Classical Indian Dances – Kathak and Bharatnatyam

An Indian woman wearing an elaborate red and multi-colored embroidered dress raises her arms, with her hands flexed above he head. Background is purple and blue.
Jaya Mathur dancing.

by Piyali C.

Dance is an ancient and celebrated cultural tradition in India and its origins go back into the ancient times. There are eight schools of classical Indian dance, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Register to join us on Wednesday, June 16 at 7 pm to learn more about these dance forms from Jaya Mathur.

During an enlightening and entertaining evening of virtual Indian Classical Dance class, Jaya Mathur, of ‘Rock on with Bollywood’ fame, will share an overview of the history of two famous dance forms from India – Kathak and Bharatnatyam, as well as her personal journey of continuing these traditional dance forms as a first-generation American. She will demonstrate some mudras: the portrayal of mood through facial expression and hand gestures, and the audience will have the opportunity to experience dance performances through videos. 

According to kathadance.org, the Kathak form of Indian classical dance originated in Hindu temples in the northern part of India to aid in worshipful storytelling, portraying the epic tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata (the two grand Indian epics). However, this particular dance form was not confined within the walls of temples for long. Nomadic Kathak dancers and storytellers took this dance and traveled throughout the nation with added emotions and theatricality, and it soon transitioned to a means of storytelling and entertainment. Over time, Kathak became an integral part of court culture under the patronage of Mughal kings and, as a result, this dance form imbued within itself influences of both Hindu and Islamic traditions.

Bharatnatyam, according to nrutyashala.com, was performed in the temples of southern India by devadasis, or dancers dedicated to God. The devadasis were women who were trained in this dance form since childhood, and they dedicated their lives to performing in front of idols in temples. They were educated in Sanskrit and were trained to perform as well as choreograph Bharatnatyam, accompanied by singers and musicians. Over the years, Bharatnatyam also underwent changes as devadasis lost their status in society and rajnartakis (or court dancers), under the patronage of Hindu kings in southern kingdoms in India, continued this form of dance in courts to entertain kings and royalty.

Bharatnatyam and Kathak remain two very popular forms of Indian classical dancing to this day in India and are practiced by Indians all over the world. Jaya has performed at many different venues, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Locally, she has choreographed with the Kinetics Dance Theater.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Annapara

by Piyali C.

In a sprawling basti (slum) in an Indian city where smog seems to smother the inhabitants along with trash, diseases, and terrible living conditions, children start disappearing. Nine-year-old Jai lives in the basti with his mother, who works for a lady in a ‘hi fi’ building, his sister, Runu didi, who is the fastest runner in her school, and his father, who works hard to provide for the family. Jai loves watching cop shows and wishes to become a detective like Byomkesh Bakshi or Feluda (both fictional detectives in Bengali literature) or Sherlock Holmes when he grows up.

The mystery of disappearing children gives him the perfect opportunity to hone his crime solving skills. Every detective needs assistants, and he employs the services of his best friends and classmates, Pari and Faiz, to be his sidekicks as he embarks into “detectiving.” The trouble is, Pari has excellent brains and always asks the right questions before Jai can even think of them.

As children in Jai’s basti continue to disappear, finger pointing begins targeting the Muslim community of the basti. Although frantic parents of missing children inform the police about these disappearances, drawing the ire of their neighbors, the police take no notice of these kidnappings. They come to take bribes from the poor, bereft parents instead. The other residents are infuriated at the involvement of the authorities as they worry the government can raze their basti with bulldozers since they live there illegally. Fanatic religious groups swoop in to assert their dominance and sow seeds of hatred and divisiveness between Hindu and Muslim communities.

While the story and the characters are fictional, the events are, unfortunately, real. According to the author, “as many as 180 children are said to go missing in India everyday.” The police investigation into these disappearances is negligible. The marginalized population remains invisible to the opulent class and their losses remain ignored. Deepa Anappara, during her career as a journalist, interviewed many impoverished children living on streets and in such slums.

The author chose nine-year-old protagonists to tell this story of loss because, during her interviews, she discovered that the street children have a great sense of humor despite horrific living conditions. Given their cheekiness and astute observation skills tinged with innocence, Jai, Pari and Faiz try to make sense of the sadness and chaos that envelop them. The narrative of the children makes the setting and environment even more poignant for the readers. The sense of place that the author creates transports the readers to Jai’s basti, and Anappara engages all our senses to experience the story. Lastly, the dialogue in the book is very typical of how many Indians speak English as they do literal translation of their mother tongue to the other language. I found the dialogues to be exact and authentic. Having Jai, Pari, Faiz, and others speak impeccable English would have marred the essence of the setting and authenticity. I am curious if the dialogue would be a deterrent for Western readers. The backdrop of the story reminded me of the incredible book about India’s biggest slum in Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is available at HCLS both in print and as an ebook in OverDrive.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.