The Making of the California Gharana: Sarah Morelli

The Making Of the California Gharana

Sarah Morelli

You studied with two of modern India’s greatest masters of North Indian classical art –  Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib and Pandit Chitresh Das. Can you talk about how this came to be?  How did you discover and encounter each of them and end up being able to study both sarod and kathak so intensely with these great gurus?   

I’m taking a deep breath as I begin because this story is a bit involved. My path to studying with these two master artists was fairly long and winding, but all of those experiences informed my capacity to learn from them, so I’ll do my best to be succinct! Growing up in the 1970s, it turned out that a few of my best friends were among the first generation of kids born to Indian immigrants following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act—a momentous piece of legislation that opened the US to immigration from much of Asia for the first time in almost 50 years. Lots of early experiences with those friends encouraged my interest in India and Indian culture. In the summer after sixth grade, for example, my friend Sri visited my mom’s Sunday School class to talk about Hinduism; afterward, as we played on the swing set behind the church, he taught me how to count to ten in Hindi, which I thought—and still think—was incredibly cool!

I planned to study abroad in India during college, and by chance, one of the music professors, Dr. Beth Bullard, was offering a course on Indian music in the second semester of my freshman year. It was the class that set my path for the many years since. She introduced me to the music of so many great artists! The internet was still in its infancy, so to hear more, I had to go to the library and make cassette copies of LP records, like one performance of rag Malkauns by shehnai master Bismillah Khansahib—I wore that tape out. Especially meaningful for me was a field trip we took to Swarthmore College on a cold winter evening to see a performance by Ken Zuckerman (sarod) and Zakir Hussain (tabla). That experience left me buzzing with excitement for days and cemented my intention not just to study in India, but to study music!

A year and a half later, I was heading to India for the very first time. The study abroad program my college was affiliated with, called SITA (an acronym for “South Indian Term Abroad”), was based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. And, of course, the classical music prevalent in South India is Karnatak, not Hindustani music. So while I was in Madurai in 1993 and again in 1995, I studied Karnatak vocal music and the veena. I wrote a senior thesis with Prof. Bullard comparing Hindustani and Karnatak music theory and practice. It wasn’t until graduate school at Harvard in 1998 that I again took a course in Hindustani music—called “Rāg and Tāl,” taught by Professor Carol Babiracki. I realized that even if I wasn’t going to focus my own research on Hindustani music, it might be a kind of “bread and butter” course for a professor with a focus on South Asia. Hopeful for my own career in academia, I decided it would be good to get some hands-on experience. I’ll never forget Prof. Babiracki’s advice: “if you really want to understand rāgs, you should go to George Ruckert.” I was a little surprised because his was one of the few non-South Asian names she mentioned. I quickly learned that he was one of the senior disciples of Ali Akbar Khansahib and set an intention to take lessons from him. Soon after that, when I was flying to Austin for the Society for Ethnomusicology’s annual meeting, I ran into a friend from the MIT bhangra team who was waiting to board the same flight. He mentioned, as luck would have it, that George Ruckert was also on the plane too(!) and pointed him out to me. Something came over me, and I asked the person sitting next to him if I could please exchange seats. I had to ask twice and was embarrassed that I was being a little bit pushy, but it somehow felt so important. Sitting next to Georgeji, I talked with him through the whole flight, and as the plane landed, he suggested we begin lessons the following week. And thus, my studies began in earnest.

Among the mentors I’ve mentioned already and others, I especially have to thank Georgeji for setting in motion my studies with Khansahib and with our Guruji. During one lesson, he asked me if I had ever thought of studying kathak. I replied simply, “no,” which makes me laugh today. Georgeji suggested I take part in an introductory kathak workshop his wife, Gretchen Hayden, was teaching at the Dance Complex in Cambridge. She, of course, is the senior-most disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das. I loved that experience and began studying kathak with Gretchenji on a weekly basis.

In the meantime, during my Hindustani vocal lessons, Georgeji occasionally made comments like, “You know, Baba’s not getting any younger”—suggesting that if I wanted to study with the great Ali Akbar Khansahib, I should find a way to get myself to California as soon as possible. I had been exploring other possibilities for a dissertation topic, but the more I studied Khansahib’s vocal compositions with Georgeji, listened to recordings of Khansahib’s performances, and began developing a small understanding of his genius, the more I wanted to study with Khansahib while he was still teaching. So I decided to go to California for a three-month “pilot study” to explore dissertation possibilities. I bought my first car and drove across the country to California, seven years after my first trip to India. Three months became a full three years in the San Francisco Bay Area, during which I tried to absorb as much as I could from these artistic masters. It was an intense three years, and yet the time was impossibly short. But I’m still learning from them.

What were some of the benefits as well as challenges of your simultaneous experiences of learning from both Pandit Chitresh Das and Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib?

In this tradition, music and dance are part and parcel of the same artistic whole, so the studies naturally complement one another. It’s beneficial for any dancer to study music and vice-versa. And yet, studying with two genius artists in their respective fields was simply an embarrassment of riches. I was inspired on a daily basis, and I knew that it was an extraordinary period in my life.

Developing a personal connection with the teacher or guru is a deeply ingrained aspect of these traditions. I talk about the nuance of these relationships a bit in A Guru’s Journey: “In addition to logistical complications and limitations of physical and mental energy, serious study in more than one area of the North Indian classical arts is made problematic by the concept of guru. George Ruckert describes a guru as a teacher of the kind ‘one sees daily for years and years … with whom one lives nearly as a family member’ (1994, 2). … ‘No one can have two gurus,’ Pandit Das once said, … ‘Having two gurus is like having two husbands or two boyfriends; your heart cannot be in two places at once.’ At the time, Pandit Das was referring to dancers studying with more than one kathak teacher; however, I experienced a similar pull between my kathak and Hindustani music studies” (2019, 22).

I was fortunate to develop close teacher-student relationships with Khansahib and with Pandit Das, and I was completely immersed in both studies for my three years in the Bay Area. It was such an artistically nourishing time, and I tried my best to absorb everything I could. When I returned to Boston, I continued studying Hindustani music and kathak, again with my first teachers, Georgeji and Gretchenji. While writing my dissertation though, the intensity of my academic work focused primarily on kathak, and my artistic work eventually shifted in that direction as well. But it’s not like I chose one and discarded the other. All dancers need to study music, after all! As I continued visiting the Bay Area for performances and further research, Guruji welcomed me and, in fact, pushed me to continue to take my dance practice seriously–to work towards becoming the kind of artist-scholar that I still aspire to today. 

In addition to being a student, performer, and educator of Hindustani classical music and kathak dance, you also have a PhD in ethnomusicology and wrote your dissertation at Harvard University on Pandit Das’s life work.  Why did you decide to become an ethnomusicologist and how did you choose your dissertation topic?

As an undergraduate, I had studied abroad in Russia as well as India and focused primarily on music, language, and culture. I wanted to do more of the same as a graduate student. When I thought about ethnomusicology, I was thrilled by the possibilities to continue to study contemporary cultures of the world and various ways music is meaningful to people. 

As I mentioned earlier, I was compelled to go to California primarily by a desire to learn from Ali Akbar Khansahib while he was still teaching. I hoped that a clear dissertation topic would emerge. At the time, there were a few recent ethnographies of western conservatories, their cultures, and the musical values they transmitted; I thought I might conduct a similar study of “conservatory culture” at the Ali Akbar College of Music. It turns out that another of Khansahib’s students, Cliff Winnig, wrote an MA thesis on that basic topic! But, that didn’t actually influence my dissertation focus. Most ethnomusicologists’ topics change through the course of their research. Even though we might come to our fieldwork with particular ideas, it’s essential to pay attention, adapt, and adjust to what we experience from those around us. For me, there were a few key moments that encouraged me to adjust my plans. 

First, about a year into my study with Khansahib, I went to his home to formally ask him for his blessing to write my dissertation on the Ali Akbar College of Music. Rather than telling me yes or no, he asked me, “What can you write about music that is as beautiful as the music itself? Practice, practice!” I left that meeting confused and somewhat distraught about my next steps. Without Khansahib’s blessing, I certainly wouldn’t write about the College. But what then? Should I leave my Ph.D. program and focus on my music practice? I definitely wanted to continue studying with Khansahib, but leaving my doctoral program didn’t seem like a wise choice. In the meantime, I was becoming more and more involved in kathak classes—dancing and accompanying. And Chitreshji would say to me sometimes, “Yeah, you should write about what we are doing too!” 

Because I was in an ethnomusicology program and dance studies were then somewhat uncommon in the discipline, I was still blinded by the artificial distinction between music and dance that I keep talking about in this interview, and I hadn’t fully embraced the possibility of focusing on kathak. But then—and this leads me to the second experience I want to share—I had to go back to Harvard to give a presentation on my research. Following my presentation, discussing the “two worlds” of Indian classical music and dance in Northern California in which I was involved, all the questions I got were about kathak, about Chitreshji, and especially about his practice of kathak yoga. I had shared a video clip I had taken of him in practice: playing tabla, reciting, singing, dancing, and even holding dumbbells and moving them about gracefully. These experiences helped shift my thinking, and by the next time Guruji said, “you should write about us too,” I was ready to reply that with his blessing, I would like to write my dissertation on kathak and his teaching and artistry. The rest, as he might say, is history.

How did you approach your studies in the artforms, both as an ethnomusicologist and as an artist? How do these approaches differ? 

There are so many ways to answer this question, but what comes to mind here is to share a general scenario: say Guruji was giving a lecture in class, with very pointed comments about me or another dancer. Wearing my student hat, I might go home and reflect deeply on what lesson he was trying to convey. How might it help me mature in my attitude, grow in my approach to learning, improve in some specific aspect of my dance, or evolve my general understanding? If I were wearing my scholar hat, I might instead reflect on how that critique related to broader issues of teaching Indian classical dance in the US to an ethnically-diverse group of students. In other words, I’d think about how that specific lesson could be contextualized or understood more broadly. In all honesty, it was sometimes helpful to zoom out and think about larger questions (related to culture, pedagogy, identity, etc.) because it could be a painful process to apply his lessons to one’s own life. But staying present during these raw moments is also so crucial for our personal and artistic growth.

Music was an integral part of Guruji’s approach to kathak and its aesthetics. As a trained Hindustani classical musician yourself, can you explain the importance of sangeet? What would be your advice to dance students to become more musically aware and educated? 

That’s an important question! First of all, sangeet is a word that refers to music and dance as one composite art form—all together. It’s a fairly old term.The terms on a treatise on the performing arts from around 1230 CE called the Saṅgīta Ratnākara, which means “ocean of sangeet.” In it, sangeet is described as including voice, instruments, and dance (gītam, vātam, nṛittam). In our Guruji’s lineage, we usually speak of the three elements of sangeet as “melody, rhythm, and movement,” distinguishing the voice and melodically-oriented instruments from percussion, its own vibrant field. But, we don’t have an English word that encompasses all of these elements. And if there is a linguistic separation, then there’s a conceptual separation as well. That’s really a problem! As I mentioned earlier, this distinction between music and dance made me slow to take up academic studies of kathak; only later did I begin to more clearly understand sangeet as one unified practice.

I was still caught up in a conceptual divide between music and dance when my parents visited me during my first year of study with Guruji. They loved attending our class, and when we left, my father, who sang in our local opera company, remarked on what an outstanding musician Guruji was. That small comment really hit me. And it’s true! Guruji was leading classes playing tabla, reciting, singing, and sometimes dancing all at once. In every class, we too were asked to produce music with movement; of course, there is the percussion of our footwork, but also reciting tabla and kathak bols (the accompanying syllables specific to drumming and dance), and singing throughout the class. In that way, we became immersed in music-making throughout our training, helping us become more fully aware of musicians’ roles long before they might actually interact with live musicians in solo performances. Guruji’s development of Kathak Yoga – in which the dance is solely responsible for producing all of these elements at once – was a natural and brilliant evolution, ; in which a dancer is solely responsible for producing all of these elements at once.

There is just so much to learn. So my advice to kathak students is to take things step by step. First, engage with the “musical” elements that are part of your study. Practice your singing and recitation as well as your dance. Practice these elements individually, in different combinations—reciting and dancing, dancing and singing, singing and reciting—and all together. If you are drawn to do so, take music lessons: voice, tabla, or another instrument. Find out which musicians your teachers particularly respect and actively listen to those artists with curiosity and intention. Listening to music with knowledgeable others—friends, teachers, fellow students—is also very beneficial. Ask questions about what they’re hearing, and pay attention to what they respond to (verbally or otherwise). In these ways and more, you can develop your own musical sensitivity and understanding.

You accompanied many iconic performances during your time in the Bay Area. Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences you would like to share?

I was fortunate to be able to attend and be part of so many incredible performances while I was in the Bay Area—by our Guruji and Khansahib, as well as other great artists. Once I left the Bay Area, I was flying back at least once a year for the home season performances of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and our Guruji’s solos. On many occasions, I was “on the rug,” whether playing tanpura, reciting, singing, or playing harmonium, and it was the best seat in the house! Guruji even invited me once to accompany him on sarod for a solo performance in Erie, Pennsylvania, sharing the rug with Pandits Ramesh Mishra (sarangi) and Samir Chatterjee (tabla). If I recall, another musician was unable to make the concert in the eleventh hour. Although I had been playing sarod regularly in dance company classes, I was a very young, inexperienced player. It was a huge push for me, and I was pretty scared! But I had faith in Guruji’s decisions; I knew he was willing to take risks and challenge his students, but I trusted that he understood each student’s capacity and wouldn’t put us in situations that were too far beyond our reach. Rameshji and Samirji were also very generous and supportive.

When I think about the most memorable concerts, I remember Guruji’s solo, Master of Tradition, in September 2008; several video excerpts of that incredible performance accompany my book. And I can’t help but remember a performance Khansahib gave at the Palace of Fine Arts; the power went out over several city blocks during the concert. Many audience members left, but those who stayed gathered close to listen by candlelight with no sound amplification. But I have to say that some of my most profound experiences took place on a trip to India in the winter of 2000/2001. I was less than a year into my studies with Khansahib and Guruji. On Khansahib’s invitation, I had gone to India after spending a few weeks in Basel, Switzerland, where Khansahib had given a series of classes and concerts organized by Ken Zukerman (who, as I mentioned above, performed the very first Hindustani concert I ever attended!).

