The Art of Storytelling: Kathak’s Evolving Connection to Religion

By Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

April 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
72. Chitresh Das
Pandit Chitresh Das, portraying Lord Shiva / Photo by Edward Cosati

Religion is very personal, and yet, since the beginning of time, it has been of great influence to societal structure at just about every level, including the arts. For many dance forms, this too is the case and thus begs the question how or where does that influence exist today, and does an artist need to practice the religion that the dance form was inspired by or originated from? 

Using the history of Kathak, classical dance of North India, I will look more closely at the relevance of religion in a form that at one time had its roots deeply embedded in religious practices, and mainly as a vehicle to pass on and share religious stories. The purpose is not to analyze religious practices, pass judgment on its merit or that of those who believe or follow a particular faith, but to better understand the root and cultural context of specific forms of dance and how religion might play into its past, present and even, future.

The word Kathak is derived from katha, meaning “the art of storytelling.” It is also synonymous with the community of artists known as Kathakas whose hereditary profession it was to narrate history while entertaining. With dance, music and mime these storytellers of ancient India would bring to life the great scriptures and epic of ancient times, especially the great Indian epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – and the Puranas of Sanskrit literature.

When the Mughals invaded India, maintaining power for over 300 years, the Mughal-Persian culture permeated India’s social structure, simultaneously playing a powerful role in the development of music and dance in India. During this time, Kathak and a class of dancing girls and courtesans emerged. From its early form as devotional expression dedicated to the Hindu gods, Kathak gradually moved out of the Hindu temples and was brought into the lavish darbars (courts) of the Mughal emperors as a form of entertainment taking on aspects of Persian music and poetry, along with movements and gestures that were uniquely indicative of Mughal culture.

Based on its historical evolution, Kathak is said to be the only classical dance that is an outcome of Hindu and Muslim cultures. I repeat – cultures. The distinction being that the highly refined etiquette that surrounded the Mughal courts—mainly inhabited by practicing Muslims—was closely equated to a notion of Islamic culture, and not necessarily religion. Perhaps the point is that religion and culture were less distinct in the past, where as today
there is far more cross over and mingling of cultures and faiths. During the mid-1800’s, Kathak enjoyed a renaissance and gained prominence among the kings and zamindars (feudal overlords) not only as a form of entertainment, but as a classical art form, and seemingly maintained its original Hindu roots as well as its influence of Islamic culture.

Fast forward to present day. How is a classical tradition of ancient India maintained when not in a temple, or in a royal court (though again,  acknowledging that the religious attributes are questionable here), but instead performed in the proscenium, with dramatic lighting, an audience and critics? Do the notions of religion still come into play when often the need to “create new work” is dictated by funders and presenters?

In master Kathak artist and Artistic Director of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Pandit Chitresh Das’ work that premiered in October of 2013, Shiva, the first impression might have been that it must be a Hindu story with the title being that of an iconic deity in the Hindu belief system. However, in Pandit Das’ own words about this production:

“It’s a relative term, Shiva power. You can view Shiva as a deity, or a source of many aspects of life, an entity, a source of power. He is the source of the five elements, air, water, fire, earth and in the Indian system, we take space as the fifth. This is all within yourself.

What you make of Shiva is up to you. It can be attainable power or just a metaphor. The symbolic meaning of different aspects of all the gods and goddesses is all up to one person, how they see it and perceive. I am showing my perception of Lord Shiva, what I have realized through my practice.
But there are so many ways to see this power – through practice of yoga, tantra, dance, music, painting, literature, art. All the [slokams] were written not by dancers, but by poets and spiritual beings who were not just following ritualistic practices. And besides, ritual without understanding is meaningless.”

Pandit Das also says, “As dancers, we don’t go to the temple to worship the deity, we become the deity through dance, and by this, a profoundly devotional practice is established in which the dancer can often feel transformed to a higher level of connection to the essence of that particular god or goddess they are portraying.”

One would certainly have a hard time arguing the religious merit in that.

Recently, an adult student, new to the Chhandam School of Kathak (Pandit Das’ institution where I am an instructor), contacted me to discuss how, I, as a Muslim woman, have been able to navigate my path in Kathak. She, also a practicing Muslim, was aware of the influence of Islamic culture in the dance, but was more curious about how I reconciled some of the more Hindu practices that exist such as the stories about Lord Krishna, the Namaskar (a Hindu greeting meaning the divine in me greets the divine in you). To some, Hinduism and Islam are in stark contrast to one another, and the idea of a Muslim partaking in Hindurituals can be seen as going against their own faith.

