Pandit Chitresh Das keeps Kathak fresh with innovative collaborations

I arrived in India without any predetermined expectations of the trip and the tour. Anyone that has traveled to India will understand that India demands this of all its natives and visitors. The country has a rhyme, rhythm, and reason of its own. Some say that India’s natural state is one of chaos. Standing in the streets of Kolkata or Mumbai, this truth becomes self-evident. Buses, multi-colored trucks, hand-drawn and motored rickshaws, pedestrians of all ages, and the occasional cow or dog crowd the streets. There is a firm belief embedded in the consciousness of the people of India that one’s destiny and the fate of things reside in powers beyond. In English we say, “I am late” or “I was late.” The same phrase in Hindi is said as “Lateness happened to me.” So, stepping off the plane at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport in Kolkata, I chose to leave behind any preconceived ways of being and doing and submit to the laws of India.981ece7565243f6218ddd52442581b43-9

The day after I arrived, Guruji (Pt. Chitresh Das)was scheduled for a performance at the Sangeet Research Academy (SRA), one of India’s foremost classical arts institutions. With many of India’s greatest artists sitting in the front row—from Girija Devi to Ajoy Chakrabarty, Mashkoor Ali Khan, Ulhas Kashalkar, and Shankar Ghosh—and an audience of around 800 (including music lovers, critics, students, and Kolkata’s social and cultural elite), Guruji delivered a riveting performance of his famed traditional kathak solo. The performance was replete with thrills such as a thaat delivered in a 12 ½ beat rhythmic cycle (newly created by Das just a few days prior to the performance), his celebrated The Train and a brief special appearance by tap star, Jason Samuels Smith.

My education was in the context and the details. Like many performances in India, this one was outdoors, with a man-made stage and a tent set up on the lawn for the audience. During the sound check I made several observations. Any performer on that stage had to compete with the sounds of the India—horns honking, children on the streets, etc. The stage itself was made of raw wood and unstable, posing some serious dangers to kathak’s bare feet and pirouettes. These details became irrelevant once Guruji took stage, but I continued to ponder how it was that he delivered such an effortless performance despite these challenges. Then there were the risks he took on stage. A 12 ½ beat rhythmic cycle is a risky proposition in and of itself. Add to that the dynamics of live performance—improvisation, an orchestra of four classical musicians, and an audience of percussionists and classical music exponents —and you have life on the edge. As the concert came to a close, the audience leapt to their feet, offering Guruji a standing ovation, a rare sight at classical concerts.

Guruji’s performance at the Sangeet Research Academy set the stage for my training in India. Rehearsals for Sita Haran began the next day. Having premiered in San Francisco in September the production was now making its Indian premiere in Kolkata’s famed Birla Sabhaghar with an expanded international cast featuring Guruji’s students from Canada and India. The show, a controversial and refreshing take on India’s great epic the Ramayana, went live after three full days of rehearsals to Kolkata audiences.

Early next morning we traveled to Mumbai. Shabd, Das’ critically acclaimed work featuring his new, groundbreaking technique kathak yoga, would premiere in three cities across India (Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore) as the opening act for India Jazz Suites(IJS)—Das’ phenomenal collaboration with tap star Jason Samuels Smith.

The concrete floors (characteristic of India) and Mumbai’s humidity were unfamiliar to bodies accustomed to practicing, rehearsing, and dancing in San Francisco. After four days of rehearsing we went on stage at Mumbai’s prestigious TATA Theatre/National Centre for the Performing Arts.

As I prepared for the performance back stage I stopped for a moment and the import of what was about to happen hit me. The small town in Gujarat where I grew up was but a four-hour car drive north of Mumbai, in Bilimora. My grandmother, who had a big hand in raising me, still resides there, as does most of my extended family. It was my grandmother who braided my hair every morning, made me write my times tables every afternoon and forced me to eat my vegetables at dinner. A young widow and progressive beyond her time, she was responsible for raising many of the Mehta family children and grandchildren with a fierce love and a firm hand. At eighty-two, she seems smaller now than when I was a child, but her eyes are still sharp and there is still a clear determination in her step.

My father arranged to bring my grandmother along with my uncles and aunts to the Mumbai show. As I was getting ready, my father called to let me know that they had arrived. My eyes welled up at the thought of my grandmother seated in the auditorium.