In Kolkata, I was attending a full day of performances at the Ramakrishna Mission and had just seen Pt. Birju Maharaj perform. During a break, I called the house where I knew that Pandit Das was staying with members of his dance company. I hadn’t yet been able to get in touch with them and thought the middle of the day might be a good time to try again. Success! Guruji’s disciple Jaiwanti Das Pamnani picked up the phone. She excitedly told me that he was performing that evening at a house concert and I should come quickly. Even though there would still be several hours’ worth of performances at the Ramakrishna Mission, I ditched my ticket, said goodbye to the people I was at the festival with, and set out for the address Jaiwanti had given me. It was only the second time I’d ever seen Guruji perform, and it was amazing to see him in that atmosphere. The traditional baithak, or house concert with a small, knowledgeable audience, was so different from the first performance I had attended in a large concert hall in Boston. Again, I was quite early in my studies, but even then, I knew it was a rare opportunity to see these two kathak masters back-to-back on the very same day. And it was extremely educational to experience for myself, performances by these two artists I would hear being compared so often. Both were riveting, moving, inspiring performances. Later that night, I reflected that if Maharaj-ji was like the moon, then Guruji was like the sun. Maharaj-ji’s concert left me feeling as if I had bathed in a cool river on a moonlight night, and Guruji’s performance felt like fire; all my senses were humming as I tried to take in the sheer energy and intensity he channeled. Where that energy came from, I didn’t know, but I was strongly compelled to dive more deeply into my studies with him. 

On that trip, I also had the great fortune to accompany Khansahib and a few others to Maihar, where his father had been a court musician. We stayed in the haveli where his father had trained him, his sister Smt. Annapurna Devi, and other master artists of the next generation. It is a legendary place. Being the only woman on the trip, I was assigned to sleep in Annapurna Devi-ji’s room. On one night, Khansahib called us to his father’s room. There he played alap for about an hour with three or four of us sitting quietly. Alap is like a prayer in melody—without consistent rhythmic pulse or strict rules of time, alap is a meditation on notes and phrases as they unfold within a specific rag. Khansahib’s alap was in rag Puriya Dhanashree, which he mentioned was his father’s favorite rag. Looking around the room, I saw photos of his father and other earlier-generation artists, Khansahib himself, and his son, Alam. Khansahib put it very simply: he was playing for his father that night. Although this was one of my favorite rags, too, I wasn’t analyzing the music at all; trying not to disturb the magic unfolding, I was enveloped by a sense of reverence for everything around me.

Your research continued well beyond your dissertation and culminated in the publishing of your book, A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora, in 2019. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this book?

Writing about Guruji, a human being for whom I had such incredible admiration, was a challenge in many ways. First, as an ethnomusicologist, I was working to write a book that had scholarly merit. It shouldn’t be merely a hagiographic piece lavishing uncritical praise and tales of his great deeds. And I hoped the book would be both relevant to kathak artists and accessible to laypeople. Second, though Guruji was one of the most influential people in my life, he certainly wasn’t a perfect human being—none of us are. How could I describe the elation, joy, and feeling of empowerment he could help his students achieve, as well as the pain and drama—in a way that was both accurate and respectful? 

Fortunately, even he didn’t want a shallow book filled with gratuitous praise. He even told me, “make it controversial!” Third, the book isn’t just about his life. Guruji’s artistic development was so closely intertwined with his work as a teacher and guru, and training many generations of dancers profoundly influenced his artistic directions.

Trying to capture all that complexity took up a lot of my mental space. The thought also occasionally crept in, “what if I die before I finish this?” It wasn’t about vanity or my career as a scholar; that thought just pointed to how seriously I took my work and how important it felt to share this story. As I completed edits on the book many years later, some of my most productive times would be during Leela Dance Collective Residencies. As opposed to those difficult times in grad school writing by myself late into the night, being in a dance room filled with the sounds of ghungroo, tabla, and melody, and the energy of my dance-sisters as I read, edited, and reread sentences filled me with joy and energy to push the project over the finish line.

You have worked diligently to establish kathak dance in Denver, Colorado as a dance scholar, ethnomusicologist, professor, performer, teacher, and mentor.  How has this experience been for you and how has the community in Denver responded to your efforts?  

Growing a community of dancers in Colorado has been a big job, in addition to the various kinds of work in an academic career. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it on my own! For many years, members of the Indian community in Denver had asked me if I would teach kathak classes; I, of course, invited interested prospective students to attend the classes I was already offering at the University of Denver. But starting a school is a whole other matter. All the work involved, from renting studio space to advertising classes and cultivating longer-term students—basically launching a small business—was beyond my scope to do alone.

That changed when a small group of dedicated University of Denver students, who had been taking part in my ensemble for several quarters, wanted to continue training after graduating. Carrie McCune also approached me to ask if the group could attend a retreat being led by Guruji that summer in San Francisco. They worked hard to try and prepare for the retreat, but still, they were thrown into the deep end! Guruji had a special ghungroo ceremony for them at the beginning of the retreat. I felt a mixture of nervousness and pride as I watched them struggle, flail, and sweat through an intense weekend dancing what was mostly new material from them—even a tarana in a 12-and-a-half beat time cycle! Guruji gave the group, whom he nicknamed “the Game of Thrones Girls,” so much care and attention: talking with them over dinner, inviting them to his home on the day after the retreat, and they returned to Denver with a new level of excitement and commitment to the art form.

Then we started our work. We founded Sureela in 2016 with just two weekly classes: one beginning-level class and another open to students who had studied with me previously. Since then, we have developed a close-knit and warm community of dancers with sincere love and appreciation for this art form. These days, at kathak retreats like the one my early students attended, students from Denver are the first to tear up over the beauty or poignancy of their experiences. Our reputation for such sensitivity and sentimentality leads to a lot of good-natured teasing! As our school has grown, connecting Denver students (from Sureela and the University of Denver) with our broader kathak community continues to be an important part of our philosophy and practice. We’ve also worked to create programming in Colorado that exposes audiences to high-caliber art. These concerts provide vital learning experiences for my students and artistic enrichment to the broader community.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers could learn from? Do you have any words of advice?

First, find your mentors. I have been fortunate to have generous professors, mentors, and guides throughout my academic and artistic career. Find the people who genuinely care about you and your growth and who are willing to share their time and wisdom with you. As they say, one lifetime is not sufficient to learn any of these arts. And perfection is not possible. So it is enough—more than enough—to strive to continue to grow in our understanding and abilities. Be curious, study, and learn as much as you can, but also be judicious in where you put your energies. Make sure that the things you are studying will feed you. Ultimately we can use almost every life experience in the art. That’s what makes kathak such a powerful tool for self-discovery, for creating community, and for connecting to energies beyond ourselves.

As a co-founder of the Leela Dance Collective, can you share your thoughts on the role that LDC plays and will continue to play in the global kathak community trained in Pandit Das’s pedagogy?  What is your vision for the future of the field of kathak?

We founded the Leela Dance Collective out of a desire to create a framework for working collaboratively in developing new works while also supporting one another in solo pursuits. Our Guruji was a visionary who worked for 45 years to establish kathak in the United States, and with the Leela Dance Collective, we are working to build upon that solid foundation. Grounded in his philosophy of “innovation within tradition,” we aspire to push kathak in yet new directions while continuing to plumb its depths. It is invigorating to see dancers of the next generations growing as artists, and I hope the Collective will continue to support artists for generations to come.

About Sarah Morelli

Dr. Sarah Morelli has studied India’s performing arts since 1992 and is active as a kathak performer, scholar, and educator. She was blessed to receive much of her artistic training from two legends of North Indian classical performance: renowned kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and maestro Ali Akbar Khan, from whom she studied vocal music and the sarod, and from their disciples Dr. George Ruckert, Gretchen Hayden, Steve Oda, and Pt. Rajeev Taranath. One of the co-founders of the Leela Dance Collective, her recent performances have included traditional kathak solos, collaborative works, and the Leela Dance Collective productions Ardhanari, En Route: From Calcutta to California, Pragati, the Pilgrimage collaboration, and Son of the Wind. Sarah received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in Ethnomusicology (2007) under the mentorship of Prof. Kay Kaufman Shelemay. She is currently an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music and Chair of the Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology. Her book, Tales of a Modern Guru: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora, is an ethnographic examination of Pandit Chitresh Das’s contributions to kathak dance, and the development of kathak’s “California gharana.” An energetic, inventive pedagogue, Sarah embraces opportunities to share her understanding of the arts in various contexts, from graduate university seminars to kids’ kathak classes, professional kathak performances, and lectures at academic conferences. At the University of Denver, she teaches courses in which students examine the profound and varied connections between music, dance, and other aspects of human experience and leads the DU North Indian Classical Ensemble. Sarah is also founder of Leela Denver, offering kathak classes to members of the broader Front Range community and guest teaching at related schools of kathak.

PHOTO CREDITS: Photo 1 – 2017, PC: Thomas Jennings / Photo 2 – 2017, PC: Paul Docktor / Photo 3 – 2003, Ali Akbar Khansahib and Sarah Morelli /  Photo 4 – 2016, PC: Wayne Armstrong /  Photo 5 – 2016, PC: Sundar Anupindi, Kwikpin Photography / Photo 6– 2015, PC: Seema Mehta / Photo 7– 2006 / Photo 8 – 2019, PC: Carrie McCune / Photo 9 – 2019, PC: Travis Broxton / Photo 10 – 2019, PC: Travis Broxton / Photo 11 – 2017, PC: Rama Sivamani

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The Making of the California Gharana: Seema Mehta

The Making Of the California Gharana

Seema Mehta

As an established kathak dancer, what was your first impression of kathak dance? What encouraged you to take your first kathak class, and what was your very first class with Pandit Das like?

I had a long preconceived notion that Kathak was boring. In Autumn 1998, I was persuaded to attend a performance by Pandit Chitresh Das and the Chitresh Das Dance Company. In just two hours, my perception of Kathak was dramatically transformed. In the first half, I was enthralled by the virtuosity and precision of the entire performance. During the intermission, I remember sipping my tea having no idea of what was to follow. 

The whir and chatter of the full house gradually subsided as the lights dimmed. In pin drop silence, the air thick with anticipation, a small man appeared on stage. In an instant, I was mesmerized by his radiant energy. The immense force of his presence made him seem larger than life. His storytelling was enchanting. His performance of his renowned piece ‘The Train’ propelled me back to my childhood in India. I was intrigued by his ability, using his feet alone, to bring to life an inanimate object. I was spell-bound. At this moment I was captivated by the world of Kathak. I conceived an ambition to study with this great Master.

Less than one year later, I was at the Ashram on Fulton Street, San Francisco. Beginners were taught by Leah Brown, herself a dancer of extraordinary grace. From upstairs, we could hear the thunderous footwork from the advanced classes. Then we were summoned upstairs to join them. The space was vibrating with the sound of the tabla, ghungru, and the voice of Dadaji. I began to comprehend that through Kathak one could experience the depth of Indian culture and that dancing itself offered a path to a higher self.

Guruji instilled in us traditional etiquette – to bow – to honour the space in which we studied. He demanded we shed our self-created limitations. I was deeply moved by the sense of sacred solemnity created when he led the invocation of Pranaam. The entire space was illuminated by a touch of the divine which brought oneness and peace.

When you met Pandit Das, you were studying painting at Academy of Art, and you also are design director for your family’s jewelry business, Kirtilals. Can you tell us about the places where kathak intersects with painting and your experience in jewelry design? 

My father encouraged me to draw when I was a child. I recall one time he drew a Mickey Mouse face, and pointed out that even a slight change in the angle of a pencil stroke could alter a character’s facial expression. His influence led me to study at The Academy of Art, San Francisco.

In my second year there, I also began to study Kathak. The parallels between art and dance were immediately obvious. Drawing a nude figure, a landscape or a still life, where one measures the relationship between various points is akin to the lines of motion which we draw with our bodies in space. Learning anatomy for drawing also helped me understand internal posture and body lines. Principles of drawing such as line width variety can be compared to the musicality of sounds produced by our feet or padhant (recitation). Just as we control the sounds of our feet, we sketch lines with a thick or a delicate stroke. The quality of light the painter captures can be compared to the particular raag, the essence of which defines the mood. Raag means coloring the mind.

The creative process in collaboration with designers from all over India, introduced me to the vastness of Indian aesthetics. For example, in researching traditional jewelry from southern India, I discovered ornaments made during the Chola dynasty, which were often depicted on the carved sculptures. This inspired a number of my later designs and influences the aesthetic choices I make in dance. 

Which aspects of the dance most appeal to you and which are the most challenging?

The solo performance. You are required to hold up a mirror to yourself, to examine your strengths and weaknesses. Alone on-stage, the dancer is exposed and vulnerable. Storytelling requires the dancer to represent all the various characters, transforming from one to the other in the space of a second. To understand the particularity of each character, the dancer has to uncover aspects of their personal emotions. This can take hours of contemplation. Dancing stories, both old and new, connects us more intimately with our past as well as the present world around us. The interpretation and performance of the stories carries responsibility with regard both to the character and to the historical context.

Nevertheless, rhythmic improvisation with live musicians and its attendant risks is invigorating, exciting and joyful. The connection to the musicians, the passage of time, the vibrations of the surrounding spaces merge into a rhythmic conversation that transports the dancer into the present moment.

I had learned two gat bhaav stories from Guruji: the tale of ‘Kaliyadaman’ and ‘Govardhan Giri’. Studying these over many years made me understand how to approach the art of storytelling.

Can you talk about your training with Pandit Das in India and the re-establishment of the school of the parents of Pandit Das, Chhandam Nritya Bharati, an affiliate of Chhandam?

How much I would love to revisit our time with Guruji at our Salt Lake home in Kolkata. A few students from the city or from California would accompany him every year. We would wake up at six to begin footwork practice. Each day, while enjoying our morning chai with hot singada (Bengali samosa), we listened to two and a half hours of bhairavi, starting with N. Rajam ji’s stirring violin followed by Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb’s duet with Bismillah Khansaheb and Hari Prasad Chaurasia ji, culminating with the sublime bhavani dayani by Begum Parween Sultana, whose soaring voice uplifted our souls. Guruji taught us about music and how a Kathak dancer could respond to both the melodic and the percussive. Mornings were often given over to Guruji’s fascinating accounts of his childhood.

