The Making of the California Gharana: Christopher Ris
Christopher Ris began his study of sarod and vocal music in 1971 under Maestro Ali Akbar Khan. He has since performed as a soloist, with Khansahib’s orchestra, The New Maihar Band, has composed music for 3 films on life in India and an episode of the television series Young Indiana Jones. He has collaborated with flamenco dancer Rosa Montoya and flamenco guitarist Guillermo Rios, as well as the principal oudist of the National Orchestra of Turkey, Necati Celik. In 1974 he began a long-lived relationship with the renowned kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das. In 1980 he became Mr. Das’ primary musical accompanist and composer in residence for both his personal performances and his Chhandam Dance Company. Together they dramatically changed the style of kathak accompaniment, bringing the instrumentalist into the simultaneous improvisations with the dancer that were formerly the province of the tabla drummer alone. He has also collaborated and performed extensively with his wife, kathak dancer Marni Ris.
How did you begin studying sarod and specifically under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib? What drew you to Indian classical music?
It was about a girl.
It was 1969 and I was teaching a beer making class in Madison, Wisconsin. In the next room a young woman (Leslie Anderson Curchak, the elder sister of Lee Anderson, who 7 years later would introduce Marni – my future wife – to kathak) was teaching an Indian music appreciation class. She told me that she studied sitar with Ali Akbar Khan; I had heard of him in college back in 1966 when we were talking about the spiritual and cultural train coming from the East to the West. There was Zen meditation, mantra meditation, yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, tai chi, aikido, Chinese medicine, African drumming and Indian music – all these traditions and teachers were coming to the West. We marveled that anyone could study with Ali Akbar Khan – no audition necessary – just show up and pay your tuition. It was unheard of for master musicians to teach anyone who was interested.
And the question was: is the train coming on its own or is our generation pushing the train to the west by going and being captivated by these rich cultural traditions? Was it also a kind of reciprocal relationship where it gave meaning to the people from those cultures where the old traditions were increasingly ignored and undervalued? It is the irony of colonialism – they go and screw up a country and then their kids fall in love with its cultural treasures.
At that time I was playing open tuning guitar, a kind of modal music and hanging out with some Black Afro –Cuban drummers at the university and they taught me to play a simple rhythm they would then solo over. Then a visiting friend of Leslie and Lee’s put a sarod in my hands and I made one sliding sound “brrrruuuum” and went “Oh my god, I just made that sound”. That was it, that sound. That vibration hit a visceral nerve and I felt a calling I could not ignore.
And so I came to California to study at the Ali Akbar College of Music.
What were your early days of training like at the College?
It was September of 1971 and I started full immersion right away, thinking of nothing but music from morning til night. At the Ali Akbar College of Music (at that time housed in an old military academy), there were two dorms and a lot of people lived on campus. It wasn’t like a community college where people came from far away then went home. There was a giant kitchen with two meals a day and a dining hall where we all hung out when we weren’t practicing, so we were around each other a lot.
When Khansahib (Ali Akbar Khan) went to India for the winter in ’71 – ‘72, George Ruckert (senior student of Ali Akbar Khan who started in 1967) taught the younger students the approach to riyaaz (practice) with lots of exercises. It was a wonderful way to start because right from the beginning, rather than being totally on my own, I had a lot of guidance from George and a number of the other older students. Khansahib taught in the style we called the “Sufi scatter method”. You just get thrown into this rushing river with rocks and obstacles, and you have to learn not only to swim, but to navigate and become skilled in that. There were many who “drowned” or just floated away and left the College.
Two years later Leslie and I lived in the same little town called Forest Knolls as George and Lee Anderson (Leslie’s sister and George’s girlfriend at the time) and we had many dinners together. Pretty soon, George would say, “Hey, bring your sarod, let’s play a tune.” So I had great mentoring from the start.
How did you encounter Pandit Chitresh Das? What was it like to meet him for the first time?
When I started the AACM in September of 1971 Dada (“elder brother”, as he later instructed me to call him) had already been teaching for one semester. Across the hallway from the big room where Khansahib taught there was a large sunroom – that was the dance room. When you walked through the main entrance of the military academy you’d immediately hear the thundering of many feet and bells and Dada yelling above them all: “Faster! Give me full power, you hippie California girls!”
