


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