Chhandika opens a new branch in Chelmsford, MA

Chhandika is excited to announce the opening of a new branch in Chelmsford, MA, with classes for beginner children, teens and adults.

Thursday, September 12th: New branch opens in Chelmsford. Classes for beginners at Chelmsford Center for the Arts (1 North Road)
4:30 to 5:30 pm Beginner Children
5:30 to 6:30 pm Beginner Teens/Adults
Click here for online payment.

Saturday, September 14th, 2:00 to 3:00 pm: Free Kathak Performance & Open House at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts (1 North Road)

Come watch performances by senior Chhandika dancers (including Anjali Nath, member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company) and chat with branch director Shelley Chhabra.

Sita Haran Then and Now: a look at the mesmerizing CDDC productions of the 1970’s and 2013


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By Gretchen Hayden
(Cross posted from the Chhandam Chitresh Das web site and newsletter.)

Sita Haran production

Sita Haran production by the all-female Chitresh Das Dance Company. Photo by Anil Mallya

The year was 1975. The Ali Akbar College was in its seventh year, and bustling with students (mostly “Westerners”) hungry for the Indian classical music, dance and taal being taught in classes given by such masters as Ali Akbar Khan, Chitresh Das, Shankar Ghosh, Zakir Hussain and myriad other guest teachers from India. I was only in my third year of study and in the intermediate kathak class at the time of the initial Sita Haran production.

Sita Haran was a full-length production, some three-plus hours long. High tech it was not; brilliant and very dramatic it was, with the superior artistry of Guruji (Pandit Das) and Khansahib (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) breathing their magic and life into the choreography and music. With Guruji in the role of Ravana, it was awe-inspiring.

The production included live music, played by the vibrant AACM orchestra. The original score was composed by Khansahib and his son, Aashish Khan, while Guruji set the parameters of mood, rhythm, and the movement of each item. This music was then arranged and transcribed by George Ruckert for vocalists and the various instruments (sarod, sitar, cello, bass, guitar, flute, clarinet, sarangi, percussion). A small budget and limited resources dictated that we make do —and make it work with simple staging. Make-up was somewhat bare bones, compared to now. We in the original CDDC did not dye our hair or try to make our skin brown, so there were blondes, red-heads, and brunettes assuming the Indian characters without any advantage of looking Indian, for the most part.

The costumes were colorful and effective, but not as elaborate as those today. Rama and Lakshman wore top-knots surrounded with carved beads and light orange-saffron material tied around. As I look at the old program, the powerful image of Guruji as Ravana practically jumps off the page—with his piercing intensity and dramatic abhinaya. It was hand-typed and Xeroxed on simple paper, gold in color.

Fast-forward to the 2013 Boston Sita Haran production.

In spring 2012, encouraged by CDDC/Chhandam Executive Director, Celine Schein, I and a core group within Chhandika decided it would be beneficial to produce Sita Haran in Boston.     This resulted in a year-long endeavor, including a hugely successful internal fund-raising effort led by Shelley Chhabra and grant-writing/marketing campaigns spearheaded by Meenakshi Agrawal and Shefali Jain. Many more Chhandika volunteers were to come together during the course of the year and, all said and done, it was a wonderfully successful endeavor.

With the support of Chhandam, Chhandika was included in the funding roster of the New England Foundation for the Arts.  Chhandika also received recognition and funding from the Foundation for MetroWest and ArtsBoston.  And the Sita Haran production drew the attention of some of Boston’s most prominent dance writers, such as Debra Cash.

Those parents and others in the Indian community whom we spoke to in the days and weeks after the production were truly touched by and in awe of the production. Until they actually saw Sita Haran staged in this way, they could not have imagined such a masterful and soulful rendition through kathak. Many were moved to tears. It clearly had a strong and unforgettable impact on their minds and hearts.

It was also a moment for the upcoming young dancers in the Chhandika Youth Ensemble to shine on stage, performing a short version of the classic CDDC repertoire item, Rang Manch. They will never forget this opportunity and what an immense privilege it was to be on the same stage as the professional CDDC.

Last but not least, the highlight of Guruji coming all the way out here to grace the stage as our Guest of Honor added the crowning glory to this already unforgettable occasion. His presence always uplifts, inspires and is a huge boost to the whole Chhandika community.

Although the staging of the Sita Haran production as well as the level of technique now present in the CDDC dancers has changed dramatically from its beginnings in the 1970s, there is much that remains the same.

