An Ongoing Improvisation: The Enduring Legacy of Pandit Chitresh Das

Chitresh Das in a pose

Photo by Marty Sohl

The death of Kathak Dance Master Pandit Chitresh Das in early January of this year came as a shock to the Bay Area dance community. Although he turned 70 in 2014, he had a performance and teaching schedule that would put dancers half his age to shame. In addition to his ongoing work leading a dance school with branches around the world, this past fall he debuted Yatra, his collaboration with Flamenco dancer Antonio Hidalgo Paz. Upaj, the documentary that explored his life through his groundbreaking collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith had been broadcast around the country on PBS stations this past year. On the day he passed away, Pandit Das was in meetings making preparations for a performance of Shiva.

In late January, I spoke with Rachna Nivas and Charlotte Moraga, two of the principal dancers in the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Although they were both still reeling from the sudden loss of Pandit Das— as are all who knew him—both were firm in asserting the company’s absolute commitment to the unveiling of Shiva at a future date. Although it was previously performed as a work-in-progress at Z Space, Pandit Das had completed updates and changes to the piece.

Moraga says that before his death, he had “clearly articulated his vision on [what the performance would look like] down to the costumes and the lights. Now it’s up to us to bring that to fruition. We’ve been working together to bring together his vision”

She adds that when rehearsing Pandit Das’ choreography, “we feel his presence. The piece is about death… it’s about the transformation of energy. For those of us dancing, it’s a tremendous gift.”

In his life, Pandit Das bridged many worlds. He was born in Kolkata in 1944, before India gained its independence, and was raised in a society that was finding and redefining its identity on its own terms. His parents ran a dance school that taught several different Indian dance forms. He was trained from the age of nine by his guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra and from an early age he was being heralded as a child prodigy in India.

He came to America in the 1970s, a country that was experiencing its own period of upheaval and culture redefinition. In this cultural context Pandit Das found a home in 1971 when he was invited to start a dance program at the Ali Akbar School of Music in San Rafael. In 1979 he founded Chitresh Das Dance Company and Chhandam School of Kathak. Over the next 36 years, he built a dance company that toured the world giving acclaimed performances, and he himself was bestowed with many awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Most importantly, he built a community of women who were not only strong dancers, but strong teachers.

Two of these women are Charlotte Moraga and Rachna Nivas, who both met Pandit Das the way many met him—as students. Moraga was a dance student looking for a Flamenco class at San Francisco State University in 1992 when she wandered into a dance class taught by Das. She recalls:

“He started the class by saying, ‘I’m not a dance teacher, I’m a dance preacher,’ and I thought ‘oh boy,’ but he challenged everything I thought about dance.” Moraga continued her study with Das beyond college, becoming a principal dancer in his company, and an instrumental figure in the Chhandam School of Kathak, Pandit Das’ dance school.

Rachna Nivas met Chitresh Das in 1998 as undergraduate at UC Berkeley, when she entered “a classroom pulsating with energy. There were these intensely focused women, and there was this little man sitting in the front of the room, pushing them like I’d never seen someone pushed.” Nivas eventually also became a principal dancer and is now the director of the Chhandam School.

Nivas explains that this intensity was part of what made him an exceptional teacher. The instruction he provided his students “wasn’t just about their dance. It was about their life journeys. I wondered how he had so much insight into each of these people. One minute he’d make them laugh and the next minute it would be really serious, then it would be very contemplative, then the next minute he’s storytelling, playing a male, then suddenly playing a female, revealing a subtle philosophical message,” within that transition.

His ability to be multi-dimensional in his persona served Das well as a performer. But that magnetic stage presence didn’t serve the veneration of his ego. Das was committed to the evolution and expansion of Kathak dance as a constant, ongoing project. The performance was an important part of that, but it was always just one part. Nivas says that right before performing, he would tell dancers “remember, the moment you go on stage, it’s history. What’s next?” She says that “everything was about where we are going and he sacrificed his own performances in order to teach and build institutions.”

