Swinging Syllables: Aesthetics of Kathak Dance by Sushil Kumar Saxena Sold Out

Swinging Syllables: Aesthetics of Kathak Dance

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Swinging Syllables: Aesthetics of Kathak Dance

From the Jacket

This is a pioneering study of classical Indian dance in the way of contemporary philosophical aesthetics. Concentrating on Kathak, it seeks, on the one hand, to determine the nature of such set numbers as that, and, tatkar; and, on the other hand, to illumine our experience of watching a good Kathak recital. Care has also been taken to bring out the meaning of aesthetic predicates and of many other terms, such as mukhvilas, layakari, bol, bol ka dharma or majaz, and bamani collocations of rhythmic syllables, which freely occur in our talk about Kathak.

The more serious students of this dance form should find valuable suggestions in what this book has to say on the laws of syllabic integration and on creative devices, such as regulating changes of music between adjacent numbers by availing of laya which inheres in bols, as distinguished from the basic pace which only underruns them, and fuller utilization of the dhruvapada-dhamar forms of vocal music for evocation of deeper effects in Kathak.

The two appendices-'Art as Expression' and 'The Rasa Theory'-should be of help to all those who may like to study our dances and music from an expressly aesthetical angle.

The book may be said to meet our long-standing need for a full-length analytical study of Kathak as art, and to indicate the lines on which similar works could be attempted on our other forms of classical dance.

About the Author

Sushil Kumar SaxenaA former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delhi, where he started teaching philosophical aesthetics in 1964, Dr Sushil Kumar Saxena has actively related this contemporary way of looking at the arts to Hindustani music and Kathak dance in the form of published essays and books spanning a period of more than 35 years.

His first book, however, was on meta physics of Bradley, it won him the distinction of being the second Indian (after Dr S. Radhakrishnan) to appear as an author in (George Allen & Unwin's) Muirhead Library series of philosophical works. Thereafter, turning to philosophies of art and religion, Dr Saxena produced three more books: The Winged From: Aesthetical Essays on Hindustani Rhythm (Sangeet Natak Akademi), Aesthetical Essays, and Ever Unto God: Essays on Gandhi and Religion (Indian Council of Philosophical Research). His essays and review articles, again on aesthetical and religious subjects, have appeared in The British Journal of Aesthetics, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (U.S.A.), Religious Studies (U.K.), Diogene (France), Kant Studien (Germany), Il Vetro (Italy), Philosophy East and West (U.S.A.), Sangeet Natak, Marg, Indian Philosophical Quarterly, and Journal of the ICPR (India).

Currently, as a Fellow of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Dr Saxena is working on two books: Art and Philosophy: Seven Aestheticians and Aesthetics and the Arts in India.


This is my second venture into the region of aesthetics relating to our Indian arts today. The first was my little book of aesthetical essays on Hindustani rhythm published by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1979.

Kathak is one of our better-known classical dance forms. The different schools gharanas, as well called them have kept this art alive and are named after three cities in north India: Jaipur, Lucknow, and Varanasi. My knowledge of the Benaras school has not yet begun speaking of it as the Varanasi gharana is extremely limited; hence the book has been written almost entirely in the light of whatever little I know of the art of the other two gharanas. This is an admitted defect of the book, and I regret it; for I have certainly seen glimpses of good Kathak in the dance of some Benaras representatives as well. The fact that references to their art are missing in this book should not be taken to mean that I undervalue it. Indeed, I earnestly hope that this general introduction to the aesthetics of Kathak will be followed by intensive studies of its different forms; and, maybe, also of our other classical dances, so splendidly rich in every conceivable detail. If we do not do serious aesthetics in relation to our own living arts, it may not be possible to arouse a discriminating concern for them in our centers of learning. Our dances and music are no mere feast for the senses. Ever since I began teaching philosophical aesthetics at the University of Delhi (1964) I have been actively in touch with, and intensely fond of, Kathak and our music; and I feel utterly convinced that these arts both permit and demand infinite analysis, both linguistic and phenomenological. The recent emphasis on aesthetics as an inquiry into 'ways of world-making' in art is also germane to Sangeet; and I have made fair use of this approach as well, for it delivers rich insights into creation in the region of Kathak-a subject so important from the viewpoint of practice which I always keep in mind.

