‘Katha kahe so kathak’ – katha, story, is the root of kathak. Those who dance kathak are storytellers.
This phrase is invoked to explain the kathak’s history, extending its chronology to before the medieval period, when the form was actually introduced by Persian forces expanding into North India. This ‘history,’ which begins kathak’s history in a pre-Islamic ‘ancient/classical’ time, gives the Persian root of kathak a new meaning: the Mughals become an impure influence on kathak, shifting it from temples, where it was practiced as a form of devotion, to the courts and salons of courtesans, for pleasure. However, this ‘history’ is in fact a twentieth century construction, as much scholarship has shown, and is part of a larger trend that erases the cultural contributions of Muslims in India.
Kathak, like other dance forms, carries its history and politics in its repertoire, into classrooms, and onto stages. As artists, we bear a responsibility to our fellow artists and audiences. While we cannot always control the way we are read, we can direct and challenge audiences to re-imagine the way they see a particular body, performance tradition, or piece. In this collaborative project with Anuja Ghosalkar and Mridula Rao, we turn to documentary theatre to interrogate the relationship between kathak’s repertoire, identity, our personal experiences, and the histories of those with whom we share this repertoire.
‘Katha Kahe, So Kathak’ is an allusion to the erasures the phrase signifies, but it also evokes our faith in the power of stories to inspire new ideas, dialogues, and discoveries. We hope to use our voices and bodies to tell stories that re-present a more inclusive version of kathak’s pasts and presents and, by extension more inclusive notions of who belongs in a nation.
Anuja Ghosalkar is the founder of Drama Queen, a documentary theatre company, a first of its kind in India. Her theatre focuses on undocumented narratives and archival absences. Research, oral history, and iterations of form and process are critical to her performance and pedagogical work. Drama Queen’s Lady Anandi has traveled extensively across India and Europe and was written during her residency at Art Lab Gnesta, Sweden.
Mridula Rao is a kathak dancer and educator, and is the founder-director of Kala Sahita, a kathak school in Bangalore, India. She has performed all over India and internationally, and her current works seeks to rediscover kathak’s repertoire for our contemporary world.
Featured image credit: Etching by Francois Balthazar Solvyns, from A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings (1799) – Plate 195 – from University of Texas Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services Collection