The Making of the California Gharana: Julia Maxwell
Julia Maxwell is a dancer, entrepreneur and author. She co-founded the Chitresh Das Das Dance Company in 1980 and is responsible for incorporating the first ever American kathak dance company as an official nonprofit organization. Serving as its Executive Director, she aligned artistic vision with business goals, putting kathak on the mainstream map, representing the company to presenters, establishing relationships with grantmakers and media, and growing audiences. She also spearheaded the making of the 1986 publication, Chitresh: Calcutta to California. As a principal dancer of the company herself, she performed on tours in the U.S. Canada, Europe, and India. In addition to studying kathak with Pandit Chitresh Das, she studied dance theory, history, and philosophy under Das’ father, Nityacharya Prohlad Das, director of Nritya Bharati Institute and lecturer at Rabindra Bharati in Kolkata, India. Following a 20-year performing career and a Master’s in Dance Education from Stanford University, Julia brought her knowledge of aesthetics from the dance stage to the yoga studio (yogaaesthetics.com).
You are unique from everyone else being interviewed for this series in that you began studying under our Guruji’s father, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das, in India. Can you tell us a little about why you decided to study classical Indian dance and the atmosphere of Nritya Bharati?
Firstly, I should mention that my various name references for Pandit Chitresh Das, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das, and Srimati Nilima Das reflect the time and circumstances of our relationships. Please know that I have loved and regarded all with deep respect.
I met Chitresh, your Guru, in 1967. At that time, I was studying Bharatanatyam with his father, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das. In addition to his work as the Director for the Nritya Bharati Institute, Sri Prohlad Das taught at the Birla Academy and lectured at Rabindra Bharati (Tagore University). He had developed a system of dance notation and was widely acknowledged for having contributed to the national standardization of dance education. Sri. Prohlad Das also served regularly as a visiting lecturer and examiner in schools across northern India. What I found most interesting, however, was how Sri. Prohlad Das had participated in the revolution against the British Raj. He had choreographed and staged Abhyudaya, translated as “Awakening.” It was a dance drama with a bold, anti-colonialist statement. Members of Congress and several leaders from the “Free India” movement had seen it. Later they encouraged Sri. Prohlad Das to establish the Nritya Bharati Institute, which was eventually given formal recognition and financial support from the West Bengal government.
I had been urged to meet Sri Prohlad Das by the renowned dancer, Indrani Rahman. The Institute was located at #81 Karaya Road. There I entered through a large green gate to a lovely courtyard in bloom with bougainvillea. Sounds of music, footslaps, and bells filled the air. The school’s caretaker directed me to one of the studios located in the back of the Institute’s main building where a class was in progress. There, Sri Prohlad Das greeted me with a brilliant smile and an invitation to sit next to him on a rug, from where he instructed his prize Bharatanatyam student. As you are likely aware, this dance style, developed in the South, emphasizes above all qualities, “balance.” Point to counter-point, curving lines move gradually from a tilt of the head, downwards, through the torso, hips, and limbs. Sri Prohlad Das explained how it was all about the flow of prana (life force). I related this to the East Asian concept of chi and told him how I had studied kung fu with Bruce Lee in the musty basement of an old Seattle Chinatown restaurant. Nodding kindly, Sri Prohlad Das remarked that my experience back then would have prepared me for my study now. I felt inspired, and immediately made arrangements to begin my dance tutelage with him which also include dance theory, history, and philosophy.
I learned four dances that developed progressively. First came Alarippu, a pure-dance or technical piece. Jatisvaram followed, with more complex technique and rhythmic compositions. Tillana came next and combined rhythmic phrases with sensuous stances. The final piece I was learning was a series of vignettes about Lord Shiva called Nava Rasa. It depicts nine basic sentiments, or emotional states—love, humor, pathos, heroism, anger, fear, disgust, wonder, and peace. It was during this time that Mr. Das introduced me to the ancient aesthetic theory of rasa, expounded by the sage Bharata Muni in the Natya Shastra around the first century CE. Rasa refers to the dominant emotional theme of a work of art that carries the potential to elicit a shift in the viewer’s awareness, causing a sense of wholeness or unified consciousness. For this reason, rasa is referred to as the “juice of a performance.” It’s an influence that can last long after the performance has ended, sometimes mirrored in emotional shifts that occur in one’s daily experience. For this reason, rasa is also referred to as “the essence of life.”
