The Making Of the California Gharana

Gretchen Hayden

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

I had never seen kathak before walking into the class being taught by the young Chitresh Das at the Ali Akbar College of Music—at that time housed in the ex-San Rafael Military Academy in San Rafael. I had come to simply observe a class because a dear friend (who was also exploring various dance offerings in the Bay Area) suggested we try out kathak. She had heard about the class through a musician student at the AACM who had given her a ride while hitchhiking. 

To step into the AACM building was to cross the threshold into another world. Upon entering, one was greeted with he sounds of music, tal, tabla, and kathak dance classes wafting from the various classrooms.  

In those days Guruji was referred to by his name, Chitresh. He would often have a student accompanist nearby, as he conducted the class standing, dancing in front. Before I had enrolled, I had first observed a class comprised of students who had been studying for 3-6 months. These students were of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Nearly none were of South Asian heritage at that time. I sat on the floor and watched him conduct the class and the experience was completely mesmerizing. Even at this “beginning” class level, one could feel something very powerful going on. The students I observed were focused, sweating, and giving it their all.

I registered for one semester—three months…and then for the next semester…and the rest is history. Something struck a deep chord in me early on. It was exhilarating. Difficult. Grounding. Vast. And I felt another universe open before me. I quickly realized this could be a lifelong pursuit, although that was not my intention at that time. I had no desire to perform. I was taking it moment by moment, being present with being immersed in kathak and training with Chitreshji.   

I can’t recall exactly what the first class was like, although do know it made me happy, uplifted and exhausted. I do recall at least a few internal “ah ha” moments that must have made me feel at home early on.  

  • My first Namaskar and Chitresh saying “The Divine within me greets The Divine within you.”  This sentiment went straight to my heart and melted any barriers I may have felt to trying to do a “foreign” dance form. He would also use the words “…Great Soul within me greets that within you….”
  • He also spoke of the Moghul court influence as we followed our pranam with Ahmad/Salaam. “Peace be upon you.” learning the kathak style of showing this adab greeting. Beautiful.

And then the first experience of tatkar, feet to floor, led by the completely animated and captivating Chitresh Das—who can forget that!

As the senior most disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das, having studied with him since 1971, what was it like to watch him transform as an artist and teacher?

I was 21 when I entered class with Chitresh Das, who was such a young man of 27. We were all so fully engaged in the process and dance experience together throughout the years. Consumed with it, you might say! Each growing, evolving, and transforming in our own ways. It wasn’t until much later, and often through the process teaching my own classes, that I reflected on the changes that occurred over the decades. I expressed some of my thoughts in the 70th birthday letter I wrote to him, just months before his death.

When I mentioned this question to my husband *George, he summarized an essential quality of Guruji’s artistry and teaching very beautifully and succinctly. “Dada was steadfast throughout (the decades), while also adapting to situations and people before him. He was extremely steadfast in his concentration of conveying the practice of the dance, as well as the literature.” That steadfastness remained true all along, while his teaching approach and artistry expanded over time.

*I assume that many of you reading this blog do not know anything about George? George Ruckert was one of the early western disciples of Ali Akbar Khan. He helped establish the AACM in the late 1960’s. He worked extensively with Guruji and they remained close, artistically and personally, throughout the decades.

You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Which years were you active with the CDDC? Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences to share from your time in the company?

To understand the history of Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company we have to include the ‘70’s time period (and even late ‘60’s) before the CDDC was officially incorporated in 1980—what we might call the AACM years. Guruji was teaching under the umbrella of the college, which provided a nurturing environment for him to establish classes, develop his student base, be regularly presented in solo concerts, and create his early dance-drama productions of Sita Haran and Giri Govardhana. Khansahib composed and students provided wonderful music!  Guruji’s wife Julia (also his student) handled the business matters and the planning of our ensemble performances. Throughout this time, they had the support of the AACM staff (comprised mostly of Khansahib’s advanced students). Although the location of the college often had to relocate, the AACM managed to maintain an office, classrooms and a thriving music store.  And during those years, they saw to it that there was a proper space for the kathak classes—at one point going so far as to build the dance floor themselves, by hand, in a small shopping plaza. We dancers had the luxury of walking into a space fully prepared for us by them. 

By amusing coincidence, one of the early AACM locations was the Arequipa Girl Scout Camp in the hills of Fairfax. The very camp I had once gone to as a young girl!  In 1973 it was home to the AACM during the week. This meant that George and a couple of other male students had to move bed bunks, furniture, etc., out of the main spaces to allow for classes. They cleaned and prepared the rooms for Khansahib, Guruji, and others to teach.  At the end of the week they had to return the building back to its girl scout camp form.  Hours of labor. Every week. All summer long! This, along with their other jobs and music classes and practice.

The AACM institution was run by various serious students of Khansahib, including Rod Blouin, Jim Kohn, Burton Swan, George Ruckert, James Pomeranz.  They arranged the visas, established housing for the teachers and for visiting artists, arranged concerts, did all the promotion (creating some materials by hand), handled the administrative tasks and more. This was the springboard for the birth of the CDDC. 