Yet, I repeat, the book is a venture. It is, so far as I know, the first of its kind. Like my earlier work on rhythm, it had no extant writing to lean on; so it may well be found deficient in every aspect of its endeavor. But its overall earnestness of manner, I suppose, will be just as manifest.

It would be enough recompense for me if this primer is able to show our students of Kathak how they may look at this dance in the way of philosophical aesthetics. The big words need not overwhelm us. The aesthetics I speak of is simply an attempt to understand the arts from the viewpoint of how they appear to us when we find them beautiful or expressive and in the light of the way we talk about them. but it is, of course, a serious study. I certainly do not think that what I say in this book is beyond criticism. Yet, on the other hand, I am not presently aware of its positive errors, as against mere omissions. The book should be found useful also because, though aesthetics is a part of our prescribed courses of study wherever we teach music and dance at higher levels, there is hardly any such book on the subject as could be said to keep close to our practice of these arts. Further, the way I have tried to unravel the key Kathak numbers here, from the viewpoints of both tala and ang, should make us realize how much there is in every 'item' or intra-form, as I prefer to call the pieces that make a dancer's repertoire. This may, in turn, evoke greater sympathy for the Kathak's art, as against repugnance for his little personal foibles which are by no means quite removed from those of the common man; and so lead to a more balanced attitude towards a class of our people that has kept a distinct strand of our cultural life aglow in spite of many handicaps, including lack of formal education.

My task in this book is clearly multiple. I seek, first to fix the meanings of such common Kathak terms as ang, mukhvilas and bol ka dharma; second, to determine the nature of the standard Kathak numbers like thata, amad, gatbhava and tatkar, thirdly, though often without notice, to seize in words the more important details of our actual experience of Kathak; fourthly, to reflect on some problems of philosophical aesthetics including one or two that dominate the Western scene today; and, finally, to ponder over ways to improve the presentation of Kathak, and to add to its usual repertoire. Some principles that determine syllabic integration and the creation of music for Kathak have also been explained, though my treatment of these is clearly sketchy.

This many-sided task has not been easy for me. But, without realizing it, many dancers have given me the help that I needed. I have gained from watching them dance and from their casual talk about Kathak. As I set out to make acknowledgements, I remember the late Nrityacharya Narayan Prasad of Jaipur gharana in whose art I first saw the poise that distinguishes great Kathak and is not very common today. I can still clearly recall the impact of his nao ki gat. His postures and movements in this number would both be unhurried; yet all those present, the spellbound rasikas, would have the feeling that they themselves were being rowed. To him indeed also to Rani Karnaa, his best-known pupil, and their Tabla expert, Ustad Chhamma Khan-I owe the earliest stirrings of my interest in Kathak. Thereafter, the late Pandit Sunder Prasad gave me an idea of how tatkar could be winsomely done as a kind of trelliswork upon the different jatis. The late Chiranji Lal (brother of Narayan Prasadji) was the first to make me see, by virtue of his own exquisite playing, how Tabla sangati with a Kathak may be done almost silently; how it can be sweet and impressive, without being meddlesome; and how it may yet be continually able to semble on the drums the smallest intentional movement of the ang or upangs of the Kathak, through dainty little accents or flourishes, of course in addition to truthful recreation on the drums of the dancer's regular patterns.

