The Gilded Storytellers of Lucknow

AnarkaliDeep kohl-set eyes follow the graceful movements of decorated fingers, the intricate beats of the tabla and the progressive tempo of rhythmic footwork. Spectators watch transfixed as elegant swirling movements, lightning quick pirouettes, subtle gestures and sudden poses combine to tell a breathtaking story.

Kathak, the North Indian dance form famed for its subtlety and grace, traces its origins to nomadic storytellers (“Katha” means story) who danced and recited tales from epics and mythology, passing on their craft from generation to generation. Temple and ritual dances during the Bhakti Movement of the medieval period made way for Persian and Central Asian influences imported by the royal courts of the Mughal era.

During early 19th century, Kathak received royal patronage from Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, and thus was born the Lucknow Gharana (or “style”), characterized by artistically designed dance compositions, emotive vocal compositions (like thumris) along with abhinaya (expressional acting) and creative improvisations. Kathak has since undergone several transformations and the lyrical beauty of this dance form continues to be re-invented by its devoted exponents.

sharmila-sharmaIn addition to elaborate gestures and signature spins, the costumes and jewelry of Kathak performers have evolved to create a wonderful blend of Hindu and Muslim influences, much like the culture of the city of its birth. Dancers expressing stories from Hindu mythology are dressed in rich colored silks that are used for the lehenga (a full, gathered skirt) with a broad gold or silver border and narrow bands of the same color radiating from the waist to hem. The choli (or top) is designed to create a contrast and has embroidered sleeve-bands. A light, transparent orhni (or dupatta) interwoven with gold patterns is draped over the head and left shoulder to complete the ensemble. Gold jewelry set with precious and semi-precious stones adorns the dancer’s neck, wrists and ears.

The other Kathak costume, popularized during the Mughal reign, has retained its basic elements in the soft-flowing bell shaped skirt (“anarkali”), which is now shortened to calf-length and is complimented by a gossamer orhni. Light gold and pearl jewelry accompany this dress, which often includes a jhumar orchapka worn on the side of the head.  Ghungroos around each ankle, comprising almost 100 small bells in each foot, accentuate the brilliant variations of rhythm. The full skirt of the dancer’s attire fans out at every fast movement, heightening the fluidity of the dance and revealing the perfection of tantalizing pauses and lightning pirouettes.

birju maharajFollowing the decline of the Mughal Empire, Kathak devolved into primarily a dance of the courtesans and was borrowed in that form by popular culture and mainstream cinema. However, gifted practitioners like Padma Vibhushan Pt. Birju Maharaj, a leading exponent of the Lucknow Gharana and a descendant of the legendary Maharaj family of Kathak dancers, have been working to foster a thirst for the discovery of divinity in this dance form and preserve this wondrous art of story-telling.

– by Manika Dhama

Shop for a collection of glamorous sarees and dupattas created using Kaamdaani, a metal embroidery technique from Lucknow.