By Aditi Amlani, Chitresh Das Youth Company Member, Graduate student at Boston Univerity.
The sound of the tabla (drums) resonates throughout the room and guides the dancers as they take 27 chakkars, or heel turns, for the third time in a row. The Chhandika Youth Ensemble dancers have been doing footwork, turns, recitation and singing for the past two hours, all while wearing ghungroo, or weighted bells. There is a unique and strong energy in the room, pushing the dancers past their perceived physical and mental limits. This powerful energy comes from their Dadaji, who is at the front of the room playing the tabla and encouraging the dancers, “don’t stop, children… even if you make a mistake, keep going”. World-renowned Kathak maestro, Pandit Chitresh Das, along with senior disciple, Charlotte Moraga, spent four days in Boston injecting energy and knowledge of this complex Indian classical art form. This was a part of the Artist-in-Residence program sponsored by Chhandika Institute of Kathak. Classes were held in Somerville, Cambridge, Burlington and Brighton for Chhandika students from October 16 – 19. Students came from New York and even as far as Florida to experience this enriching and inspiring weekend.
At 70 years old, Pt. Das is only getting stronger and faster by the year. His morning routine consists of running seven miles on the treadmill, followed by a couple hours of dance practice. He is constantly pushing the limits of the dance while staying steadfast to its roots. Though one of the foremost Kathak artists busy with his own performance schedule, he believes deeply in the Guru-Shishya Parampara (guru-disciple tradition).
Pt. Das was able to teach students of all levels seamlessly in one class, while still challenging every single person. He would have one group learn the simpler footwork version of a piece, while having senior dancers lead the other group in a choreography version. All the while during classes, he reminds students that the lessons in the dance room can really be applied to all aspects of life. Upaj, or improvisation, is an integral skill to be a solo artist and perform with musicians. However, it is also necessary for every context, to be ready for any obstacle that comes our way.
He ends each class by telling students and guests to ask him questions, as he is eager and willing to discuss the necessity of art in today’s world, his experiences and struggles to bring Kathak to the West, and the history and philosophy associated with the dance.
On Sunday afternoon, the Boston community was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the breadth and depth of Pandit Das’ work in an open class. The Chhandam Youth Ensemble demonstrated his innovation of Kathak Yoga. The dancers did the fast footwork of a composition, sang the melody, and played manjira (finger symbals) to keep the underlying rhythm, essentially becoming their own musicians. We then witnessed Charlotte Moraga, along with senior dancers, Anjali Nath and Shefali Jain, rehearse a scene of the powerful production, Shiva, which will be performed by the Chitresh Das Dance Company in Berkeley, California in March. Just this open class and rehearsal received a standing ovation from those present.
This weekend inspired dancers to continue studying Kathak deeply and practicing intensely. It prompted observers of his classes to ask larger questions – where does Indian culture stand today and what is our role in upholding these great traditions? It made each and every individual present feel the positive environment, which served as a reminder of the power of the dance as a “meditation in motion”, in the words of Pt. Das.
The week in residency was captured wonderfully by Manju Sheth, which featured Pandit Das in her Chai with Manju celebrity series. The link is below: