The Bay Area dance world lost one of its all-time greats this weekend with the sudden passing of Chitresh Das, master of the classical Indian dance form known as Kathak.
Das was an ecstatic presence, wild-eyed and haired, still performing his athletically demanding style of dance — with its 10 pounds of bells on each ankle and its rapid-fire foot-stampings — into his 70th year. Over the past decade it had become one of Das’ chief delights to test the physical virtuosity and musical sophistication of Kathak against other dance traditions. Last September, he appeared at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, soaked in sweat, in a friendly showdown with flamenco dancer Antonio Hidalgo Paz. His evening-length show with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, “India Jazz Suites,” was a critical and popular hit and toured the country. (Their performances together are documented in the film Upaj, which means “improvise” in Hindi and aired on PBS last year.) In my own estimation, Das was always the winner of these cross-cultural contests.
View Spark segment on Pandit Chitresh Das. Original air date: May 2007.
He was trained by his parents and his guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, in his native Kolkata, and first came to the US on a fellowship to the University of Maryland. In 1971 he came to San Rafael to teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and a few years later created the first college-accredited Kathak course, at San Francisco State University. In Marin and at SFSU, he attracted what he joked was his “rainbow coalition:” women from a range of ethnicities who found a lifelong calling as his disciples, undergoing deep vows of apprenticeship. Many of these disciples, like Chalotte Moraga and Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, have become mesmerizing performers in their own right. In addition to dancing as the Chitresh Das Dance Company, these dancers pass on his example of complete life commitment to students at Das’ Chhandam School of Kathak, which he founded in 1979, opening a branch in India in 2002. Chhandam now has ten branches and 550 students.
Kathak, one of India’s eight classical dance forms, derives its name from the kathakas, who would travel among Mughal Courts in the 16th century reenacting tales from the Ramayana and other Hindu texts. Though Das worked most deeply as an innovator of pure musicality — he developed a training method he dubbed “Kathak Yoga,” in which the dancer rises to a higher state of concentration by stamping rhythms, singing and playing the harmonium — I remember him most vividly as a storyteller. To see him transform from the manly guise of the Hindu deity Krishna into a seductive female admirer with just the coy rising of his eyebrow was to experience both Das’ mischievous personality and his deep understanding of human nature.
Like the Kathak spectacles in the Mughal Courts, Das’ performances could go on for hours, punctuated by long breaks during which he explained the intricacies of a rhythmic challenge or told the Hindu story he was about to enact, always speaking teasingly and with laughter. In press interviews, too — I was fortunate to interview him several times — he would talk tirelessly about the history of his art and the spiritual dimensions of his practice. In every interview, he would tell me how badly he wanted to stage a performance with the San Francisco Ballet, pitting his dancers’ dervish-like spins against the ballerinas’ pirouettes. He never got to do it, but he didn’t really need to. Over five decades of boundless advocacy, he educated, enchanted, inspired — and proved his art form the equal to any in the world.
Chitresh Das leaves behind his wife, Celine Schein, executive director of the school and dance company, and two young daughters. His community is committed to carrying on: the Chitresh Das Dance Company will dance one of Das’ last evening-length dramas, “Shiva,” at UC Berkeley in March. A memorial is scheduled for Friday, January 9th at 10 am, at the Mount Tamalpais Mortuary and Cemetery.