Guruji would tune his tabla while we tied our ghunghroo, doing our utmost to concentrate in spite of our nervous excitement. In winter the marble floor was cold, while in monsoon our backs would already be dripping with sweat before we began. Guruji would light incense and begin with pranam. The training would consist of an hour long footwork warm up, singing the lahara, a repeating melodic phrase. Meanwhile, Guruji would climb up and down the stairs wearing ankle weights and carrying five pound weights in each hand. He himself was in constant training. When he had reached the third floor, if one of us stopped even for a brief moment he knew precisely who that was as he recognized each of us by the sounds of our feet. He made sure we trained with closed windows and fans switched off. It did not matter if students made puddles of sweat. And there were, of course, no drink breaks. His training was harsh, but he was preparing us to perform in tough conditions both for dance and for life. He pushed us to surpass what we believed to be our limits. He led by example, always training, testing himself, finding new ways to challenge himself. Although his was a sensitive soul, his training was merciless. He would often ask us, individually, when we were least expecting it, to demonstrate something we had learned. In such moments, I hardly knew what was louder, the sound of the tabla or the beat of my heart.

I vividly recall much about the days spent with him, the scents, the sounds, the tastes of our shared food, the sweet scent of rajnigandha flowers (tuberoses) and chandan agarbatti (sandalwood incense) that filled the room at the start of our morning training. By the end, we were gasping for breath, the air mingled with the odor of mustard oil and fish cooked in the neighbouring house. It is as if it were yesterday. 

Time away from the dance was just as intense. Guruji taught us to be acutely aware of and attentive to our juniors and peers. An open heart, a positive attitude and proper tehzeeb (conduct) were central to his teaching. He was strict but he could be warmly accessible. On occasions we would meet for dinner with other Masters who were Guruji’s childhood friends or collaborators. Such evenings regularly turned out to be more of a gharwa as they would always end in dynamic exchanges.

In 2005, he invited his guru-sister Madhuri Devi Singh, a reputed courtesan, to teach and to share her invaluable knowledge of the Kathak art with us. She dances vigorously with poise and elegance. Her experience of performing six to eight hours daily, seven days a week over five decades has abundantly nourished her imagination. Her natural abhinaya along with intricate ornamentation make her a rare gem. Since 2016, she has been teaching our students in Mumbai. Together with her wide knowledge of the art, she brings her lively spirit, and a wealth of experience. She represents a tradition of courtesan artists that has all but disappeared. I am extremely fortunate to have her in my life and to continue to study with her. 

A special memory was the celebration of Saraswati Puja, when we would perform a short Puja and enjoy a lavishly made Bengali lunch. Even today, my students and I gather on this day to sing and dance and celebrate the goddess of art, music, knowledge and learning. 

When Guruji questioned what we wanted as our legacy, my own answer was resoundingly clear. In April 2010 I founded Chhandam Nritya Bharati in Mumbai.

You worked closely with Pandit Das when he was working at the New Light Foundation. Can you say something about Guruji’s philosophy on Seva through the Arts? What impact did this work have on the children and families?  And what impact did it have on you?

In 2005, Guruji watched a documentary about child trafficking and expressed the will to transform one girl’s life through dance. During that monsoon season, following my Guru-sister Charlotte Moraga’s solo performance in Kolkata, we were introduced to Urmi Basu, the founder of Newlight Foundation. Urmi had established a shelter on the terrace of the red light district in Kalighat. She is an immensely brave woman, a visionary who established this foundation to protect, educate, and support the deprived and grimly disadvantaged children of the sex workers. This was primarily to give the children some space away from the cramped homes and circumstances where they were confined to wait while their mothers worked close by. 

Urmi invited me to spend some time introducing these children to Kathak. The intended life transforming experience ironically turned out to be mine. In the beginning I could feel the mothers eyeing me with suspicion. They doubted my purpose.  

I taught twelve girls for three days after which they presented to their mothers what they had learned. After our pranam or invocation, they performed tatkar footwork, and finished by joyously singing and dancing an uplifting Bengali kirtan: Sri Krishna Chaitanya. One by one, the mothers kissed my hand, thanked me and affectionately said “phirey aashun didi”. Please come back. 

Later during Guruji’s trips to India, he invested a considerable amount of time to training these young women. He trained them in dance, he talked to them, listened to them, made them laugh, celebrated their birthdays, discussed their plans for the future. He brought joy to each one. A few years later, those Newlight students received a travel grant to perform in Germany. A significant moment of pride. Evidence that this was indeed a path of change for each of the girls involved.

At Chhandam Nritya Bharati we aim to open dance and music training to children from all walks of life. We believe that dance is not a privilege but a right. We provide outreach dance programs in Mumbai through Akanksha, Smile, and at the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Home for Children. 


You were instrumental in creating opportunities for Pandit Das to travel back to India to share his Art across the country. What were some of the challenges and successes of that work? What is it like for you to represent him and his work in India?

I remember watching Guruji perform at Ramkrishna Mission, Narendrapur for a young audience. Observing his performance from the wings or from the musicians’ platform was a remarkable experience – to feel the floor vibrate, to sense how he connected with the audience and musicians and how they in turn communicate between themselves. The audience’s overwhelming reaction to this undiscovered genius made me decide to dedicate myself to the promotion of his brilliant artistry.

I did whatever it took to bring his work to India. I booked auditoriums, designed posters, sold tickets, invited guests, helped prepare the backstage, hosted musicians, organized meals, and threw myself into the formidable task of raising funds to make it all possible.

Touring with Guruji was a tremendously enriching experience. My favorite time was the dress rehearsals in the midst of a phenomenal acoustic and organic exchange, witnessing Guruji co-creating with renowned artists. One of the most striking moments was to see the smoke from the agarbatti drifting toward him as he made a powerful entrance on stage, intentionally making eye contact with each musician and finally with the audience. 

Representing him in India is no ordinary undertaking. His artistic and philosophical contributions are beyond measure. He is irreplaceable. He was a source guru, who maintained a traditional approach yet created a Kathak dance style which influenced many in the dance community. His inheritance weighed heavy when he suddenly left us. I continue to practice what he taught and I endeavour to uphold the integrity of his artistic vision. However, in his last years, when he felt I was ready, he encouraged me to find my own voice. 

How did you stay connected to Pandit Das, and your guru-sisters in spite of the geographical distance and why does that continue to be important to you?

As I was leaving California in 2004, Guruji knowingly read deep sadness on my face and said, “Don’t cry, practice hard, very hard and then say namaskar to me. I will feel it from wherever I am.”

Once I moved to India, the intense training I received during the monsoon and the winter kept me fueled for the rest of the year. As for staying close to my guru-sisters, I built a more profoundly rooted connection with them.

We each have unique personalities but we share a common passion to pass on Guruji’s heritage to the next generation.

Over the past six years, my students and I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time learning from two of Guruji’s senior disciples, Joanna De Souza based in Toronto and Gretchen Hayden based in Boston. Through them, I have gained an extended perspective on how Guruji’s Kathak style has evolved over time. Their mentorship is beyond price.

The vision of Pandit Chitresh Das was always to strengthen the relationship between music and dance – what has been your experience with this vision of his and how have you incorporated this into your own approach to the dance?

Music and dance offer access to spiritual knowledge and self-realization. Beautifully rendered alap in dhrupad or khayal lures the listener into a meditative state. One can notate or transcribe music composed by masters, but the ultimate magic lies in the delicate details between the notes, which can be passed on solely through oral tradition. 

Guruji grew up in Park Circus, Kolkata at a time when some of the most prominent Indian musicians were living and performing nearby. Later, in California, his work was notably influenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Much of the music to our signature gat bhaav or storytelling work such as ‘Sita Haran’, ‘Madan Bhasma’, were composed by Ali Akbar Khansaheb and his son Ustad Aashish Khan. Later the work was arranged by Khansaheb’s senior disciple, George Ruckert, who also composed the music for ‘Gold Rush’. Without exception the musicians with whom Guruji chose to work were respected soloists. Learning these compositions provoked my curiosity to understand why a particular raag was chosen to depict the story. This later inspired ‘Ragamala, stories of sound’, a collaboration between Chhandam Nritya Bharati and the Sound Space where we explored the interplay between the raag and Ragamala paintings of the 16th century. Learning from Jayanta Banerjee, who is not only a sitar artist par excellence, but who also understands how to compose for dance has been resolutely formative and rewarding. 

We were trained to sing while dancing; this encouraged me to study singing more formally. I started learning from thumri artist Dhanashree Pandit Rai who stressed “blend your note with the tanpura, you will know when you do”. I began to listen to music far more attentively. Though we sing sitting in our vocal class, I cannot help but mentally choreograph. The rasa or essence of the raag provides a palette to paint a story. 

When Guruji started a class, he always played the drone of the tanpura to which he hummed, then later started singing, often in Bairagi. His powerful voice created an aura which helped us to be both in the moment and yet to feel transported. I aim to bring this holistic approach into my own practice and classroom.

You have created a number of interesting projects of your own, both as a solo artist and with your students of Chhandam Nritya Bharati, many of which have taken place at the prestigious National Centre for Performing Arts of Mumbai, as well as other venues. Can you share some of those projects that you are most proud of?  

I have recently set out on the adventure of creating my own work. An evening presentation with Dhanashreeji on depicting various horis deepened my understanding of bhava and anubhava. Since 2015, I have been closely working with tap dance virtuoso, Jason Samuels Smith, who had a long working relationship with Guruji.

Dancing with Jason is an intense experience. He pushes technical elements of the dance to the boundaries. More importantly, he brings with him a commitment to educate people about his artistic lineage and the collective struggles of his predecessors. 

More recently, for the celebration of Belgian King’s Day, I was commissioned to perform a Belgian story, ‘Maneblussers’ or ‘Moon Extinguishers’. There were risks in developing this. I launched into a humorous story requiring European costume and dancing a well-known traditional Belgian folk tale in the Kathak style.

What are valuable lessons you have learned as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers can learn from? Do you have advice for them?  

Work, learn and discover.

Seema Mehta

Seema Mehta is Director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati, one of India’s leading Kathak institutions with affiliate schools in North America. She is also the Creative Director of Kirtilals, a leading Jewelry brand across India and North America. She holds a degree in Fine Arts from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. For fifteen years, she has trained in a traditional setting with the legendary Kathak master, Pt. Chitresh Das, under the Guru-shishya parampara. As a solo artist, Seema has performed extensively at festivals and venues across India and North America. Her collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith in Rhythm Rewritten has been presented across cities in India, and in 2019 toured North America. In March 2019, Seema was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar, India’s highest civilian award for work in women’s empowerment, by the President of India.

PHOTO CREDIT: Margo Mortiz, Donald Woodrow, Gauri Vipat

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The Making of the California Gharana: Rukhmani Mehta (previously Rina Mehta)

The Making Of the California Gharana

Rukhmani Mehta (previously Rina Mehta)

As a well established kathak dancer, what is it like to look back on your very first experience of kathak dance? What encouraged you to take your first kathak class, and what was your very first class with Guruji like?

Well to be honest, I never had an inclination or desire to study kathak dance. As a child I had studied Bharatanatyam and when I arrived at UC Berkeley as a young college student, I was looking for a Bharatanatyam teacher to continue my studies. My impression of kathak dance was informed by what I had seen in Bollywood movies – and it looked to me like kathak was about looking pretty and flirting. Bharatanatyam on the other hand seemed to have the rigor and gravitas that I was looking for. I was unable to find a Bharatanatyam teacher and eventually, a friend of a friend invited me to come try a kathak class on Telegraph Avenue. I told her that I wasn’t really interested in kathak and she insisted that I at least come and watch a class. 

I remember that first visit to Guruji’s class like it was yesterday. Guruji was sitting on the floor playing tabla and singing Holi Tarana. There were nine or ten dancers in the class, drenched in sweat and moving to the music he was creating. I remained mesmerized for the entirety of the class, losing track of time and any other reality aside from the energy of the class. At one point in time a group of Hare Krishnas passed by the front door of the studio. As the sounds of their music and chanting filtered in, Guruji made a pointed joke about how we were invoking the very Krishna that they were searching for. I don’t remember much after that first class. But looking back now, I can see that some part of me made a decision that day to dive into Guruji’s world. 

What is it about the art and specifically Pandit Das’s teachings of it that particularly inspired you? Are there any particular aspects that resonate with you the most?  Which aspects are the most challenging? 

For me, it was Guruji’s approach to the art, what he represented, what he believed that drew me to kathak. He taught me that our journey in life is ultimately spiritual. Whether we choose to be artists, parents, lovers, leaders, servants – it is all spiritual. The pursuit of the art for him was the pursuit of the divine. His willingness to walk his own journey with courage and grace was inspiring to watch. His generosity in guiding all of his students on their own journeys was unbounded.

Guruji taught me that as an artist you are in service to the art, the divine, your students and your audiences. He taught me to be ever humble and willing to take complete responsibility for not only myself but my peers, students, family, community and society. He taught me how to wrestle with and understand ego, open my heart again and again, and be always in service to something greater than myself. Being an artist is to be a spiritual warrior. 

And the path of an artist and spiritual warrior is an arduous one. At times it seems that all of it is challenging. Guruji’s mantra was practice, practice, practice. Initially, I understood it to apply to the dance alone. But more and more, I understand that life must be approached like that – practice, practice, practice. Every day there are opportunities to be courageous and open-hearted, to live from a place of grace and love. Guruji’s teachings apply on and off the dance floor and infuse all aspects of life. 

You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company from 2004-2015.  Can you talk about your experience training and performing with the company, both in terms of your own trajectory in the dance and the trajectory of an Indian classical dance company performing on the western proscenium stage?

Training and performing with the company was an exacting experience. Guruji, of course, demanded excellence. It was an incredible journey. It is very hard to zoom out and reflect on it because it really was an immersive and all-consuming journey. I feel like once I said yes to being in the company, I was just guided by Guruji, and over the course of dancing and performing in the company, I learned, grew, stretched, and became a dancer. I think being in the company really affirmed for me what is possible in the art form as a company, as opposed to a soloist, what impact company works and productions can have, and how they bring out and communicate very different aspects of the dance which  traditional solos do not. I also saw how important productions and choreographic works were to introducing new audiences to the artform and bringing more and more people into the world of kathak dance. Kathak can be inaccessible; it’s ancient, culturally specific, and there is a lot of nuance and sophistication.