Since then, over the last 35 years, I have profited from diverse sources. I gratefully recall the Jaipur Kathak Seminar of 1969 where Miss Sudha Rajhans, Secretary of the Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Akademi, provided me with my first opportunity to present a paper on Kathak dance, along with some of my own compositions danced (as an illustration) by Rani Karnaa. It was on this occasion that I won the valued friendship of the late Guru Lacchu Maharaj, whose unfailing presence of mind in facing questions at seminars I shall always remember and cherish, and who was always kindly receptive to my efforts to bring a measure of newness to our thinking about, and presentation of, Kathak. I have also gained from watching Pandit Birju Maharaj dance and from hearing him talk about Kathak. His excellence as a dancer is commonly acknowledged. But I have often been struck by the deeply insightful quality of is comments on Kathak. Indeed, in my concern with dance, the impulse to analyze Kathak discourse has been generally provided by my friendly conversations with this remarkable artist who has by now choreographed and presented on the stage numerous dance dramas in the Kathak style and trained many pupils into charming performers, including quite a few from countries like U.S.A., France, Guyana, Bangladesh, China, Trinidad, Iran, Mauritius and Nepal. During discussions in seminars, I remember, Shri Gauri Shankar would often provide a delightful foil to Guru Lacchu Maharaj; and in my understanding of some details of Kathak I have not failed to avail of suggestions provided by their spirited verbal duels, freely illustrated by bits of actual dancing.

As I say this, I think especially of the first two seminars (1976 and 1977) organized by Shri Gopal Das, the then Director of Kathak Kendra, Delhi. He made all these instructive discussions/demonstrations available to us; and, what is more, persuaded me to begin the present work. I feel deeply indebted to him as I think of the great world of beauty he has gently pushed me into, for happy indwelling and careful analysis.

In the creative aspect of my concern with Kathak, however, I have been helped mostly by Rani Karnaa. I never saw her waver in choosing to dance my compositions, in concert halls and at seminars, even though we both knew that the more unconventional of these numbers could not win ready approval. Rani has also checked parts of this work for technical accuracy, and given me material for reference to dance forms other than Kathak. Above all, it is repeated presence at her practice sessions (I think, since 1952) that has led me into the inside of Kathak, so to say; and has given wings to my own humble powers to do some creative work in the region of Kathak.

But here, at once, I think of my great mentor in music, the late Ustad Rahimuddin Khan Dagur. It was intense and repeated attention to his music that gave me the impulse to compose dhruvapadas and dhamars for Kathak dance; and he would beam with approval, I recall, on seeing Rani dance these "transformations", as he would put it, of (her) Kathak repertoire. The kindly approval that I received from him (and from Guru Lacchu Maharaj) for my efforts in this direction is still a source of inspiration. My interest in the tarana form is traceable to a mellifluous Chandrakauns (Jhaptala) tarana that I once heard, more than 20 years ago, from Tan Samrat Ustad Nasir Ahmad Khan of Delhi gharana who passed away in 1986.

Ustad Chamma Khan, the Tabla expert of Delhi University, has always been of great help to me in viewing Kathak numbers an incarnating rhythm. But in the present work my comparative treatment of chukkurdar and tiya has been checked and substantially improved by Shri Sudhir Kumar Saxena, the first Professor of Tabla at the M.S. University of Baroda, now retired, who has also notated the rhythmic patterns.

I must, in the end, warmly acknowledge the help that I have all along received from the office staff of Kathak Kendra, Delhi, our central institute of Kathak training, and from its successive directors: Shri Gopal Das, Shri Govind Vidyarthi, Shri K.S. Kothari, and Shri Jiwan Pani. For the eventual publication of the book, however, I am indebted to Sangeet Natak Akademi. I am naturally happy to see a long-cherished dream materialize; and grateful to all those who have made it possible for a quite unconventional work to appear in the form of a book. Copy-editing has been done with great care by Shri A. Chatterjee (editor, Sangeet Natak); and proof correction, just as interestedly, by Shri S.P. Saxena. To both these friends I feel deeply beholden. I must also thank Smriti very warmly for checking Hindi spellings.

The two appendices at the end of this work – 'Art as Expression' and The Rasa Theory'-are meant for those who may desire to study the problem of expression in Kathak more fully than I have been able to, and from the viewpoint of both Indian and Western aesthetics.




  Preface 9
I Introductory 13
II Kathak as an Art Form 64
III The Syllabic Weave:
Form and Content in Kathak

VI The Basic Intra-forms:
from Vandana to Tatkar

V Nritya: Representation and
Expression in Kathak

VI The Musical Filling 143
VII Epilogue: Some Problems 155
  Appendix I  
  Art as Expression 167
  Appendix II  
  The Rasa Theory 178

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