Editor’s note: Pandit Chitresh Das passed away on January 4, 2015.
Pandit Chitresh Das was born in Calcutta, India, in 1944. At age 9, he began studying kathak under teacher and guru Pandit Ram Narayan Misra. In 1970, Das was brought to the United States on a Whitney Fellowship. A year later, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan brought Das to the Ali Khan College of Music in San Rafael to teach kathak.
In 1980 Das created the Chhandam School of Kathak Dance and the Chitresh Das Dance Company. It grew to five Bay Area locations as well as schools in Boston, Canada and India. Spark visits with Das and discusses his personal history and his work, including his school and, more recently, the Kathak Festival and Symposium.
A classical dance from northern India, kathak is improvisational and takes a lifetime to learn. “Kathak” comes from the word “katha,” meaning “to tell stories.” Kathak has two main elements, storytelling and abstract dance. A solo kathak dance can last several hours, progressing through various specific elements. The dancer, who wears about five pounds of bells around the ankles, recites a spontaneous rhythmic phrase that is repeated back by the musicians.
For centuries, the form has been passed from guru to disciple. Das has passed this traditional dance form to a broad range of students. His classes involve not only dance, but also history, philosophy and math. Das has also taken the art to a new level through the creation of kathak yoga, a meditation technique in which participants dance, drum and sing simultaneously.
In 2006, the Chitresh Das Dance Company organized a three-day festival of kathak dance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The largest kathak festival ever to take place outside of India, it brought together dancers from all over the world and incorporated both traditional and innovative elements. Das performed with Emmy Award-winning tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith in “India Jazz Suites,” which has since received a Bay Area Dance Award and the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Best Ensemble Performance.