For me, watching Guruji create production after production–taking each from concept to music composition to choreograph to performance–it was a great gift that I got to be a part of that process. I really learned what it is to be a choreographer in comparison to an artist. Costuming, lighting, sound, music, dance. All of that is a part of making a production great. I got to see how much Guruji tried to bridge the gap between the artform and the lay audience. Even as he was creating great works of art, ultimately, the intention behind these great works was about connecting to the audience. Also, I think for me, one of the things I thought was fascinating was that Guruji’s works were consistently about uplifting audiences. He wanted people to walk away feeling uplifted. From him I learned that, as an artist, when you are creating you constantly have to think about what it is you want the audience to experience, to have, how you want them to leave, and what you give to them. Watching him over and over give joy and uplift his audiences gave me a sense of his true purpose in the arts.

Lastly, while Guruji really instilled in us the value of the traditional kathak solo–that we have to perform, preserve, and advance that tradition–I feel that creating choreographic works and productions and establishing kathak on the western stage was a big part of his vision, and part of his vision that I always wanted to be a part of. He believed kathak belonged on the world stage side by side along with the best traditions of the world. He wanted to provide kathak dance an elevated place in society, and he believed kathak deserved it.  

You faced significant injuries and physical challenges throughout your training as a dancer. Most people would have given up if confronted with the seriousness of the issues you faced. Can you describe what those challenges were and how you overcome them and continue to today?  

I was injured within six months of attending my first dance class. One day, quite suddenly, I began to experience intense pain in both of my knees. The pain was debilitating and I saw many doctors, each of whom gave me a different diagnosis. One sports medicine doctor told me that due to structural problems with the placement of my femur bones, I was never going to be able to pursue dance seriously. He prescribed me painkillers and saw me off. I was devastated. I continued to attend Guruji’s class but would sit for the duration of the class–reciting, singing, crying, and watching my peers advance. This went on for eight months as I saw acupuncturists, herbalists, and any kind of alternative health care practitioner I could find. I remember looking to God, trying to understand why I would find a teacher like Guruji and then be confronted with a debilitating injury. Eventually, I found my way to a Pilates instructor who looked at my hips and legs and said that the issue was a simple matter of imbalanced alignment. She viewed the injury as easily fixable and didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t dance. So I began the grueling work of retraining my body’s foundational structural patterns. The process of recovery was bumpy. I would make progress, get excited, overextend myself on the dance floor and reinjure myself. Guruji allowed me to struggle with my body and soul in his class. He gave me modifications, helped me wrestle with my ego, and created an entire low-impact class for me. I was blindly stubborn in my desire to dance, and he was there to provide me with a safe and supportive container within which I could walk the journey I was supposed to. I had incredible support from my guru-sister Seibi Lee, who painstakingly spent hours inspecting my body’s alignment, helping me adjust my technique to avoid injury, teaching me to recite and play manjira so I could stay engaged when I had to sit in class. My injuries were, in some ways, a rite of passage. They tested not only my desire to dance but also my intention. Even now, when faced with an injury, I see it as a sign that I have strayed from the right intention. An injury is a sign that my desire to dance is laced with ego. My injuries help guide me back to a deeper and truer desire to dance–for freedom, joy, and connection.    

One of your first roles at Chhandam was in fundraising–one of the most difficult aspects of nonprofit work. Can you speak about how you became so fearless in this daunting work and the importance of fundraising for nonprofit arts organizations such as ours? How did that work lead to your vision to launch the Leela Endowment, which is unprecedented for Indian classical arts?

I had never intended to get involved in fundraising at Chhandam. I came to Guruji to dance. But one day, Guruji walked into class and expressed his intense frustration at the financial difficulties the organization was having as it prepared to present Masters in Performance, a concert featuring Guruji with Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri, at the Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto, CA. My heart sank hearing him talk. I felt indignity and injustice on my Guruji’s behalf. I couldn’t fathom how it was that great artists, tradition – and – legacy bearers such as my Guruji had to struggle for the meager resources it took to organize a small concert. I was compelled to action and organized a campaign to gather ads from South Asian businesses in Berkeley and the South Bay. Together with my guru sisters, we raised $8,000 to help support that concert. Over the next decade and a half, I became increasingly involved in fundraising for the organization’s work. I helped write grants and organized fundraising events. As I advanced in my studies under Guruji, taught at Chhandam, and performed with CDDC, I began to understand how crucial financial support was for the advancement of the art form.

I became increasingly impassioned about freeing artists from the grueling pressure of making ends meet so that they could carry the art form forward. In 2012, I began to talk with Guruji and the team at Chhandam about an endowment. While everyone could see the merit in establishing an endowment, it seemed like a fantasy. How could a small arts nonprofit raise millions of dollars? Three years later, the year of Guruji’s passing, I decided that it was imperative to establish the endowment. Guruji’s sudden passing forced me to face many realities. One of them was the harsh reality that time does not wait for anyone. I began to raise funds for the endowment in earnest. I am very grateful for those individuals who lent me their belief as I started work on the endowment–my mom and my dear friend Trina Chaudhuri. I am grateful for my guru sisters Rachna Nivas and Seibi Lee, who lent the idea their enthusiasm and belief. I am grateful to Dr. Ushakant Thakkar, who was the endowment’s first major donor. His support and encouragement propelled the work forward. I am grateful to the Leela Board of Directors as well as all of the community of donors that have come together to establish the first self-standing endowment for Indian classical dance and music. 

You were the founder of the Chhandam LA branch, which eventually became the Leela Institute, and then led to the founding of the Leela Dance Collective with some of your guru-sisters. Can you talk about what led you to expand Chhandam to Los Angeles and how that led to the founding of Leela?

My parents were an active part of the San Fernando Valley Gujarati Association in Los Angeles, and each year the association would host a culture show. As a high school student, I would choreograph folk dances for my peers and for young children in the community that would be showcased at the culture show. In 2005, after I had been studying kathak with Guruji for several years, the association invited me along with my guru sisters to come and perform at their annual show. Guruji was thrilled that I was going to be connecting my childhood community with the art form and trained and rehearsed five of us to travel from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to perform in the show. In 2006, I worked with Harkishan Vasa and Nitin Shah at the Jain Center of Southern California to present India Jazz Suites at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. In 2007 a small informal classical music and dance group, the Kichchdi Club, founded by Vijay Bhatt presented my first full kathak solo at the home of Jitendra and Meena Mehta. And in 2008 the Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to expand its work to Los Angeles. I led that expansion and over the next several years built a base of students, audiences and patrons for kathak dance. It was my family and community support and Guruji’s encouragement that led me to build out Chhandam’s work in Los Angeles. Eventually it became clear that in order for the work to expand and reach more people, we needed a locally based 501(c)3 organization. On January 1st, 2015, four days before Guruji passed away, we began operating as The Leela Institute. 

In hindsight, I can relay the story of how the founding of The Leela Institute and the Leela Dance Collective came to be–what events precipitated what and how the various events and activities strung together to eventually lead to Leela. However, to be honest, I was simply taking one step at a time. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to make a contribution in the dance and bring the art form to as many people as possible. Each step was trial and error. I was guided and supported by the Divine, my family, Guruji, and an incredible community. I am eternally grateful to those first students and board members that took a chance on me. Two families, in particular, provided me with the steady support I needed to build Leela–Ruchi Mathur and Mark Pimentel and Swamy Venuturupalli and Rita SInghal. Core members of the San Fernando Valley Gujarati Association treated me like the community’s daughter and provided me with such incredible encouragement–Vijay and Swati Bhatt, Jitendra and Meena Mehta, Sumant and Chandrika Patel and Dinker and Aruna Shah. Harkishan Vasa and Nitin Shah at the Jain Center of Southern California took a chance on the dream I had. The founding of the Leela Dance Collective was organic and once again divinely guided. One year after Guruji’s passing, a few of us gathered at Lake Tahoe to reflect. We had no intention of founding the Collective. We talked about our experiences with the Company and reflected on how we could move forward. Our love of the dance and desire to work together fueled the idea of the Collective. Over time it became an experiment. We are still working out what it means to truly be a collective of artists and dancers. I am thrilled that the collective has produced strong artistic works such as SPEAK and Son of the Wind. What grounds the collective is a shared belief that we can accomplish more together than alone. With the pandemic posing a great threat to many dance companies and performing arts organizations, the collective is going to have to reflect, pivot, and reinvent itself for the new reality ahead. I am looking forward to engaging in this process with my guru sisters and fellow artists. 

You received a prestigious Fulbright scholarship for researching the impact of kathak dance on marginalized young girls in India. What drew you to do this project, and how has that informed and shaped your approach to the dance?  

As a graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, I developed an avid interest in the link between women’s empowerment and health outcomes. Over the two years I was in school, I studied women’s empowerment in-depth. In the summer between my first and second year, I worked at a clinic in Kolkata, taking oral histories of sex workers in order to understand the complex and nuanced relationships they had with power. All the while, I was studying kathak with Guruji and beginning to understand and develop a relationship with my own personal power. My experiences in graduate school and in Guruji’s class began to integrate. At school, I began to see how a woman’s sense of agency and personal power is inextricably linked to health outcomes, and in Guruji’s class I experienced how the study of kathak can facilitate the development of one’s sense of power.

Throughout my career, I had worked with girls and women in immigrant and underserved communities in the United States. It seemed natural to connect my interest in women’s empowerment with my love for dance. I was lucky to have received the Fulbright scholarship. My project was made possible by my Guruji’s support and the support of my guru-sister Seema Mehta, who graciously hosted me in her home for the length of stay in India, invited me to be a part of her school and institution during my time in India and helped facilitate my Fulbright work. It was her passion for serving underprivileged communities in India that helped connect me with an amazing group of students. My Fulbright work continues to shape my teaching. It was that project that taught me how the dance can be a powerful container for young women’s emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development–and how studying kathak can cultivate a sense of agency and possibility in girls at a crucial age.

It was your brainchild to create the documentary, Upaj, on Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith’s sensational collaboration India Jazz Suites. As Executive Producer of the film, can you describe how that came about and what the process was like?  

In 2007 I was working as the Development Director at the Center for Asian American media, an organization that works to elevate the voices and stories of Asian American communities on public television and beyond. That was the year the Chitresh Das Dance Company premiered India Jazz Progressions and Shabd. I had invited my colleagues to attend and was thrilled that almost all of them did. On Monday morning, shortly after I arrived into work, Stephen Gong, CAAM’s Executive Director, walked into my office and asked me why there wasn’t a documentary being made on Guruji and Jason’s collaboration. His question stunned me into silence. He insisted that there was a quintessential Asian American story behind the collaboration. With his guidance and the backing of the Center for Asian American media, I started into producing the film. I raised $10,000 to make an initial reel. I was very grateful to the many people that contributed to that initial pot of money – including Seibi Lee and Noelle Barton. I was very grateful to Shipra Shukla, who jumped into producing the reel, and Hoku Uchiyama, who directed the reel.

From there, we went on to raise more than $400,000 to produce and complete the film. Antara Bhardwaj came in as producer and led the project to completion, helping raise funds, recruit a production team, manage the final editing along the way. The folks at the Center for Asian American media were there to provide support along the way. Upaj premiered at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in 2013 and subsequently went on to be featured at many film festivals around the country and world. I remember feeling a deep sense of pride and satisfaction after the documentary was complete. I had seen audiences across the world erupt in spontaneous standing ovations after watching Guruji perform. But I will never forget the way audiences stood and applauded when Guruji and Jason entered the stage after a showing of the documentary. The applause was deep and slow, reverential and held for minutes after minutes. The applause was pregnant with respect, understanding, and reverence for what Guruji had lost, what he had fought for, and what he had given. I am eternally grateful for the team that made Upaj happen and feel deeply assured knowing that students, dancers, and audiences around the world and for generations to come will have access to Guruji’s story. 

The month that Pandit Das passed away, you were supposed to have a gandabandhan ceremony with him, which sadly did not occur.  What was Guru-shishya parampara to you? What did the ceremony symbolize for you?  

I was supposed to have my gandabandhan ceremony on January 25th, 2015 – the day of Saraswati Puja. Guruji passed away on January 4th. Even though there will always remain a sadness in me that we weren’t able to do the ceremony, I felt that guru-shishya relationship of two hearts already existed. As far as the guru-shishya parampara is concerned, it is the foundation of everything in Indian classical dance and music and it is absolutely necessary for the knowledge to transfer from one generation to the next. It is also necessary for both the full actualization of the guru and of the shishya. I believe that underlying the greatness of all the great artists is that relationship.

I am really blessed to have had a guru that was willing to be responsible for my education and my actualization, not only as an artist but as a human being. For me, becoming a shishya is a lifelong process; I will be becoming a shishya for the rest of my life as I continue to do the art and do the work. It’s not a static thing. You don’t become a guru or a shishya. It’s not a label. It is a way of being and doing that you have to step up and step into every day. Maintaining and sustaining the thread between guru and shishya with care and intention is most critical to the survival and thriving of the art. 

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers could learn from? Do you have any words of advice?

When I walked into Guruji’s class, I was an entitled, Berkeley-bred young adult. I considered myself a proud feminist and believed that I had the right to a voice, a vote, a stake, respect, opportunity, and much more. I had a hard time with what seemed to be a diametrically opposed system of mores in Guruji’s classroom. There you were entitled to nothing. You were asked to show up, shut up and learn. You were asked to trust and obey Guruji. You were asked to surrender your power to him. And you were asked to set your ego aside every day so that learning could happen. If you did not, you could be assured that Guruji was going to beat your ego out of you. I resisted this way of being and doing for years. I fought Guruji as he was trying to teach me. Looking back now, I can see how I was a stupid teenager. I am not sure how, when, and why it happened but eventually, I let go and surrendered. That was when I started learning, and my dance and the path forward opened up for me. Everything became easier. The resistance inside of me had somehow melted. Time and time again, Guruji made demands of me that seemed unreasonable. He scolded me even when it seemed that I didn’t deserve it. He asked me to do things I didn’t understand. I learned in every instance to firstly try to understand and if I couldn’t, simply set aside my reservations, issues and do as I was told. I developed an unwavering trust in him.  Guruji and the dance have demanded more of me than I thought I had to give. But once I put aside resistance and tantrum, I realized that I have untapped reservoirs in me. I rose to meet the demands. 