Kids dancing

Photo by Marty Sohl

As an observer of the Bay Area’s dance community, I am continually impressed by the community he built over the decades devoted to sustaining the Kathak tradition, and feel that Kathak was very blessed to have Das as a proponent. Kathak is not thriving in India. Like many indigenous cultural art forms around the world, it has fallen victim to the vicissitudes of pop culture and dominance of modern western cultural forms. But in the Bay Area, it has found home in a community of women who have supported each other as they worked within the company, and as they have embarked to create work as soloists.

With the encouragement of Pandit Das, both Nivas and Moraga have created work on their own outside of the company. But it hasn’t been about them moving away from their community. It has been about the community founded by Chitresh Das growing larger.

Moraga adds to that, stating that he was “innovative in his art and in his pedagogy. He would train his students to become dancers on their own, to become their own teacher. Very few gurus have that in mind.” She adds, “All artists were to be teaching artists. That’s how you learn, how you relate, how you have passion. It’s how you understand people and life, and that’s what this art is about. “ Moraga adds that his devotion to connecting with people through teaching and performance (and in the Kathak tradition, there is often overlap, as performers are often expected to speak to the audience to provide context to the piece) was absolute, adding that “it didn’t matter whether it a student was 8 or 80, or he was performing for an audience of 100 and audience of one—he gave the same amount. The goal was to reach people.”

I personally met Pandit Das a handful of times over the years, and there were two main impressions he left on me. The first was that he was a born storyteller, a fitting attribute for a master in a storytelling art form such as Kathak. The other impression was that he was irrepressibly funny human being who could connect with anyone, no matter who they were. Nivas agrees with both impressions. Regarding my first she says, “Traveling with him was amazing. What I got out of being in that location was amplified. He was thinking about that land, the history. He gets a feel about the struggles the people in the land went through, and while he’s there he’s thinking about his role in the land’s history.” She describes a great humility and sense of perspective that Pandit Das brought to the communities he performed in: “He would say ‘I’m contributing to the landscape of this history. I’m bringing India to this land.’” Regarding the second observation she says, “He was HILARIOUS. As seriously as he took his art, he had just as much fun. That’s a part of it. It was always about changing up the energy and doing what was unexpected. Keeping the audience on their toes. An improvisation.”

According to Moraga and Nivas, for his longtime students one the strangest component of processing his passing is that he regularly spoke about it in classes and rehearsals (making statements like “On the day I die you should do footwork.”). I get the impression that this is not because he expected to die any time soon, but because he understood that if the art form he lived his life in dedication to was to flourish, then it had to flourish in the community he created long after he was gone. As Moraga describes it, “He was always thinking of the bigger picture, and the elevation and evolution of this art form.”

I ask Moraga to speculate how his legacy may develop now that he is gone. Careful to state she is speaking only for herself and not the company, she points out that “he trained hundreds of dancers. Martha Graham had so many disciples, and would she approve of everything they did?”

She continues, “as with any legacy, there will be strands that sometime may not be completely consistent with his teachings, but he was about energy and evolution. I’m sure it will go off in many different directions….you just have to have faith. He had so much faith.”

In addition to upcoming tribute performances by the dance company, the youth contingent of the Chitresh Das Dance Company will perform in April and Pandit Das gave his blessing to several of his disciples to perform solos this summer. Later this spring the company and school will make a formal announcement regarding longer term plans for the future.

Moraga explains, “of course, it can’t be business-as-usual. We have to make space for our grief, but we fully intend to continue this work.”

Nivas says, “I am so grateful for my guru sisters, during this time.” She says that while they are sad, they frequently imagine what he would say, invoking his voice to one another: “What was the point of all of this that I did, if you’re going to sit around and feel sad?” So with his voice in their minds, the dance disciples who Pandit Chitresh Das trained in this lifetime will continue sustaining and evolving the tradition of Kathak dance he shared with them, with some improvisations.

For more details about the Chitresh Das Dance Company, their classes and upcoming performances visit kathak.org

PUBLISHED March 1, 2015

POSTED IN In Dance

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