Dancing Rivers

By Charlotte Moraga

January 17, 2023, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Shruti Pai from Chitresh Das Dance faces forward in “Sangam” from “Invoking the River”

Photo by Ravi Kohli
[ID: Four female dancers of South Asian descent stand in a column with only one dancer fully visible to the camera. All four have one arm raised and one arm across their body. Cool colors mimic the river.]

Like a River

First and foremost, I identify as a mother. Second and foremost, I identify as a dancer. I always have, even before I could name it. I remember standing in my front yard as a small child in Miami, Florida, throwing my head back and twirling, staring at the clouds spinning until they swirled into a frothy milkshake and collapsing in the warm tickly grass completely spent and satisfied with being. Those moments of being fully alive were almost only found in dance. And also in nature. Growing up in Miami I spent many weekends in the Everglades. Known as the “river of grass,” it teems with life. That connection to nature informs how I live, how I move, how I mother, and how I create dances to a great extent.

How I make dances is also influenced by my connection to Kathak. I had been a professional dancer on the East Coast. And when I moved to San Francisco, I went back to college to get a teaching credential. I needed PE credits, so I wanted to enroll in Rosa Montoya’s flamenco class. It was full, so I enrolled in Kathak but I had no idea it was Classical Indian Dance. It blew my mind. The instructor blew my mind. I had danced my whole life, but it wasn’t until I met my Guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das, in 1992 that I serendipitously found my calling.

My Guruji was Bengali (although he referred to himself as a Bengali-Rajput-Californian) and like most Bengalis, he worshiped Maa (mother). He was a brilliant and one-of-a-kind artist and guru (a profound mentor). Nowadays, the word guru often has a negative connotation, or at best is misunderstood. I use this word in the traditional sense, in relation to the guru shishya parampara, which is the traditional way of transmitting the art form of Kathak dance. For 20 years I danced as a soloist and a principal dancer in his creative works. One thing my Guruji always talked about: “I lay the stepping stones and one day I will bow down and you will step onto my back and cross the river.” I come from an unbroken line of guru shishya parampara tradition. Like a river, the knowledge flows from one generation to the next.


Chitresh Das Institute's Mayuka Sarukkai, Kritika Sharma, and Tabla player Nilan Chaudhuri in “Origin” from “Invoking the River”
Photo by Ravi Kohli
[ID: Two female dancers of South Asian descent, Mayuka in the foreground and Kritika facing away in background. Both have one arm raised above shoulder level and one arm in front of them. One male tabla player of South Asian descent is seated. Cool colors mimic the river from Chitresh Das Institute’s Invoking the River.]

In December 2015, I gave his two little girls, Shivaranjani and Saadhvi, a book about a famous tree hugger, Amrita Devi Bishnoi. The book described the 1730 (Khejarli) massacre of 363 Bishnoi villagers who hugged the trees to keep them from being felled by the Maharaja’s men. It didn’t work. They were chopped down with the trees. My Guruji loved the story and said it was going to be our next school show and I was going to choreograph it. That didn’t happen because he passed away suddenly a few weeks later. But the seed was planted. I had already been choreographing small bits and pieces for Chitresh Das Dance Company, works such as Pancha Jati (2002 and 2014), whole scenes in Sita Haran (2009) and Shabd (2010), Yatra (2015), and Shiva (2016) to name a few. I kept thinking about that story.

Three years later, in 2018, 150 dancers performed Aranya Katha (story of the trees) on the stage in the Chitresh Das Institute’s (CDI) annual school show. (CDI holds annual school shows which include performers from beginning to advanced level students, ages 6-60. Generally, CDI produces two shows a year, our spring school show and our fall home season. The spring shows lay the groundwork for our fall home season productions). My next work Mantram was to focus on the Maha Pancha Bhuta (the five elements) and how the elements are affected by climate change. The year was 2020 and we got shut down, shut up, and shut in. The fires that raged politically, socially, emotionally and quite literally throughout California consumed me and Mantram became very fire forward. The work was performed for the first time in our fall home season 2021.

Now it was time for the antidote: water. We started with trees that hold Earth, unleashed Wind and Fire, and now it was time for Water to soothe, to cleanse, to rebirth us.


Vanita Mundhra in “Ganga” from Chitresh Das’ “Invoking the River”
Photo by Ravi Kohli
[ID: Vanita Mundhra, a dancer of South Asian descent, wears saffron orange. She kneels with arms outstretched in a meditative hastak (hand position) with her eyes closed.]

On one of our tours, back in the late ‘90s, we performed in the Indian city of Agra. The day after, our hosts took us to see the iconic Taj Mahal, which is situated on the banks of the Jamuna river. I had been dancing along the banks of the Jamuna since my first Kathak class, in my imagination. We were taught to dance a poem, a kavita, “Jamuna ke tat par nacheta Kanhaiya….” which translates to “Lord Krishna playing his flute by the banks of the Jamuna.” What I saw wasn’t my Jamuna. It was dried up. Didn’t flow. You could walk across it without getting your ankles wet but you wouldn’t want to. It looked muddy and lifeless. Plastic bags littered the shore rather than the lotus flowers we show with a flurry of wrist movements and fingers unfurling. In our dance, or in my imagination, these banks were always green and lush with flowers and fragrance, animals and teeming with life. Seeds were planted for the work I wanted to create in the future.

