Becoming A Kathaka: Chitresh Das and the New Generation of Kathak Dancers

By Monica Dalidowicz


STUDY IN THE CLASSICAL NORTH INDIAN DANCE OF KATHAK IS A LIFETIME’S WORK. From the strength and vigour of the rhythmic footwork and fast-heel chakkars, or pirouettes, to the delicacy, grace, and subtle nuances of expression and storytelling, it is an art form that requires years and years of intensive study before one begins to mature as an artist in their own right.

Historically, many of the great Kathak artists were born into hereditary lineages, or families of artists, and began learning the art from one guru at a very young age. Today, participation in Kathak extends to many levels of society, both in India and in its diaspora, and has, for many, become a recreational practice taken up with a multitude of teachers along the way. Yet great masters and devoted students still exist – but the true exemplars of the art are hard to find. Beyond the mass of Bollywood, Bhangra and So You Think You Can Dance, there remain a few strongholds of the classical Indian dance arts who have dedicated their entire life to preserving this rich tradition. And it is with great fortune that we find one of them right here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pandit Chitresh Das, a Kathak dancer from Kolkata, India, came to the U.S. in the early 1970s with the proverbial eight dollars in his pocket and a dream to bring Kathak dance to the western world. Some forty years after Das’s arrival, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Chhandam school of Kathak and the Chitresh Das Dance Company. As a solo artist and performer, he has gained national and international recognition, and most recently was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship for his contribution to the art. But what is so remarkable about Das is that despite his solo dance career, he has moved forward with an unwavering commitment to train the next generation of dancers, both in the U.S. and in India. While Das himself continues to push the boundaries of his own physical and mental practice through constant training, performing and touring, he is also, without fail, pushing his students to do the same. This never changes. No matter how incredibly full his performing schedule may be, he continues to diligently train the next generation of aspiring Kathakas: challenging, inciting and inspiring each one of them to push themselves beyond their own limits. And at the end of the day, it is the passing on of this knowledge that remains so vital to the survival of the classical art of Kathak.

Knowledge is passed from master to student in the context of the guru-shisya parampara, the tradition of the one-on-one relationship between a guru and his or her disciple. It is in this way that the dancers of the Chitresh Das Dance Company are becoming kathakas. Training is never simply about going to class or rehearsal. Rather, it is a way of life. Studying with their guru is not a part time commitment; it is a life-long one where lessons in the dance become lessons in life.

In the past year, I had several chances to talk to the company dancers about their experiences of studying with Pandit Das, including Charlotte Moraga, Seibi Lee, Farah Yasmeen-Shaikh, Joanna Meinl, Rachna Nivas, Rina Mehta, Anjali Nath, Antara Bhardwaj and Labonee Mohanta. We discussed some of the previous year’s work, including the company’s dance drama, Sita Haran, as well as the the Parampara Series of traditional Kathak solos, which were performed throughout the year. These interviews, coupled with my own participation in Chhandam classes, provided a glimpse into this dynamic learning process.

What emerged in my discussion with the company members is that each dancer has her own unique relationship with Das that provides the base of her learning. This path in the art form is at once a journey guided by both Das and by the dancer, creating a precarious balance between the guru’s direction and self-exploration in the dance. Dancer Rachna Nivas commented on this dynamic, “He pushes you to go out on your own, and then reels you back in to make sure that you’re staying on the right path. And I think that is the very difficult job of a guru because you don’t want to be spoon-feeding your disciples, you want them to be empowered, but you want to keep them on path. That is what he is constantly doing, creating that dynamic of push and pull.”

The Parampara Series provided a platform for most of the company dancers to perform their first traditional kathak solo—an event that is exemplary of this dynamic between teacher and student. The Kathak solo generally requires the dancer to perform for two hours with live musicians, executing challenging rhythmic compositions, complete with lightening fast footwork, chakkars, and storytelling, while embodying grace and beauty. Improvisation and risk-taking are inherent to the Kathak solo and keep the audience on the edge of their seats. The first solo is also the one and only time that Das will be present on stage with the soloist. Yasmeen Shaikh recounted her first solo, where her guru requested that she repeat a rhythmic composition she had executed slightly off the set rhythmic cycle (a small error that very few would have noticed, yet her guru would not let her off so easy). Shaikh explained that, “On one hand, you feel totally supported [with him on stage] but he also pushes you. If he feels the laya (tempo) is too slow, or if you don’t execute the right rhythm, you must do it again. Or if he just wants to say, ‘Okay, do 108 chakkars you do it. So essentially, he becomes like the conductor in that situation. Now, he will also sense if the laya is fast and he will control that for you. But you know, he won’t let you get comfortable.” It is the guru’s job to push his students and disciples into unchartered and often uncomfortable territory, on and off the stage. It is in these zones of discomfort that we often have the greatest insights into our learning.