He was 26 years old at the time, and he definitely had a few chips on his shoulder. He also was trying to find himself and his place in this strange new world. He strongly felt he had the mantle of a kathaka upon him given by his guru and his parents and he was preparing to challenge the kathak “establishment” in India. Many, particularly in India, didn’t yet recognize him, so he was “turned up all the way” most of the time to prove himself to the world. It was overwhelming for many, but I was drawn to the dance because my sister was a professional dancer and growing up I went to many modern dance performances.
From the beginning Dada engaged George to compose music for his dramas; the first major production done was Giri Govardan in 1972.
How did you start playing and accompanying for Pandit Das and what was your experience making dance and music in the same space?
In the beginning I was just focusing on getting up to speed on the sarod and figuring out how to learn and notate the flood of compositions Khansahib was teaching every week. The dancers were very much part of the College scene and we would socialize and sometimes practice or do little gigs together. Dada was always looking for people to play in his classes and I would occasionally play. I soon joined the New Maihar Band, first as a vocalist and later on sarod, and we would periodically perform for Dada’s many dance dramas where George Ruckert would compose and integrate Khansahib’s music.
George accompanied Dada’s solos from the beginning and continued sporadically through the decades nearly until Dada’s passing. Peter Van Gelder and his vocalist wife Marsha accompanied many of Dada’s solo concerts; they taught him Khansahib’s Hindol Tarana. Then James Pomerantz started performing with Dada and the Company. In mid 1980, as I was transitioning into performing with him, Dada was asked to inaugurate the new sound stage at George Lucas’ Marin County studio. Swapan Chaudhuri (”Swapan da”) played tabla, James played sitar, Dallas Smith played bansuri and I joined on sarod. Here’s a photo of that night.
In the beginning with Dada I just played lahara (cyclical melody that keeps the rhythm). Soon he wanted me to play his bols (compositions) and tehais both for the excitement and to help cue the various tabla players accompanying him.
I believe this was the beginning of one of the major innovations that Dada made to kathak – he wanted the musician accompanist to be full in, not just a human metronome, as he once called me. He said to me, “Chris, try to steal my spotlight.” He wanted me to be that much a part of it. I composed music for many of his bols, gintis and tehais and learned to follow when he would improvise weaving parts of different compositions together. Then came the stories and the company dance dramas. Each character would have a theme and variation, sometimes in different ragas. I had been schooled by George Ruckert as he masterfully composed music for Dada’s epic dance dramas weaving in excerpts from Khansahib’s raga lessons and the beautiful songs he’d taught.
In November of 1975 Dada presented an epic version of the Sita Haran. George was composing for a large ensemble with 4 different parts plus tabla. Every rehearsal Dada would change a scene or a bol or a tehai and George would rewrite the music for the next rehearsal. On the morning of the show, Dada wanted to change something and George had to say, “No, that’s it! The music is written and printed and it’s too late to change anything!” Dada’s response was a challenge: “What kind of musicians are you that you can’t remember and you need to have it written out for you?”
We met in the hall the morning of the show, George handed out the music and we started our rehearsal about 10 am. The show was at eight and the sound check was done on the fly with the many dancers and endless scenes. It took until 7 pm to get through the whole drama. The show started at eight and ended about 11: 30 pm.
Here’s an example of how passionately we all felt about our art:
I was learning the bols in Dada’s class and was really trying to play along with the dance and being evocative and creative with the music, even with the lahara. Dada’s brother, Ritesh (we called him Babua), had just arrived in the States in the early 80s and he came to a rehearsal. After Dada left he said to me, “That’s not how you play lahara, what are you doing? You’re not keeping it properly. You’re improvising and not showing the structure of the taal. What are you doing, man? This is not right!” An intense argument ensued and before we knew it we were rolling around on the floor wrestling and yelling at each other. We were actually fighting about art!
This was like the stories about riots after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and people fighting in the streets at operas for God knows what reason, and there were Babua and I having a physical altercation over the nature of kathak accompaniment! This was the beginning of a great friendship and we later collaborated on a number of projects with his and Joanna Das’ (now deSouza) group M-Do and the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.