Guruji has an amazing gift for casting dancers in roles that seem perfect for each. He always has. In the process of developing the choreography, he brings out the most from each dancer and requires us all to delve deeply into ourselves in order to understand the character we are portraying and the deeper significance and lessons of the story being told.

One striking difference between then and now is the audience base. The 2013 Sita Haran production in Boston included an audience comprised mostly of people of Indian heritage.   And the production spoke deeply to their cultural roots. Relatively few non-Indians were in attendance. Those non-Indians I spoke to were also impressed and moved by the dramatic rendering. The 1970s and 80s Sita Haran production in California—as I recall—included audiences who were mostly non-Indian. At the very least, the mix was much more 70/30. This was the period when non-Indians were beginning to take in the culture from India, with great curiosity and a thirst for knowledge about it. And just as we were learning about these stories and characters that we did not grow up with, it was the same with much of the audience back then. Yet the openness of hearts and minds brought everyone together through the Indian classical arts.

Sita Haran: The story behind the music

Sita Haran Dance Drama

Antara Bhardwaj, dancer and Productions & Touring Manager with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, interviews Pandit Chitresh Das about his original music composed for “Sita Haran.” (Cross posted from the CDDC web site.)

You have traditionally always worked with live musicians. What made you choose to work with recorded music for this particular production?

There were several reasons for this decision. The music I had in mind was very complex – with many different instruments, and a lot of special effects. It is not possible to have that many instruments on a live stage, or to create the full effect that I had in mind. Also, live music has a different feel – it has its own beauty and strengths, but for this piece,
I needed more control over the music – so that the instrumentation,
recitation, and special effects could create the exact effect that I was looking for.

How does the creative process work for you? Did you have a particular raga (melodic form in Hindustani music, where improvisation is within a particular framework) in mind for each scene?

The process goes back to my childhood and my upbringing. You must understand, I grew up in a dance institution watching Kathakali, Manipuri, Tagore Dance Dramas, Yatra (Bengali folk plays) – not to mention the local vendors performing their annual ‘Ram Leela.’ Throughout my years, I developed a feeling of what kind of music went with what. When we were creating the music, I would hum certain ragas, according to the feeling that went with each character. From there, I would add on a rhythmic structure, and choose a particular percussion instrument – tabla, pakhawaj, and even some South Indian instruments – to bring in the feel of Dakhin, as so much of this part of the Ramayana did take place in the deep south.

It’s not just an overnight process. I’ve also been influenced by so many actors. The Female Actress’ Guild of India would come and perform at my parents’ school. There, I saw women playing the roles of both men and women – something that I have had to learn to teach to all my female students, to try to bring balance to the Ardhanariswara within them.

What role does the music play in shedding new light on this ancient story?

Our classical traditions must be brought out in a dramatic and enjoyable way.  And this music brings ancient India to life. These ragas were developed throughout the centuries in India – each has a different mood, and evokes a different emotion. This music helps create the mood and environment of that time. Imagine – Ram, Lakshman, and Sita, in a jungle – without a cell phone!

Today’s young Indians must see that there are lessons in our traditional arts, literature and philosophy that are everlasting. There is pride, there is glory. There is jealousy, and hatred. There is love, there is rejection. There is greed and loss. There is lust, and there is abstinence. Even today, these ancient epics help shape our mind, body, culture and society.

I am interested in seeing more nuanced aspects of the Ramayana.  I want to see the human contradictions that we struggle with to this day—making these stories continually relevant.  I want the audience to FEEL the joy, pain, fear and loss of these characters and discover how it may apply to their own lives.  This took place in ancient India, yet the violence and pain of society continues to this day.  Why?  I want to explore this and share this exploration with the audience—through the music, the dance and the entire production.

What was your process working with your team of musicians in India?

Jayanta Banerjee is a very good Sitar soloist and accomplished musician and composer. His being the sound engineer added so much to the process because he has such deep understanding of the music.  He has been playing Sitar with me for 5-6 years now. He has developed an understanding with me through all this time, watching me perform, teach, practice, create music – and not only did he give his 200% to this music, he brought on musicians who also gave their 200% to the project.   I also want to mention Dr. George Ruckert who composed the original section of one of the pieces of the music, the Golden Deer.  He was assisted by Christopher Ris.  The music is also influenced by the great Ali Akbar Khansahib, watching and hearing his music over the years.  This was in addition to growing up in my parents’ institution, seeing all of the great Indian musicians, dancers, poets and great minds over the years.