As I have grown older and faced obstacles and challenges in life, the lessons I learned in his classroom have been invaluable. I understand now that we are owed nothing. We are blessed to have the things we have – families, loved ones, opportunities, homes, food, etc. I have learned to be humble and grateful in the face of all that I have. And I have learned to show up, work hard, be of service, contribute and surrender all of the rest to the divine. My advice to the younger generation is to let go of entitlement and cultivate an orientation of humility and service. To not take anything for granted. And to have the courage to be open-minded and open-hearted. 

As your journey continues to evolve, can you describe your experience as a woman in the arts today, both as a kathak dancer and entrepreneur? 

I get asked this question quite a bit, and I have spoken on a lot of panels that have to do with women in the arts and entrepreneurship. For the most part, I feel really grateful and proud to be a woman doing this work. I feel very lucky to be a woman at this time in an era when women have more opportunities than they have before. I feel blessed that I have inherited all the victories that my mom’s generation and her mom’s generation have won on behalf of women. I think about all of those unrecognized women who have struggled both on behalf of this art form and other art forms. I feel lucky I live in a time with technology that allows me to document my work. I feel responsible that given the opportunities I have, I have to make sure to take advantage of them.  I feel I need to continue to make contributions on behalf of and for girls and women everywhere, and continue to ensure that the sacrifices and the struggles that the women before me had to go through were for something. 

As a co-founder of the Leela Dance Collective, can you share your thoughts on the role that LDC plays and will continue to play in the global kathak community trained in Pandit Das’s pedagogy?

My hope for the Leela Dance Collective is that it serves as a sanctuary for artists who want to continue to learn, grow, exchange, experiment, and innovate. My hope is that it gives artists a home, a sense of community, and a safe space to do their work. I hope that as time goes on, the collective continues to widen its circle to welcome more diverse voices and genres as well as future generations.

Rukhmani Mehta

Rukhmani Mehta (previously Rina Mehta) brings a singular voice and vision to kathak dance. Rukhmani is a founding artist of the Leela Dance Collective, which brings together leading artists from around the world to advance a collective vision for kathak. Her original works include SPEAK, a kathak-tap collaboration; Chandanbala, the story of the revered Jain saint interpreted through the kathak tradition; and Son of the Wind, the story of the India’s mythological hero, Hanuman, brought to life through dance-drama. Prior to her work with the Leela Dance Collective, Rukhmani was a principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, performing and touring with the company’s critically acclaimed productions including, Shabd, Pancha Jati, and Sita Haran across the United States and in India. She has also been a dedicated kathak educator for more than 15 years. She is the founder of Leela Academy, which education in kathak dance in the greater Los Angeles area. In addition, she is a regular visiting educator at kathak institutions around the world, and most recently developed an arts education performance with the prestigious Music Center on Tour program that introduces school children across Los Angeles county to the artistic and cultural heritage of India. Her work is grounded in the belief that kathak dance can be a powerful tool for empowerment and social change. She is the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright award and researched the effectiveness of kathak dance education as a social intervention in underprivileged communities in Mumbai, India. Rukhmani’s most ambitious initiative is the Leela Endowment, the first and only initiative of its kind, aimed at providing the financial infrastructure necessary for dancers to thrive and continue to advance India’s rich artistic heritage.

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The Making of the California Gharana: Rachna Nivas

The Making Of the California Gharana

Rachna Nivas

What were  your first experiences like studying kathak with Pandit Chitresh Das? As a member of the South Asian Diaspora what influence did Pandit Das’s teachings have on your life?

It was 1998 and I was a student at UC Berkeley studying Molecular Environmental Biology with a minor in South Asian studies.  Just to paint the scene of that time – the internet or as we called it “the information superhighway”, was just on the brink of transforming the world (unbeknownst to us).  “Dot com” companies were emerging, but the vast majority of people did not use the internet outside of email and we certainly didn’t have cell phones or even laptops. Technology was not mobile in any way so when we left the house we were focused on absorbing the sensory world around us.  The UC Berkeley campus was as socially charged as ever and not a day went by that I wasn’t in awe of being immersed in this global think tank for science and the searing social issues of the time, like the controversial Prop 209 prohibiting affirmative action in California. 

I was a spirited 1st generation-born South Asian American and very active in our South Asian community and activities on campus, like the Indus club.  We put on sold-out shows of 4000 people every year with a line-up of folk and classical dances (there was really no such thing as Bollywood dance yet), hip hop offerings (it was the 90s golden era of hip hop/R&B), and elaborate comedy bits riddled with inside jokes that only children of South Asian immigrants could collude on.  We were young, brown, and proud.  And it was the most formidable time of my life.  The only problem was that while my South Asian pride was well-intentioned and pure-hearted, I didn’t have any real depth of knowledge about this culture that I claimed to be so proud of.  I was naive, sophomoric – arrogant even. I thought that participating in culture shows, eating Indian food, and wearing Indian clothes made me a worthy ambassador for my heritage. Until I stepped into Pandit Chitresh Das’ class…

I loved dance (bhangra was my favorite at the time), so when I heard about kathak classes by this great master, I was intrigued. I was at the age where the world was a candy store. I was constantly searching for a purpose but still hadn’t found it.   When I casually arrived just across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to an ashram called the Cultural Integration Fellowship, before even walking into the class I could hear sounds of ghungroo vibrating the whole building.  That in and of itself was an energy that hit me.  When I walked in, there were several women dripping in sweat in their salwar kurthas, not looking left and not looking right.  The potential energy in the room that was generated from their focus was palpable.  They were doing things with their feet and bodies that I had never seen in my life.  And at the front of the room was this little firey man – he was yelling “Do or Die!”.  My jaw dropped.  I didn’t understand what was happening.  This is an Indian dance class?  I had seen Indian classical dance, but this level of intensity and focus was otherworldly.   I sat and watched him teach the entire class – it was unrelenting, uncompromising, and provocative.  He was purposefully trying to ignite a fire under his students.  At times he would get up and make goading statements, holding a mirror up to each student and blowing up their programmed thinking about the world.  As I sat there, every part of my body was shaking.  I had no idea that Indian dance could be this physical, emotional, and spiritual all at the same time.  It was an India I never knew.  It was a human experience I never knew.  And I had never ever seen a teacher who gave every drop of his soul to his students in every moment that he was teaching.  At some point, Pandit Das finally looked at me and smirked his first words to me,  “Who are you?”.  Of course he partially wanted to know literally who I was and what I was doing there, but his question was also laced with a deep weight.  It was more like a challenge, “Who are you?  Why were you born?  Do you even know?” 

I didn’t know.  But I was determined to find out.  The rest is history.   

What was it that really drew you to the dance?  Are there any aspects of it that resonated more with you?  What was the most challenging?  

What initially drew me into the dance and made me keep coming back for more was the life philosophy with which Guruji made the dance a platform for.  I was struck by the deep intention we were expected to have in each moment, beginning with how we walked into the classroom, how we conducted ourselves, and what level of consciousness we had at all times.  He reminded us regularly of his own Guruji’s famous words, “I care more about how you walk into the classroom than how you dance.”  It was always about what attitude and open-heartedness we brought into the room and how that should be translated to the way we lived outside the classroom.  I was mesmerized in my early days of study just by the pranam (opening invocation) that we do at the start of every class.  It’s such a deep level of intention, humility, and mindfulness combined with movement, melody, and beauty.  Those four cycles of 16 beats perfectly enwraps the idea that we are not there to just learn dance pieces or execute choreography, but rather to wholly offer ourselves to the pursuit of a higher consciousness, a higher self, and a higher truth of who we each are as individuals in this world.   

It’s this concept and the way in which Guruji extracted it from his students that continued to draw me in.  Because let’s also be clear, it wasn’t about finding a higher consciousness through being New Agey and gentle and sensitive.  Rather it was old-school, tough love with an aim to make us warriors.  And he was okay with his methods weeding out those who couldn’t handle the heat.  He always said “I don’t give sugar coated pills”.  He was actually looking for students who responded to the heat with determination and perseverance – even if it meant taking short-term losses.  Another line of his was “When you tell the truth, you will lose students, but you will gain disciples.” Lucky for me, I was searching for someone to tell me the truth, not just make me feel good in the moment.

And he utilized every aspect of the dance form to do this – its intense physical demands, powerful musicality, emotional breadth of storytelling, spontaneity of improvisation, its playfulness and sensuality, and of course the sheer beauty.  All of them were tools to go deep into the crevices of the human experience, particularly what was uncomfortable.   And when we were drenched in sweat, could barely breathe, and were too exhausted from exertion to tell the difference between our tears and sweat, he would use those moments of emotional nakedness and openness to challenge our belief systems and to breakthrough thinking from inside the box.  So if you ask me about what aspects of the dance resonated with me, I can’t talk about those without pulling up to a higher plane of what it all means.  To me, those specifics are the nuts and bolts of the practice.  I have come to be passionate about each and every aspect of the dance and I feel they are all deeply important to pursue knowledge of in order to be a true kathak artist.  You can’t pick and choose.  You have to be strong in taal, technique, physical stamina, grace, expression, music, recitation and poetry. Tayari, layakari, khoobsurti, nazakat, abhinaya, sangeet, parhant, and kavit.   

But if I’m being honest, if Guruji were a martial artist putting forth the same life philosophies with the same approach and style, I would probably be a martial artist today, not a kathak dancer.  

You have been instrumental in advancing the practice of Kathak Yoga developed by Pandit Das, by pioneering the practice of dancing while playing harmonium.  Can you share your reflections on Kathak Yoga as meditation in motion?

So I can’t talk about Kathak Yoga without telling a great story.  In the first 3-4 years of my study, the Chitresh Das Dance Company was on a trajectory of rising visibility on the mainstream stage.  While I was most struck from Day 1 by the life philosophies with which Guruji imparted the knowledge of the dance, I couldn’t help salivating over the glamour of performance.  So when Guruji started putting me in choreography for the stage, I was thrilled.  I thought I had made it.  At that time, I measured my progress in my study of the dance with the choreography I was placed in or the particular group of dancers I was put with.  So it’s an understatement to say that when he kicked me out of an ensemble piece one day, I was indignant.  

“Rachna, you don’t look good in this and you can’t keep up with the others.  Go stand over there and play manjira (finger cymbals)”.  My ego (and I had a lot of it) was shattered.  How dare he tell me I’m not good enough to dance with them.  I AM good enough.  I stood to the side, playing manjira, pouting, and watching the others do beautiful choreography.  The reality was that I was struggling with that choreography. My body lines were not developed yet as a dancer and I didn’t have the refinement necessary for professional choreography, especially on a western stage, where that was the most important value.  But Guruji wasn’t angry with me in this scenario.  In fact, he seemed totally unphased, which made me even MORE angry.  Did he not care that I didn’t progress?  Am I just dispensable?   At some point, there was a harmonium on the side and he told me to start playing it.  My fingers moved fast on it because of my piano training and he was pleased with it.  But I didn’t like being good at it.  I was angrier than ever. I did not want to be a musician.  I wanted to be a dancer.  And I especially wanted to dance and perform with my friends.  Isn’t that what this was all about?  

Despite this turmoil inside of me, I kept doing as he asked. I started trying to do some footwork while playing the harmonium since he often did footwork while playing tabla. He coined this technique Kathak Yoga because of its concentrative characteristics.  When I started doing this, it made him very happy which made me even more depressed.  I would cry while playing the harmonium and the keys would get wet before I could wipe away my tears.  One day, he came over to me as I was crying.  He slowly leaned over the harmonium and pierced his eyes into mine – something he did sometimes when he wanted to deeply reach your psyche.  It was unnerving, as if someone was peering into your soul.  He paused for a moment and said “Why are you being so stupid?  Don’t you see what this is?  I’m trying to give you truffles and you want Kit Kat.”  He pointed at the harmonium, “truffles” he repeated, and then pointed at the dancers doing choreography, “Kit Kat”.  Then he cracked a very small, mischievous smile and smirked, “Just trust me”.  And he walked away.  

I didn’t fully grasp what he was trying to tell me.  But there was one thing that was very clear –  he believed in something in me.  I didn’t know what it was.  But somehow I had faith in it and I believed that whatever he had in mind, was in my best interest. I didn’t spend time analyzing it or intellectualizing it.  I just surrendered – not to him the person, but to the lesson he was trying to teach me.  So, I started taking the harmonium more seriously.  In other words, I started practicing.  A lot.  We went to India that winter and I was living in the same house with all my guru sisters and Guruji.  We would train together every morning.  But I was so determined to develop the “truffles” that I would wake up before everyone else and secretly work on doing footwork with the harmonium. I was focused.  I was determined.  And I was fueled by my ego, channeling its double-edged sword.  I was not going to allow myself to be left behind. I was going to do whatever it took to make myself relevant and I was going to rise to what Guruji saw in me.   

The more I practiced, the more interesting it became.   I started playing with the different speeds of 8 with my feet, overlaying them on the cycle of 16 while playing the cyclical melody, and also singing it.  It was hard and it demanded a fierce level of focus. It was impossible to think about anything else while attempting it.  At first, I found myself mentally exhausted after practicing it–  a sign of my nervous system being stimulated in ways that my neurological pathways were not accustomed to.  But slowly, I found my mind and body to integrate and I would feel even calmer when I finished my practice then when I started.  Without realizing it, I was embarking on a new journey of looking inward and of elevating my higher self.  The moments of total stillness of mind during the practice of Kathak Yoga, was giving me great power.  But not power over others. Not fleeting power from the external validation of performance. But a spiritual power that was deeply grounded in the discovery of knowledge.  Knowledge of the art, knowledge of the self, knowledge that was building the perfect whole of dance and music.  

When we returned from India, we were in class one day at the ashram and Guruji suddenly rubbed his chin and titled his head up in a scheming manner “I heartd that Rachna is doing layakari (complex playing of rhythms) footwork in kathak yoga with the harmonium?  Is it true?” He looked at me.  I knew better than to fall into the trap of boastfully saying yes.  I clasped my hands together and put my head down in a humble acknowledgement of his statement.  “Show me.”, he said.   I walked over to the harmonium and started doing kramalaya (ascending speeds of footwork).  I started simple with 16 on 16, 32 on 16, but then I went on to fitting 24, 48, 96 on 16 beats while playing the 16 beat cycle with my right hand, pumping the instrument a-rhythmically with my left hand, and singing the cyclical melody.  He was surprised as I kept going – I could feel his surprise and it was motivating me more.  When I finished, he stood there and slowly started clapping his hands in applause, cueing the others to join in. He walked over to me and in a very rare act of affection he lovingly embraced me into a hug.  “These are my teachings.  She is following my teachings.  This is sadhana (lifelong pursuit of knowledge)”.  Then he turned to me and winked, “Now watch the fun my dear.”