What elements of kathak came easily to you? And what was more challenging?
My study with Sri Prohlad Das greatly influenced my training with Chitresh when we settled in California and he began his teaching of kathak dance at the Ali Akbar College of Music. My strengths were favored in technique (the child in me loved to turn) and in bhava. This was also nurtured during my brief study with Chitresh’s guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra in his teaching of ghunghat. Ghunghat is a series of vignettes that depict a woman opening her veil, often revealing her innermost feelings as she searches for her lover. Lifting the veil also signifies the lifting of a perceived barrier between mind and body, echoing kathak’s ancient yogic roots.
What I felt challenged by was in the recitation of bols. I felt awkwardly shy. My early background was in Modern dance in which there was no verbal expression and it is also not favored in Bharatanatyam. Much later, I realized that it was the sudden shift in the dancer-audience relationship that caused a problem for me. It broke aesthetic distance, the altered state of reality that’s created through performance. Later, while considering this more deeply, I realized that this was a great strength in kathak. When the dancer is reciting, he or she is engaging the audience directly. On a musical cue, the dancer’s body becomes a conduit for an explosion of energy—a blur of color and form with footwork punctuating the composition. That energy is imparted to the audience when the bol ends in a crescendo with a tihai. Once again aesthetic distance is broken. The energy of appreciation from the audience is absorbed by the dancer and fed into the next bol.
Guruji always spoke about being tremendously influenced by his mother, Srimati Nilima Das. What was she like? And what were her unique contributions to the arts community they developed at Nritya Bharati?
Srimati Nilima Das was an extraordinary artist, designing sets, costumes, and special works of batik that decorated the Das’s home. Srimati Nilima loved her son unconditionally, but she also knew how to employ tough love when it was needed. She held great respect for Chitresh’s guru and made sure that he understood the depth of responsibility to his guru and kathak. Srimati Nilima saw to it that Chitresh had an excellent education culminating with his studies at Rabindra Bharati University. Through her charitable work, she ensured that Chitresh came in contact with great philosophers, poets, and people of all walks of life whom she felt would enrich and broaden his understanding.
During my first stay in India, when I was studying with Sri Prohlad Das, Nilima and I became close friends. I was a young woman, halfway around the planet from my mother, and Nilima provided the comfort that only an older woman could. It was a time of great challenge for me. My American husband had fallen in love with an Indian co-worker, and I was falling in love with Nilima’s son. It was an unexpected challenge for her too, but she found the courage to guide me through it all—firstly as a woman rejected and later as her daughter-in-law.
Your role was central to so many of the foundational aspects of the history of our lineage. What were those earliest days like in Marin?
Chitresh and I were married in Seattle, Washington, where my daughter, Jennifer (six years old at the time) and I lived in Madrona, a beautiful neighborhood with spectacular views of Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains. Jennifer already knew and liked Chitresh very much and he was brilliantly playful with her.
In September of 1971, we moved to California where Chitresh would teach his first kathak classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music, headed by the renowned sarodist, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. At that time, the AACM was housed in a former military academy, on a campus that flourished with big oak trees and lush green lawns. This was a golden age for Indian studies and Indian culture on college campuses across America. However, the intersection of East and West at the AACM was somewhat more complex. Teachers and students were engaged in a serious and lengthy endeavor that went well beyond a few units of Indian studies at a university. Early on, however, it became clear to me that the faculty and students were somewhat at odds. The AACM faculty had been stringently schooled in India—to respect their teachers and elders, and to assume a secondary stance in their presence. But their American students were part of a generation that was questioning authority. Many sought an egalitarian lifestyle and classroom manner, much to the amazement, amusement, and often disdain of their teachers. Students searched for spiritual insights they were told could be found in the music. They endeavored to give the effort demanded by the discipline but often struggled against the social conformity their teachers insisted go with it.
It is important to consider that Indian artists had struggled for over two decades following national independence to educate and generate interest in India’s public about classical music. Consider also that Indian artists would have enjoyed far fewer opportunities in the West, had it not been for their counterculture students who rode the evolutionary wave of the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The struggle to understand student-teacher relationships proved to be a very long and bumpy ride.