This same dynamic between Das and his disciples was evident in the creation of Sita Haran, the dance drama presented by the all-female Chhandam cast in September 2009 (which also toured in India in early 2010) that focused on one section of the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana.

After assigning characters and providing some initial direction, Das departed for his performing and teaching tour in India, leaving the company with the task of “working it out for yourself.” He had given them ample guidance (some have studied up to 20 years under Das), music samples, and had set parameters around what was to happen—but there was a lot left up to the dancers. Rina Mehta commented on her experiences of the production that year, “It is not that he is totally hands off, but there is a difference with this production. He tells you what he wants, and gives you some direction, but then you have to figure out everything in between. For example, there were several pieces of new music that he sent over from India while he was there, and he didn’t tell us what to do. Rather, he said “Do it and show me.” And for myself, I wondered what he was talking about. I began thinking, “What am I supposed to do?” In my experience, up until that point, he had always told me exactly what to do.” This was to be part of the journey. Working closely with the music, armed with stacks of historical references on the Ramayana, and utilizing the knowledge gained from years of training, the company dancers set off on the task of trying to understand, embody and bring to life their assigned characters.

Upon Das’ return to San Francisco after a long summer of performing and teaching throughout India, he saw the result of the company’s endeavours. What ensued during subsequent rehearsals was a wonderful dance between Das and his students and disciples. During these rehearsals, company members would dance, revealing their own work, as Das watched intently from the side. He would walk around the space as they performed, viewing the scene from many different angles, pausing, contemplating, moving to the front, sitting, getting up. One could see the wheels of a master artist churning. Suddenly he would begin dancing—he would become the character when his students were struggling to do so. Immediately all the dancers would jump to get the best view of his expression. Seibi Lee, a senior company dancer, recounts a rehearsal in which Das portrayed Marich, one of the characters she was playing. “He danced in a very different way than I had danced and he said, ‘It’s not that I would change what you are doing. This might be the way that I would do it.’ So he gave me some direction but basically he did not want to say, ‘Okay, do this, walk five steps here and do this, turn around and then do this.’ At this point in his career and in ours he is more hands-off than he was before. He wants people to figure it out themselves. But in terms of the feeling of each scene, he does want to create the feeling for us.”

Das’s own evocations and emotional renderings of the characters in Sita Haran are the source of inspiration for all his dancers. But as I watched Das play many of the characters throughout the rehearsals, I saw that it was less about the dancers doing as he did, for in fact, every time he danced a role in a scene it was very different. It was more about creating an experience or sparking a feeling that exemplified what that scene should convey. The task was then to find that feeling within oneself in order to re-create the rasa (mood) during the performance. Occasionally, he informed the dancers that certain gestures were or were not appropriate at certain places in the narration, but more often, he instructed his students to ‘listen to the music, feel the music,’ which was a musical score he composed for the production. And by creating the opportunity for them to experience the rasa, he guided them into their characters in a way that also left ample room for a very personal and genuine interpretation of that role. And in this unique way, Sita Haran was created, an artistic masterpiece that is deeply rooted in the complexities and richness of the guru-disciple relationship.

As we look to the future of the school and the company at this 30-year juncture, we find a new generation of highly trained kathakas, all of whom have studied intensively under Pandit Chitresh Das, ready to embark on their own professional careers. The Chhandam School of Kathak is bursting at the seams with close to 500 students in the San Francisco Bay Area alone, and with satellite schools in Los Angeles, Boston, and India. The Chitresh Das Dance Company is on the verge of an important transition. Though they continue to work as an ensemble, each of these dancers also is beginning to carve their own niche as a solo artist. And of course there is, behind it all, Chitresh Das himself, who at the age of 65 is quicker and fiercer than ever, showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Although a 30-year anniversary is nothing to scoff at, Das is hardly stopping to take a look back. Rather, he is looking to the path that lies ahead. Das always says to his students, “The moment you walk off the stage, it’s history.” The question that always follows is, “So now what?”

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of In Dance.

Monica Dalidowicz began training under Pandit Chitresh Das while studying abroad in Kolkata in 2004. In 2008 she moved from Canada to California to continue her study under Pandit-ji. She is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and dance at Macquarie University (Australia) and is researching methods of training within classical Indian dance in India and its diaspora.