While I love all the classical Indian dances, I think it’s fair to say that my favorite is Kathak. (Or this, at least, has become my favorite in the past few years or so.) And while watching Kathak, I have often gotten the most enjoyment just from watching the footwork and the parts that focus on it. In technical terms, this aspect of the dance that I love is called “tatkar.” But I hesitate to use that word too much in my own descriptions, because real Kathak tatkar can get very complex, involving strings of “rhythmic syllables” and a very involved interaction between the dancer and (other) percussionists. If I try to figure out what makes genuinely great tatkar, I might end up going out of my element. So, let’s just say that I love the footwork – how it looks, how it sounds, and how it fits in with the music and the dance.
When I think of this Kathak footwork as it has appeared in movies, the kind of scene that I have most in mind is the one where the dancer is relatively stationary – not leaping around like a ballerina, etc. (which doesn’t happen in real classical Kathak) – and all the fancy moves of the dance are concentrated in the feet. The feet create a rhythm as they hit the floor, and the rhythm is enhanced by jangling of the ghungroos, those straps with numerous bells in them that are affixed around the ankles. The dance, itself, creates music and is therefore part of the scene’s soundtrack. We see this phenomenon in dances from other cultures, such as Flamenco and tap dance (which I also love), but I think it’s most apparent in Kathak. The music that comes out of a Kathak performance would not exist in its entirety without the dance, just as the dance could not happen in the absence of music. And I find that very interesting.
I have to say, I also really enjoy looking at the feet as they’re working. I have joked before that I may have developed a Bollywood-related foot fetish. I won’t speculate as to how true that might be – not seriously, anyway. But part of the fun here also comes from seeing the brilliant work of an instrument being played. In a Kathak film scene, a close-up on the feet is a close-up on the most prominent musical instrument.
So, with all this in mind, I decided that I would try to put together a list of scenes that emphasize or peak with this Kathak footwork, with at least some close-up on the feet and an emphasis on the music that they’re making. But when I started to think about the best footwork scenes that I’ve seen, I kept coming up with the same three dancers: Roshan Kumari, Gopi Krishna, and Sitara Devi. I might have dug up a couple of other examples (Vyjayanthimala could sort of break in with one scene or another), but the list would still be overwhelmingly weighed in the direction of these three people, whom we might consider the Kathak/tatkar royalty. So, finally, that is how I came up with this very narrowed down list and title.
And now, if you have managed to read through all of the overly long introduction above…
For the first scene, here is a delightful number from Parineeta (1953). Here, the close-ups on the footwork are fairly short, but they are prominent, and the scene, itself, is historically prominent because it shows one of the earliest film appearances for both Gopi Krishna and Roshan Kumari. (Actually, it was Roshan Kumari’s film debut, according the info that I have glimpsed.) Both dancers were definitely not yet out of their teens when they danced to this song – in fact, I don’t think they were beyond their mid-teens – but they still were fantastic.
A couple of years after Parineeta, Gopi Krishna made his famous debut as a star, in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. Here, he was maybe 17 or 18 years old. His co-star, Sandhya, was a bit older, somewhere in her 20s. But it was Gopi who taught her Kathak – just for this film (at the request of Sandhya’s husband, V. Shantaram) – and I have to admit that Sandya (much as I love her) did not excel to being a Kathak dancer on par with Gopi or the other stars on this list. But the scenes of she and Gopi doing Kathak together still are famously wonderful! And among the many dance scenes in this film, I knew right away that I had to include the one for “Rat Basant Aayi Ban Upavan” (aka the “Raag Malika”) because the bulk of this scene consists of the stars’ dancing feet, superimposed over scenes of nature. After a short introduction, it’s all Kathak footwork!
Then, as I thought more about Gopi Krishna’s tatkar in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, I realized that I could not leave out the following dance scene, which occurs near the beginning of the film. It includes some magnificent footwork by Gopi and magnificent other stuff, too (and, obviously, Sandhya thought so also).
Now it is time to pay attention to Gopi’s aunty, Sitara. Her most incredible footwork scene, in my opinion, was in a dance that was very far from the traditional Kathak or mujra setting. It was the dance for the great snake (?) that she did for Anjali (1957). There is not much in the way of foot closeups here, but the whole dance is centered on the Kathak-style footwork, as you can see in the rapid vibrations of her body and as you can hear in the incredibly rapid jangling of her ghungroos.
There are a couple of somewhat Kathak-based dances by Sitara in Aabroo (1943). The one below contains some brief moments of very nice Kathak-based footwork. Understanding that this is in no way a real Kathak dance (it’s a bit more of a cabaret dance), nonetheless, I think there is enough classical influence here to qualify it. And besides, it’s just so nice!
Now, let’s move a bit ahead in time to include a scene from a classic documentary. Maybe it is cheating to include a piece of a film that isn’t fictional, but I couldn’t resist adding this scene because it is so great, and it does have some wonderful tatkar in it (done with the cutest red-colored toes, I might add). And it is still classic, coming as it does from a Films Division movie made in 1970.
…Which leads me to the greatest footwork scene, within the greatest Kathak scene, in the history of Indian cinema. Of course, a lot of people reading this would know what I mean without even taking a peek at the video below – that is, that I am referring to the dance in Satyajit Ray’s film, Jalsaghar… Within this greatest Kathak scene, I think the close-up on her feet doing the tatkar is truly spectacular. And as you can see, the hero (or perhaps anti-hero) agrees too, as he is totally mesmerized. Maybe the nawabs of yore also understood that there were few experiences as great as watching superb Kathak footwork.
P.S. There is now a pretty perfect-looking description of Roshan Kumari at Wikipedia. It would be nice to learn who put this together, because it includes a lot of facts and speculated notions that have been thrown around here in this blog in the past, but that could never be located together in one place. I think, therefore, that this Wiki entry must be relatively new or newly expanded.