A Legacy of Innovation Within Tradition: Talking About Creating New Work with Celine Schein and Rachna Nivas

By Rob Taylor


I am in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco visiting the administrative offices of the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC) and Chhandam School of Kathak, founded by dancer, choreographer and composer, Pandit Chitresh Das. Pandit Das has been a major figure in Bay Area dance since the 1970s, when he emigrated from India to teach and perform Kathak dance. This is one of the several forms of Indian classical dance, and is partially characterized by complex rhythms and dynamic footwork, and improvisations within that framework. Although it is traditionally used to tell stories from the great classical works of Indian literature, it can also be used to perform abstract, rhythmically focused dances, such as Kathak Yoga, created by Pandit Das and discussed below.

Chitresh Das regularly performs and creates new work. He tours frequently with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, is currently working on a new collaborative piece with a Flamenco artist, and continues to create new productions for his company. He has turned down many other performance opportunities to spend significant time nurturing the Chhandam school of Kathak—which has 500 students in nine California locations, in addition to two centers in India.

Pictured: Chitresh Das Dance Company Photo by Edward Casati
Pictured: Chitresh Das Dance Company
Photo by Edward Casati

But today I have come to the office not to speak with Pandit Das, but with Celine Schein, long-time Executive Director of CDDC and the Chhandam School, and Rachna Nivas, a principal dancer in CDDC and co-director of the Chhandam School of Kathak. In particular, I am here to discuss some of the innovations Pandit Das has brought to Kathak, the challenges of presenting traditional work to non-traditional audiences, and the way young dancers and choreographers are able to fully realize their personal artistic visions within the domain of tradition.

Rachna is one of those young dancers. She has studied with Kathak since 1998, and is a pioneer in practicing and performing Kathak Yoga, an innovation of Pandit Das which began as a form of practice to empower the dancer to become one’s own musician, and develop a deeper relationship with the music.

Rachna begins by describing for me how the Indian classical music system is cyclical, rather than linear. In Kathak Yoga “the dancer sings those cyclical rhythms, and overlays them with rhythms created by our feet and our bodies. These are often opposing rhythms, and to do those two things is quite difficult, because the mind wants to follow the rhythms you’re dancing.”

That in itself sounds painfully difficult to do for any sustained length of time, but on top of this the dancers are also simultaneously playing music, using a harmonium or manjira (finger cymbals).

What began as a form of practice has developed into performance. The phenomenal artistry and technique on display in such work is important, and Celine explains that more than the feat of accomplishment, the purpose is in the energy that is created from the performance. “Because the dancer is accessing these different aspects of voice, of rhythm, of feet, of vibration, they are creating an energy that is greater than the sum of their parts.”

Of course I have the benefit of having Celine and Rachna explain to me how this dance is innovative, putting different parts of Kathak traditions together in ways to create something new. Audiences knowledgeable in Kathak tradition also have a frame of reference to recognize the innovation. But what about audiences who don’t have that frame of reference?

“The way we provide a reference is by showing the tradition within the performance…to present a selection that provides context,” Celine tells me. “It’s a challenge because you can’t show everything in one setting. Traditional Kathak is a solo performance running two to three hours. So that’s not happening…”

Attempting to provide these points of reference for audiences (and funders) must be frustrating, especially when the intended recipients remain obtuse, but Celine understands the challenge: “We are in the U.S., so people’s point of reference is typically going to be dominant, white, WASP culture. Then, in terms of dance, people are going to see things from a ballet and modern dance point of reference. That’s the dominant culture in terms of dance.”

“You also have to recognize that it is a huge challenge for people. To be fair, going from American, Western, white culture to the cultures of the rest of the world—it’s a huge learning curve.”

If that’s the first step, what comes next? Citing Pandit Das, she puts some responsibility on the artist to help inform the audience.

“Ultimately it comes down to advocacy. Pandit Das trains his students to be advocates. He encourages them to get out there and speak up on behalf of their art form.”

“Fortunately within the context of the art form’s tradition, you can talk (directly to the audience). So on stage you can talk as a storyteller, and he’s (Pandit Das) always used that. Critics have written that he’s giving a lecture-demonstration, but in Indian classical art there’s no fourth wall. You have audience response, you have dialogue with the audience, and the artist speaks to the audience to bring them into the world of the piece. It’s considered part of the artistry. Having said all of this, people in the dance field (including artists, administrators, funders, media, presenters, etc.) do really need to make an effort to get out and connect with the diverse dance communities.”

Rachna adds that “there’s a lot of talk in the dance world about audience engagement. It’s this buzz word. I spoke on a panel at a Wallace Foundation event about this kind of dialogue between artist and audience, and how it’s not something new but has been happening for hundreds of years within this art form.”

“Pandit Das used to tell us that audience is god. What that really means is that the artist provides a service. You are getting up and sharing your art form and if you can’t find a way for the audience to relate to what you’re doing, then you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, as part of the art form. That is a very foreign thing for most people to hear.”

As a Kathak artist who has studied with Pandit Das for 15 years, Rachna says she has reached “the time to go out and experiment with the training I’ve received—to create new work completely on my own. It’s kind of scary, but important aspect of my journey.”

The need to sustain the tradition is paramount in Rachna’s mind: “I take it as a huge responsibility, both as an Indian and as an Indian-American. As an Indian, it’s important because the tradition is struggling to stay alive in India, which is why I go back there to teach.”

“As an Indian-American, it’s important to establish our Indian art and culture here, and to keep it alive here for many generations. I don’t see it as mine, but as a jewel I need to keep in order to pass it on.”

Celine clarifies that although Kathak is still popular in India, it has been “watered down.” Kathak requires incredible dedication and long training to learn the framework of the dance, in order to improvise—a core component of the form. Celine states, “Most people (practicing Kathak) don’t even know the tradition of improvisation.” Instead, they learn choreographed Kathak dance and end there. Pandit Das is “one of the only masters teaching the depth of knowledge necessary to do that, so that his dancers have the knowledge to improvise a solo.”

I mention that it seems as if many of the primary dancers in the company have been creating original work outside of the domain of the company, and Celine tells me this is encouraged. I ask Rachna if she can speak about some of the original work she’s working on herself.

She tells me that while Kathak storytelling dances adapted from India’s epic poems often feature strong women, those stories typically depict women in the traditional roles defined by patriarchy. Rachna wants to use Kathak to tell a story of a woman who was a hero in a non-traditional role. She’s found one in the story of Jhansi Ki Rani, who was a leader in the Indian rebellion against their British colonizers in 1857.

“The challenge is for me (Rachna) to do what he (Pandit Das) has always done—make something out of history relevant for a contemporary audience.”

That relevancy for Rachna’s work may come from a re-vitalized feminist movement in India, born out of the response to the gang rape on a bus in New Delhi several months ago. “It’s really interesting to explore this story right now not only for Indians, but for everyone to show that these kinds of stories do exist in India’s history.”
As she begins to set out on her own creative journey within Kathak, I ask Rachna if she thinks there’s a wall to innovation within tradition.

“It isn’t that there’s a single line…after reaching a certain depth of learning you don’t need to go outside because there’s so much within the traditions—you can innovate within the structure of the system.”

With some more poetry Rachna adds, “The deeper you go into the tradition, the ocean is revealed. But you can only see the ocean after a while, after you’ve put in your dues and not taken any shortcuts. It’s in this ocean that you can begin to innovate.”

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of In Dance.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.