The History and Evolution of Kathak – Darbar Voices

In the next instalment of Darbar Voices – a four-part blog series exploring the world of Indian classical dance in celebration of Darbar Festival – British-Chinese dance artist Jane Chan tells us why kathak is central to her practice as an independent dance artist.

Kathak was first introduced to me at University of Surrey, where it was one of the five techniques on the course. I have always been a culture-nerd and kathak is the confluence of culture and dance. Also, as an international student in a brand-new environment, kathak was the only connection to my Asian background. At the time, it did not matter whether it was my culture – I just fell in love with it. To me, kathak may be a dance form that has a long history with ancient traces, however it is not ‘ancient’, it is very much alive and ever-changing just like any other dance form.

Kathak is practised every day worldwide. It is a vibrant, well-established, highly technical and complex dance form from North India with emphasis on pure dance (Nritta) and storytelling (Nritya). Northern India was invaded by many different rulers, particularly from Central Asia, since the early centuries of the last millennium. Many of these rulers were patrons of music and dance. They brought their own art forms to the newly conquered India. A vibrant process of exchange and evolution followed. The Mughals were the most prominent patrons. It was during this time that kathak flourished.

Darbars were the royal courts where meetings, announcements and artistic gatherings took place. Darbar Festival is exactly that – where the most prestigious classical South Asian music and dance artists gather under one roof in front of a highly charged audience of ‘rasikas’. Some of the most critically acclaimed musicians and dancers from across the world see Darbar as momentous in their careers. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to watch some of the most sought-after dancers and musicians in London. It really is a royal treatment with the performances on Darbar’s programme.

Photo: Simon Richardson

Kathak is central to my practice as an independent dance artist. I see myself as an advocate for kathak by presenting myself as a dance artist who is dedicated and committed to practising kathak regardless of my cultural background. It is essential to have artists who are of different backgrounds who practise classical Indian music and dance as they represent diverse narratives, which add to a wide context of history that is vital for generations to come.

It also shows that the art forms have universal appeal and are not exclusive to people from particular cultural backgrounds. In the world today, the arts are needed more so than ever to bring people together to celebrate the creativity and energy of diversity. I question and reclaim cultural and social misrepresentation of my presence and visibility as a British-Chinese artist who practises kathak. I hope my practice will act as a catalyst, to invite the audience to a movement, a discourse, a wider conversation about multiculturalism, arts and collective experience.

Hear more from Jane Chan by following chanjaneonlifetour on Instagram and visiting chanjane.com.

Darbar Festival celebrates Indian classical dance at Sadler’s Wells from 23 – 25 Nov. Tickets are priced from £12. To book, call the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online. See the full Darbar Festival programme here.

Lead image: Simon Richardson