Letters from India: Chhandam Chritesh Das Dance Company's 2010 Tour


ACTA - Posted on 11 February 2010

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Editor's Note: Rina Mehta (Los Angeles) is a participant in ACTA's Apprenticeship Program as an apprentice to Kathak virtuoso Chitresh Das (San Rafael).  Her following account reflects on a series of performances which were part of a tour in winter 2010 to India with Das and his company, Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company. Her visit to India and studies and observance of Das during this time formed an instrumental component of her studies with Das both in California and India during the course of her apprenticeship.  The apprenticeship will culminate in Mehta's full evening solo concert in Los Angeles, May 2010 under Das's direction.

Pandit Chitresh Das performs a traditional kathak solo at Kolkata's premier Indian classical arts institution, the Sangeet Research AcademyI arrived in India without any preconceived notions or expectations of the trip and the tour.  Anyone that has traveled to India will understand that India demands this of all its natives and visitors.  The country, as is observed by many, is a mysterious entity with a rhyme, rhythm, and reason of its own.  Some say that India’s natural state is one of chaos and standing in the streets of Kolkata or Mumbai, this truth becomes self-evident.  Buses, trucks decorated in multi-color, hand-drawn and motored rickshaws, pedestrians of all ages, and the occasional cow or dog crowd the streets.  There is a firm belief embedded in the consciousness of the people of India that one’s destiny and the fate of the world reside in powers beyond. In English we say, “I am late” or “I was late”.  The same phrase in Hindi or any Indian language is said as “Lateness happened to me.”  So, stepping off the plane at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport in Kolkata, I chose to leave behind any preconceived ways of being and doing and submit to the laws of the India.

My training in India began the day after I arrived.  Guruji (as we refer to Pt. Das) was scheduled for a performance of the traditional Kathak solo at the Sangeet Research Academy (SRA), one of India’s foremost classical arts institutions.  With many of India’s greatest artists sitting in the front row – from the great vocalist Smt. Girija Devi to the renowned percussionist Pt. Shankar Ghosh – and an audience of some-800 (including music lovers, critics, students, and Kolkata’s social and cultural elite), Pt. Das delivered a riveting performance of his famed traditional Kathak solo.  The performance was replete with thrills such as a thaat delivered in a 12 ½ beat rhythmic cycle (newly created by Pt. Das just a few days prior to the performances), his celebrated train (innovations of the Gurus), and a brief special appearance by tap star, Jason Samuels Smith.

The performance was an unparalleled experience and my education was in the context and the details.  Like many performances, this one was outdoors with a man-made stage and a tent set up on the lawn for the audience.  During the sound check I made several observations. Any performer on that stage had to compete with the sounds of the India – horns honking, children on the streets.  The stage itself was made of raw wood and unstable, posing some serious dangers to Kathak’s bare feet and pirouettes.  These details became irrelevant once Guruji took stage but I continued to ponder how it was that he delivered such an effortless performance despite these challenges.  Then there were the risks he took on stage. A 12 ½ beat rhythmic cycle in the style of dhamaar (a 14 beat rhythmic cycle is a risky proposition in and of itself).  Add to that the dynamics of live performance – improvisation, an orchestra of four classical musicians, and an audience of percussionists and classical music exponents – and you have life on the edge of a cliff. As the concert came to a close, the audience leapt to their feet offering Guruji a standing ovation, which are extremely rare at classical concerts.

Guruji’s performance at the Sangeet Research Academy set the stage for my training in India.  Rehearsals for Sita Haran began the next day.  Having premiered in San Francisco in September, the production was now making its Indian premiere in Kolkata’s famed Birla Sabhaghar with an expanded international cast featuring Guruji’s students from Canada & India.  The show, a controversial and refreshing take on India’s great epic the Ramayana, went live after three full days of rehearsals to Kolkata audiences.

Early next morning we traveled to Mumbai and rehearsals began once again – this time for Shabd, Pt. Das’ critically acclaimed work featuring his new, groundbreaking technique Kathak Yoga.  Shabd would premiere in three cities across India (Mumbai, Pune & Bangalore) as the opening act for India Jazz Suites – Pt. Das’ phenomenal collaboration with tap star Jason Samuels Smith.

The concrete floors (characteristic of India) and Mumbai’s humidity were unfamiliar to bodies accustomed to practicing, rehearsing, and dancing in San Francisco.  After four days of rehearsing we went on stage at Mumbai’s prestigious TATA Theatre/National Centre for the Performing Arts.  The diverse audience greeted us with reserved curiosity.  As Shabd concluded, it was clear we had warmed up the crowd for the headlining performance of India Jazz Suites.

