Dancing Diplomacy; One Woman’s Journey to the Heart of Kathak

By Charlotte Moraga

December 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The traditional Kathak solo is alive and well. In India? Maybe not. But in California, yes!

In 1992, I wandered into Pandit Chitresh Das’ Kathak class at SFSU when I couldn’t get into an overenrolled Flamenco class. It didn’t take long for him to instill a deep sense of awe and determination in me for this ancient and complex dance form. This year I was honored to receive one of the first Shenson Performing Arts Fellowships. With the help of this funding from the San Francisco Foundation, I was able to travel to India for one month of immersion in Kathak. There I performed from the Southern tip of India to the City of Joy in the North, Kolkata, where my Guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das, was born. All along my travels this summer, I had conversations with dancers which sometimes verged on a sense of peril and helplessness. India is rapidly growing and its traditional forms are quickly being replaced with pop-culture homogeny.

We landed in Kolkata late in the evening on July 6th and were met by some of Guruji’s students. We woke early in the morning to a breakfast of hot gelebi (a fried syrupy sweet), kachori (fried bread), and tiny cups of chai. Most mornings it was fresh mango and toast with increasingly bigger cups of chai. Soon the student who runs the school while he is in the US showed up for a lesson before we headed off to the theater where he teaches the girls from the red-light district in Kalighut. These girls are being educated and supported by an NGO called the New Light Foundation to help break the cycle of poverty and prostitution. I find this ironic as Kathak, once a courtesan tradition, is now being used to empower these young women, rather than give them a tool to work their trade. After spending a few days teaching and practicing, our bodies getting acclimated to the heavy, muggy weather, our feet getting used to dancing on marble floors, we flew to Chennai in South India.

I left Guruji in Chennai and traveled with Dr. Sarah Morelli, who recently wrote her Harvard dissertation on Pandit Das’ innovations and preservation of Kathak. First stop: Pondicherry, a French settlement, 90 miles south of Chennai. Sarah and I danced in Harmony Hall at the famed Sri Aurobindo Ashram in the stifling heat till the monsoon winds whipped up just as I was about to dance the story of Govandhan– How Krishna saved people of a pastoral countryside from a devastating flood. It was only the two of us, dancing and providing our own music by singing and reciting and speaking. Sarah played harmonium and I, manjira (hand cymbals). Percussive footwork and bells, called ghungroo, added a musical layer. The effect must have been stunning. There was pin drop silence from the hundreds of onlookers who couldn’t believe they were watching a Kathak dancer of non-Indian heritage. By the end of the story, as Krishna raises the mountain high, sheltering the people from the flood waters, the audience was on their feet, applauding with joy and admiration.

The traditional Kathak solo is unique and complete. The dancer is many things: dancer, musician, singer, choreographer, actor, poet, narrator and mime. Traditionally, a Kathak dancer performs for 2 hours without rehearsal accompanied by a tabla player, vocalist and instrumentalists including sarangi player and sarod or sitarist. The solo builds from a devotional invocation, through rhythmic tapestries of compositions and footwork, then storytelling, song, salwal jawab (call and response type exchange with the tabla player) with lots of upaj. Upaj means ‘from the heart’ and is improvisation. It is this thrill of discovery that carries the audience along for the journey. Each solo is a chance for the artist to reinvent her or himself and discover something new, alongside the audience. It’s also an attempt to reach the unreachable, or the divine force.

After our exhilarating experience in Pondi, as the natives call it, we drove on to the South India city of Madurai to give a workshop with scheduled caste children of all ages. Dr. Ted Adams, director of the SEED plan program had us inaugurate the program’s new cultural center. We showed them some Kathak, which they were fairly unfamiliar with because Kathak is more common in North India than in the South. They showed us their “traditional” dance. It was a bittersweet offering. Their traditional dance, which they referred to as village dance, was little more than Bollywood style dancing. A new generation is growing up not knowing what their grandparents’ traditional village dance was.

But it’s not just regional folk dances that are in danger of extinction. According to many classical artists in India, the state of Classical Indian Dance in India is not doing well. Some would even go so far as to say the art form is being diluted. Much of Kathak is group choreography fused with other forms for novelty effect. I was also told that people don’t want to pay to see Classical Indian Dance. In fact, rather than the audience paying to see and artist, the artist has to pay to perform. A Bharata Natyam dancer from Pondicherry told me with an air of resigned remorse that Bharata Natyam dancers buy their slots in the biggest classical dance festival in Chennai! This year the top slot was bought by an American-born Bharata Natyam dancer from California. She did, however, mention that, “at least she happens to be a good dancer.”

We went on to meet up with my guru in Coimbature where we performed at the prestigious Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in front of an audience of hundreds of school-age children. They sat in their plastic chairs quiet and lethargic, probably expecting a boring rendition of classical something or other. Instead, they were met with two white Kathak dancers from America! And a Bengali Kathak guru who ended the show by dancing like lighting while playing the tabla at the same time. After an hour they were asked if they wanted more and there was a unanimous cheer, as if they were in a rock concert! After the standing ovation and presentation of gifts and flowers, we were escorted to the Chairman’s office where my guru received a plaque stating (among other things) that they, “take great pleasure in recognizing the significant contribution made by Pandit Chitresh Das in establishing Kathak as a universal and international dance style.”

