Upaj (Improvisation) of Life Captured on Film

By Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

March 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Having personally witnessed the development of Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith’s relationship on and off the stage, I was thrilled when the announcement of a documentary to capture their relationship was in the works. In the field of traditional dance, it is imperative to look to others that have made deep commitments to their respective forms and have simultaneously found ways to collaborate with artists of other forms. The film highlights how Pandit Das and Jason’s collaboration continue to be an example of the power art has to transform the lives of those practicing it as well as those who are touched by it.

Pictured: Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith Photo by Antara Bhardwaj
Pictured: Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith
Photo by Antara Bhardwaj

A virtuosic master Kathak dancer, Pandit Chitresh Das is one of the most dynamic and far-reaching artists to have emerged from Modern India. A choreographer, composer and director, Das has developed compelling new works that are inventive, yet deeply rooted in tradition. In 2009, Das was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor bestowed on a traditional artist by the U.S. Government. His groundbreaking technique, Kathak Yoga, has been the subject of a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. Chhandam, Das’s institute is one of the largest Indian classical dance institutions in the world, with over 700 students worldwide, and his company, the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC), has toured internationally to great acclaim.

Jason Samuels Smith, performer, choreographer and director, has emerged as a multi-talented leader in Tap. At 15, he was cast as an understudy to the leading role in Tony Award Winning Broadway show Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. He received the 2009 Dance Magazine Award and won both an Emmy and American Choreography Award for his tribute to the late Gregory Hines at the Jerry Lewis/MDA Telethon.

In 2004, these two artists crossed paths backstage at the American Dance Festival at Duke University during Festival of the Feet, a presentation of Kathak, Flamenco and Tap dance. Pandit Das, almost 60 at the time, performed solo and with his company, and Jason, then only 24, joined two other artists to represent Tap and their various takes on it. Das and Smith were not intended to dance together, but attracted to one another’s artistry, they found each other backstage and almost instantly jumped into an impromptu jam session. This was the initiation of an unforeseen relationship—artistically, culturally and generationally—kindled by what seemed to be a chance meeting. To the scores of people who have witnessed it on and off the stage, however, it was kismet.

Determined to work together again, Pandit Das and Smith developed India Jazz Suites (IJS). Premiered in San Francisco in 2005, it was selected as the #1 Dance Performance of the year by the SF Chronicle, and won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Best Ensemble Performance in 2007. Known for its essence of upaj (a Hindi word meaning improvisation), the performance is an incredible blast of speed and power, grace and beauty, epic storytelling and the pure joy of dance, complete with musical accompaniment of North Indian classical and Jazz musicians. Fast-forward to 2013, IJS has toured to over 40 cities world-wide with no plans to stop anytime soon. In fact, they’re taking the collaboration to another kind of stage—the big screen.

An idea brought to life by the Center for Asian American Media, Upaj: Improvise is a documentary about an unlikely duo who have formed a deep bond with dance as their medium. In this film, we see an unusual and unexpected friendship develop, and witness both artists persevering to preserve their traditional heritage in today’s pop culture world—an issue that many artists, specifically those from traditional forms, are faced with. “Upaj: Improvise, is not about dance. It is about two dancers,“ says the film’s Producer and Founder of HINDIPENDENT FILMS (and CDDC member), Antara Bhardwaj. The power of the film is in watching the relationship between Das and Smith unfold, deepen and continue to evolve.

“I’ve done a lot of research on fusion and this [IJS] isn’t it. It’s a search for and the finding of common ground where the artists can talk to each other. It’s very smart. The art forms aren’t changing each other, they’re broadening the palettes. On the one hand, you want to change with the times and with people, but you don’t want to compromise who you are or what you do. I think the film captures growth on the part of the artists, but it’s uncompromising growth. And that’s very beautiful,“ says Hoku Uchiyama, the film’s Director.

On March 2, 2013, Upaj: Improvise will showcase at CDDC’s Annual Gala at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, including a performance by Das and Smith, and Q&A with the film’s stars, director and producers of the film. Plans for the film to be screened at various festivals around the world, as well as the possibility of airing on PBS, are also in the works.

