Kathak is the major classical dance form of northern India. The word kathak means "to tell a story". It is derived from the dance dramas of ancient India. When the patronage shifted from the temples to the royal court, there was a change in the overall emphasis. The emphasis shifted from the telling of religious stories to one of entertainment. Today, the story-telling aspect has been downgraded and the dance is primarily an abstract exploration of rhythm and movement.
Kathak was primarily associated with an institution known as the tawaif. This is a much misunderstood institution of female entertainers, very much like the geisha tradition of Japan. It was a profession which demanded the highest standards of training, intelligence, and most important, civility. It is said that it was common for royalty to send their children to the tawaifs for instruction in etiquette. Unfortunately, when the British consolidated their hold over India during the Victorian era, this great institution was branded as mere prostitution and was outlawed. This set the artform of kathak into a downward spiral that was not reversed until Independence when there was a reawakening in interest in traditional Indian artforms.
There are three main gharanas, or schools of kathak. These schools are named according to the geographical area in which they developed. These are the Jaipur, Lucknow, and the Benares gharanas. Each has a slight difference in interpretation and repertoire.
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