Late 17th & 18th Centuries: Roots of a Kathak Style

The Jankiprasad Gharana traces its lineage to the court of Maharaja Anup Singh of Bikaner (1669 - 1698). Bikaner was a powerful state closely allied with the ruling Mughals. Anup Singhji was a scholar and patron of the arts.

A dancer named Sanvaldas (or Shyamaldas) served in Anup Singhji’s gunijankhana - a courtly institution that employed musicians, dancers and artisans. Sanvaldas and family had the rare honor of being employed as mangalmukhi - court dancers for auspicious occasions.

This family’s roots were in the Melusar village of Churu district in Rajasthan. For centuries, the villages of Churu have been a prolific source of singers, dancers, musicians and artisans who served Kings and noble patrons.

Maharaja Anup Singhji: Anil Relia Collection, Ahmedabad, India

Early 19th Century: Jankiprasadji and birth of a new style

Jankiprasadji was a descendant of Sanvaldas. He was proficient in dance since childhood. When he was nine he performed in a village fair by dancing on a floating plank of wood. The Maharani of Bikaner was passing - impressed by young Jankiprasad she became his patron.

The Maharani was an artist and encouraged devotional raas nritya amongst the women of the palace. She composed more than a hundred of these dances. Jankiprasadji benefited from her patronage, and was influenced by her piety. He flourished in the rich cultural environs of Bikaner.

However, Jankiprasadji wasn’t inclined to be a court dancer. He had a scholarly and religious bent. With inspiration from the Maharani, he migrated to Banaras with a vision of taking Kathak closer to its devotional roots. Little did he know, he was on the cusp of creating a revolution in dance.

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Watch: Introduction to the Jankiprasad Gharana

Natawari Bols: a new dance language

Jankiprasadji observed that dance of his time was based on compositions created for the tabla and pakhawaj. It was the sound of these instruments that dictated the dancer’s movements. What if dance had its own language?

Jankiprasadji studied the richas (couplets) of the Vedas and added new syllables to the dance vocabulary. The weight and place of each syllable in the framework of the composition delineate the movement. These Natawari syllables are lyrical and smooth-flowing, qualities seen in the dancer’s ang chalan.

Jankiprasadji created barakhadi, a series of twelve compositions that can give rise to innumerable new ones in the hands of a gifted dancer. With these radical innovations Jankiprasadji laid the foundation of a distinct Kathak style.

This Gharana is also known as the Banaras Gharana* because that’s where Jankiprasadji struck roots and founded this style. He remained in Banaras, a celibate, for the rest of his life. He taught his brother Chunilalji, nephews, and many other students who took the dance style far and wide.

* Until the early 20th century, Kathak styles were named after their founding families - it was only later that city names were attached to Gharanas.
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Later 19th Century and early 20th Century: Spread of the Jankiprasad Gharana

The Jankiprasad style proliferated during this period as a result of patronage from Maharajas of Hindu Courts, and the talent and dedication of Gurus of the family and their students.

Three Gurus were instrumental in making this Gharana popular across Northern India: Pt. Hanumanprasadji, Pt. Gopalji and Pt. Biharilalji.

Prominent Gurus of the Jankiprasad Gharana of Banaras

Nritya Samrat of India: Guru Ashiq Hussain

Guru Ashiq Hussain (1908-1960) was trained by Pandit Gopalji in Lahore along with his cousin Meera Baksh. At the time Pandit Gopalji had no son, he treated these two students like his sons and passed on treasures of his dance tradition.

Ashiq Hussain became the most well-known dancer of this Gharana in the pre-Independence era. He was awarded the title Nritya Samrat by Ustad Alladiya Khansaheb at a music and dance conference where he excelled in layakari and abhinaya. He was a popular film star of the 1930s and 40s and appeared in more than thirty-five films.

Ashiq Hussain had many disciples - his brother Master Siddiq, son Akbar, Pt. Krishna Kumarji, Pt. Hazarilalji, Tara Chaudhari, Kumudini Lakhia, Singer-actress Noor Jehan, actresses Shahzadi and Hazoori, and Ratikant Arya.

Guru Ashiq Hussain and his talented family migrated to Pakistan in 1949.

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After Independence: A Tradition in Peril

Before migrating to Pakistan, Guru Ashiq Hussain handed the torch of the Gharana to his star pupil Pt. Hazarilal. However, by the 1950s, the tradition was on the verge of extinction. With hardly any performers on stage, the Jankiprasad style was being written out of modern narratives of Kathak. The Gharana didn’t have a foothold in Delhi, and received no Government patronage.

Pt. Hazarilalji struggled to make ends meet as a dance director in the Marathi film industry. His ability to perform was impaired by a surgery, and the stigma around dance held back prospective students.

Then, one day in 1957, a new student joined his class. Her passion, dedication and talent heralded a great Kathak exponent. Within a few years, Pt. Hazarilal brought the Gharana’s pure style back on stage by training Sunayana Hazarilal. In time, the Gharana became once more established on the dance scene.