Original Music for Sita Haran composed by Pandit Chitresh Das

Honoring a daughter’s first ghungroo ceremony


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Photo by Darpan Dand

Photo by Darpan Dand

Vijaya Sundaram is a poet, a musician, teacher, a keen observer of the world, and the mother of one of Chhandika’s young students who has been studying with us for three years or so. Vijaya wrote the following poem after sitting in on her daughter’s ghungroo ceremony, at which the child received her ankle bells. She captures exquisitely the mood of the room, the essence of the ceremony, and the feelings that we experience upon receiving our own bells, or watching our loved ones do so.

And once you have read this poem, do take a moment to visit her site,, for a treasure trove of beautiful writing and reflections.

Dancing Bells
(Honoring my Daughter’s First Ghungroo Ceremony)
©By Vijaya Sundaram
April 6th, 2013

A deity smiles

Benignly down

At the offerings

And the flowers.

Indian food and chai

Compete with incense

The air is quiet

Awaiting blessing.

Today, my girl learns

What tradition is

And she turns on the

Hinge of creation

She to her teacher,

She to her teacher,

Connected by bells

Strung tight together.

Wise words are spoken.

Her teacher evokes

A sense of sweet awe

Reaching for realness.

Hot tears sting my eyes

Mine too, he whispers,

As I dab at them

With my dupatta.

The ceremony

Glows through the morning

A quiet reverence

Saturates the air

Bells on their ankles

Tender and thrilling

Quell their pressing doubts

Render them quiet.

Then, they whirl and twist

They twirl and they stamp

And turn, her young friends

And she, dancers all.

The bells ring out clear

And bright, and tender

The blessings linger

In hands, feet and hearts.

Now, she is one with

Her dancing self and

She sees where the road

Leads.  She is unfazed.

She is persistent,

She is stubborn,


These will move her feet.

And her arms will shape

The air into song

Sculpting song into

A pattern for her days.

And her teacher’s words

Will string the small bells

Of each dance into

Bells that ring for life.

For the tradition

Comes through each of them

Through the student and

Into tomorrow.

Pandit Chitresh Das’ Sita Haran production on Top Ten list for Spring


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Local dance critic Debra Cash just issued her Top Ten list for this spring’s lineup of dance performances, and we were excited to see that Sita Haran, the dance production choreographed and directed by Pandit Chitresh Das and featuring his dance company, is on the list! Check out the article in the Phoenix, and don’t wait too long to buy your tickets!


Bali’s Court, Sita Haran production. Photo by Brooke Duthie.


Ten Years! On building a kathak community.


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by Anjali Mitter Duva

Chhandika began ten years ago. Gretchen Hayden had already been teaching in the area for a decade, but she had a vision of an organization that could carry her work into more settings and have a broader reach than she felt she could on her own. A handful of students worked with her to form this organization, and in November 2002, on a very windy day, I stepped out of the Attorney General’s office in Boston with our stamped letter of incorporation in hand.

Since then Chhandika has grown into a thriving kathak community, the only one of its kind in New England. We have held classes in Cambridge, Brookline, Burlington, Acton, Somerville, Andover and Shrewsbury. Hundreds of students have come to our classes and made their mark. This area has a transient population, and many have moved on, pulled to other areas by higher education, new jobs, new spouses, but many have remained, and many continue to come through our doors. All of them have benefited from this tradition of cultural and artistic integrity.

Every year, Chhandika has offered workshops, Intensive weekends and sometimes retreats to supplement our classes. Our affiliation with Pandit Chitresh Das has offered us the privileged opportunity to work closely with him, and Chhandika has hosted him in the Boston area many times. For the past three years now as well, Chhandika students and instructors have traveled to California to take part in the intense retreats with Chhandam students, thus strengthening our connection to this lineage.

Pandit Chitresh Das addressing Chhandika students in 2012. Photo by Darpan Dand.

We are delighted that we have been able to partner with other organizations to bring Pandit Das and his professional, high-caliber performances to New England: retrospectives of his work, lecture demonstrations at the Peabody Essex Museum and Sackler Museum, India Jazz Suites, and of course Sita Haran coming up in May 2013.

We have held annual shows in which increasing numbers of students participate every year, and increasing numbers of students and parents volunteer.