There was no turning back from there.  Every class he would put my harmonium table next to his tabla table and we would both play and dance.  He started coaching me specifically in this practice and giving me homework that I excitedly inhaled.  I would call him with my practice stories and share my discoveries.  My footwork technique went from being the softest with the worst clarity in the class to being one of the loudest with the most clarity.  I was innovating with spins while playing, I was improvising for the first time and trying new time signatures like 9.5 beats.  My entire interest and curiosity of the dance was unhinged and my whole being was fulfilled in a way that was indescribable.  It wasn’t even occurring to me that for two full years I didn’t really perform and I didn’t really care.    

One day he began choreographing for a new work to be premiered in the fall home season show.  He decided to create Shabd  – his first ever artistic work showcasing his company doing the technique of kathak yoga.  My guru sisters played manjira and I played harmonium while we danced and sang with no musical accompaniment.  He said “The time has come for the world to see kathak yoga for what it is.  That my students are going deeper into the tradition in contemporary times.  I want the audience to be brought into our practice room.”  And there came the full circle: from desperately wanting to perform, to not caring about it anymore, to being put in an anchor position in a major choreography.  

I realized that when you finally understand that art is ultimately not about performance – but rather a journey of gaining real knowledge – then when you actually acquire knowledge, you treat performance as a responsibility to share the art with the world, rather than a self-serving act.  And the purity of your attitude makes you an even more powerful and impactful performer.  My experience with kathak yoga saved me from the trap of what performance is so often motivated by –  vanity and an empty quest for fame.  Through this practice, I dug my grounding in the art form with deep purpose, knowledge, and responsibility.  

You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company from 2000 – 2015. Can you share your experience of being in such sophisticated productions of that era?  

By the time I was emerging as a performer,  CDDC was gaining quite a bit of visibility in the western performing arts scene, particularly in San Francisco.  This was in part due to Celine Schein Das’ (Guruji’s wife and Executive Director of Chhandam at the time) vision to raise the profile of the company.  CDDC did also have a profile in the 1980s due to Julia Maxwell’s work (Guruji’s 1st wife and original principal dancer), but in the 1990s, Guruji was much more focused on the school and training the next generation. I feel blessed and very lucky to have come in at a time when I had the opportunity to be part of so many spectacular productions that Guruji created, like Sampurnam, Pancha Jati, Shabd, Sita Haran, Darbar, India Jazz Suites, Yatra, Shiva.   It was a time in his career where he was an overflowing wellspring of creative energy.  And he was finally getting to match the caliber of his creative genius with high production value in staging, sets, lighting, and musical accompaniment from great musicians and composers of India who began to work consistently with him year after year (artists like Jayanta Banerjee, Debashis Sarkar, Kousic Sen, Swapnamoy Banerjee).  I think also for the first time Guruji had the support from a burgeoning community of South Asians and a large student base, many of whom were at the level to teach classes and run the school so he could focus completely on being a choreographer and artist.

Just being in the room when he was creating was revelatory, but to be one of the bodies he was painting his choreography on, was sheer joy and exhilaration.  It was the training ground for me to grow as an artist under his close watch – from the almost impossible physical demands of Pancha Jati to the deeply synchronized meditation in motion of Shabd, to the exploration of both male and female character portrayal in Sita Haran and Darbar, to the extremely challenging feat of doing 108 chakkars and high speed footwork wearing a wig and mask, while depicting a stoned tantric sadhu in Shiva.   

While it was thrilling and fulfilling, it was also the most grueling years of training, physical injuries, and deep emotional battles.. It was a constant roller coaster ride both with Guruji’s intense personality and the personalities and group dynamics with my dance sisters.  

Many dancers came and many left for a myriad of reasons, but often taking pieces of me with them, since we all shared such deep emotional experiences – literally trading sweat and tears and moments that no one else in the world could possibly know.  

The price tag was high for being in his company.   But, I think for me, the way that I was wired was that I felt that the price tag of not being in that room with him was even higher.  That is what kept me persevering.  

I think perhaps one of the most invisible aspects of the performing arts is what goes into creating those 1 or 2 hour onstage performances.  From start to finish what does it take? And how is it valued in society?  People know how hard professional basketball players work year-round to compete at the level they do – there are cameras and media and writers at every practice, chronicling every step.  But for dancers, we are behind closed doors.  No one is capturing the labor.  There are no records of the real magic that happens in training and rehearsal.  What is visible is when we step into that spotlight for a brief time, only to disappear again into the rehearsal room.  

You became a full-time dancer in 2010 – not a typical career choice for South Asian Americans and that too after graduating from Berkeley in science and pursuing an MPH.  What led you to make this shift?  What is it a difficult transition?  

Being a dancer was most definitely not what I ever imagined I would be.  There is no road map for it and as a South Asian American, it’s even more against the grain to choose a career that is not lucrative or frankly even viewed as a profession.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have attended Indian gatherings and had people say, “How’s that dancing going? Are you still doing that?”.  One time I responded, “How’s medicine going?  Are you still a doctor?”.  So yes, it has come with a very large set of challenges, none of which help my own insecurities around it.  It wasn’t a simple transition even for me.  In the South Asian community we are indoctrinated with a very particular set of values around education, career, “respectable” professions, and earning power.  As the diaspora now grows into 2nd and 3rd generations, things are evolving out of this singular paradigm thinking.  But I grew up in the 80s.  There was no other generation.  My generation was the first to be born in the U.S and there were not very many of us.  Our parents had no safety net whatsoever.  They gave up their entire families and homes, often going months, even years, without speaking to their own parents, maybe receiving a telegram or two because it was too expensive to call India and the connection was atrocious. So there was no grey area around career.  You study, work hard, go to a good college and get a good paying job. 

My parents, however, were more fluid and progressive when it came to how hard they pushed me. They wanted me to do well and provided me with an environment to excel, but they never put the same kind of pressure that I saw many of my South Asian peers go through.  And they always encouraged me to follow my passions while continuing to pursue my studies.  So when Guruji called me in 2009, the day after my MPH graduation, offering me a full-time position as Co-Director of the Chhandam School, I was faced with a conundrum.  On one hand, it was the most exciting thing to happen – to be able to do what I love, devote my time completely to what I was truly passionate about and not have to continue splitting my mind and energy with an entirely different career.   But on the other hand, I had to confront my programmed ideas of success. I would have to take a dramatic pay-cut from my public health work.  I would have to contend with the question – will I be respected in society?  In my community?   

In the end, it dawned on me that there were hundreds of thousands of people who could do the public health work that I was doing.  But there were maybe 10 people in the world who were being trained at the level that I was being trained by such a rare and extraordinary master of an oral tradition and artistic lineage that had somehow survived multiple wars, regime changes, attempted extinction by British colonizers, and was now being handed to me on a silver platter on a different continent like a precious jewel.  In addition, I had not only the emotional support of my husband, but the financial safety net to take the risk.  I knew that many of my guru didis who came before me and a few of my guru sisters at the time did not have this privilege.  It was an even harder struggle for them to make this choice. I had the chance to embrace the privilege that I had.  And my parents, while hesitant and concerned about my individual financial agency, were ultimately supportive of me to follow my dreams.  I would never have been able to do it without this emotional support of my family.  It is an uphill battle everyday to choose the path of an artist but if you have to fight for it at home also, it would be next to impossible.  Their sacrifices through the years can never be separated from my journey and my successes.  

Can you share your thoughts on activism in arts? As an arts activist, what are some of the issues you are most passionate about?

Its funny – a lot of people have asked me why I consider myself an activist.  Some people are even confused by it.  It seems that there is something intimidating about that word.  In the dictionary it’s defined as, “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change.”  There is no mention of how you go about bringing that change.  So while my kathak journey has not been political, it certainly has been always about bringing social change.  The day I met Guruji, I saw him as nothing but an activist.  He himself said, “I’m not a dance teacher, I’m a dance preacher.”  And his entire approach to the dance was how it can be utilized as a platform to undo the shackles of societal norms that we live by.   And he pushed us everyday to mobilize community, raise awareness, and most importantly change and expand people’s perceptions of Indian classical art.  This is the piece that resonated with me the most, particularly as a South Asian.  I was angry when I first began studying the dance (and I still am!).  I was angry that I was so ignorant about Indian classical art.  How come there are so many White folks devoting their lives to this and adopting a culture not even their own, yet the masses of South Asians were uninterested, uninformed, and even misinformed about Indian arts.  Fifty years after colonization we have continued to devalue our own great cultural innovations, while the rest of the world is in awe of them.  It’s not the fault of my community – our battered history is the root cause.  But this is why it’s one of my biggest drivers of advocacy and activism.  To first change how my own community values its own culture – not today’s Indian pop culture that is entirely framed by the West.  But rather, the rich artistic heritage birthed in the Indian subcontinent – aspects like her dance, music, poetry, literature, yoga, and ayurveda.  

The other issue paramount to my work is how kathak dance is viewed, funded, and presented in the western arts field.  It requires a great deal of advocacy to elevate a non-Eurocentric art form within the framework of a field created and managed by White Americans.  The West values constant innovation, disruption, individuality, irreverence, and anti-authoritarianism.  While the East values tradition, continuity, consistency, community, depth of knowledge, reverence of our elders.  As an arts activist, I take very seriously the charter to create a bridge between these two often clashing value systems – bringing relevance and modern thought to evolving our art in modern times but without losing its intended purpose and integrity,  just to make it fit in the western system.  That means fighting that system as well as having the courage to create our own system, including how to value Indian artists financially.    

You have an incredible ability to reach youth, particularly through your mentorship and direction of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company.  Can you talk about this experience and why you consider it a youth empowerment program?  

Teaching is a gift.  It was instilled in us early on that the trajectory of one’s study of the dance must include teaching. And fundamentally, Guruji did not believe one can isolate performance from teaching.  I am forever grateful for this foundational value.  Over the years, I have come to realize that teaching provides the necessary delicate balance from the often ego-driven performance aspect of being an artist.  Performance is incredible, exciting, and necessary to transport oneself and the audience through the medium of the art.   But performance is not always a spiritual experience.  There is high pressure, concern for the audience’s reaction, insecurities about your work, technical problems, stage and sound limitations, and so forth.  And the adrenaline, while exciting is usually fleeting.  Even further, it’s hard to understand the impact you are making when you perform since you often never see those audience members again.  That is why teaching brings such a contrast.  It brings patience, long-lasting relationships, community, empathy, understanding of life experiences different from your own, and deeper knowledge of the art form itself.  Teaching is truly a mirror to yourself as you start to see your own characteristics in your students – both good and bad.  

As far as teaching youth are concerned, I never consciously saw it as a particular calling for me. But I started to realize over time that I have an ability to relate to the kids, particularly children of South Asian immigrants, whose lives I had lived 20 years earlier.  And while I was frustrated with my own peers and my parents’ generation for knowing so little about Indian classical art, I realized that I could channel that passion to ignite a fire in the next generation.  Somehow that passion turned into something more meaningful than I could have ever imagined.  The kids teach me so much more than I feel they learn from me.  And on a personal level, I have gone through over a decade of fertility struggles and have been unable to have children of my own.  So having the opportunity to nurture children means more to me than perhaps I have even realized and more than I’ve ever spoken about.  

With the Leela Youth Dance Company, I have shifted the focus from being only a pre-professional performance troupe to being a youth empowerment program.  I think it’s important to instill in our youth, particularly South Asian youth, not just pursuit of excellence, but also compassion, leadership, agency, responsibility, and their own amplified voices for social change.  Gen Z is a special generation!   They are poised to truly shift our systems that determine how much tolerance, inclusivity, equality, and social consciousness we have as a society.  And embracing the depth of their own heritage and history while pushing their physical and spiritual boundaries through the dance, is the leverage they need to truly become the leaders of tomorrow.  For me as their mentor, I measure my own success as a leader, not by how many students I train, but rather how many new leaders I create.  

You are known for your charisma and dynamism as a kathak artist. Which aspects of your style do you feel are more directly derived from Pandit Das’s teaching, and which are more unique to you and your experiences as an artist?

It’s a tough question because when you study in a one-to-one mentorship for so many years, the lines become blurred as to what is your own and what is an extension of your teacher.  I can certainly say that what I naturally gravitated towards was the dynamism of the dance – growing up I have always played and competed in sports.  So the athleticism, the spontaneity, the improvisation, even its playfulness and excitement of not knowing what’s coming next are aspects of my style in the dance today that are derived from both my background as well as Guruji’s approach.  Guruij, himself, used to talk at great length about his own love of sports.  So it’s something that was a big part of him that inspired his style and that I also chose to develop more because of how it resonates with me.  

I also very much appreciate the tradition of kathak that allows for the performer to address the audience (breaking of the 4th wall).  I have always found this to be such an endearing, sincere, and human aspect of the solo kathak performance tradition and it comes naturally to me as well.  I prefer to connect with the audience through not just my dance but also words, humor, and personality.  To me, it provides a human pathway to relating to the art, rather than leaving it entirely up to the interpretation of audience members and the performer being an unknown enigma.  

I do find that my own artistic works that I create are emblematic of not only my personal life journey but also my place in this world as a woman.  I chose to create a work called Meera, about the 16th century princess Meerabai, born into steep patriarchy, but finding ultimate liberation through poetry, song, and dance.  I felt connected to her not only as a woman but also because of the way spirituality was exposed to me in my childhood upbringing – which was rarely through temples or priests but rather through kirtans (singing devotional songs for the divine) especially for Lord Krishna.  This is in stark contrast to Guruji’s upbringing.  I also found that the kathak/tap collaboration, SPEAK,  that me and Rine Mehta co-created with female tap artists Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, has a very different take on the kathak/tap conversation that Guruji and Jason Samuels Smith had in India Jazz Suites.  Those of you who haven’t seen the show will have to watch it to make that assessment for yourself!  

