The Indian Classical Music and Dance Society presented the final program of its year at West Cary Middle School, a fitting site for an evening of Kathak dance that was more of a lecture-demonstration than a dance performance. Two accomplished Kathak practitioners, now living in the U.S., gave a graceful crash course in the basic components and styles within Kathak, and tantalizing glimpses into its history.
This is history in the long sense: Rachna Ramya Agrawal spoke of how Kathak, which was story-based, changed with the coming of the Mughals (ruled much of India from 1526 into the 19th century) and their greater emphasis on rhythm and beat. Today’s Kathak dance is a fascinating blend of rhythmic patterns and improvisational storytelling, using a long-developed body language of gesture and movement to re-tell a repertoire of mythic and romantic stories.
The rhythmic patterns follow a set form, but rich variation is gained by just how the foot makes its contact with the floor: It may slap flatly, kick with the heel, push with the ball of the foot, or tap with its narrow side edge. One foot may repeat the motion, or they may alternate. Each type of action has its own sound, and each causes the dancer’s bell-encrusted ankle bracelets to ring a little differently on impact. Footwork — its rhythm, tempo and aural effect — also does its part to tell the stories which the arms and hands are spelling out. The body remains upright, and the feet remain close to the ground — there is almost no jumping, because the feet must keep producing the beat. This does not prevent turns by the dancer, and they tend to be very exciting, with the bells shimmering away. The arms are very active, but rarely rise above shoulder-level, although the hands frequently move near the face.
Rachna Ramya Agrawal alternated with, and finally danced with, Prashant Shah, who focused our attention on the differences in male and female style in Kathak. Each segment of dancing was quite short, and was chosen, it seems, for pedagogical rather than artistic reasons. Since I’d been expecting more of a performance than a lesson, I found this a little disappointing. However, the event was perfectly satisfactory for what it was (other than difficulties with the rudimentary technical facilities). It was homey there in the middle school, and there were many children in attendance, which was wonderful. I felt like there should have been a sign: Cultural Transmission in Progress. The transmission did not extend too far, though — I was one of three non-Indians in the audience, which was too bad. The varied ICMDS programs are a good way to learn about different aspects of the amazing music and dance of the Indian sub-continent. The Society will resume programming in the new year, and you can get on their email list from their website.