Pandit Chitresh Das & Jason Samuels Smith at their sound check for the performance of India Jazz Suites at the Shaniwarwada Festival in Pune, IndiaI changed quickly and settled into the audience for the show.  For 90 minutes the audience was captured in rapt attention and as the show moved – from Pt. Das’ solo to Jason’s jugalbandi with the Indian percussionist to Pt. Das’ & Jason’s climactic finale – the audience moved with it, almost consuming every foot stomp, pirouette, heel-toe.  For me, the show’s highlight was when, after the standing ovation and bows, Pandit Das asked the audience “People say the classical dance is boring.  Do you think classical dance is boring?” The audience screamed back a resounding “NO!”  We left Mumbai early the next morning, our bodies still charged with adrenaline from the performance of the previous night.

A five-hour bus ride later we were in Pune, the city of Chatrapati Shivaji (India’s great warrior against the Mogul invaders).  We arrived at the performance venue, with the afternoon sun bearing down on us.  We would be performing at the Shaniwarwada Festival – an annual dance festival that takes place at Shaniwarwada, a grand palace fort constructed in the early 1700’s as the seat of the Peshwas (the prime ministers of the Maratha empire).  I would have my opportunity to dance on a man-made stage and compete with the sounds of India as Guruji did at the Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata.  We would dance outdoor, in the fort’s main courtyard with the grand palace front as our backdrop and a monument of Chatrapati Shivaji ahead. That night’s performance, inspired by the grandeur of the place, felt larger than life.  An audience of over 1,500 prepared themselves for a classical concert, as the show was about to begin.  Women and men wrapped themselves in shawls, relaxed into their seats and the mood sobered.  Soon enough the same audience found themselves on the edges of their seats, shawls forgotten, cheering, “oooooh-ing”, applauding, and screaming – a sight unheard of according to the organizers of the festival.

The Chitresh Das Dance Company performing Shabd, featuring the innovative technique of Kathak Yoga, at the Bangalore Club in Bangalore, IndiaThe next morning we flew to Bangalore in South India for our third and final performance.  Our first time in South India the Bangalore performance was a perfect ending to our tour.  Despite potentially debilitating technical difficulties, the performance brought audiences to their feet for a third time.

On the plane ride back to the United States, physically exhausted and spiritually renewed, I reflected on the tour.  What I learned for myself as a dancer and performer was the importance of upaj and riyaz– two words Guruji often says in class.  The importance of these words sank in as the trip settled into my body and consciousness.  The tour in India was replete with unpredictable circumstances – outdoor stages, limited sound & production capacity, limited rehearsal time and space, changes in musicians, and so forth. These challenges along with the demands of travel easily deplete one-half to two-thirds of a performer’s energy.  Watching Guruji perform as a soloist and with Jason (who is 30 years his junior) effortlessly and having to perform myself despite these challenges reinforced for me the importance of upaj – the ability to improvise or adjust one’s performance, choreography, etc. to the particulars of each performance setting – and riyaz – intense daily practice with hard work and effort, for it is only such practice that can sustain you and enable you rise and perform despite the challenges of a particular performance setting.

Rina Mehta in performance in Shabd -- featuring the innovative technique of Kathak Yoga -- at Mumbai's prestigious Tata Theatre at the National Centre for Performing Arts.What I learned for myself as an emerging practitioner of Kathak, a teacher, and an advocate for the arts is that there is a profound need for tradition in modern times and that tradition, history, and identity are inextricably linked. In post-colonial India, cultural colonization continues.  Privatization, commercialization, the advent of Bollywood, and pop culture are rampant.  Print and television advertisements now feature Hinglish – half Hindi & half English.  Models featured in advertisements no longer adorn sarees but wear Western attire and their features are increasingly Anglicized.  America’s throwaway bands of the 1980’s draw greater audiences than some of India’s finest musicians. India’s car industry is booming with new highways and flyovers being built left and right.  And so pollution worsens and India’s carbon footprint grows. Classical is thought of as boring and Traditional is thought of as archaic.

As I observed this “modern India,” I was reminded of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in which he talks about the effects of colonial subjugation on humanity.  This subjugation continues today in India, much more insidious.  And though I have faith that the soul of India shall remain – ever present, it is harder and harder to discern and one senses amongst the people of India a quiet and masked sense of loss, self-hatred, and confusion. 

Pt. Das and the Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company harkened the ancient and deep traditions of India and placed them squarely and proudly in modern times. And it seemed to me as I watched Indians leap to standing ovations, and scramble and mob after Guruji that he and Chitresh Das Dance Company, through Kathak, helped Indians reclaim a part of themselves that they are losing. 

So I return from India with a new perspective and a sense of urgency – to deepen and further my study of Kathak Dance and India’s history and philosophy under Pt. Chitresh Das.

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