Kaliya’s Tale, Annual Show 2009. Photo by Praveen Sharma.

Some of these children and adult students have had the opportunity to perform on other stages as well, alongside Gretchen Hayden, or opening for Pandit Das. And of course there have been Gretchenji’s performances, those wonderful events at which we have seen deeper into the creativity, integrity and artistic excellence that she and her sarodist and composer husband George Ruckert, disciple of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, have nurtured for forty years.

Gretchen Hayden performing in Sangeet in 2007. Photo by Sri Thumati.

Shefali Jain performing with Gretchen Hayden, music composed and played (sarod) by George Ruckert. Sangeet, 2007. Photo by Sri Thumati.

One of the primary reasons to form a non-profit was to be able to offer outreach programs for children and adults in other settings. Over the years, Chhandika students have presented workshops and demonstrations at dozens and dozens of cultural festivals, public and private schools, museums and community centers, as well as performed at benefit events for other non-profit organizations. These are invaluable experiences for us as students, and a wonderful way to raise awareness of kathak in the region.

Outreach performance at Harvard University’s Arthur Sackler Museum in 2006. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard

Outreach performance at Summer in the City, Cambridge, MA in 2003. Photo by Kavita Pillay.

Being involved in the local community is a key component to Chhandika, and in so doing, through our programs and events, we have seen a special community of its own grow around Chhandika. Our students, parents, families and volunteers represent this community. There have been weddings. Babies have been born, and grown into Chhandika students. The line for canoe rides at our annual picnic keeps growing! Children have grown into teens, and teens into adults. Parents have become students themselves. Siblings have joined classes. Members of this community have cooked for our dinners, made backdrops for our shows, looked for studio space, pitched in with administrative work, restrung bells, photographed events, driven children to and from class, hosted visiting artists, staffed information tables, sold tickets, sewn costumes and much more.

It has been a decade of learning and sharing and growth, and we look forward to the next decade being even greater. Thank you to all our supporters for your continued generosity.

Four generations of the Chhandam lineage at Dancing Deer Farm


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(Photos by Ritesh Das)

Eight Chhandika students, including two children and two teens, along with Gretchenji, attended a historic gathering of disciples, teachers, students and family members of Pandit Chitresh Das amid the vineyards and dry hills of Templeton, California at Dancing Deer Farm. Despite record heat of 110 degrees, spirits and emotions were high as members of the Chhandam family came in from various parts of California, the Northeast and Canada to spend a week living, breathing, dancing, sweating, thinking and discussing kathak.

Emily Mason, a student in California, gives us her account of the week here at the Chhandam blog.

The days began on the dance floor by 6:30 am, with two to three hours of intense footwork before breakfast, and went on from there. Everyone was pushed beyond what he or she thought was within reach, and everyone emerged exhausted but exhilarated. There were wonderful anecdotes by Pandit Das and his brother, tabla player and teacher Ritesh Das (who, together with Joanna de Souza, run tabla and kathak classes in Toronto), describing their experience growing up in a Calcutta home which was a center of musical and artistic excellence, where the likes of Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Allah Rakha were regular visitors. There were viewings of videos from the early (1980s) days of the Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company and the current, dazzling Youth Company, along with rare footage of both Pandit Das and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, both in their early twenties and sporting long and wild hair, exchanging rapid-fire bols (compositions) of mind-boggling speed and intensity.

There were footwork sessions, and practice in abhinaya and story telling, and a Holi tarana. There were slokas and mantras and other songs, sung during the footwork, during the story telling, and at the beginning and end of each session. And there were laughs and communal meals and friendships formed, and a meteor shower on the next to last night, clearly visible against the dark immensity of the desert sky.

Receiving my dance bells


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By Pallavi Murugkar

Photo by Darpan Dand

Dance equals happiness for me. When I think of happy times, I picture myself dancing. Due to various circumstances, I couldn’t be formally trained in dance. That didn’t really stop me from dancing when no one was looking or at parties where no one cared. But the urge to learn a classical dance form remained. So when I heard about Chhandika, two years ago, I wanted to join right then.

When I got to speak to Gretchen Hayden herself, I had no idea who I was talking to that day. Had I known, I probably would have been tongue-tied in awe and amazement. I joined Chhandika and went for the first class, held in Cambridge at the time. And my love for dance has grown leaps and bounds since then. From the first class itself, I would be staring at advanced students taking off and putting on their ghungroos, mesmerized by the sounds of the bells.

