Innovation Within Tradition: Covering the Annual Classical Indian Dance Festival

By Katie Gaydos

October 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

IN TODAY’S FAST-PACED WORLD, the words “classical” and “traditional” in terms of dance are often oversimplified and misinterpreted as “old” or “fixed.” Classical Indian Dance is no exception. Unfortunately for many, the art form’s far-reaching historical, philosophical, and spiritual roots and detail-oriented aesthetic can seem overwhelming and inaccessible. How then does one begin to understand and appreciate such intricate and complex forms of dance?

Visionary director and founder of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and the Chhandam School of Kathak, Pandit Chitresh Das is changing the way people perceive Classical Indian Dance.

Inspired by his own guru, the Kathak master, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra and his parents Nrityacharya Prahlad Das & Srimati Nilima Das, who founded and directed Nritya Bharati, Calcutta, an Indian performing arts epicenter, Pt. Das developed into a performer famous for his lightning fast feet, dynamic facial expressions and innate rhythmic sensibility. More than just an exemplary performer, Pt. Das has been choreographing, teaching, and advocating dance education and awareness in both India and America for more than 40 years. Achieving international acclaim as one of the world’s most prestigious and largest Kathak institutions, his company and school, the Chitresh Das Dance Company and the Chhandam School of Kathak (based in both San Francisco and India) offer dancers the opportunity to train intensely in the art of Kathak.

For those unfamiliar with the art form, Kathak—one of 6 major classical Indian dance forms—derives from the word katha meaning “the art of storytelling” and has two major tenets, dance with meaning (which includes storytelling) and “pure dance” or nritta, which focuses on movement, music, and rhythmic compositions. Traditionally a two- to three-hour solo art form in which a dancer recites poetry, sings, performs, and improvises rhythmic and movement compositions, Kathak boasts one of the world’s most complex rhythmic structures. At times when performing full dance dramas, Kathak dancers must portray multiple characters in a single performance. Few know the extreme discipline, dedication and versatility Kathak dancers must possess as they move through complex gestures, graceful postures, and carefully articulated finger positions.

Aware that with knowledge comes appreciation and understanding, Pt. Das presented Kathak at the Crossroads at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2006—a festival that brought master Kathak performers and scholars from around the world to one stage. But Pt. Das’s vision for Indian Dance extends beyond the art form of Kathak.

This October in celebration of their 30th anniversary, the Chitresh Das Dance Company and the Chhandam School, in partnership with their sister school Chhandam Nritya Bharati in Calcutta, India, will host a classical Indian dance and music festival and open up an international dialogue. The festival and symposium, Traditions Engaged, will grace San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center (October 1-3) and Los Angeles’ REDCAT theater (October 8-10) for two weekends of performances, lectures, demonstrations and discussions by some of the world’s greatest Classical Indian dancers, musicians and teachers.

Now more than ever there is a need to revive Classical Indian Dance. With the rapid modernization and globalization of India, attitudes towards classical dance have drastically changed. The Hindu and Muslim courts that Kathak artists used to perform in either no longer exist or exist in very limited numbers.

“The support system for the arts in India has gone from the patronage from the courts and large landowners to seeking support from corporations. There is hardly any foundation grant funding in India. This is significant because, of course, corporations are about the bottom line, and give very little support to the classical arts. This has had a significant impact on these rich, deep classical traditions. You’ve gone from one-to-one, guru-to-disciple, training to training in large universities and institutions” says Executive Director of the Chitresh Das Dance Company Celine Schein. “You’ve also gone into a world where western culture has really become dominant…In India if you’re not a Bollywood dancer or western pop artist you have a harder time making it as a professional dancer.”

Growing up in India at a time when people were still willing to line up for hours outside auditoriums to see Classical Indian Dance, Pt. Das has experienced first hand the shift in attitude towards Classical Indian art forms. “Nowadays classical dance and music may have more schools and institutions, but people are not studying in depth, and there is no criteria of what people are learning. That’s why the classical audience is dwindling—there’s no criteria,” comments Pt. Das.

How can we revive interest and appreciation for Classical Indian Dance today? What is a modern day guru? Does Classical Indian Dance have relevance in contemporary society? Who does Indian culture belong to? These are among some of the crucial questions that this year’s festival will explore.

In an interview, Pt. Das, touched on some of the festival’s larger themes. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation on improvisation and innovation.

With such intricate choreography and complex rhythm patterns, Kathak appears to have a very specific structure. And yet improvisation plays a major role in the art form? How can a Classical Indian dancer find individual freedom and expression within the form’s classical structure?

Pt. Chitresh Das: Life is full of improvisation. Tell me I’m wrong? You get into the car…and somebody cuts in front of you…you have to improvise how to control the car. From the time you open your eyes, to when you go back to bed, you are improvising. So improvising (upaj), is a part of life. What better way can a dancer learn than to improvise footwork (tatkar), pirouettes (chakkars), and drama (abhinaya) within a rhythmic structure of taal…16 beats, 12 1/2 beats, or 10 beats. One must have tremendous knowledge of tihais (rhythmical pattern that repeats itself three times), math, physical fitness, and imagination. It’s not only challenging but takes years and years of blood, sweat, and tears. And this, perhaps, is the reason many Kathak dancers take a shortcut and join the club called “fusion” and borrow from western, contemporary dance and put it on the stage. They are shifting from the tradition. Classical system is never dead…but it is dead when it does not evolve within the ring fence of tradition. Thus, Kathak is a perfect example of structure and improvisation. Freedom comes with refined discipline and responsibility.

How do you feel about fusing traditional Indian dance with contemporary western dance concepts?

Pt. CD: I believe in taking the best of the West. I look up to people like Mr. Warren Buffet, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Adams, George Washington. I am inspired by so many different things. I see a figure skater spinning extremely fast, and am inspired by that—the sprinting of an Olympic athlete. These are all inspirations that one can incorporate in their dance—the energy. I don’t believe in fusion—collaboration. When I dance with tap star Jason Samuels Smith—there is no dilution of either of our art forms. It’s easy to take a little from here, a little from there. It’s harder to incorporate other aspects within your ring fence of tradition, and it can only be done by people who have enormous knowledge, practice, strength, endurance and a long-term vision. Again, the freedom to innovate, and create comes from refined discipline with responsibility—the responsibility to address the question in your art: what is the legacy that we are leaving behind for our grandchildren?

Perhaps finding the balance between innovation and tradition lies at the heart of all classical and contemporary art. Thus, this year’s Traditions Engaged is not only for those interested specifically in Indian Dance, but for anyone invested in exploring the role of art and artists in contemporary society.

“This festival is really about connecting people through the arts and it’s certainly about developing the art forms and showing incredible performances” says Schein. “But beyond that it’s about connecting people through the arts and deepening not just an understanding of Indian classical art but of the power of dance and of cultural understanding in general.”

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

Katie Gaydos is a freelance dance writer and has contributed to The Daily Californian, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, and Emmaly Wiederholt’s blog Stance On Dance. Katie has been dancing with KUNST-STOFF Dance Company since Fall 2011.