I had observed Chitresh as both a disciple and a teacher. I saw firsthand his very difficult struggle to find a balance between the ideals he held about the guru-shishya relationship based on his own experience, and the reality of teaching in California. Chitresh’s request to create his own company grew out of a desire to engage that challenge. In May of 1980, we incorporated the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Per advice from our lawyer, Glen Spain, we included Chhandam as a second name to allow for an additional function of our nonprofit international arts organization.
What are some of the meaningful and memorable experiences that you’ve had as a kathak performer?
I believe one of my most meaningful and memorable experiences as a kathak performer came on a tour during the 1981–82 winter concert season in India. It was just a little more than a year following the creation of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and scarcely a decade since the loss of Chitresh’s guru.
Following our first performance in Calcutta, we received a review in the Statesman newspaper as having “brought his [Chitresh’s] work on a universal plane.” It continued, “The enactment of the episode from Shakuntala—the love at first sight between Shakuntala and Dushyanta was a pas-de-deux in kathak style. Julia Das as Shakuntala excelled in the exposition of the character” (December 14, 1981). Such a nice review would have you thinking that Chitresh and I would repeat our duet in our upcoming performance for the Sangeet Research Academy’s distinguished audience. After having read the review, however, Chitresh made it quite clear to me that we would not present Shakuntala again on the tour. His explanation was that it gave me importance over his other students and that would cause resentment. The praise I received from the Statesman newspaper was very meaningful to me. It indicated that I was reaching across time and cultures to convey something which was valued highly. Chitresh’s response to the review was both defining and memorable. It scaled my future opportunities from the possible to the probable. Simply, it broke my heart. In retrospect, one has to consider the challenge Chitresh had in teaching women of his own age, at a time when he was just beginning to establish his own presence in the kathak world.
You worked very hard to put kathak on the mainstream map and to build an audience base for an art form that in the 1970s and 80s was completely unknown in the United States. Can you talk about what you had to do to make that happen? For younger readers, could you describe the specific challenges of that time period?
Response to these questions needs a little background. During my first visit to India, the time when Chitresh and I were becoming close friends and lovers, I learned a good deal about the career challenges he faced. In the early days of his career, sponsoring organizations in Calcutta often chose to invite Birju Maharaj over Chitresh to perform for their musical conferences and there was some marketing logic behind this choice. When India had become an independent nation, there was a great need to re-establish the arts and bring them into public forums. Naturally, the new government sought the most prominent representatives available.
For the Lucknow gharana of kathak dance, they looked to the courts of Wajid Ali Shah and to the descendants of the dance gurus who had served him. Shambu Maharaj, along with his young nephew, Birju Maharaj, was appointed to head the newly formed institute, Bharatiya Kala Kendra, in New Delhi. It was funded generously by the central government, bringing these men a great deal of status and power. At the time, the general population also had little knowledge of the classical arts that had developed in the private worlds of kings and noblemen. All these factors, combined with Birju Maharaj’s gift for stirring the audience’s imagination with the lost glamour of palace life, kept presenters looking to New Delhi and booking accordingly. It also had reviewers overlooking Chitresh’s performances. That is, until Jug Suraiya, a young writer for the Jr. Statesman put Chitresh’s face on the cover of their magazine and captured his performance with “Lightning-fast turns on firecracker feet.” Finally, Calcutta’s audiences were ready for Chitresh.
When we were settled in California, Suraiya’s tag for Chitresh’s performance provided a culture-free way for me to introduce him to Western audience as an international artist. Later, when we created the Chitresh Das Dance Company, I began attending booking conferences for the Western Alliance of Arts Administrators. “What’s a Chitresh?” was a question asked more than once by presenters visiting our booth. It was a hard truth to swallow, but I knew that I still had much to do in promoting Chitresh before I could turn much attention to promoting our Company. When that opportunity came, it presented a whole set of other problems for me at the WAAA conference.
At that time, dance was divided into “ballet,” “modern,” and “ethnic” genres, and they were valued and funded in that order. Our Company was also comprised of fair-skinned, American women, several of whom were blonde. Even though ballet companies already had prominent dancers of different ethnic backgrounds, we were still an oddity, making it difficult for American presenters to sell us to their audiences. In India, it worked the other way around. We were still an oddity, but very marketable.