My response to her was simple. First, when learning a craft or skill an individual must be open in mind and heart. Fortunately, I come from a family where the divide of faiths was never greater than the need for human beings to be kind, compassionate and respectful to one another. Islam happens to be the faith that has been passed down through our lineage, and for me personally, I respect that and embrace it to the best of my ability in a way that
suits my life.

As for Kathak and the aspects of Hinduism in the dance, that has always been an opportunity to learn something new. To me, the stories are not about being Hindu, they are about acknowledging the hundreds of attributes—good and evil—that can exist in beings, and how the path one chooses can also have positive and negative effects. There is a moral compass present in each story, confronting those moments in which a decision must be made, often with distractions and obstacles coming in the way —very much a reflection of everyday life.

Fellow Chitresh Das Dance Company member, Rachna Nivas, brought up around the concepts and practices of Hinduism, recently premiered a new work focused on Meerabai, the Hindu mystic and great devotee to Lord Krishna, another Hindu deity. Meerabai is a prominent figure of the Bhakti movement, where one utilizes dance, music and poetry to reach liberation without the intermediary of a priest. Rachna chose this story not only because of its connection to her personally and spiritually, but also to shed light on a story about a woman who was empowered by immersing herself, through her Bhakti practice, into the love and great devotion she had for Lord Krishna to the point of ultimate liberation.

I am currently developing a new work in collaboration with author Indu Sundaresan, based on her first published work, The Twentieth Wife which is a tale of one of India’s most powerful women, Noor Jahan, the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir, one of the Mughal emperors of India. The story, based on reality, surrounds the life of a Muslim woman in the 16th century who held tremendous power while living her life behind the harem walls at a time where women were not to be involved in politics or issues related to societal structure. This story has nothing to do with religion, but is a wonderful display of the culture that existed during the time of the decadent and opulent courts of Mughal India. For me, this is a tribute to women who defied the odds, and the fact that she was a Muslim woman offers an added intrigue, but not necessarily a religious component.

These examples are a way of demonstrating how even in the modern day, the history and roots of Kathak play out, sometimes literally on the stage, and often in a way that is up to both the artist and the audience to interpret what makes sense to them. Again, religion is very personal. And thus, though the influence does still exist, it has become more subjective and truly has the ability to transcend what can often feel like the confines of religious boundaries, making many of the stories and messages far more accessible and universal.

In speaking with Pandit Das’ disciple, Seema Mehta, born into a Jain family, and the Director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati Mumbai, India, I asked her how she felt religion played a part in the context of Indian classical dance in modern day India. Having recently performed at the prestigious Konark Festival at the Konark Temple in Orissa, India, she said that one of her greatest sadness’s surrounding this topic is that most of the classical forms were initially maintained by temple dancers who were revered as the conduits to the divine through the enactment of the ancient Hindu scriptures. “Now,” she went onto explain, “most people give money to support the temples and other religious institutions but not to the arts. If it had not been for the artists over the centuries, the oral tradition of religious storytelling would not have been preserved. It’s such a shame that society doesn’t value this aspect of our culture nor see the connection between art and spiritualism.”

In May of 2014, Pandit Das continues to challenge the perception of India’s classical dance tradition with his new work, Pancha Jati. His choreography and music composition draws from India’s ancient rhythmic energy, juxtaposing the raw power of percussive footwork and drums of North and South India with movement that is both austere and lush. One could perhaps deduce that with a piece like that, the marriage of this form to that of its religious roots no longer exists. However, if you ask Pandit Das and the dancers, their response would likely be that it is a truly meditative and deeply spiritual experience to connect with the dance floor, to achieve a connection to one another, the musicians, the movement, and all the while acknowledging the
history and meaning of the technique even in this modern day setting…isn’t that religious?

For more information on CDDC’s upcoming performance of Pancha Jati, please visit kathak.org


Farah Yasmeen Shaikh is an internationally touring Kathak artist and Founder and Artistic Director of Noorani Dance. A former member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Farah was trained for two decades by the late Pandit Chitresh Das. Farah now performs her own traditional and innovative works, most notably, 'The Twentieth Wife' based on the novel by author Indu Sundaresan. Farah is currently touring her follow up to this performance, 'The Forgotten Empress,' focused on the life of Mughal Empress Noor Jahan, with support from the New England Foundation for the Arts. Working extensively in Pakistan, Farah performs and teaches throughout the country. Farah’s newest production is based on the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition, set to premiere in 2018 in San Francisco. Farah has been a guest choreographer for the World Dance Program at Alvin Ailey Extension and is currently a consulting choreographer for the world premiere musical of 'Monsoon Wedding' at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and for an upcoming film, 'Forbidden Steps.'

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