Visiting Professor Performs Classic Indian Kathak Dance

Pomona College welcomed professor Vidhi Nagar of India’s Banaras Hindu University for a lecture on Indian classical dance history and a performance of Kathak, a traditional storytelling dance, Sept. 17. Nagar performed multiple Kathak dances in the Pendleton Lower Studio, including the “Ganesh Vandana,” “Tarana in Rag Makaus,” and “Thumri.”

“In medieval times, the art form developed in the royal courts of Northern India. It was adapted and refined to include elaborate footwork and [upper body movements],”said Nita Kumar, professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. “Many of the stories told are about the god Krishna and his lovers. At the time, the courts were Muslim, so there is an interesting synthesis of Muslim and Hindu within the dances and the poetry and literature written about the stories in Kathak. It is the most important form of dance in Northern India.”

Nagar opened the performance with a tribute to Ganesha, the elephant god, by entering the floor with a series of spins known as chakars. Her expressive movements mimicked the trunk of Ganesha and the stomps in her footwork made the 200 bells, or ghungroos, around her ankles resonate with the beat of the poetic music. Nagar wore a crisp emerald green ghaghra and choli, traditional women’s attire, and a red dupatta draped over her shoulders. As she spun on the floor, her golden ribbon-braided dress floated around her. 

“Before a performance, [dancers] always do a short prelude to Ganesha,” Jivika Rajani PO ’17 said. 

The second piece, “Tarana,” was a rhythmic cycle teen tal of 16 beats. Although Kathak is a narrative tradition, “Tarana” emphasized compositional rhythm over lyricism. This piece featured Kathak’s famous intrinsic footwork.

The last story, “Thumri,” involved a number of facial expressions and interpretive movements.

“It was about a love story of the god Krishna … the movements reflect his characteristics. For example, he always wears a peacock feather on his head,” Nagar said as she mimicked the tail of a peacock. “I kicked my foot up to show that he wears a belt on his ankle and touched my face to show that he had beautiful eyes.”

During the question-and-answer session that followed, Nagar showed the audience the difference between several types of footwork that accompanied various musical poems. Additionally, she demonstrated several styles of upper body movements that fit the content of the music.

“I started dancing when I was three years old. [Kathak] is my life now,” Nagar said. “I dance to worship God and as a hobby. The worshiping depends on the composition of the epic poems. In Hindu mythology, there are lots of gods that have different character traits.”

Nagar studied Kathak at Bhatkhande Music Institute University in Lucknow, one of the three major Kathak schools, or gharanas, along with Jaipur and Banares. 

“Each school represents a style, but it depends on lot on the teaching of the guru and the way the dancers interpret,” Kumar said. 

The dance from Lucknow is often characterized by elegance, improvisation, and artistic compositions.

Nagar has published several books on the historical significance and theoretical aspects of Kathak dance and has an extensive background in Kathak research. She is also the director of the Music Institute of Electronic Management and Information Technology Solutions. 

The narrative tradition of Kathak is one of the 12 classical dances of India and was cultivated during the Mughal dynasty. Performers were courtesans similar to geishas in Japan. Today, Kathak is a popular cultural dance among both male and female dancers.

Kathak has changed over the years. 

“I dance traditional Kathak, but the dance and costumes have been modified too by the dancers,” Nagar said. “Bollywood has modified this form of dance, but those [modernizations] are acceptable.”

“People wear what they want and dance for fun now, but for me, this is my tribute to the gods,” she said.

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