It was a very special time and place for the rise of Indian classical performing artists who would later become prolific masters of their respective traditions. What were some of the more exciting moments on stage between a young Chitresh Das and young Zakir Hussain and Swapan Chaudhuri?
Those solo concerts that Dada would present in those very early days with Zakir bhai were crazy. There was hardly room for music other than lahara and a song at the end. The musicians would just keep the shape of the taal and Dada and Zakir bhai would go at it for hours! Thundering footwork, thundering tabla, long simultaneous improvisations, buckets of sweat on the floor! For me as a young sarod student it was both thrilling yet overwhelming and exhausting! Back and forth and back and forth, feeding off each other’s energy and creativity. Zakirbhai was a mind reader – he just knew where Dada was going and met him there, before sum, after sum, on beat, off beat. Here’s a photo by Betsy Bourbon from one of those concerts; Chitresh-da with Zakirbhai on tabla and James Pomerantz on sitar.
Later on when Swapanda came to the States and eventually started playing with Dada it was different. They knew each other growing up in Kolkata but I don’t think they had performed together. As they got to know each other on stage Swapanda was solid, refined, steady and musical but always ready to bring the thunder.
Pranesh Khan played many concerts with Dada during this period as well.
How did your training at the Ali Akbar College of Music serve you in working with Pandit Das?
Dada loved Khansahib and really responded to the beautiful melodies that poured out of him. He also loved how Khansahib manifested upaj (spontaneity), which was the fuel that fed Dada’s fire. Khansahib had many admonitions he would constantly tell us and besides “Practice!” (his number one admonition and answer to every problem) the one I can still hear the most is “Bring the beauty”. Even when you’re going full tilt, remember to bring the beauty. Dada sometimes just wanted relentless virtuosity at full intensity but I still tried to bring the beauty. I was always drawn to the mood (rasa) and was a little lazy about the riyaz it took to play fast and furiously. But Dada made me do that, constantly challenging me to be quick, clear and powerful. Dada at that time was not as into this emphasis on mood. “Rasa schmasa, forget this namby pamby stuff”, he would say. “Give me full dhoom dham” (the sound of strong open strokes on the tabla). But he always appreciated the beauty of the ragas and as time went by his invocations danced to alap (unaccompanied sarod) became longer and longer. The clip of his invocation in the video shows one of those nights. I was to play as he entered and did his pranam and then Mala with her haunting beautiful voice would sing the conclusion. Every time I thought he was wrapping up my segment he would start up again. We went on for seven minutes before he was ready for Mala’s song.
He was very musical and sang both while dancing and accompanying his dancers and over the years composed a number of melodies that are iconic still today.
We have heard over the years that initially there was some tension between Khan Sahib’s perspective of the music he was teaching and Pandit Das’ incorporation of music into the dance. Can you talk about that and how it evolved into a deeper exchange?
Khansahib did not like the idea of his students and disciples playing with dance. He felt it was a cheapening of the music which was inherently deep and sacred. Ragas are to be played at very specific times of day. When playing Malkauns Tarana at 10 am in the morning, I used to pray he would never find out because Malkauns is a late night raga. You really prepare to play it and when you play it properly, “The jinns (spirits) come and they open hidden worlds to you”. So when I was playing it in the morning I tried to think of it as a five note combination that we did for the dance in order to separate the two. From the beginning Khansahib told me not to play with dance, that the music should never be in a subservient position. I disobeyed and believed I could be a “Four Square” musician and play solo, play for dance, compose music for film and play in ensembles like the New Maihar Band. One day he finally said, “OK, you married the dance, so what can you do? But you must keep your study and practice your main focus.”
For his part, Dada deeply respected Khansahib and his music and worked to elevate it. Every program began with a ten minute sarod solo and he encouraged me to weave more and more musical nuance into his programs.
Early on Dada choreographed dances to Khansahib’s compositions; Hindol Tarana, Khamaaj Tarana are a few. And a number of times Dada prevailed on Khansahib to compose music for the dance. There are some beautiful songs that became part of the dance company’s repertoire for a while.