As we opened our act, the audience greeted us with reserved curiosity. AsShabd concluded, it was clear we had warmed up the crowd for the headlining performance of IJS. I changed quickly and settled into the audience for the show. For 90 minutes the audience was captured in rapt attention and as the show moved—from Das’ solo to Jason’s jam with the Indian percussionist to Das’ & Jason’s climactic finale—the audience moved with it, consuming every foot stomp, pirouette, heel-toe. For me, the show’s highlight was when, after the standing ovation and bows, Guruji asked the audience “People say the classical dance is boring. Do you think classical dance is boring?” The audience screamed back a resounding “NO!”

When the show ended, I took my grandmother backstage. She was brimming with pride and excitement. I could not hold back the tears as she and Guruji met.

We left Mumbai for Pune early the next morning, our bodies still charged with adrenaline from the performance of the previous night. We would be performing at the Shaniwarwada festival—an annual dance festival that takes place in the grand palace fort of the Peshwas of the Maratha empire. Another performance awaited us in Bangalore.

At the close of the tour, I had a few days to go visit my family in Gujarat. To my surprise they were brimming with curiosity and questions about the tour and kathak. For the next two days, my family gathered in the evenings in our home to watch videos of India Jazz Suites, Guruji’s solo, and Sita Haran. It was quite a production—we had to borrow a DVD player from my uncle and could not figure out how to get the DVD to play in color. We paused frequently as family members asked questions. As the videos spurred conversation, it turns out that my grandfather along with his elder brother had founded Swar Sadhana—an organization dedicated to promoting the Indian classical arts. I was floored that this part of our family history and traditions had remained hidden all this time. The organization held concerts regularly on the first floor of our family flat. Little did I know that in all of my work to promote and advance Indian classical arts I was following in my late grandfather’s and great uncle’s footsteps.

As I left, there was much excitement in the air; there was talk of reviving our family’s commitment to the Indian classical arts through kathak. I look forward to returning to Bilimora this summer with this hope and task at hand. 981ece7565243f6218ddd52442581b43-8

As I headed back to the United States, physically exhausted and spiritually renewed, I reflected on the tour. I thought of upaj (improvisation) and riyaz (practice with sustained effort)—two words Guruji often says in class. The importance of these words sank in as the trip settled into my body and consciousness.

The tour in India was replete with unpredictable circumstances—outdoor stages, limited sound and production capacity, limited rehearsal time and space, changes in musicians, and so forth. These challenges along with the demands of travel can easily deplete a performer’s energy. Watching Guruji perform as a soloist and with Jason (36 years his junior) effortlessly and having personally encountered these challenges reinforced for me the need to improvise and adjust one’s performance to the particulars of each setting, and the intense daily practice  that can sustain you.

What I learned for myself as an emerging practitioner of kathak, a teacher, and an advocate for the arts is that there is a profound need for tradition in modern times, and that tradition, history, and identity are inextricably linked. In post-colonial India, cultural colonization continues. Privatization, commercialization, the advent of Bollywood and pop culture are rampant. Print and television advertisements now feature Hinglish. Models featured in advertisements wear Western attire, their features increasingly Anglicized. America’s throwaway bands of the 1980s draw greater audiences than some of India’s finest musicians. Classical is thought of as boring and Traditional is thought of as archaic.

As I observed this “modern” India, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in which he talks about the effects of colonial subjugation on humanity. This subjugation continues today in India, much more insidiously. And though I have faith that the soul of India shall survive, it is getting harder and harder to discern. One senses amongst the people of India a quiet and masked sense of loss, self-hatred, and confusion.

Guruji and the Chitresh Das Dance Company harkened the ancient and deep traditions of India and placed them squarely and proudly in modern times. And it seemed to me, as I watched Indians leap to standing ovations and scramble after Guruji, that he and CDDC, through kathak, were helping Indians reclaim a part of themselves that they are losing.

I return from India with a new perspective and a sense of urgency—to continue in deepening my study of kathak with Guruji and in building a movement that is both local and global—from Bilimora to Kolkata to San Francisco to Los Angeles—that advances the classical arts of India.

Rina Mehta is a disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das and member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. She is also director of the Chhandam School of Kathak, Southern California. For information on classes, performances and programs, visit www.kathak.org.