With regard to acquiring funding from grantmakers, that opportunity came suddenly and it was not to be missed. Our first Company grant was through The Buck Trust. When Mrs. Buryl Buck died in 1975 she bequeathed oil stocks worth $11.7 million to support the arts in Marin County. At the time I submitted our first proposal, it was worth $250 million and grew to $1 billion by 1999. The San Francisco Foundation administered the Buck Trust in those days. When our proposal was first turned down, Chitresh insisted that I make an appointment for him to meet with Mr. John Kriedler, who had overseen our application process. In his office, Chitresh wasted no time. “We’ve worked extremely hard over the last decade, trying our best to add to the Bay Area’s cultural bouquet.” True, our aspirations were worthy and we had put all our energy towards achieving them. What I learned in Mr. Kriedler’s office was that our proposal had been declined because we were too new. We had only recently incorporated our Company. Much of our support materials also featured Chitresh as a solo dancer. For us to be funded, we needed to demonstrate public support for the Company.
I pointed out to Mr. Kreidler that our group of dancers had functioned as a company well before we incorporated. Following a brief rundown of our beginnings, I asked Mr. Kreidler if I could submit further documentation. He replied yes and said that our proposal would be reviewed again. Chitresh and I left the office feeling encouraged. I admitted to him that I would likely have accepted defeat had he not insisted we go to see Mr. Kreidler. What I didn’t mention was how encouraged I had felt by Mr. Kreidler’s remarks about the American component to establishing our California-based kathak dance company.
At home, I began sifting through old correspondence and newspaper clippings. I pulled out engagement contracts and other indicators of growing interest in the Company. There were ticket sales from performances we had produced in San Francisco and Berkeley. I found a few reviews of Chitresh’s performances in Germany, where we were beginning to establish some European contacts. Surely that would indicate future international possibilities for the Company, along with a newspaper article announcing Chitresh’s arrival in India with American students. Still, we were being funded in Marin County and needed some local documentation too. Then, I remembered that during the winter when several students went to India with Chitresh, I stayed home to finish my studies at St. Mary’s College. Antonia Minnecola (Hussain) had also stayed home that winter, and we decided to offer a series of kathak classes for children. Beth Ashley of The Independent Journal headed the article announcing our classes with, “Marin Women Teach Ancient Indian Dance” (Jan. 21, 1976). “Can’t get better than this,” I thought, adding the article to my growing pile of support materials.
That winter, I had also taught a series of workshops at Sonoma State University, experimenting with kathak and modern dance. An impressive letter of appreciation from the Dance Director, Nancy Lyons, supported the fact that Americans were already experimenting and innovating with kathak. I sent the whole shebang in a new packet to the Foundation and marveled at the entire process. Poring over the boxes of photos and press releases had reminded me of our collective accomplishments. Our extra application efforts were rewarded with funding from the Buck Trust, promising a supportive future. Awards from the California Arts Council followed. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded us their prestigious “Company Grant.” We were the first company with a non-Western dance style to receive this, and we were barely eight years old. This accomplishment could take even “mainstream” companies much longer to achieve, and funding would continue to be awarded to us annually.
New funding also allowed us to create a book. CHITRESH: Calcutta to California. On the cover, I had used a photograph by Betsy Bourbon, an extraordinary photographer who documented the early days of the Ali Akbar College of Music. The photo was of Chitresh’s feet. One bell-laden foot was frozen in action, while the other was a blur of motion. I skewed and wrapped the photo around the entire cover, and placed a small inset of the image on the front. Amar Singh, one of our board members arranged for our full-color book to be published in China. It was “impressive…handsome and informative,” said Janice Ross in Dance Magazine (November 1986). Encore, the quarterly for the Archives for the Performing Arts in San Francisco also praised the book and reprinted the entire last section detailing Chitresh’s personal stories (Vol. 3 No 4, Winter 1986/87). India West, California’s premier weekly for Indian news also gave us a superb review. Copies of our book accompanied grant proposals and press packets. They were distributed to major donors and sold at performances. The book opened with a short description of kathak dance history, along with Chitresh’s family and dance background. The second section, “In Performance,” recounted a traditional solo by Chitresh, in his voice. This allowed me to present kathak’s technical information in a personal and accessible manner. The next section, “Innovations and Choreography,” explained kathak’s tradition for innovation, while pointing to significant choreographic innovations and showcasing our Company’s repertoire with photographs. A side column gave excerpts from newspaper reviews to expand the viewers’ perspective on the choreography—from traditional kathak pieces to Rhythmics, a jazzy piece with music set in classical tal and featuring both Eastern and Western instruments. Finally, the book concluded with “Discipleship and The West”. For this part, I encouraged Chitresh to remember things he saw, smelled, and heard on the way to his guru’s home. My thinking was that it would draw the reader vicariously into the rich cultural context that had shaped Chitresh’s discipleship and career.