I think it was the summer of 1977 when Dada left the college – the AACM had just purchased its permanent home and there was no room for a dance studio. But he stayed close to Khansahib and the College. There was quite a bit of romantic mingling between the dancers and instrumentalists. There were 3 couples of kathakas married to sarod players – Marni and I actually lived right next door to another such couple for years. Visitors from India couldn’t believe it, exclaiming “This doesn’t even happen in India!”. George and Gretchen lived nearby until they moved to Boston in 1992.
What is particularly challenging playing with Pandit Das?
The challenge for me was I never knew what he was going to do and at what speed and whether he would conflate two bols or change it at the last minute, and I had to be really quick to catch it. The one I always missed was in the story of Shakuntala. He’s riding along in his chariot and he sees a bee bothering Shakuntala so he pulls up and goes over to protect her. The bee was buzzing around and he would chase it and just as you try to catch a fly in mid flight he’d make a lightening move and snatch the bee. It was different every time (you can’t do a big tehai; the bee would see it coming and get away!) and I almost always missed. The challenge was to watch and play and be ready for anything.
In 1984 Dada was invited to perform at Kathak Kendra in Delhi. He was planning to do the story of Krishna stealing the gopi’s saris. We had always done it in fast teen taal (16 beats) with themes and variations for each character. I was all set for that and Dada comes out on stage, turns to us musicians and suddenly sets the tempo in Rupak taal (7 beats). I had to recompose every theme on the spot in 7 beats instead of sixteen, which meant compressing everything or expanding the themes to two or more cycles. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not. All the bols had to change too, so he started pulling out all his rupak bols and tehais, many of which I kind of knew. It was terrifying and thrilling!
Dada had a thing about speed, speed was the currency of virtuosity, and if things felt boring he’d just go faster. You will see this in the videos of the Hindol Tarana and Marni’s Khammaj Tarana; these were both much faster than in rehearsal and the Khammaj was so fast I could barely play it. But Marni’s ability to float on the rhythm belies how fast it was.
You worked with Pandit Das for almost 30 years until around 2000. Is there anything you can share about how you observed him evolve as a teacher/artist and how you also eventually evolved as an artist?
I think Dada’s second and final calling was the Indian community. After dealing with all these American women who were close to his age, he found a niche. I believe America tries to suck the culture out of many immigrant communities; the movies, the junk food, the fads; it does a very good job of it. And it drives Indian immigrant parents crazy because they could go somewhere like South Africa, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malasia or Fiji where for 300 years not much has changed culturally and anthropologists go to study them because they’re preserving the traditions from 300 years ago of the village they came from. Then they come to America and in half a generation, it’s out the window. And Dada had a way of bringing traditional Indian culture to the kids that was as compelling as Instagram and Tik Tok. He was more Bengali than the Bengalis! He would admonish and cajole and enthrall parents and kids and suddenly there was this respect for the bells and respect for the teacher and a deep feeling for what pranaam and namaskar mean. He was able to present it in a way that really made everyone feel it viscerally.
Regarding my own evolution: Early on Marni and I started working together assimilating her training with Dada and my study with Khansahib and Dada to bring the depth of raga music and our own esthetic to our music and dance. Just as Khansahib didn’t like me playing with dance, Dada didn’t like Marni performing and promoting her own work while part of the company. One day Dada saw our poster at the entrance of a local grocery store and admonished us in front of the class: “I see Chris and Marni are performing for sheep and goats in bathrooms and closets around Marin”. Everyone giggled but his message was clear.
Marni would sometimes ask for Dada’s blessing and at other times, particularly on our annual trips to Hawaii, we would just quietly do our performances. Here’s a photo of us with Daniel Paul who sang and played tabla with us for many years in the US and India. Later we began playing with Dana Pandey, first a vocalist, then a sarod player and finally a student of Zakir Hussein on tabla.
Then Kali appeared as you’ve read in Marni’s interview. The many passive, weak, exploited, disempowered women who were portrayed in the stories from mythology appeared as one dimensional caricatures: Radha, Sita, Draupati, the gopis who lose their saris, Shakuntala and Rati of Madan Basma, whose eroticism was exploited to break Shiva’s meditiation so he’d fall in love with Parvati. They each had inner strength, devotion, piety and compelling virtue but it was rarely explored.