I had to wait for a year till people started talking about me getting them. The first time someone mentioned about me getting them was in summer 2011. But it was only in last couple of weeks that I actually started believing that I was getting them. So imagine my happiness when I was finally given the ghungroos at class two weeks ago. It felt like I was holding a pot of gold, diamonds. But they weren’t the ready or finished ones. I was shown how to string them and it reminded me of grandma making “gajra” from flowers. I went home and started stringing them the same day. It wasn’t an easy task. I was given 100 ghungroos for each leg. And by the time I was done stringing one, my fingers were sore. The skin had started peeling. But I didn’t care. The whole experience was amazing. It felt like I had earned them, that they were my prized possessions. I was itching to wear them and dance. But not till I officially received them.

That happened on Sunday. We were given instructions to bring flowers, fruits/sweets, a coin and incense sticks. The night before I kept the incense sticks in my bag, a fruit out on the counter and decided to get flowers in the morning. I was also asked to bring a bag for the ghungroos. I found a beautiful bag that Mom had given me 3 years ago. I had not found an occasion to use it. I guess it was meant to be my ghungroo bag. Of course in my hurry and excitement Sunday morning, I forgot the fruit on the counter and ran without taking flowers. We had to make pit stops to get fruits and borrow flowers (steal from the roadside…. Hey elements of nature, straight from nature).

Photo by Darpan Dand

Getting there I began helping arrange the hall. It looked so vibrant with all the students in colorful dresses, bells jangling, the stage decorated to make an altar of sorts. It all looked and felt auspicious. There was a pious feeling all around, just like Diwali at home. The individual ghungroos were wrapped in felt, tied with ribbons and placed on the stage. The ceremony included the teacher, Gretchenji, blessing the bells by touching them to her forehead, her mouth and her heart. She then gave them to me and I had to do the same. Holding them in my hands and looking in her eyes, I felt like she was placing a responsibility in my hands, she was giving me a message, a message from the Divine power. It all felt very right. I was overwhelmed with emotions.

Before tears could run down, it was time to wear them and dance. Tying the ghungroos took some skill and lot of help from experienced students. But once on, I couldn’t stop moving my feet. I felt like a kid given a new toy. For the child, that toy is the world. It felt like the world. Dancing with them was amazing. They were heavy, but I didn’t care. I was on top of the world, oblivious to everything. I had earned my ghungroos and they were mine! An extension of me!

Photo by Darpan Dand

Of revolution and colonies, pioneers and artists, America and India


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by George Ruckert

The Shot Heard ‘round the World

In Concord, Mass, there is a monument erected at one end of the famous Old North Bridge, site of the opening conflict of the American Revolution in 1775.  A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is on monument, erected in 1875 to commemorate the anniversary, begins:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here the embattled farmers stood,

And first the shot heard round the world.

The shot, of course, has had a distinguished career, and revolutions in the name of freedom have followed for the last 200 years and more.  But one of the more immediate results of the Revolution was the defeat of the British general Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.  Far from being censured, his next appointment was as Governor-General of India in 1786.  He was charged with establishing tax and judicial codes in India which would give the English a financial foundation, as well as helping Hindus plead their judicial cases in Muslim states, and Muslims in Hindu ones. In India he linked up with the recently-arrived barrister Sir William Jones, who was a brilliant linguist also serving the English crown in Calcutta.

Jones was intoxicated when he delved into the extensive richness of the Sanskrit language and its literature.  To help collect, translate, and disseminate this literature, Jones had founded the Asiatic (later the Oriental) Society in 1784.  He translated a minor treatise on Indian music (lost: the Sangita-sara?) and wrote one of the first articles by a westerner on Indian music:  On the Musical Modes of the Hindus (1799).

The Oriental Society was responsible for the first western (English and German) translations of the great books of the Vedic and Sanskrit traditions, including the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Upanishads, etc.

When these reached the West, philosophers and literati took note, and Emerson, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists, and many European philosophers, among them Kant and Schopenhauer, took great interest.  They paved the way for more specific practitioners of the Hindu philosophies, notably, Madame Blavatsky (Theosophism), Vivekananda (the Vendanta Society), and Inayat Khan (Sufism), to travel to the West.

It would only be a short time when music and dance, led by such artists as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Chitresh Das would plant the West with deep-seeded knowledge and practice in these same fields first plowed and prepared by the early pioneers.