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Oral traditions in the context of Kathak

Oral tradition concisely distinguishes between the communities of Kathaks and the community of “Kathakvachaks”.

By Padmashri Guru Shovana Narayan

Oral Tradition has dominated the social and artistic historical mapping in India, as has the belief in the cyclic philosophy of life. In India, life is taken to be a continuous cycle which is different from the West. The Western scholarship places emphasis on ‘preservation’. This philosophy of life and its continuum is evident in the rituals of Navratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, marriages etc. Here, no attempt is made to preserve frescoes, old idols with their ‘shringar’ and also during cremations. It answers several questions that plague the minds of Western scholars or Western inspired scholars where due emphasis has not been given to –

  • the spirit of innate strength,
  • genuine adaptability of traditions,
  • multi-level, multi-polar existence,
  • undeniable spirit of evolution that is continually changing its outer garbs.

The writing of history which is based on scientific methods like ‘written records’ and ‘archaeology’ is a Euro-centric approach.

The writing of history which is based on scientific methods like ‘written records’ and ‘archaeology’ is a Euro-centric approach.

This approach does not take into consideration the oral traditions. However, caution needs to be exercised.  According to Steve High and David Sworn in their article on ‘The Interpretive Challenges of Oral History Video Indexing’, – “Body language, emotions, silences, narrative structure, the rhythm of the language  and people’s relationship to their own words have to be carefully analysed with a clinical mind uncluttered by personal biases or prejudices”.

In this constant evolutionary state, practices which pass the test of time become a part of tradition and those that do not, die a natural death. The Indian approach is multi-polar rather than linear which gives flexibility to terminologies as well as surnames. By recording interpretations of history which are mixed with personal experiences, the intangible part of our heritage is preserved. Yet within this fragility lies the inherent strength of information being passed from one generation to another.

Kathikas, Katthaks and Kathakars

The existence of more than eight Kathak villages between Varanasi and Gaya indicate a pulsating tradition of the vocation of ‘Kathikas’ that must have existed at some point of time. These “Kathikas” sought to narrate legends and myths through the use of mime and gesticulation. Through interviews with Mahants and local people, it is clear that oral tradition concisely distinguishes between the communities of Kathaks (synonymous with the terms Kathikas, Katthaks and Kathakars) and the community of “Kathakvachaks”. Urban discourses try to find different interpretations between the terms ‘Kathak and Kathik’, ‘Kathak and Katthak’, and ‘Kathak and Kathakar’. Oral traditions do not differentiate between these terms. In Ayodhya, Mahant Mithileshnandan Ji made a distinction between Kathaks or Kathiks and Kathavachaks.

shovana-narayan-in-ghunghat

The “Kathikas” sought to narrate legends and myths through the use of mime and gesticulation.

Narrators such as the Veda Sammit Updesh propounded teachings from the Vedas to their disciples. The Purana Sammit Updesh is a conversational teaching between two equals (Mahabharata dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna). They are entirely different from the Kanta Sammit Updesh that seek to evoke an emotional response through performing arts.

The Purana Sammit Updesh is a conversational teaching between two equals (Mahabharata dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna). They are entirely different from the Kanta Sammit Updesh that seek to evoke an emotional response through performing arts.

Under the third category came the Kathaks or Kathiks. The propounders of Veda Sammit Updesh and Purana Sammit Updesh were the Kathavachaks as they evoked intellectual responses. According to them, the terms Kathak, Kathik and Kathakar were synonymous. However, they emphasised that this group was distinct and different from the Kathavachak group.  As per the Mahant, Luv and Kush, sons of Lord Rama were among the earliest examples of Kathiks or the Kanta Sammit Updesh narrators.

So where does the difference lie? The genre of enactment is absent in Veda Sammit Updesh and in Purana Sammit Updesh. Once this enactment enters the fray, it gives rise to the term “Kathak” or Kathik. In the ‘Miracle Plays’ of Mathura, Norvin Hein has mentioned that “The Kathaks are the expounders of the Pooranas and other shastras. Shreedhur Kothok, the most distinguished of these men, composed several songs of great merit”. He says that the narrators are known as ‘Kathavachaks’ and are distinct from Kathaks.

The Oral Tradition of Kathak

The thriving urban Kathak tradition is borne by recordings of several rhythmic patterns. Especially those of Sri Pandarika Vitthala during his stay in Akbar’s court. Sanskrit terms such as “gopuchha”, “mridanga”, “strotovaha” and “samayati” were recorded in the 2000 year old Natyashastra treatise by rural Kathaks. This indicates a continuous handing down of knowledge through oral dissemination. However, Kathaks used them in a casual manner. Hence, negating the urban scholastic psychology of putting a wedge between the Natyashastra and the practice of Kathak.

Oral history reinforced patronage that had been given to the Kathiks (community of Kathaks). It led to the establishment of villages like Nasirpur Kathak Village, Paraspur Kathak Village, etc. in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar that once had a thriving rural tradition in Kathak.

This was faithfully recorded in the first organised census of 1891-92 by William Crooke whose numbers match the popular reference to “Nau Sau Navasi Kathiks” (ie 989 Kathaks), a clear example of oral tradition validated by census figures!

