Invoking the River
Chitresh Das Institute’s upcoming annual Kathak show, “Invoking the River” and “13 Matra” is all about community and collaboration. For a few years, their focus has been to use art for climate advocacy, and this year, each of their dancers will bring their interpretations to represent the various rivers of India.
“Kathak in itself is a collaborative form,” said Celine Schein Das, former Executive Director of the Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company. “Panditji [Chitresh Das] always talked about innovation within tradition. And this idea that there’s everything within Indian classical art to tell contemporary stories.”
The dance company
Bay Area’s Chitresh Das Institute (CDI) is a dance company that presents traditional and innovative Kathak and Indian classical arts with three elements: it’s a professional national, international touring company, a community school, and also trains professional dancers and teachers in Kathak.
The Institute is part of the legacy of Pandit Chitresh Das, a master and virtuosic performer of the classical Kathak tradition, and was co-founded in 2016 by Celine Schein Das, Pandit Das’ widow, Artistic Director Charlotte Moraga, and Preeti Zalavadia, who taught under Pandit Das for over ten years.
According to Das, Pandit Das’ key was giving back to the community and honoring elders and Moraga has continued to train the next generation in his philosophy, artistic approach, and pedagogy. For the upcoming show, she worked with the dancers to choreograph aspects of their pieces, Das said.
Indian classical music on piano
Crafting these pieces also involved the pianist, Utsav Lal, who plays Indian classical music on piano. It was a long process involving back-and-forth “hundreds and hundreds of emails and voice memos, recordings and, well, trying things,” Lal said.
It was a deeply collaborative project, where Moraga gave free rein to the dancers to come up with their concept, he said. The job was to take the different narratives springing from the concept of just India’s water bodies and rivers and tie them into a unified thing.
“The thing that really struck me about this was how much talk was just about the concept,” Lal said. “Kathak is such a descriptive dance with many different layered meanings to the way that every single gesture works. And I really like making music that kind of at least tries to think that way. Where every single sound of movement that you do has a history behind it and can be interpreted in a bunch of different ways, like a nod to the future and about the past.”
Poignant stories come to life
Having never played for Kathak before, Lal said he sought inspiration from artists who deal with water in different ways and from the perspectives that each dancer brought.
“The stories that the dancers brought in were super poignant, very vivid stories of personal loss in their family, stories of trying to gain respect as women… and stories of climate anxiety,” he said. “All of those things were kind of swimming around in my head.”
According to Das, a piano is not meant for Kathak in the traditional sense. “So to get that nuance…and all of those aspects of Indian classical music, he [Lal] sees that as a challenge to kind of pull that out of the instrument.”
“We both ended up pushing each other out of our comfort zone,” Lal said. “Great things happen in a collaboration.”
To find ways to sustainably collaborate, the institute started the Arts Seva Award, Das said. “We really wanted an opportunity to recognize other people in the field who were doing important work.”
2023 SEVA Arts Award to India Currents
CDI will be presenting the 2023 ARTS SEVA Award to India Currents, a community news publication at this year’s annual show. This award is presented by the institute to a person or an organization contributing significantly to the advancement of the arts.
Vandana is a powerhouse, Das said referring to Vandana Kumar, the publisher of India Currents. “It’s for us an honor to be able to just honor India Currents and we’re really, really excited about it.”
According to Kumar, the mission of the publication is to help, showcase and celebrate community.
“We are often seeking things that are familiar to us, foods that are familiar to us. Sounds that were familiar to us in what is otherwise an unfamiliar landscape. This is an inherent need for all first-generation immigrants. We want to gravitate around things that are familiar,” Kumar said. That’s how India Currents began and not as a grand business plan.
“We started and what we realized from the very first issue is the fact that we were not alone,” she said. India Currents’ community journalism model is called so because the content is generated by the community.
“We did not have any money. We could not hire designers. So we figured, just ask people to submit,” she said. “And people started sharing their stories and we saw how much there was a resonance around that because we were all going through the same thing.”
Finding solace in community
During the pandemic, Kumar said, the team was deluged by letters, notes, and emails from writers saying that when they had arrived as new immigrants in times of uncertainty, India Currents was the place where they found community and solace. And during the pandemic, again amidst uncertainty, they were turning to the community that the India Currents had built.
“I think it’s such a powerful validation of this model that we call community journalism, because it wasn’t just the ten people that worked on staff over the years,” Kumar said. “It was the hundreds of people that had been published in the pages of India Currents that could call that: Hey, you know, I had a story to tell, and I shared that with the whole community.”
