After a highly disciplined childhood, spending up to six hours a day practicing on a cement floor for his very demanding but revered guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, Kathak master Chitresh Das moved from his native Calcutta (by way of a one-year stint in Maryland) to the Bay Area.
The year was 1971. Das had been hired by the Ali Akbar College of Music to teach one of the most ancient arts of India to young countercultural Americans eager to learn Eastern practices.
It was, at the very least, something of a cultural shock — for both sides. "This was the beautiful age of the flower children, the hippie generation," Das remembers. "They were looking toward the East for answers, but I did not fit their idealized image of an Indian guru. Having been schooled in the old-world traditions — to respect and obey my teachers and elders and to assume a secondary stance in their presence — my amused bewilderment at my students' behavior never ceased."
Thirty-five years later Das and his American-born dancers, many of Indian descent, have more than reached harmony. His Chhandam School of Kathak has five Bay Area branches, plus outposts in Boston, Toronto, and Calcutta. The most accomplished of his Chitresh Das Dance Company members is the Floridian Charlotte Moraga, who stumbled into Das's class at San Francisco State University — where he taught for 17 years — because the jazz dance class she wanted was full.
Das's most important contribution to the Bay Area may well be the way he has woven Kathak into the fabric of local dance. Once an exceedingly esoteric art form, born at the Islamic courts of the Mogul Empire in northern India, Kathak now has a home in the Bay Area's more egalitarian environment. In the ’80s, Das's dancers were among the first participants in the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. His company regularly presents him as a solo dancer and as a choreographer of both traditional and unconventional work.
Now in his early 60s, an age at which most Western dancers have long retired from the theater, Das remains a stunning performer and the best advocate for his art. When he is onstage, you cannot take your eyes off him, whether he's moving through the pure dance passages that require dizzying turns and mind-boggling footwork or the more expressive sections in which the dancer calls up a favorite story from the Mahabharata, impersonating all its different characters and sometimes the landscape as well.
Das thinks nothing of transforming a performance into something akin to a lecture demo if his audience will walk away with a better understanding of Kathak's rhythmic intricacies and the vast world of the Hindu mythology in which the art is rooted. A "kathaka," he likes to remind theatergoers, is a storyteller.
In September, Das organized "Kathak at the Crossroads," the largest festival of its kind ever held outside India. The San Francisco event's subtitle, "Innovation within Tradition," could describe Das himself. A fierce traditionalist, he is also explosively freethinking. He embraces the improvisatory interaction between dancer and musician — a connection that takes place within given parameters but is never rehearsed. The way he talks about it, the dancer strives toward a kind of oneness, maybe a divine type of play that is both meditative and intensely joyful. His guru used to tell him to "dance in such a way that the sound of your [ankle] bells and the room become one."
As traditional as Das can be, he is also an innovator. A few years ago he created a new genre of dancing, Kathak yoga, inspired by the ascetic traditions of the Himalayas. It is primarily designed as a spiritual and physical practice. Without music the dancer mentally counts the rhythms, recites and chants the embellishments aloud, and dances the footwork.
As a storytelling choreographer, Das has been a force for change ever since he first performed the clever and amusing The Train as a student at an international East-West dance conference in India. Choreographed by his guru, the piece imitates a train — traveling, speeding up, changing tracks, breaking, passing a railroad station.
Das has created traditional dance dramas (such as Darbar ) but also less traditional ones, such as Impressions of the California Gold Rush (1990), in which a trio of 49ers perform in ankle bells and cowboy outfits.
Sadhana (2001) is a multimedia solo evening about different forms of practice — dance, life, meditation. For his 60th birthday he created the autobiographical Sampurnam (2004) for himself and his company.
But Das's most innovative work has come with practitioners of other dance styles: The Guru (Bharata Natyam, 1991), Sole Music (tap and flamenco, 1986), Sugriya-Subali (Balinese, 2000), and East as Center (Kathakali and Balinese, 2003). His latest exploration in that direction is Jazz Suites, a collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith that grew out of a friendly competition in the hallways of the American Dance Festival in 2004. The duo have been touring the piece around the country and will take it to India this winter.
While Das has been passionate about opening American eyes to the beauty of his art form, he is equally committed to doing the same for Indian audiences. He spends part of every year in Calcutta teaching, performing, and giving workshops. In 2002 he reopened his father's old school, which had trained Kathak dancers in Calcutta even before Indian independence. Last year Das started a training program for the children of Calcutta's sex workers; most recently he gave a lecture demonstration for professional Indian boxers about their connection with the Hindu goddess Kali and the monkey god Hanuman.
Clearly, one lifetime simply may not be enough to contain Chitresh Das, his artistry, his humanity, his passion. (Rita Felciano)