New students came, and in addition to their commitment to the dance, they offered their time and talents to help establish our Company—selling tickets, learning stagecraft, and cooking for fundraisers. We developed regular home-season and touring programs. Our repertoire settled into a comprehensive format, presenting ancient, medieval, and innovative themes during the first half of the performance, and a dance drama following intermission. The fact was, dance-dramas were crowd-pleasers and a good focal point from which to launch media campaigns, most often for a production of Sita Haran (the Capturing of Sita), based on the Hindu epic, Ramayana.
We were also making a real breakthrough in India. A national magazine called Eve’s Weekly (Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 1987), had recently interviewed Chitresh and me for a story called “Kathak in California.” Ever since our Company’s tour in the winter of ’81-82, we had received periodic attention from the Indian media. The Voice of America radio program interviewed me for broadcasts in India. This was something that happened periodically over the years, ever since my maiden performance of Bharatanatyam during my first visit to India. Funny, that they always asked the same question. How was it that an American could so fully embrace an art form that grew out of a culture so different from that of her own? As always, I tried to convey to the VOA audience that I felt there were more similarities than differences in the true spirit of our cultures.
Chitresh and I had achieved much together and we toasted to this at Sausalito’s Spinnaker restaurant some years following our divorce. My decision to leave Chitresh and the Company we created together was very complex. I could relate it to many things, but the truth is that it was simply time. Chitresh needed to make the Company his own, to bring it and his teaching into a form drawn from his innermost desires. A similar exploration was burgeoning within me. Following a Master’s in Dance Education at Stanford University, I stayed on in the adjacent town of Palo Alto. It was the early 1990s, the dawning of the Information Age. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation for great things and I felt excited to be at the heart of it all. It was at this time that I began to explore ideas in science that resonated with kathak’s inherent yoga. Working in Palo Alto offered me new opportunities for creativity. For a while, I flirted with computer graphics as a way to express my dance interests.
As might be expected, I threaded ideas from my dance background and science into a website project, DanceStage, complete with video clips and “wave to particle” animated dance gifs—some created with software from Sairus Patel, a friend from Stanford who had landed a job with Adobe. Remember, this was a time when many were attempting to bring art, science, and technology together on the Internet for the very first time. Tongue-in-cheek, I called what I was doing “cyberography”—the movement of information in electronic environments. As I brought my practice from the dance stage to the yoga studio, I simply called it Yoga Aesthetics (www.yogaaesthetics.com). For those who might be interested, I have published two books. The Jewel & Filigree, a memoir that penetrates the intimate complexities of mixing cultures and, offers an expansion of the stories provided here. Yoga Aesthetics: Quest for the Creative Interface, explores an ancient idea about the creative interface between consciousness and physical reality. This idea formed the basis of India’s yogic practices, preserved over time through arts. Both books have been recently revised for self-publication on amazon.com.
From your time as a kathak performer and advocate, do you have any lessons you learned that could be of good advice for aspiring young kathak artists today?
Actually, I would like to offer a thought for kathak teachers and students. He’s coming back. What might you do to be ready? I ask this question with the underpinning belief in reincarnation. Chitresh offered you kathak—direct from his experience of it—bringing it to the West with all of its potential for an unbound future. Your guru will expect much from you. Bring it!
Photo Descriptions: Feature Photo, Julia Maxwell depicting abhinaya; Photo 2, Julia Maxwell as a young aspiring dancer; Photo 3, Sri Prohlad Das at his home; Photo 4, Julia Maxwell doing a traditional kathak palta; Photo 5, Julia Maxwell with the young Pandit Chitresh Das and Mother Srimati Nilima Das; Photo 6, Julia Maxwell and Pandit Chitresh Das duet photo; Photo 7, Julia Maxwell pirouette; Photo 8, Marni Ris, Michele King, Chitresh Das, Julia Maxwell, Jane Simmons [1980s] Photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 9, board member Amar Singh and Julia Maxwell signing the publication.
Photo Credits: John Bagley, Bonnie Kamin Morrissey, Ritesh Das
Videographers: Clark Higgins, Elain Trotter, Andy Neddermeyer