Pandit Das and Smith graciously took the time to talk about their involvement in Upaj: Improvise, their relationship, and the convergence of Tap and Kathak.

Shaikh: In the film we are presented with ancient Indian and modern American traditions. Can you talk about the cultural nuances in the dance forms and how you addressed them as you started working with each other?

Das: The two forms are poles apart. The sounds I make, are with my bare feet and ghungroos (ankle bells), while Jason’s sounds come from the tap shoes. However, it stems from both the mind and body as we move together. Jason is extremely open and very alert. He sometimes prides himself by saying that he is the boy from the “hood” and perhaps that is what makes him alert, but it is also naturally ingrained in him. So it helps him on stage when we perform, because we improvise a lot. The hoofer style he comes from also has improvisation at its heart—as much as in Kathak. Improvisation is the key ingredient in our collaboration. Because he and I both come from the tradition of heavy upaj, it works. We are not really thinking of technique at that time, we just go and produce sounds and rhythms that are similar.

Smith: We started out wanting to create a vibe and energy from our interaction on stage; creating something new each time. That’s what’s truly inspiring about our production, and as IJS has developed, so has our relationship. It’s given us experience, let us get more comfortable with each other as artists, and speak to each other on that artistic level. It gets more and more interesting every time we do the performance and is a constant surprise for the both of us. No two performances are ever the same. We challenge each other as artists on stage and that has definitely brought us closer off stage.

Shaikh: How did you navigate the cultural and generational differences on and off stage?

Smith: I should first say that my introduction to Chitresh Das and his company was my first introduction to the classical Indian arts as a whole. Even though I grew up in New York, which is so culturally diverse, I wasn’t introduced to Indian culture on that level until I participated in the Festival of the Feet at the American Dance Festival. Since, I’ve definitely noticed a lot of differences in culture, tradition, etiquette, etc. I learned about a lot of those cultural nuances on my first trip to India in 2007. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I had to humble myself in the process. I had to have an open mind to take all of that in. And that touches on the theme of the documentary; the word ‘upaj’ literally means ‘improvisation.’ Improvising requires being open-minded and being able to adapt to numerous situations.

Das: To me, Jason is like a younger [version of] me, and he learns more and more about Indian culture, by going to India than just dancing with me. He too has educated me about the African-American culture, jazz culture and jazz dancers like Peg Legg and many other great jazz artists.

I am like his uncle, his friend, his rival—everything put together. Our energy together is the binding force. When we dance we don’t think about age, culture, or anything else.

Many of my friends tell me that I should act my age. But what is that? I don’t know. My energy says one thing, and I have to act another…yeah I may look old—but so what?

Shaikh: In your mind what is this film about and what would you like people to take away after watching the film?

Smith: As Chitresh Das says, “Life is upaj.” It’s all about being in the moment and not planning too far ahead, because you never know what’s going to happen. So the more open minded you are the better off you’ll be.

Das: I read a description of the film that says it breaks all the barriers of race, culture, and age. What does that mean? It means that through dance we are trying to bring peace and harmony in the world. That is the message.

Our collaboration is Indo-American. Those who are not Indians or American should also take pride because it is not just Indian culture or American culture, but it is world culture.

Additional contributors: Shruti Iyer, Poonam Narkar, Rupal Shah


Farah Yasmeen Shaikh is an internationally touring Kathak artist and Founder and Artistic Director of Noorani Dance. A former member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Farah was trained for two decades by the late Pandit Chitresh Das. Farah now performs her own traditional and innovative works, most notably, 'The Twentieth Wife' based on the novel by author Indu Sundaresan. Farah is currently touring her follow up to this performance, 'The Forgotten Empress,' focused on the life of Mughal Empress Noor Jahan, with support from the New England Foundation for the Arts. Working extensively in Pakistan, Farah performs and teaches throughout the country. Farah’s newest production is based on the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition, set to premiere in 2018 in San Francisco. Farah has been a guest choreographer for the World Dance Program at Alvin Ailey Extension and is currently a consulting choreographer for the world premiere musical of 'Monsoon Wedding' at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and for an upcoming film, 'Forbidden Steps.'

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