You have served in many administrative roles at the Chhandam organization during your many years.  Is there any particular highlight of this work that you would like to share? 

I served in so many different facets of the organization – starting when I was 20 years old taking in student inquiries, which taught me at the very beginning how to speak about the art form, the teachings, and the community we were serving.  In later years I had the opportunity to build the Fremont branch and gain an even deeper understanding of what was required to raise awareness, appreciation, and commitment of Indian classical art amongst the South Asian community.  But what I am most grateful for and was the most impactful learning trajectory for me was stepping into the role of Co-Director with my gurusister Seibi Lee.  In these years, Seibi and I had the great honor to direct huge dance drama productions under the guidance of Guruji, particularly the Ramayana school show in 2009 and 2011, presenting close to 300 students on stage with community members and parents chanting the various Sanskrit verses pertaining to each scene.   These were massive undertakings – not only did my own understanding of these great epics deepen, but I was able to observe Guruji’s own influences from Uday Shankarji in Kolkata around dance dramas and I had the chance to apply that artistic knowledge in real time with the students.  

It was also a great honor to develop and further the curriculum of Chhandam under Guruji’s guidance.  We were able to build upon the groundwork that former CDDC principal dancer, Michelle Zonka, had laid and we had the opportunity to spend hours upon hours with a magnifying glass into Guruji’s brain on why each and every piece of the curriculum was created and ordered in the way it was in order to manifest a knowledgeable and well-rounded kathak dancer.  It is these experiences that I carry forward with me as we now continue to evolve and build our standards-based curriculum into 2021 and beyond!   

You were scheduled to have a gandabandhan ceremony with Pandit Das on January 31, 2015.  He sadly passed away 3 weeks before this.  What was guru shishya parampara to you and do you have any feelings about not getting to go through with the ceremony? 

The word “guru” in our society has become either used too lightly (finance guru, a teacher from one workshop) or something that evokes images of a cult leader who robs you of your individual agency. I have been taught that the guru-shishya relationship is an evolving and growing bond through which the knowledge of the discipline you’re studying unfolds over time. A guru is much more than a teacher.  He/she does not just teach you in the classroom. That goes without saying and the training is brutal and merciless.  But after the class is over, when the body is exhausted and the mind is invigorated, that is the time when our defenses, biases, and blockages are the most open to change.  It’s that time spent off the dance floor that I had my most profound moments of realization, perspective shift, of expansion of thinking. 

It was the post class trips to Whole Foods together, the private rides to/from the airport, the plane rides on tour, the thousands upon thousands of meals we shared together, the many trips to India, and the social gatherings that he always pushed for.  A guru takes the time to get to know the student inside and out, what makes them tick, what is the context of their upbringing, and gets to know their family members and the people who are important to them. A guru has the ability to make the student feel seen and believed in, while pushing them to see their flaws.  

Guruji loved being called “modern Guru in training” because it meant that he was always learning too.  He knew he had to evolve and continue to grow until his last day.  But there is no such thing as a Guru without a willing disciple.  So I did my part too, which was trusting in the relationship.  That was not always easy.  There were many ups and downs and coming to terms with his flaws too. That was very difficult for me and did not happen right away.  Guruji was not always an easy person to be around.  It was a pressure cooker and often his volatility was due to his frustrations and pains of his own journey. His pain often came out in the presence of my family members or friends, who had no way of understanding that context – which often made it more challenging for me to garner the very support he was seeking.  And I had to learn the hard way how detrimental it was for me to absorb his pain, as opposed to listening and preserving my own boundaries. They say that if you stay too far away from the Guru’s fire, you will never get to experience it’s warmth, but if you get too close you can be burned.  It is an art to learn that push and pull.  

I often feel sad that my gandabandhan ceremony could not happen.  To me it was a symbolic legitimacy of the 17 years I spent with him.  But I have come to see it as not happening for a reason – that since in my heart I never needed it to truly honor the relationship, the ceremony was not necessary.  The “string” is forever in my spirit.  

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers could learn from? Do you have any words of advice?

There are hundreds of lessons but here are three top of mind: 

  1. That the dance shows you a way to face your insecurities and fears.
  2. That as a South Asian, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to preserve and promote pride for classical Indian art, culture, and history and to open the window of its universality to people of all backgrounds. 
  3. How to do seva (service). But when I say seva, I am referring to sevafor myself. I wouldn’t have the audacity to claim I am doing sevato others since ultimately, doing service to the community is cleansing and polishing my own inner self.

My advice to all is simple.  Think less. Feel more.  Art is not an intellectual exercise!  

I am referring purely to studying the art itself.  Not about how to organize or be an arts administrator or promote yourself or be a professional dancer.  Those all require a different set of skills.  But if you don’t study the art.  Really study.  None of those other things matter.  From disciplined study and practice, all the other answers will come to you. 

As a co-founder of the Leela Dance Collective, can you share your thoughts on the role that LDC plays and will continue to play in the global kathak community trained in Pandit Das’ pedagogy?

I have been very fortunate to have many powerful gurusisters over the years.  I am not in touch with all of them anymore but each one of them has meant something different to me and I will always cherish the time I spent with them and the many things I learned from each of them.  I have been even more fortunate to have a few gurusisters – Seibi Lee, Rina Mehta and Sarah Morelli – who I have been able to build a longer lasting sisterhood with, and whose values align with mine at the very core of our approach.  The most important value being that we wanted to build something into the future that was not about any one of us.  That was not built on one singular personality or leader.  But rather was built on collective leadership, collective creativity, multiple voices, and a larger cause that we hope will continue far beyond our lifetime.  That is what the Leela Dance Collective represents.  Our premise is to carry forward the teachings of Pandit Das while taking the art forward, creating cutting-edge artistic works of our own, and making the art increasingly accessible while preserving its depth and integrity.   It’s not an easy feat by any means.  But we felt that if we can work together, even if it might be harder to navigate group dynamics (never a dull day!), ultimately we would go much farther.  

With the help of the next generation and blessings from the divine, we have been able to build a national presence in four cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Denver.  I am humbled by the incredible women I get to work with and excited to continue to carry the torch of our lineage into the future.  

Rachna Nivas

Rachna Nivas is a leading artist, educator, and activist in Indian classical dance, bringing a relevant voice to kathak.  She is a founding artist of the all women-led and artist-led Leela Dance Collective producing powerful works through the collective creativity of trailblazing women in kathak.  She is currently touring her collaborative work SPEAK, bringing together kathak and tap, as well as her dance ballad, Son of the Wind, featuring 20 dancers and a live orchestra.  Her original solo work, Meera, was featured at the ODC Walking Distance Festival in San Francisco and at Salvatore Capezio Theater in New York City. Her original work Stir, choreographed for the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, was featured at the WorldWideWomen’s Girls Festival.  Her works have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, California Arts Council, and Zellerbach Family Foundation.

Prior to her work with Leela, Rachna was principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, of which she received two nominations for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award while performing in numerous productions.  Rachna is also the artistic director of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, shepherding excellence, leadership, and creative discovery amongst teens. She is also Director of Leela NY, the NYC chapter of Leela Dance Collective, bringing her lineage of kathak to the dance capital of the world.

PHOTO CREDITS: Rachel Neville, Margo Moritz, Brooke Duthie, Matt Sumner, Rama Sivamani

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The Making of the California Gharana: Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

The Making Of the California Gharana

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

What is it like to look back on your very first experience of kathak dance? What encouraged you to take your first kathak class with Pandit Chitresh Das, and what was your very first class with him like?

Born and raised in Salinas, California, at some point I may have heard of kathak, but knew little to nothing about it. Though I danced as a child, I didn’t have access to the arts of South Asia for learning purposes. From the age of 5 until 18, I trained in ballet, jazz and baton twirling. I had been exposed to the music of India and Pakistan growing up – some classical, light classical, Ghazal, and quite a bit of Qawwali. My parents would take us to concerts, and though I didn’t realize it then, I was being introduced to living legends of various musical genres of South Asia. 

It was when I was in my first year of college at San Francisco State University that I was itching to get into a dance class as it was the only form of physical activity I had known growing up. Seeing that “Classical Dance of India” was offered, I decided to give it a try, but still knew very little about what I was enrolling in, or who the teacher would be. I was also drawn to learn more about my culture through the arts, but I had some reservations based on my own cultural insecurities. I thought that my previous dance training would likely help, but was still uncertain about taking the class. When I told my parents of this class, and mentioned the teacher’s name, Chitresh Das, I still remember my father saying to me, “You must take it. He is one of the best.” To this day, I credit those words, and that nudge from my father for forever changing the course of my life.

I can’t believe that my first kathak class was 25 years ago. I still remember it all so clearly. Guruji was on his winter performance and teaching trip to India so our class had been taught by one of his senior students at the time, Jaiwanti Das Pamnani. There was quite the buzz amongst the students, as there were some who had taken his class previously, that the man we were about to meet was intense, and likely comparable to no one we had ever met before. This could not have been more true. 

Guruji walked into the room, pulling his tabla bag on wheels behind him. He used to sit and play tabla at that time, so as his tabla was being set up, he walked around the room. He stopped near me and asked me my name and when he heard my Muslim name – he asked me where my family was from. When I told him Pakistan, he nodded, but then he asked, “but are you an ABCD?” I looked at him with confusion so he quickly knew I didn’t know what he meant so he asked, “Where were you born and brought up?” When I said, “Salinas,” another nod and a peculiar look in his face, followed with, “A Pakistani Salinas girl. Interesting…” 

Within moments of that dialogue, he was teaching, we were dancing, and I could feel that my kismat had led me somewhere special. 

Our lineage of kathak emphasizes a very deep study of kathak, including physical readiness, rhythmic facility, beauty, and delicacy, an understanding of Hindustani music theory, South Asian philosophy and culture, and storytelling. Which element or elements of kathak came more easily to you, and which have been the most challenging?

I honestly wouldn’t say that any of it has come easy to me. My previous dance experience helped me to have an awareness of my body, feel a comfort with coordination of movement, and also be rhythmically connected. BUT, the ocean that is the classical arts of South Asia is so very deep, that though the skills I had prior to studying with Guruji were helpful, I was introduced to so many elements that I never experienced before. I distinctly remember feeling very challenged by the aspects of dancing and reciting in taal. And actually, now that I think about it, when I had to sit and recite, I found it most difficult. I can now reflect on what kind of learner I am, and I believe that for me, executing through movement, and consciously or not, dancing in taal, felt far more natural to me than reciting and keeping taal with my fingers. I had never learned music before, so this was my introduction to this, and my body and mind often felt closed off to it. 

Observers often comment about the grace I have as a dancer, and don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for these compliments, but I believe there is an assumption that this came easy to me. Again, my ballet training had me holding my body and hands a certain way, but modifying to fit the kathak aesthetic was important to me, so I would take a lot of time on my own to refine these aspects of my dance. 

And oh the physical vigor of Guruji’s style! In all honesty, it was, and in my ways continues to be a love-hate relationship, but ultimately I love the feeling of getting to that place of liberation through dancing so hard I think I am going to collapse. To this day, this remains my greatest reward (when I don’t feel breathless because I’ve been consistent in my practice and thus my stamina reflects it), and my greatest challenge (basically knowing what I could have done to prevent the feeling of not dancing as hard as I know I can because I didn’t stay true to my riyaaz and sadhana). 

With regards to abhinaya and storytelling, this developed slowly over the years for me. I couldn’t force myself to get there – it wasn’t like other aspects of the dance for me that through repetition it would come. This is probably the most centering aspect of kathak for me as it has led me to a place of empathy of which I truly believe that to be able to express emotion on the outside, you have to feel the emotion from the inside first. When I think back to the years of training with Guruji, he rarely “taught” us abhinaya. He would demonstrate, but he would rarely tell us exactly what to do. It was those years of observing him tell the most heart wrenching to the most uplifting stories, that more than how he looked or danced, it was the feeling he brought to the most nuanced of movements. I am so very grateful for what those experiences of watching him gave me, and how they have informed my own dance from the inside out.

You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company during an era of incredible trajectory towards high production value artistic works of Pandit Chitresh Das that were presented on mainstream stages. Can you talk about this experience? Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences to share from your time in the company?

Watching Guruji create and choreograph was pure joy. Of course there were days where it flowed better than others, for him and for those of us that he was choreographing on and for. But when Guruji was on, he was just so on. He would bring this oneness to his movement and the music, and he would get inspired by the story he was telling, the taal he was exploring, sometimes even a movement that one of us would make. Leading up to a production definitely involved some blood, a lot of tears (I was the crier in the group) and tons of sweat! 

Thinking back to the many productions I was able to be a part of, there are just so many special memories. I did always have a very special place in my heart for Darbar as it was the first production that I was involved in in 1998, and also because Guruji involved my father in this reciting Urdu poetry. 

The first version of Pancha Jati in 2002 also stands out in my mind. The way we had to physically train to meet the standards of his choreography at the time was insane, and yet the demands of our weekly training classes were already so high. I suppose that is the point though. To Guruji all was limitless, and he expected us to have the same boundless aspirations in the way we approached our dance abilities. 

It would also be remiss of me not to mention about the unique experiences that came from each performance tour to India with Guruji. I feel grateful to have accompanied him on so many trips, share iterations of what we performed in the U.S. and get a window into the performing arts world, and who he is as an artist in his homeland.

The second to last production I did as a member of CDDC was Shiva in 2013, in which Guruji cast me as the somewhat errant disciple. This project took a toll on me emotionally to say the least. My relationship with Guruji had started to shift in the couple of years leading up to this production, but when tensions had come up, it had never bled into the artistic expression in this way. As was Guruji’s style, there were always messages woven into everything he did and said, but somehow this time felt different, and though as always there were aspects to the choreography, including my role, that I loved and felt wonderfully challenged by, this was also a turning point for me in my connection to him, sadly in the direction of creating greater distance.

You were not only a dancer with CDDC/Chhandam, you also devoted many years of your time in various aspects of the organization – as an administrator, teacher, and branch director.  Can you talk about what you learned in that process, what is required to mobilize communities, and what it takes to build a culturally-specific organization of this caliber in the western world?  

