Pandit Chitresh Das, guru to Gretchen Hayden, spent a week in Boston recently, running a series of classes and events for Chhandika’s students. Read all about it here in an India New England article with photos or scroll down for the text below. But first: check out this feature below! (Click on image for link to article.)
April 14th is the birthday anniversary of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan— guru of my husband, George Ruckert. We are remembering him fondly, respectfully and with immense gratitude—for his unique contributions to the world as a brilliant musician; for his untiring dedication as a teacher; for the role he played in establishing Hindustani music in the United States and globally; and for bringing a young Chitresh Das to develop a Kathak dance program at his Ali Akbar College of Music (San Rafael, California) in 1971.
This is the world I entered in 1972, as a young dance student, and where I eventually became a disciple of world-renowned Kathak master Pt. Chitresh Das. On this birthday remembrance in 2014, we reflect on the enormous, far-reaching contributions of these two giant artists over the decades since we first came into their presence. Khansahib may no longer be amongst us, but his music lives on and his teachings are carried forth by his senior disciples—some who began training with him as early as 1966. My Guruji is very much with us—here and globally! And he recently came to a Boston for a weeklong residency, teaching and diligently passing on the Kathak tradition to the next generation of students at the Chhandika Institute of Kathak.
Entering through the back door, I am guided by the richly textured sounds of tabla mingled with singing, recitation, voiced instruction, footwork, and ringing ghungru drifitng through the halls and down the stairs. The sound grows louder as I reach the second floor, opening the door to behold a large room filled with pulsating energy. Swirling and sweating Chhandika students of all ages are being led by Pandit Das, as he alternates from playing driving rhythms on the tabla and dancing in front of the class—all the while reciting and/or speaking to those present. Family and guests are seated in chairs lining the surrounding walls. Exhilaration and intensity fill the air, as one is soon transported to a world all its own!
This was the culminating event of a ten-day artist-in-residence program sponsored by Chhandika Institute of Kathak Dance, as we hosted classes and events with Guruji throughout the week. Those who are familiar with the work of Pandit Das know he is one of the most dynamic and far-reaching artists to have emerged from modern India. A prolific artist, his performance, choreography and dynamic teachings have influenced the evolution of this worldwide art form. Based on his concept of “innovation within tradition,” he continually refines his artistry, while exploring the boundaries of Kathak dance and performance, creating compelling new works and techniques deeply rooted in the traditions of Kathak.
As a committed guru, he has trained many dancers who have gone on to establish their own careers in dance. A few disciples have taken it a step further, establishing kathak institutions in India, Los Angeles, Toronto, and here in Boston—Chhandika. With a group of dedicated students, I founded Chhandika Institute of Kathak Dance in 2002 with the aspiration to pass on the Kathak tradition and Guruji’s teachings in the Boston area. Through dance classes for all ages, community outreach and professional performances, we aim to share this rich Kathak legacy with the wider New England community.
We have hosted Guruji and the Chitresh Das Dance Company in the Boston area since 1995 and began presenting more formal residencies in 2002, when Chhandika became a non-profit organization.
These residencies present Chhandika students the opportunity to study directly with Pandit Das, while at the same time exposing their families and the greater Indian community to his unique approach of using Kathak as a vehicle for self-awareness and for understanding life’s deeper lessons. Indeed, his teachings go far beyond the steps taken on the dance floor. They tap directly into the vein of Indian culture, while incorporating Vedic philosophy, mathematics, history, and yoga.
At the core is a set of guiding principles that have been conveyed to his students ever since he began teaching classes to Westerners in 1971. Over the decades they have been crystallized into the eloquently stated Nine Principles of Chhandam. These span from attitude/ etiquette, systematic training and deep knowledge to devotional practice and selfless service.
Dr. Manju Sheth, a board certified physician at Lahey health, community leader and President of Indian Medical Association of New England 2013, reflected on the far-reaching, holistic nature of the teachings by sharing a personal story with those present at the master class on April 5th.
“As a young child, my sister-in-law Ushma studied Kathak with Pandit-ji’s Guruji, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra in Kolkata . Later in life, my sister-in-law suffered from Rheumatoid arthritis. I believe that the intense training required to learn Kathak teaches you value of discipline and hard work. I also believe that learning dance at an early age is good for your muscles and overall fitness for life,” said Dr. Sheth. “I have always noted that dancers have very strong leg muscles . I think this intense training in childhood and her passion for dancing into her adult life helped my sister-in-law recover faster after her knee replacement surgery for arthritis. In my book, optimum health is best achieved with multiple modalities including dance, yoga and meditation. Dance like other aerobic exercises is also known to release endorphins which helps in stress management, anxiety and depression.”
Dr. Sheth said that her daughter, Shaleen, benefitted immensely from her kathak classes with Gretchen as young child. “On a side note, it was an honor to watch Pandit Chitresh Das conduct a kathak class. It is amazing see how he blends in the traditions of an ancient dance and yet teaches kids in the language that they can identify with including talking about Facebook and other social media . I was extremely impressed. We are very blessed that Panditji makes a yearly trip to meet and teach his students in Boston. It was truly an unforgettable experience.”
“I am not a dance teacher, I am a dance preacher,” Guruji once stated many years ago. Those fortunate enough to experience his master class and Q/A on April 5th received an inspirational and memorable taste of the wisdom he imparts, as he brilliantly danced, played tabla, spoke, joked, coaxed, nudged, and infused each participant with the bright light he imparted to all present.