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Bollywood Kathak
- Shama Bhate

June 6, 2017

I always have wondered and thought about this newly coined phrase ‘Bollywood Kathak’. What exactly does that indicate or denote or even describe? Does Bollywood Kathak have its own characteristics or a framework or codification - rules, principles and thereby a specific aesthetics to it? To my understanding, when Kathak dancers choose songs from Bollywood films for dance compositions, it is called Bollywood Kathak and nothing beyond this! By the same virtue, if somebody were to dance Kathak to Bengali film songs, would it be ‘Bengali Kathak’? Or to Marathi film songs, would it be called ‘Marathi Kathak’? To me, people choose Bollywood songs because these songs are immensely popular and already have their impact on the public mind. A dancer therefore takes advantage by taking a populist approach because it clearly is an easy way to directly reach the common audiences. In brief, it is a short cut to get instant popularity with minimum amount of study, training, toil and hard work! Period!

If we accept that we don’t mind the film songs on a Kathak platform, we the Kathak fraternity cannot make a distinction about old/new songs, classical music based songs/ western music based songs etc…

I vividly remember Pt. Gopi Krishna’s statement in an interview. He told us with a lot of pride and conviction that he kept film (now Bollywood) dance separate from his Kathak classical platform. The people therefore dared not ask him to dance his popular numbers from films. The formidable Bharatanatyam dancer and film actress Vyjayantimala also always very categorically and proudly stated that her stage performance was “traditional, classical Bharatanatyam.” Nobody could ever request her to present an extremely popular Bollywood song like “Honthon pe aisi baat”… Do I conclude that we have a dearth of matter in the expressional aspect of Kathak (thumri, bhajans, bandishes, ghazal...)? Dearth of themes that could be very well expressed in Gat format? Or even create new formats for new thoughts, ideas, concepts? My long experience doesn’t allow me to believe that…

Pt Lacchu Maharaj always mentioned that “Mohe panghat pe” was a thumri originally sung by Rasulan Bai and set by composer Naushad in raag Pilu. We all know “Madhuban mein Radhika” is based on raag Hameer (based on a bandish “Deetha lagarva”). But I do not remember any of Lacchu Maharaj’s disciples ever dancing these famous compositions on a classical Kathak platform! We certainly have a wealth of Thumris, Kajaris, Dadras, Bhajans, and a boundless source of literature to choose from.
Yes, it means a lot of hard work for a dancer, to make these original compositions compatible for dance sequences, while retaining the substance, musicality and vitality. But according to me, the dancers never shy away from new challenges and hard work. I don’t think they ever have got it easy. Why choose a short cut now, which denigrates this great art form? Is Kathak being exploited because it offers ‘n’ number of possibilities? Because it is a very flexible, adaptable form? Because it has great potential for exploration? Because it can be molded and remolded very easily?

The situation is very painful and extremely disturbing to me.  I am a disciple and great admirer of my Guru Rohini Bhate, who toiled and struggled to give this art form a social status. It goes back only three decades ago when dance was looked down upon. It was her tireless efforts, the dignity of her dance and persona, her thorough study of not only dance but literature and music that established dance as an art form and dancer as a respectable professional in the mainstream of the society.

 If we do not discriminate between the right and wrong now, I am afraid we are bound to lose something vital, important and classical from the core of Kathak. My young friends, do we want to do that? I am sure we all love and respect this art form. It is in our hearts, our veins, our souls…Let’s work a little more, use authentic music that is as attractive, as melodious,as heart reaching. Let’s worry about the glory of this form, which is classical, traditional, contemporary, and flexible, with boundless possibilities for expression. We all must remember that we earn our name, fame, bread and butter through Kathak. If Kathak thrives, then only we all thrive!

Guru Shama Bhate also known as Shama Tai, is a Kathak exponent whose career spans over 38 years. She has been learning Kathak from the age of 4 and is now a teacher and choreographer, training many Kathak dancers in India. She is the artistic director of her dance academy Nadroop in Pune.