Chitresh Das reinvents an ancient dance form

One finds out they are behind the times in a lot of ways, I suppose—for me it was a small moment in a conversation with Pandit Chitresh Das, one of the most renowned teachers and practitioners of kathak working today, a graceful, energetic man in his mid-sixties when he mentioned his recent post on his Twitter feed—I still don’t have Twitter. It shouldn’t surprise me, though, that Das beat me to it; it quickly became clear that he has more energy than I do. Onstage, he is a powerhouse of precise, bright movements sustained for a period of time that others would find exhausting. A current student and company member tells me that he lifts weights for two hours each day, then begins dance practice, which can last for another few hours. “One day missed, you can feel it in your body. Two days missed, you can really feel it. You start to feel guilty. Three days missed; you’re finished,” says the master; extreme discipline so ingrained it has become a way of life.

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Das, whose company is currently celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, was recently awarded the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts when he was granted a National Heritage Award last May for his contributions as a teacher and performer. In many circles, he is regarded as the gold standard of kathak dancers.

Kathak, of course, is a classical dance that originated in Northern India. My mother, who studied the form for many years, describes it as “pure dance;” the core of it is not staging or storytelling (though those elements do appear in some productions) but an emphasis on the body’s expression of rhythm.

To Das, a mastery of kathak, like life, comes from the intense discipline of mastering the form, from the freedom that comes from discipline. He talks about the concept of upaj, which is something like improvisation, though I feel as though this English translation lacks what the original word conveys. It is the animating spark of Kathak, according to Das, “you are constantly in rapport with the audience. The word upaj is very important in that regard.”

In his newest work, India Jazz Suites, Das collaborates with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, and says upaj is a real point of kinship between the two art forms. “We communicate in eye contact, in body contact. Speed and power.” And the ineffable upaj. There is an edge to upaj, the unplanned, the unknown, the coming moment. When things are left unscripted, as they can be in kathak and in tap, there is an energy in the creation of the new; a new pattern, a new rhythm, a new limit tested, broken. You can see it in the conversation the two performers are having with each other, onstage, with their feet, passing a rhythm back and forth, embellishing it, transforming it, one with his bells and bare feet, the other with tap shoes. At a recent performance in India, Seema Mehta, the company’s India representative, describes the experience of being in the audience while watching him perform. “It was incredible,” she says. “He was giving off so much energy, to the musicians, and to the audience, and they were giving this energy back to him. His Guruji used to tell him, ‘dance so that everything becomes one; the sound, the space, the music, the audience, your feet, your body, your movement, all should become one.’ And you could really see it that day.”

A few months ago, my mother and I saw a production by Das’ company, Sita Haran, an excerpt of the Ramayana performed by a cast entirely of women. The dance, staged with spare theatrics and long stretches of dazzling rhythm, seemed, among other things, an homage to the grace and strength inherent in a woman’s body. When I asked him for his inspiration, Das named his mother as an inspiration for all his work. “Mother is the first guru,” he said, and of his company members, “They are a band of strong, powerful women.”

“He has gone so deep inside the tradition, he has found a way to innovate within it,” says Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a senior student and company member. “And now we, as his students, become bearers of the tradition.” Das, by all accounts, is a taskmaster when it comes to teaching, but he leads by example. He pours a tremendous amount of energy into teaching, making sure the tradition is passed on undiluted, which means giving a lot of time to students, finding weaknesses and strengths and riffing on them. He told me that he teaches standing at a special table built so he can play tabla with his feet always moving; he didn’t want his students to be able to point to him and say that he was resting while they worked so hard.

The way he talks about teaching sounds like the way he talks about dancing, a practice of intense discipline, punctuated by moments of unplanned improvisation. “I am always surprised by how much I am learning from my students.”

“You perform with joy, and that gives people joy. That is the essence of kathak: dancing with joy, for joy.”

Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.


In 1989, Pandit Chitresh Das, who we fondly referred to as Dada (older brother in Bengali), began teaching his first children’s classes in the United States. In the back room of a daycare center in suburban Union City, Dada would sit on the tiled floor with his tabla, and bring to the diaspora children of first generation Indian Americans, the knowledge of generations and generations of kathak masters. But back then, no one really knew who he was. All they knew was that he would inject an energy into their children that they had never seen before, and would push each student beyond what they thought was their capacity. I was one of those lucky students who began learning in Panditji’s first classes and have become addicted to the energy and life that is channeled through the art form of kathak. Since then, the school has grown to be the largest Indian classical dance institution outside of India, with over 20 teachers teaching 500 students worldwide, with over 60 classes per week.

Panditji’s dream had been to teach kathak to the Americans. But what he didn’t realize at the time was that the Americans were not  the “blondes and brunettes” he had envisioned but the first, new generation of Indian Americans, and he unknowingly took on the responsibility of bringing India’s traditions and culture back to its own people. –Antara Bhardwaj

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