Evolution of the Kathak Rhetoric

Careful scrutiny of the rhythmic patterns and text (‘sahitya’) utilised by the Kathaks of yore reveal changing social mores. The introduction of the term ‘nathiya’ and ‘ghunghat’ in the medieval period, found in dance mudras, reveal the changes taking place. Romance was suggestive and was personified by shy glances of the eyes (‘nazar’), quivering lips and trembling hands and long tresses of hair. This was in contrast to the explicit references to romantic fervour in ancient period literature. Thus, “ghunghat ki gat” (gait showing the drawing of a veil across the face) and glances through the diaphenous veil became part of the kathak repertoire. The ‘solah shringara’ (or the sixteen steps of beautification) also became a part of folklore, giving an insight into the local customs.

  1. “ghunghat ke pat khol re tohe piya milenge”  – Kabir. It means “draw the veil away from your face for your beloved stand before you”.  Here, the beloved refers to God.
  2. “kabahun mile naina gori se, ghunghat kaadhe ot khari re”. It means when will my eye meet the eye of my beloved as she stands with her eyes veiled.

Patronage – Then and Now

The patronage of performing arts in the Muslim courts of medieval India led to the evolution of the musical genres of “Thumri” with Radha-Krishna as the central motifs and the “Tarana”, both of which became a part of the repertoire.

The village of Kathak Gram at Amas, Gaya, is depleting today due to the migration of Kathaks, owing to lack of patronage.

According to locals of the Kathak Village, these Kathaks pursued dance and music as careers, performing in and around the Surya and Shiva temples. | Photo Courtesy: 500px

It is evident from the oral tradition that the Kathaks were held in good esteem. Due to the prowess and skills of Kathaks like Pt Durga Prasad and Pt Thakur Prasad that these performers were allowed in court. It was contrary to the then prevailing court-etiquette, to perform bare-headed (“topi maaf”) in the court of Oudh (Awadh) in the early 19th century Lucknow. Another example of high esteem given to Kathaks by the patrons of 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries is not only the grant of revenue free land but also the fact that they were regular performers in the temples on various festivals.

Depleting Kathak Villages

The village of Kathak Gram at Amas, Gaya, had some 50 to 60 houses thriving with Kathaks. Today it is depleting due to their migration, owing to lack of patronage.

The village of Kathak Gram at Amas, Gaya, had some 50 to 60 houses thriving with Kathaks. Today it is depleting due to their migration, owing to lack of patronage.

According to locals here (the new inhabitants of the Kathak Village), these Kathaks pursued dance and music as careers, performing in and around the Surya and Shiva temples. Late Kanhaiya Mallik had himself traced his family tree and the practice of Kathak from the time of the Saam Veda. He said that Kathaks had been living in this village for almost a thousand years. His family had migrated from western regions to the eastern regions after the period of Saama Veda. Unfortunately, his son and grandson have taken to other professions owing to the lack of patronage.

The Guru-Disciple Tradition

Today learning is still being imparted in the traditional ‘guru-shishya parampara’ that literally means ‘guru-disciple tradition’. In olden times, the disciple stayed in the guru’s house and observed him. He learnt from observation and experience. He acquired the spirit and flavour of not only the art form but the unspoken spirit behind it. This led to the development and growth of the disciple as an artiste and an individual.

Eight Kathak villages between Varanasi and Gaya indicate a pulsating tradition of the vocation of ‘Kathikas’ that must have existed at some point of time.

Today learning is still being imparted in the traditional ‘guru-shishya parampara’ that literally means ‘guru-disciple tradition’. | Photo Courtesy: Always Mathan

The initiation ceremony speaks volumes about the symbolism associated in the ritual. The initiation of a disciple begins with prayers made invoking the blessings of the Lord. Then the guru ties the sacred red string around the student’s wrist. Thereafter, the student is offered ‘gram’ followed by ‘jaggery’ to eat. Significance of the thread is the ‘sankalp’ (solemn vow) on the part of both guru and disciple. Tying them together to serve the cause of arts with dedication. The eating of the ‘gram’ signifies that the path is not rosy as the chewing of ‘gram’ requires effort. However, after chewing the ‘gram’, its taste is enjoyable. Therefore, the ‘jaggery’ that is sweet!

Oral Traditions Today

Even today, in spite of globalization, oral dissemination is still practiced for handing down skills and expertise of a 2500 year old dance form.

In this process, emphasis is laid on the fact that each generation of performers should equip themselves in all aspects of performing arts besides dance. These include knowledge about music, literature, philosophy. However, the tradition of oral history is fraught with some innate flaws. Though it provides information, it is laced with personal prejudices. It is here that the judicious balance between oral traditions with written records and archaeological finds, assumes importance.


Shovana Narayan is Padmashri, Sangeeta Natak, Bihar Gaurav, Delhi Government’s Parishad Samman, Japan’s OISCA awardee among many others, is a Kathak Guru, performer, choreographer, activist, author-researcher-scholar.

Featured Image Credits: Flickr

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