To answer the question about which years I was active with CDDC…as a student, CDDC dancer, class assistant and I was active from the beginning until we moved to the Boston area in 1992. Twenty years. And even after that—I was in close contact with Michele Zonka through the process of developing the initial 6-year curriculum and guidebook. Much of this done via faxes between the two of us—a few of which I have kept.

Our lineage of kathak emphasizes a very deep study of kathak, including physical readiness, rhythmic facility, beauty, delicacy, understanding of hindustani music theory, Indian philosophy and culture, and storytelling. Which elements of kathak came more easily to you, and which were the most challenging?

First – just to add that I do see others who emphasize this idea of deep study also. Taking a step back in time—when I was sixteen, a friend gave me a book by J. Krishnamurti called At the Feet of the Master and something resonated deeply, although I didn’t analyze this at the time.  Books and teachings by spiritual masters were circulating amongst some of my friends and me—including Meher Baba’s Discourses and Parmahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.   A resurgence of interest in Eastern culture, spirituality, and philosophy was circulating in the collective psyche of many during that time period. It was also the time of the Civil Rights movement. Something far deeper than the so-called “hippie movement” was creating a cultural shift, and a broad spectrum of individuals were immersing themselves in deep studies and training of meditation, yoga, Indian music/dance. Many of these “westerners” spent time in India studying under the great masters  of that era. We in California in the 1970’s had the good fortune to have of some of the great ones teaching us in our own backyard. And by the time we walked into their classroom, we were eager and open to what these teachers had to offer!

Without needing to be told, I quickly realized that kathak related studies were vast and could be a lifelong path. I can’t say that anything came easily, but I felt quite at home being on the kathak dance floor and all that that entailed. One had no choice but to be humble in the presences of the great artistry and teachers before us. It was effortless to be fully present and focused in each class. I enjoyed the discipline and intensity of the class experience. I believe it also helped counter-balance my dreamy and introverted nature.

Elements that I was less at ease with?  Performance, for sure—especially solo. I’ve had to overcome a strong stage-fright and aversion to public-speaking, I say thank you to Guruji and kathak for pushing me over that hurdle! I was extremely shy about singing, and certainly did not take as much advantage of my time being in AACM classes with Khansahib as I might have (sigh). And abhinaya continues to be challenging, while being one of my favorite aspects of his art. 

Being White/Western has presented some challenges of its own of course. Among them—we dealt with presenters who didn’t want to present White women doing classical Indian dance and later on with parents who did not want their children to study with a non-South Asian (which I actually could empathize with at the time).  I also recall struggling with rendering such characters as Ram and Lakshman. At one point I think we all were faltering and questioning, along the lines of  “…but how can we (White women) portray these revered Indian characters …?”  The sharp reply was something along the lines of “That’s just your ego speaking… study/learn… trust… research…!”  Implied in those words was simply the directive, as well as a vote of confidence—to not over-think; to dive in fully, do the work, do one’s best.

In what ways were you involved with the organizational aspects of Chhandam? Can you tell us more about your involvement?

First and foremost, I was a student.  This sometimes involved also preparing the dance space for each class. We took turns clearing the room (if needed) sweeping the floor, setting up the rug where Guruji would sit—with table, water glass, often Fresh flowers and incense. Then I moved into becoming a performer and CDDC dancer. We did some of the stitching of our own costumes back then. My facility with memorizing the materials was sharp in those days and, with the departure of dancers more advanced than myself, I was sometimes called upon to lead classes/rehearsals while Guruji and Julia were in India. 

I assisted Michel Zonka during the time when she was running the school. Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Co. owe a great deal to her! A strong, hard-working woman with much wisdom to offer.  

For a period of time I drove Guruji to his class at SF State and assisted with compiling class materials and exams for those classes. After moving to Massachusetts, I continued to assist Michele with creating Chhandam School 6 Level Course Completion Program that she and Guruji put together in the ‘90s. I also assisted with compiling materials for what was to become the Chhandam Kathak Handbook (later called Guidebook).

You are the Artistic Director at Chhandika, founded in 2002. Describe the role that your organization plays in the local community.

First and foremost, Chhandika presently is a kathak dance academy dedicated to the legacy of Chitresh Das and focused on training the next generation of kathak dancers, while also offering classes to those who choose to do kathak simply for personal fulfillment and nourishment. We strive to provide a welcoming environment for each student who enters our classroom, acknowledging the fine human being within each individual. Our students and families have become a mutually supportive community, within the larger local communities of this area.

How has your experience been to study an Indian classical artform as someone who grew up in the US?

Hmmm. Too big an experience to fully address in this blog!

Naturally there were some cultural obstacles, while there were also cultural exchanges going on!  If I hadn’t gotten together with George and instead had a partner who was in a very different realm, who didn’t understand what it was to learn these classical arts (as a westerner) it would have been more difficult. George shared in the experience of training with these master-gurus. During really difficult times, we had each other’s understanding to help get us through. We both recognized the teachings being given to us to be the treasure they are—pure gold, so to speak! How to reach the mountain top? It’s going to take going through the brambles and going through a lot of fire. And sometimes you don’t want to. It helps to have somebody who supports you through the obstacle course.