Next, we flew to Mumbai. As the monsoon rains drummed down the pavement outside Shila Mehta’s Nupur Zankar Centre in Kandivali, Mumbai, we were greeted at the door by the teacher and students who were dressed in Lovely Lavender salwal kameez, dress and pants worn for practicing. One of the senior students performed aarti, a ceremony, blessing Guruji before he entered the school.

That evening I gave a performance to a very learned Kathak community. I had just met the tabla player and the performance was highly improvised. We had a brief, but ferocious practice earlier, but what we ended up doing resembled nothing we had played before. Downstairs, devotees were singing bhajans, and upstairs, Kathak devotees were watching a traditional Kathak solo performed by an American from California. To receive a standing ovation that evening in Bombay in front of a such an audience was a tremendous honor. Touching Indian audiences with their stories, their sentiments, on their terms, in their land is a wonder to me and something with which I really have to credit my Guruji.

From Mumbai we flew back to Kolkata to teach the Nritya Bharatiya Students and New Light Foundation girls. We also visited another school in the suburbs of Kolkata. We were met with the same greetings and lovely assault on the senses as in Mumbai. This time there were several male students dressed in a soothing shade of yellow and a dozen or more female students dressed in white and red salwar kameez with layered strands of white flowers adorning their hair. One of the young dancers placed a red tika (mark over the third eye) on my guru’s forehead and a mala (necklace of flowers) over his head. He was presented with flowers and a special shawl. Then the teachers led their students in a demonstration of their classwork. After that they sat attentively as Guruji regaled them with Kathak stories, which were also lessons in history, philosophy and etiquette.

The mode for learning Kathak, whose roots grow deep and long over hundreds, maybe thousands of years of evolution, is the guru-shisya parampara, or student-teacher relationship. This model is much like that of the medieval apprentice system of Europe. It is an intense one-on-one relationship where the student becomes immersed in the culture of the Guru’s gharana (school). This is much like the scenario of an architecture student who wanted to study directly with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright told him, “first you must stay with me, and go to the symphony with me, walk with me, cook with me,” and so on. The subtle nuances of Kathak with its intricate rhythm, powerful footwork technique, swift turns, expression and storytelling take decades to master. Devotion is necessary to learn deeply in the oral tradition. You can’t learn Kathak in workshops, from videos or once-a-week classes. Each gharana (school) has subtle differences in technique, compositions, and interpretations of stories. Attempts to codify Kathak have met with resistance; after all, who’s to say whose guru is right? But, the guru-shisya parampara model may be dying .

Classical Indian Dance is now competing with tennis lessons, salsa and swimming, not to mention heavy academic studies. Gurus complain about students no longer interested in devoting longs hours of daily riyaz (practice) required to acquire the art form. Furthermore, the introduction of the workshop in recent decades has students expecting immediate results and performance opportunities. It is easy for gurus to choreograph a short routine set to a Thumri or Tarana and give the tapes to participants or teachers. But that is not how Kathak is best learned or performed. Students are opening schools just down the block from their gurus before achieving levels of mastery.

The guru may no longer be revered, but is still respected in most schools of dance in India. The point is you need a guru with a deep knowledge, experience, and the passion to instill in you the nuances and intricacies of the dance. I most certainly am blessed to have such a guru, who believes no matter what race, what continent, what age, one can learn if the proper attitude and devotion is there. Faith is important– one faith in particular, faith in the guru. You can’t learn without it. With an art form as difficult and foreign as Kathak was to me, it was necessary to immerse myself in my Guruji’s lifestyle and history. That faith has served me well.

There were other performances that showed me that traditional Kathak dance as taught in California is much appreciated and enjoyed in India. After the whirlwind tour, monsoon winds notwithstanding, we headed back to the U.S. and straight into preparations for our home season production, a collaboration between Kathak and Tap, “India Jazz Progressions.” Traditional Kathak and Tap have one very important thing in common: improvisation. The show ran for 3 nights and each night’s performance was unique. The forms are different, but there are no barriers, partly because the tap dancers we worked with have a similar approach to their art. Faith is important to them too. Faith in teachers or gurus, and that with a devoted practice you will be able to stand on your own and make a powerful statement.

Yes, the traditional Kathak solo is alive and well, evolving and revolving, bringing in new generations, new genres and new influences, but maintaining what is at the core of the form. This coming spring we are in for a treat. For the first time in San Francisco, my Guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das, will perform a traditional Kathak solo in a more traditional setting—no proscenium, but an intimate gathering in Yerba Buena’s Forum in September 2008. Kathak has deep roots in India. Is Pandit Chitresh Das the Johnny Appleseed who has planted the seeds from an ancient tree for new generations to enjoy, not just the Indian Diaspora, but all? Most definitely.

Charlotte Moraga is currently the artistic director of the Chitresh Das Institute. She has been dancing, teaching dance, performing, and making dances most of her life. But it wasn’t until her serendipitous meeting of Pandit Chitresh Das 30 years ago that she found her calling. A principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 20 years, she still performs occasionally, but finds joy and meaning in teaching and creating dances. Charlotte also teaches dance and art for the San Francisco Unified School District. When not teaching or dancing or making dances you can find her hiking the hills of San Francisco. You can email Charlotte at charlotte@chitreshdasinstitute.org.