At six in the evening the temperature in the studio is approaching ninety degrees. Pandit Chitresh Das’s senior students, many of whom have been teaching since early that morning, are told to put on their ghungroo. Beads of sweat form as they begin the cycles of intricate percussive footwork, singing, and spins as the rhythmic foundation continually shifts and the tempo steadily increases. The studio transforms into a disciplined flurry of flying feet and swiftly rotating bodies. At the front of the studio, directing from behind the tabla, Das watches his dancers work.
“We will show you something now from the show. The first part,” explains Das. His dancers seat themselves on the floor. Although it sounds like they’re reciting mantra, the troupe is actually working with the mnemonic syllables of bol. Sharply focused, their voices gain volume and intensity. The atmosphere in the room is as evocative as Rachna Nivas, Chhandam School Director, had promised. A group of women, assuming the guise of ascetics practicing austerities at base of the Himalayas, evoke the lord of destruction and transformation. Chitresh Das and his dance company debut “Shiva” using strictly interpreted kathak choreography to “enter the mind of these ascetics, doing these intense practices, trying to find and not finding Shiva”says Das.
“It is about a joining of the male and female. Both are within a person,” Das explains as he describes the creative process of developing this piece with an all-female troupe. “Ultimately it’s about women’s empowerment. Ultimately it’s about love,” says Das. Post-rehearsal, his dancers have gathered as we talk about their work. They speak about the incredible opportunity to dance for Das, the boundlessness of his talent and creativity a constant inspiration for their own development. They also worry that his work will be misinterpreted. “This is tantra,” emphases Das, as he swiftly differentiates it from “what is going on in Marin or on Telegraph Avenue.”
Das stands at the intersection of India and America, two countries that share a history of cultural mingling and misunderstanding. Although Das notes that “you have to leave one country in order to understand the other,” in the past thirty-two years he’s had the opportunity to watch waves of students, American, as well as first and second generation Indian pass through his professional dance company as well as his Chhandam Youth Dance Company in the United States. Meanwhile Das runs his own school in India, partners with the New Light Foundation to teach classes to children in the red light district of Kolkata, and tours extensively internationally. In 2009 Das was chosen as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, the most prestigious of his long listof awards. KQED also just chose “Shiva” as one of the 10 dance performances to see this fall.
“There are many misconceptions about guru-shishya. That it’s like being trapped, that it’s limiting. But if you go deeply enough, if you get to a certain point, you realize it’s a vast ocean. It’s also an opportunity to create your own vision. I am so thankful to have that guidance,” says Nivas of Das. Nivas’ creation “Bhakti: A Woman’s Liberation Through Love” will open the performance. Telling the story of Meerabai, a 15th century Rajasthani mystic, Nivas is interpreting her bhajans through dance. “We have so many stories from the epics of Sita and Draupadi, women who have shown great strength in a patriarchal society. I wanted to look at women who took a different path, who found liberation through love,” says Nivas.
“India is at a crossroads with violence against women,” says Nivas, explaining why Meerabai’s transcendence of life circumstances is particularly relevant today. “This is a way to peace for women. This is a way for them to find themselves. Bhakti is the chance to discover the divine without need of a priest or a temple.” Current events in India are on everyone’s mind at the Chitresh Das Dance Company. “What is this fundamentalism? What is this against women in India? I do not like it,” says Das. Surrounded by women, Das has developed an interesting relationship to and understanding of the feminine. Even kathak yoga, which Das developed, comes into play. “The rhythms are extremely complicated, but he wanted the dancers to be empowered to dance without musicians and music,” explains Nivas.
“Shiva” is an opportunity to watch Das solo while working with potent traditional themes in innovative ways. Opened by Nivas’ work about Meerabai, the performance promises to explore both Krishna bhajans and cremation ground practices. “There is birth, and there is death. In between birth and death there is Shiva. Because we never know when death will happen, we never know what will happen in life. I want people to come with an open mind,” says Das. If his audience does, they will be able to see somethingquite special. “Dance is meditation in motion. It’s bhakti. When I dance, nothing else exists,” concludes Nivas.
October 26, 7 p.m., 27, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. Tickets start at $28. www.kathak.org.