The vision of Pandit Chitresh Das was always to strengthen the relationship between music and dance – what has been your experience collaborating with musicians?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have my husband/partner George to collaborate with all through the years of our relationship. Extremely with a capital E! We have a wide circle of wonderful musician friends, from a wide variety of musical traditions. Added to this are the numerous stellar Indian music artists that we’ve had the great fortune to work with and who have become part of our musical family.  I feel deep gratitude for the musical support I have been given along the way, that’s for sure. I look back at my early years as a budding dancer performer and am humbled by being able to dance to music composed by Ali Alkbar Khan and performed by the New Maihar Band,  and that I have had the experience of being on stage with the likes of tabla masters Swapan Chaudhuri, Zakir Hussein, Gyan Prakash Ghosh, among others.

Can you describe your experience as a female artist, and your thoughts on women in the arts?

Another very big question/topic worthy of another conversation. It has of course been complex. When we were studying, it was under male gurus. An overwhelming percentage of Guruji’s students (and mine) have been female.  Guruji often talked about powerful women, and at the same time there was a kind of contradiction because he could be very harsh with his female students. Let’s keep in mind that his Guruji was very harsh with him, also. From my experience, I do believe there are instances when that direct sting applied skillfully by a teacher is exactly the wake-up call that is needed. Through the intense training, practice and performing we tapped into our individual feminine-energy strengths. along with power and resilience, and hopefully Wisdom over time. 

NOW is a different time. I see a flowering of women coming forward. Who are going to be the gurus? What is a guru? Who will be true solo artists?  Those are other questions for us to consider. We who teach often discuss best practices, and how to be in concert with the times. It’s so essential to adapt, to be nimble and to keep our teaching approaches fresh and as in-tune as possible!  

On a side note—for some time I’ve wanted to widen the gender, racial and cultural make-up of students in our kathak classes. Still working on this!

Do you have any advice for aspiring young kathak artists?

As the saying goes, “give it your all!”  Stay as true and honest as you can. Know that the path is a winding one—it also goes up and down. Love of the dance will carry you along. Stay curious. A sense of humility is good to keep in touch with, especially in light of the truly great artists in the kathak world. 

Trust inner instincts. I don’t know what was at play, to have brought my guru and myself into this connection together in this lifetime and kathak. I do believe in these inner voices that often might not make sense immediately, but if we pay attention to our deeper selves, we receive our own inner-guru guidance along the way. 

Don’t fall into the pitfall of “mutual admiration society!” (Guruji’s words) often resulting in mediocrity. Be curious. Follow Guruji’s advice, “Be happy.” Delve into the Nine Principles. Of course, we come to the mantra we all know so wellPractice Practice Practice!

Pandit Chitresh Das was a visionary and devoted his life to sharing kathak with the world. What did you find most inspiring about his work, and as one of his senior most disciples, what do you wish for the future of kathak dance?

Most inspiring about his work? Simply watching him dance! He lived and breathed the dance every moment of every day. His honesty, his approach, his depth, his courageousness, his humor, his amazing artistry. His generosity as a performer, teacher, guru was immense!

For the future of kathak? That the art and artistry be put first, before self-promotion. Today there is a good amount of “when can I perform?” before the process of serious study is undertaken. I expect that there may be just a few who become artists in the true sense of the word. As kathak remains rooted in tradition while also expanding/changing over time—I hope future kathak dancers keep sight of the vast potential of the kathak solo experience itself. Forget the shimmer-shine-gloss and dig deep into the soul of the dance/music and your individual experience with this. Ultimately, I wish for all dance arts to be appreciated and acknowledged for the entirety of what they are and what they have to offer.

About Gretchen Hayden

Gretchen Hayden is the daughter of actor/author/seafarer Sterling Hayden and Betty deNoon Hayden, step-daughter of Catherine Devine Hayden. She credits these parents for filling her developing years with art, beauty, nature, creativity and original thinking.  She is an internationally recognized performer and teacher of kathak dance, and is senior-most disciple of the renowned master and guru, Pandit Chitresh Das. Ms. Hayden has dedicated the last twenty-eight years to fostering kathak in New England. She and her husband, sarodist George Ruckert, are bearers of tradition, carrying on the legacy of kathak and Hindustani music established in the U.S. and India by Pdt. Das and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Together and with a few others, they initiated the founding of MITHAS (MIT’s Heritage for the Arts of South Asia). Their collaborative original works weave tradition into innovative dance solos and dramas, including The Legend of St. Lucy, The Story of Dymphna, and Kore. Established in 2002, her school Chhandika (Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance) is a vigorous non-profit organization, offering classes and outreach programs in the greater Boston area. Chhandika’s endeavors also include the training of next generation kathak soloists, teachers and the Chhandika Youth Ensemble. Ms. Hayden has been teaching accredited kathak dance courses at Tufts University and Wellesley College for the past twenty years, and is a frequent guest lecturer in MIT’s World Music classes.

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