One final thing: In the years I worked with Dada I had the opportunity to play in many prestigious festivals and venues, stages I might never have had the honor to play on. Through him I made many friends in the Indian community and met many fascinating people in our far flung travels. It has truly enriched my life!
You played on many of Pandit Das’ repertoire recordings from the 1980s, several of which have turned into iconic performance pieces for so many subsequent generations up until today! Did you ever think those recordings would become so prolific? How do you feel about your legacy living on in this way?
I’m honored to learn that these recordings have become part of the fabric of Dada’s teaching and brought so much inspiration to so many young dancers! In truth it was so long ago and those recordings were never on my radar because they were only used when I wasn’t around. The first time I heard them was in a school show at Cowell Theater in SF many years ago. At first I didn’t recognize my playing and thought someone else had recorded the music!
I learned later that Dada would use some of these recordings when he traveled without musicians. Dancing to a recording, especially in performance. must be easier for the dancer; the music on tape is the same every time; in live performance, especially with Dada, the speed would vary (usually speeding up with the excitement of either Dada or the musicians) and sometimes I or Dada would forget a section and have to either patch it up quickly or just keep going.
Fifteen or twenty years after the recording sessions I was asked to digitize the master tape of the recording session.
The recording was done in a tiny room at the home of one of Dada’s friends and patrons. We were all crammed in there: Dada, Swapanda on tabla, George on violin, Dallas Smith on bansuri, Pranesh Khan on dolak, myself and maybe even a manjira player. Dada was directing and reciting while lighting endless sticks of incense. It was terrifying: there were so many of us playing at the same time with no possibility of editing later; it was all done in one take. If someone made a mistake either we started over or just went oh well. I’m telling this next part for all of you who have danced with these recordings:
I borrowed the actual reel to reel tape recorder used in the session and brought it home, plugged it into my stereo, and took the precious master tape out of its plastic sleeve. The tiniest hint of incense wafted up. I put it on the reel and as the tape spooled the floral essence of Dada’s incense filled the room. I was transported back to that session so many years ago. When you’re dancing, if you get your senses tuned just right, you might just smell it too! Khansahib’s sister Annapurna (who played surbahar, a bass sitar) spoke of delicate heavenly scents appearing during her practice. I’ve experienced this as well and it always feels like a prasad (blessing) from the gurus of my lineage.
Finally, I’d like to say to all of you that the true enduring legacy of Chitresh Das is all of you who have known and been touched by him and his disciples. As you practice and learn and grow you each will have something unique to offer, and the more you get to know each other and share what you know and support your kathak sisters and (hopefully) brothers, the more you and your art will be enlivened.
I’m speaking from experience: There is a group of about 15 of Khansahib’s early disciples who started in the 1960s and early 1970s. We each have solo careers of varying degrees and although we are friendly and occasionally played together over the years we did not regularly share our art with each other, especially as a group. Ten years ago I started a semi annual mehfil (gathering of artists) where we would come together and perform for each other and a very small audience, sometimes 6 in one evening and sometimes six on Saturday evening and six on Sunday morning. Knowing the others would be our harshest critics (it felt almost as intimidating as playing for Khansahib!) it was very challenging, but as time went on a generosity of spirit emerged and we became increasingly supportive and less competitive, realizing how each of our gifts had the potential to elevate the others.
Photo Credits: Feature Photo – Christopher Ris 1984, photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 2 – Ali Akbar Khan & Christopher Ris, video screen capture; Photo 3 – Christopher Ris, photo credit Hans Ris; Photo 4 – Chitresh Das & Christopher Ris; Photo 5 – Swapan Chaudhuri, James Pomerantz, Dallas Smith & Chris Ris, (Chitresh Das Band) 1980, photo credit George Lucas; Photo 6 – Zakir Hussain, Chitresh Das, James Pomerantz, photo credit Betsy Bourbon; Photo 7 – Sita Haran Program; Photo 8 – Chitresh Das & Christopher Ris, video screen capture; Photo 9 – Daniel Paul, Marnis Ris & Christopher Ris (Indus Dakini and the Mantra All Stars); Photo 10 – Christopher Ris, photo credit Marni Ris; Photo 11 – Christopher Ris & Marni Ris 1978.