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Pandit Krishna Kumarji

Pt. Gopalji had a son late in life - Krishna Kumarji. Due to his father’s early death, he was trained by Hanuman Prasadji and Guru Ashiq Hussain. Thus, Krishna Kumarji was a gurubhai of Pt. Hazarilal.

Krishna Kumarji also struggled after Independence to gain a footing. Finally, he had a breakthrough in 1958 as the lead in the dance-drama Malati Madhava, with Kumudini Lakhia as Malati. He went on to choreograph many dance ballets and movies.

In the 1960s, the Gurubhais Krishna Kumarji and Hazaralaji were reunited. From then on Sunayanaji and Krishna Kumarji often performed at Kathak Seminars, Conferences and Festivals to popularize the Jankiprasad style.

Krishna Kumarji was an electrifying performer who appeared to float over the stage. He could improvise endlessly, and his performances had a spontaneity that was a hallmark of Kathakars of old. He brought honor to his family and helped revive and transmit his heritage. His sad demise occurred in 1992, the same year he received the Padma Shri award from the President of India.

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Pandit Hanuman Prasadji

Pt. Hanumanprasad (1872 - 1952) was a court dancer of Maharaja Pratapsingh of Kashmir. Later he was also employed by Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of Patiala, and Maharaja Ganga Singhji of Bikaner. He was also in the court of the King of Nepal for some time. He was renowned for his abhinaya and the ability to transform himself on stage. Legend has him parting crowds just with his gestures.

Late in life he was based in Delhi - a pioneering Kathak teacher whose students included Nirmala and Uma Joshi, Malashri Sen and Reba Vidyarthi (nee Chatterjee). His grandson Naval Kishore taught for many years in New Delhi.

Pandit Gopalji

Pt. Gopalji (187? - 1932) was a Court dancer in Khairagarh, Kapurthala and Kashmir. For some time he was also in the Court of Raja Bhupendra Singhji of Patiala. Pandit Gopal was famous for his angika abhinaya. In a temple or courtyard the audience would sit all around him and watch him expressively use his entire body.

Pandit Gopal settled in Lahore and immensely popularized his dance style all over Punjab and beyond - at times the Jankiprasad Gharana, was referred to as the Punjab, Lahore or Gopalji ka Gharana. His notable disciples included Ashiq Hussain, Meera Baksh, and the famous Patiala court dancers Nawab Putli and Hirabai. Late in life, Pandit Gopalji was blessed with a son - Krishna Kumarji.

Pandit Biharilalji

Pt. Biharilalji (1864-1938) was a handsome and well-built man who performed in many parts of North India. He was fondly called Babuji by artists of his time. He was a Court dancer of Indore, and also performed in the Court of Patiala. Later, he came to Bombay and joined Bal Gandharva's Natak Company as a dancer. Here Ustad Ahmadjan Thirkava was employed as a tabla player and accompanied him.

Biharilalji composed a number of Natawari syllables and was known for his bhava and layakari. He had three sons Kishanlal, Mohanlal and Sohanlal, all dancers. His students included Keshavrao More, Menkabai Belgaonkar and singer Kesarbai Kerkar.

Kumudini Lakhia

The memory of Ashiq Hussain uncovers some of the most pleasant moments of my childhood. It was he who inculcated a love for the Dance in me.

Ashiq Hussain was better known as a very popular film star of his times, but at heart he was a devoted chela of the Janki Prasad, Benares Gharana of Kathak. I remember making a run of the Bombay Film studios, usually sitting on his shoulders. I was also casted as a child dancing star in two of his films.

This was a long time ago. What is more important now is the memory of the Tukras, Parans and Gats which he taught me.

I have been long associated with Kathak since, but the ‘Bols’ of the Janaki Prasad Gharana stand out distinct to those of the ‘Bols’ of the Jaipur and Lucknow Gharanas of Kathak. I came once again in contact with this, very briefly, when I had the opportunity of being assoicated with Shri Krishna Kumar when the Bharatiya Kala Kendra produced ‘Malati-Madhav’ for the Dance Seminar in 1958.

It is indeed a pleasure now to watch Shri Hazarilal and Smt Sunayana Hazarilal as their ‘Padhant’ reminds me once again of those happy moments of a childhood so rich with Dance & Music.

Kumudini Lahkia
School of Kathak Dance
Lakhia Bros.
Lal Darwaja
Ahmedabad 380 006.

Site Credits

Sunayanaji (orange dress): Avinash Pasricha
Sunayanaji (black-and-white): Sue Jones

Veronica (select portraits): Carolina Echeverría

Neesha (blue dress): Paul Wan
Sri Shakti Academy (Taiwan performance): Danny Chan

Anuradha (select portraits) & Anjali 2021 HK Student Group Portraits: Saurabh Anand – The Artsy Tripod

Maharaja Anup Singh Portrait: Courtesy Anil Relia Collection, Ahmedabad, India

Deepest thanks to our veteran accompanists:

Pandit Kalinath Mishra – Tabla
Somnath Mishra – Vocals
Alka Gujar – Sitar