I started researching. I found lots of pictures online of Jamuna, travel shots with gorgeous sunsets, and then poison: shots of monumental pollution; diaphanous clouds of white foam from toxic chemicals; untreated sewage; agricultural and industrial runoff. It was not difficult to accept the dissonance between the reality of the polluted Jamuna and the dances of Radha and Krishna along the pastoral banks of the Jamuna of our mythology because of the story of Kaliya, an evil demon who pollutes the river. This is an ancient story from the puranas, but the metaphor is pertinent and powerful today. Krishna, our hero, of course defeats the demon. So all ends well. It made me wonder. Was there ever a time of pristine pastoral bliss?

One of the things I learned from my Guruji is that there are so many layers to everything. It is one of the things, I believe, that is so misunderstood about Kathak dance specifically, and traditional art forms in general. He was such a special artist in part because he was able to honor and celebrate the tradition while simultaneously questioning it and pushing the boundaries of the artform. He was an unabashed Kathak and Indian classical art advocate, but questioned sexism, casteism, ageism, and many other isms within the art and within the culture. This questioning approach to the stories is something that is fundamental to making them meaningful and relevant to our lives in this day and age. I don’t know if many gurus encourage questioning like this, but he never ended a class without saying “Three questions asked” (meaning, “Ask me three questions”). I think this was essential to his teachings.

Invoking the River

Shruti Pai in “Godavari” from the Chitresh Das Institute's “Invoking the River.”
Photo by Ravi Kohli
[ID: Shruti Pai, a female dancer of South Asian descent, wears a blue and gold silk costume. She kneels downstage with a white head scarf covering her hair and has arms outstretched as if beseeching with a dramatic expression of sadness or grief.]

The seeds had taken root. With climate change becoming palpable in the most striking and sometimes horrific ways–floods and drought, fires and storms, devastating weather patterns that displace peoples and cultures–I feel compelled to bring urgency to our need to find balance and harmony with our Mother, and each other. We are all Krishna. And we are all Kaliya. We have to face our own inner demons, and outer ones as well. We have to examine our lives and how our culture of convenience might be the environment in which Kaliya thrives. We have to save ourselves from ourselves. This was the theme of our most recent school show Jamuna ke Tata Par in May 2022.

It is this idea of river as source, of rivers as the veins of our Mother, and this idea of a river of knowledge passed generation to generation, that started me thinking about the many layers of my new Kathak work, Invoking the River, which premiered Fall 2022.


The Ganda Bandhan ceremony is a ritual in which the guru (teacher) officially accepts the Shishya (student) as a disciple, someone who will carry on the legacy. When I tied strings with my Guruji on the banks of the sacred river Ganga at Dakishwara temple in Kolkata in 2002, I didn’t take it lightly. I made a pact: to learn, to teach, to dance, to go deep, and then share it with the world. To pass it on. I see the next generation looking for a way forward but also leading the way forward. They have their own questions and they have their own answers! This work had to be stepping stones on that path for them and with them. So, they became my collaborators. We talked about the sacred rivers of India. The rivers of our imagination. The rivers of our dance. What is happening to water? Who is responsible? What to do?

In India, and indeed many places around the world, rivers are goddesses. The personification of the river is something we are very familiar with and that resonates deeply within us in Kathak dance.

I asked my dancers to imagine they are the river. How would they move? Why would they move? How would they carve through space as the river? Where would they move to and from? And why? Is a river ever still? Starting with these, and many more questions, they carved out a narrative for themselves that was very personal.

One of the dancers had two grandparents pass away in 2020 in India from Covid, so she wanted to put herself in Ganga’s shores as it lapped at the Manikarnika ghats (sacred crematory grounds). She says of the process, “When I took a step back, I realized Invoking the River was about everything washing through me, and everything from the past being within me, as well. It’s super cool to think, ‘This water may have been in me previously.’ So, Invoking the River for me was more about the water than the river itself.” (Visit the CDI blog to read more about their personal experiences.) Utsav Lal’s evocative piano melodies and rhythms became the framework for their respective solos. Alka Raghuram’s immersive poem-films became the Sutradhar (translates literally to “thread-holder,” but roughly as leader of the play), the narrator that tied the stories together. Our creative juices flowed together, like a river.

Their solos were bookended by two group choreographies. The first being a quintessential origin story of how the river goddess Ganga came to Earth. Ganga’s life force was so powerful it would have destroyed the people and land, so, she asked Shiva to catch her in his locks, and thus she flowed down from the heavens.

The last section, Sangam, revolved around the meeting and melding of the rivers who invoke their sister Saraswati. Saraswati–the mythological river and goddess of learning and the arts–is a ripe metaphor for the transmission of knowledge and a path forward. Sangam left us feeling immersed in her waters. Drenched in her beauty, her care, and her wisdom, we may just stay here.

This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of In Dance.

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.