Being involved in the administrative aspects of CDDC/Chhandam began pretty early for me in my association with the organization. In fact, I believe I was the first South Asian to fully commit my time to the organization through my dance and administrative responsibilities, as it had been the non South Asians that had taken on this level of commitment prior. Initially I was a volunteer, helping out with tasks related to the school and other odds and ends, but pretty quickly that developed into me working alongside Celine to help with multiple aspects of not just the school, but also quite a bit of outreach related work for performances for Guruji and the company. I am deeply grateful for the amount of experience I gained through this aspect of the work as it uncovered the multi layered environment of arts administration, and after accumulating so many skills over the years, it is what enabled me to not go into creating my own organization, Noorani Dance, blindly. 

Through the various roles that I filled, I had to engage with both our base of students, their families, and our donors – most of whom were South Asian – as well as interact with those in the mainstream arts community – other artists, funders, and presenters. There was the constant need to navigate the different ways to speak about our work, educate one or the other on the importance of what we were doing, and attempt to deepen their involvement and interest. I believe both sides – the South Asian community and the mainstream community were often taken aback at what we were accomplishing as an organization – artistically and administratively. It was rare to see an organization that was steeped in a culturally specific artform perform at prestigious venues, receive the types of grants we were receiving, and overall, get the attention and accolades in various ways. This is most certainly credited to Guruji’s artistic vision, and Celine’s fearlessness about positioning CDDC/Chhandam in the same categories as many larger, more established, and frankly more white, organizations. However, a great deal of credit also goes to the many of us, whom over many decades worked tirelessly to contribute to these efforts in various ways – often sacrificing our financial stability and our growth as dancers. 

I really did, and still do love, the work that is generally referred to as Arts Administration, and just like any entrepreneur, there is your core business – the art in this case, inclusive of performance and teaching related work – and there is also the infrastructure and operations. With non profit organizations, that includes quite a bit of fundraising as well. As much as I enjoyed the work, trying to balance that with my dancing was always a challenge. If there was something deadline driven related to my administrative role, I may have had to miss a class or rehearsal, and that resulted in quite a bit of resentment on my part. This I believe is the ongoing challenge for many in the arts. 

Artists rarely receive a salary that reflects their value based on their skill and merit. The quandary also exists when the artist and/or their organization is trying to save money but needs to ensure that the administrative tasks are being completed so they often end up taking on the tasks themselves. Though at CDDC/Chhandam, Guruji was not necessarily pulled in this way, many of the members of the company were. Also common to many arts organizations, administrative roles received a greater level of pay, so to earn a “decent” living, a dancer would take on such a role, but again, it would pull them away from their dance. 

I look towards the time when arts and artists are valued for what they bring to the cultural ecosystems on a global scale. Arts has the opportunity to create jobs for many, even within our relatively small organizations, however the artists must be prioritized as being compensated adequately. I believe this is a challenge faced by many, and getting our base of donors, audience members, etc., to understand this is crucial in sustaining any arts organization. 

What did you find most inspiring about Pandit Chitresh Das’ work and can you share your thoughts on observing his evolution as an artist during your time studying with him?  

What continues to inspire me about Guruji was the depth of his commitment to both his performance career and to training his students. Even as he was traveling more for performances, when he was around his company or other students, the energy he gave to teaching was far from lacking. He truly believed that both filled his soul and spirit, and it is this influence that has shaped my own thinking about how much I value both teaching and performing. 

Additionally, many, especially outside of his organization or close circle, always saw Guruji as being almost exclusively physically vigorous, and some may say he lacked softness or nazaakat. In my latter years at Chhandam, I recall some of my peers saying that they were observing an increased sense of softness in Guruji’s dance style, especially after becoming a father. I however, feel that Guruji was, and still is, one of the most graceful dancers I’ve ever seen. From the first time I saw him perform in 1996 when he did Draupadi Vastraharan, to the days of my last few classes with him, he was certainly ever evolving in all aspects of his dance including this one, but I also want it to be acknowledged that this was always a part of him. 

There was of course an excitement he brought when executing his out of this world footwork and physically demanding technique, but for me, I was, and am forever in awe of his storytelling and grace. And going back to me getting compliments about my grace, I’ve sometimes been told that this doesn’t seem like my Guruji at all. I take great pride in responding that my grace is absolutely credited to him, his style and my constant desire to be as graceful as he was.

After studying with Panditji and being a part of Chhandam for 18 years, you made the decision to leave the organization, also cutting ties with Panditji. Can you talk a little about what led you to make this choice?   

In 2014, I decided to attempt to navigate this path on my own. The environment within the organization had shifted in a way in which it was no longer fostering growth for me as a dancer, nor as someone that I felt could positively contribute to, or be aligned with the Chhandam community. I was constantly unhappy, and with my daughter Aziza Noor now in my life, I just didn’t want to be this unhappy person anymore. There was a feeling of being stifled and the two things that had kept me happiest for so many years – receiving training from Guruji and feeling myself constantly go deeper in the dance – were no longer my reality. My relationship with Gurji had declined significantly, and in my mind and heart, there was no way for me to move it forward in a way that felt true to myself, or to him, for that matter. 

Stepping away from the Guru is often frowned upon in traditions such as kathak, but carrying the dance forward on my own felt like the best way to continue to honor his teachings, and enable me to discover my own artistic voice. The last time I saw and spoke to him did not end well, but I truly believe that the decision I made to leave Guruji’s direct guidance and be away from his physical presence was actually not cutting ties with him at all. My connection to my Guru has always been through the dance, and in those latter years, both the relationship with him and my dance were suffering. Reconnecting with my dance more deeply allowed me to rekindle the many lessons he shared on and off the dance floor, and reunite me with the reason I do what I do, to deepen my commitment to it, and to share the gifts he gave me over the years. 

Just as the time of initiating my study with Guruji, I believe this pivotal shift in my journey was my kismat. 

For the last several years, you have performed and collaborated with artists in Pakistan as well as the US. What draws you to that work in particular? What, generally speaking, is the state of kathak in the country today? And would you share one or more memorable experiences from your work in Pakistan?

I had always wanted to do work in Pakistan, but for one reason or another, the timing had never been right. In 2015, following the premiere of my first full length work as an individual artist, The Twentieth Wife, a strong desire to dance in Pakistan resurfaced for me. I contacted family and friends in Karachi, and was overwhelmed by the interest and enthusiasm I received to set up a tour. Though I was excited to achieve a long time goal of mine, I also had quite a few concerns and questions. Was it safe for a woman to dance in public? What labels might be placed on me for being a daughter of former Pakistani citizens, now returning as a professional dancer? Would I be ridiculed for my American accent? What aspects of Kathak should I perform, fearing I would do something “too Hindu” provoking anti-Indian sentiments? What were the musicians going to be like— would they give me respect as a female, as a dancer? How would I connect with these musicians—based on cultural, language and possibly gender based judgements? The one thing I take great pride in saying that I never had doubts about were my abilities. I had faith that the years of training with Gurji, and my commitment to my riyaaz, would allow me to represent myself, this art form, and the style of kathak that had been passed on to me, with confidence and integrity.

Fortunately, my doubts were met with resounding positive outcomes. From the first time I rehearsed with an ensemble of Pakistani musicians, to teaching groups of men and women—many of whom had never taken a dance class, to performing for audiences of multiple generations, people have been excited, appreciative, extremely respectful and encouraging. Since my initial visit I made for the purpose of dancing in 2015, I have gone back multiple times a year to teach at various institutions and performed at festivals and venues throughout the country. Even this year, I was scheduled to be there twice and would have spent over 2 months there of which I was to work closely with other artists for future collaborative projects. 

With each visit, I’ve been able to deepen relationships with artists of various genres of dance, music, theater, and fine arts, increase awareness of kathak as an art form, and not only represent myself as a Pakistani Muslim American woman performing and teaching dance, but also influence multiple generations to rethink their perspective on dance and dancers. Through these experiences, I’ve also come to better understand the history of dance in Pakistan and how politics and extremism has and continues to determine the role of dance in daily Pakistani culture.

As Pakistan developed its infrastructure in its first two decades as a nation, music and dance were a beloved presence in the social and cultural fabric. In 1966, the PIA Arts Academy was established in Karachi under the Pakistan International Airlines corporation, and with a heavy emphasis on dance programming. Dance classes were conducted along with performances for people living in and visiting Pakistan, especially at the various embassies located in Karachi.

Upon a military coup in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq became the President of Pakistan, ruling from 1978-1988, institutionalizing military and Sharia Law, religious law derived from religious prophecy. This had a profound impact on the arts, and dance in particular. During this time, Pakistanis were fearful of having any connection to dance—due to claims of dance being “un-Islamic” and the belief that women should not publicly display their bodies. Many artists had either left the country, or stopped teaching and performing. Many adopted a conservative religious mindset including the notion that dance had no place in Islam and thus in the fabric of Pakistani culture. Children were born, and in their most formative years, had no idea that dance was part of their culture. They never missed it because they never had it.

Though there has been tremendous progress in the presence of art throughout Pakistan – music, theater, and dance (I believe however, that dance is still not widely accepted), I also know that my privileged position of being American has offered me many more opportunities than the deserving artists that reside in Pakistan. Without the persistence and commitment of senior dance artists who persisted through the times of artistic oppression such as Nahid SiddiquiJi, Sheema KermaniJi and Indu MithaJi – dance truly could have lost its presence altogether, disappearing from the artistic landscape of the country and its cultural traditions. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a number of amazing musicians, of whom work tirelessly to maintain their craft and share it with others through performances and teaching – neither of which come in an abundance of opportunities. 

As I hope to continue to do work in Pakistan, I also hope to create opportunities for artists of Pakistan. In 2018, Noorani Dance hosted our first artist in residence, tabla artist Yousuf Kerai, who taught classes with us, as well as accompanied two of our students who were part of our Manzil ke Andaaz program in which they performed their first traditional kathak solos. We hope to continue this with Yousuf and other artists – into the foreseeable future. 

You are the founder and director of Noorani Dance. Would you please describe your inspiration for founding it and the role it plays in the local community? Are there any guidance principles, teaching philosophies, or experiences with Noorani Dance you would like to share?

When I started teaching classes on my own, initially I was just teaching private 1:1 classes. Little by little, as more students became interested in training with me, we slowly grew to group classes. There came a time when a group of more advanced students that I had worked with when they were younger were now training with me, and were coalescing into a performance ensemble. It was then that I felt that if we were going to have students performing, I wanted them to feel as though they were part of something that they could really take ownership of, and wanted them to be identified beyond being students of Farah Yasmeen Shaikh. 

I thought about what the name of the organization would be, and laughingly recalled how Guruji used to tease me about how when he passed I would be someone who would go and create my own school and call it “Farah’s School of Nazaakat”. Decided that wasn’t quite the name I wanted, and the word Noor kept coming to me for a number of reasons. Literally one day it hit me Noorani. My birth name is Farah Yasmeen Noorani, and this felt like a wonderful tribute to my family who has been an infinite source of support, love and encouragement over the years. They endured a lot in observing my hardships, but never pushed me to do anything other than follow my heart, and they – my parents, my siblings, as well as my husband and daughter – are all so much a part of what I do, and are forever my pillars of infinite support. 

Beyond the sentimentality, “Noorani” means bright or luminous, with a dual meaning of enlightenment, and this is really how we developed our tag line for our organization. With Kathak dance as the medium, Noorani Dance is committed to enlightening minds and hearts through the arts

We try to keep this at the forefront of all that we do, and believe that enlightenment can only be offered when we first enlighten ourselves. We believe this comes from the depth of training and study along with a commitment to welcome dialogue – artistic and otherwise – with others across various artistic genres, exploring topics of historical and social relevance to challenge ourselves and our audiences to think and reflect critically about how the arts can provoke dialogue and systemic change. At the heart of this, we hold immeasurable value, respect and gratitude for  the Noorani Dance community of students, families, artists, staff, donors and well wishers – all of whom enable us to do what brings us great joy and what we believe, positively contributes to the world everyone deserves to live in.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the younger generation of leaders could learn from? 

I believe we can all learn from one another’s struggles and achievements, however, each person needs to venture down their own path with the understanding and acceptance of the fact that self discovery and awareness takes time and is a never ending process. Work hard, stay humble, and most importantly, do what you do with passion, compassion and commitment, finding your sense of purpose and Heartistry. 

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh is an internationally touring kathak artist, and the Founder and Artistic Director of Noorani Dance, having received her training for two decades by the late Pandit Chitresh Das. Farah is a former member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and former instructor of the Chhandam School of Kathak. Touring extensively with the company nationally and internationally since 1998 and later as a soloist with her first solo performance in 2007. In 2015, Farah presented her first full length production of her own original choreography – The Twentieth Wife – an adaptation of a novel by Indu Sundaresan. Farah continues to tour the follow up to this project, The Forgotten Empress, with an original script written by playwright and director, Matthew Spangler.

In 2016, Farah founded her own organization, Noorani Dance, providing in depth training to students and offering traditional and innovative  performances. In 2018 Noorani Dance co-produced her newest work based on the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan – The Partition Project – in collaboration with EnActe Arts. Farah has been a guest choreographer for the World Dance Program at Alvin Ailey Extension in New York City, the Mona Khan Company, a consulting choreographer for the theatrical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair, and the lead choreographer for I’ll Meet You There, a feature length film directed by Iram Parveen Bilal. In addition, Farah performs and teaches extensively in Pakistan throughout the year with performances at the Faiz International Festival in Lahore, the Urdu Conference in Karachi, and the Islamabad Arts Festival, including many other prestigious venues and institutions.

PHOTO CREDITS: Photo 1 – 1999, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 2 –  1999, Jaiwanti Das Pamnani, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, Anjali Jhangiani, Jenny Baker, Charlotte Moraga, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 3 – 1999, Anjali Jhangiani, Jenny Baker & Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 4 – 2000, Pandit Chitresh Das & Farah at lec demo in Kolkata, India / Photo 5 – 2000, Pandit Chitresh Das & Farah at Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad, India / Photo 6 – 2018, Farah in The Forgotten Empress, PC: Lynn Lane / Photo 7 – 2019, Farah in Karachi, Pakistani, PC: Ammar Zaidi / Photo 8 – 2019, Farah in Karachi, Pakistani, PC: Ammar Zaidi /  Photo 9 – 2019, Farah with Noorani Dance Company, PC: Lara Kaur / Photo 10 – 2019, Farah at New York Kathak Festival, PC: Arun Kumar.

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