I cannot thank Shama tai enough for having written this article.The dance world needed to hear this from people like her. I went through many dance videos online saying "Bollywood Kathak" that were far away from even the basics of Kathak. It's wrong of people to believe that a video having millions of views is not necessarily ideal or sensible. Young people want fame and popularity and dance senseless movements and dare to call it Kathak.
The article is so inspiring.
- Ragini Nagar (June 8, 2017)

Indeed! We need to eschew all these undesirable trends, concentrate on elevating the understanding of the masses rather than stoop to that level.
- Jyothi Mohan (June 9, 2017)

Half glass full or half? It is how one views. We Indians are very democratic people with word, terms, definitions. So, at one level BOLLYWOOD KATHAK can mean, for common man, with no dance background, that it is more classical film dance and not purely filmy. To others, it could mean Bollywood is trying to imbibe some culture! No harm with the word.

Problem lies when teachers in India (and especially abroad) start teaching Kathak as Bollywood style! Or reverse. They do dis-service to form and content. It is easy to learn, popular and for average person easily accessible. Same happened to Bharatanatyam when Kamala Laxman did snake dance or such items in films. Bharatanatyam became popular. Later film stars knew one classical form before they entered film world. Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, even Sridevi.

No art is bad. Whatever be the label. Atleast children learn some art instead of being involved in time-pass activities like drugs or street violence. So dance - no matter what id - gives identity and purpose. For me it's a clear case of glass half full.
- Ashish Mohan Khokar (June 15, 2017)

Very well said​, Sir! Whatever be the form of dance it always evolves with time and evolution is not always bad. If done in the right manner it has the right effects on the desired field of art. Kathak classes for children make them aware of the rich cultural diversity of India.
- Maria (Oct 31, 2017)

Shama-ji has clearly stated the issues of a contentious topic in the classical arts.

I understand that many teachers for whom dance is a business, designed to subsidize their own Kathak careers, would like to make their classes popular and accessible. This fills the class roster. The class content short-cuts the long hours of drill needed, for example, simply to master Kathak footwork/tatkar and to understand its underlying theory. And so their classes include a mixture of catchy Bollywood tunes and a bit of classical technique. The slides, hops, sudden stops and posturings, pretty costumes and hip shakes create a movement vocabulary based on mannerisms rather than Kathak forms -- all designed to attract casual students and earn money for the teacher.

If I am charitable, I would concede to those populist teachers who call this "Bollywood Kathak", that this strategy might lure the students who want a pleasant aerobic workout, to cross the line later into a serious study of classical Kathak. But on the contrary I have observed that the mentality which wants an easy path will rarely choose to persevere and dedicate itself to a classical art by entering through the backdoor of a populist art.

The willingness to dedicate time and effort to learning any classical technique is inculcated by the example of the Guru and the Guru's demand for detail and respect for the foundational building blocks of a technique. Beginners who want easy gratification call the necessary drilling "boring". Students who want to learn Kathak will call this essential practice "riyaz".

I do not condemn any dance form. I enjoy them all. I am happy that there are many options from which both the dilettante and the serious student can choose to experience the joy of organized movement which we call "dance". But I think our Kathak Gurus need to be clear about whether they are teaching an art or an exercise routine. A classical technique builds a progenerative engine, through which creativity can be expressed in countless new forms. An exercise routine creates momentary pleasure for the exerciser and for their witnesses. But the lasting, thought-provoking aesthetic enjoyment of real art - which we call RASA - is evoked in the audience by nuanced performances and recognizable command of a classical technique.
​- Janaki Patrik (June 26, 2017)​

Could not agree more with the writer.
- Leela Venkataraman (Feb 20, 2018)

I think waist, breasts and hip movements are very prominent in Bollywood Kathak.
- Anon (May 3, 2018)

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