Kumar wanted to further explore the need for belonging and say that “not all Indians are techies, but they’re also nurses, teachers, truck drivers, ethnic grocery store workers, beauty queens” and much more.
“We are everybody. But that’s never showcased,” she said. “And I wanted a larger canvas to showcase that.”
The ‘We Belong’ Exhibition
That’s when through a Catchlight Photography Fellowship, they hired Sree Sripathy, who then worked on a year-long project, ‘We Belong’, to showcase how Bay Area Indians connect to their heritage. The project — a series of portraits — is being featured in the lobby of ODC Theater, San Francisco, the same place that will also host CDI’s annual show on Sept. 29 and 30.
“To have an exhibit in the lobby about ‘We Belong’ and then to be able to go in the theater and have Indian classical art,” Das said. “I just feel like this is so much of what he [Chitresh Das] worked for and dreamed of his whole life; to kind of create a whole space that’s dedicated to art that ultimately is in my mind, a reflection of belonging.”
Catchlight photographer Sree Sripathy
Sree wanted to try and find people from different countries in South Asia or the diaspora. But it wasn’t easy because it meant finding people who were willing to open themselves up to a stranger, walking into their home, asking them personal questions — sometimes intimate questions. Most acceptances she received were from Indians and that shaped her project.
“Visually, it’s very hard to do that in a multifaceted way,” Sree said. “So the images were not meant to be all conclusive like this is how this person only identifies with their culture. It’s just one glimpse into an aspect of how they identified.”
She wanted to represent different religions, age groups, immigration statuses, and gender and sexual orientations. And before publishing she sat on Zoom calls with the participants to go over the pictures.
“We wanted them to have a voice,” Sree said. “This isn’t me telling the world what Indian heritage or connection to Indian heritage is. This is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer and the community in one sense.”
Collaboration and community
The first ever photo assignment that Sree did for her fellowship with India Currents was at CDI’s last year’s annual show. To have her final project share the space with them means a lot.
“The support from the Chitresh Das Institute and specifically from Celine Schein Das… has been so wonderful, encouraging and it underscores the importance of the work that India Currents is doing, documenting Indian voices, South Asian voices, South Asian community, Indian community.”
According to Sree, India Currents’ work helps in increasing visibility for the community. When people show up in news feeds or social media, it helps others understand diversity within and outside of their community. And that hopefully helps to allow people to see how much similarity there is between cultures, religions and communities, she said, but also how beautiful the differences are.
Kumar mentioned growing up with diversity but taking it for granted.
“It saddens me when I see that you get lumped or encapsulated into this very diminished form. And we are so much more,” she said. “We need to go and claim our space. We need to claim our space in the community that we are incredibly diverse.”
According to Das, the photo series and the support from India Currents help underline the nuances of communities. And she hopes that people and the media looking at cultural events bring with them curiosity.
“Only if you go deep can you understand humanity. And it doesn’t just look like something exotic to you,” she said. “And I believe you have a duty. And beyond that, you will benefit, and your reporting will benefit.”
Das believes in doing work sustainably, both in terms of the planet and personal well-being and in bringing people together. Lal appreciates the eagerness of the institute to do things differently.
“I feel like there’s a lot of reverence for the tradition, but they’re not afraid to recontextualize it and present it in a different way,” he said. As for the event, he is excited to see how the music changes.
“Right before the show, you don’t really know what you have until you perform it in its entirety,” Lal said. “There’s enough flexibility that it will take on a different color every time it’s performed.”
Dancing for the planet
Although it is hard to gauge how the event will strike the audience, Lal said there are layers that people might connect to. On one level, evocative music and dance are coming together, which is pleasing for the people. At another level, there’s a nostalgic link to Indian-based themes.
“It feels pretty special to be performing in America, talking about pieces based on the Ganga, pieces on the ghats of Varanasi, and the kind of rituals that happen over there,” he said. “There’s a lot of symbolism throughout the show in the dance, the music, and the beautiful visuals, talking about how we’re destroying our planet. It’s kind of just inculcating a sense of respect and appreciation of the wonder of these water bodies.”
Das urges people reading this article to be curious, “and even if they’ve seen Indian classical dance and it wasn’t their cup of tea or they haven’t seen it, maybe try it, they might have a different experience than before.”