The Making of the California Gharana: Marni Ris
After a childhood of study and performance with Marin Civic Ballet, Marni Wieser Ris began her kathak training under Pandit Chitresh Das in 1976. She performed both as a soloist and principal member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC) throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. She was part of two CDDC tours of India performing in major classical dance and music conferences in cities including Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay, performed on Indian national television (1978 and 1981), and spent a year of intensive study in India in 1983 under the watchful eye of both Pandit Chitresh Das and his father, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das. Her many years of collaborating with husband and sarodist Christopher Ris led to a solo performance tour of India in 1988. Her individual performances were enthusiastically received by diverse audiences, from a group of 3000 students and villagers under a full moon in the Rajasthan desert, to prestigious dance and music circles in Calcutta, Jaipur and Bombay, to the ambassador and guests at the American Consulate in Singapore, to modern choreographer’s showcases in the US, and lecture demonstrations before a variety of young audiences. In 1993 she and Christopher created Ragas and Sagas for their performances and for their work with youth. Accompanied by Dana Panday or Pranesh Khan on tabla, they charmed many young audiences throughout the Bay Area with the rich traditions of kathak and North Indian classical music. Marni received two individual grants from the Marin Arts Council to fund these programs.
Her piece “Kali'” was created in 1994. “The Girl Who Called Rain”, a twenty-minute dramatic work of narrative, dance and song in the style of the kathakas premiered in 1997. She went on to tour both works throughout the mainland US and Hawaii. Marni became known as an innovative choreographer with a contemporary style that tapped the spirit of the original kathakas, the wandering storytellers of ancient India. In 2000 she and Christopher composed the soundtrack for Cinnabar Theater’s production of the off Broadway play “A Perfect Ganesh” by Terrence McNally which was restaged in 2019. Since retiring from performance, she has focused on vocal music and composition.
How did you get involved with studying kathak dance? What encouraged you to take your first kathak class, and what was your very first class with Guruji like?
I studied ballet as a child, gave it up for horses, and after college casually took classes in what people then referred to as “exotic” dance forms (classical Egyptian, Middle Eastern, African, South Indian). I first saw kathak in 1976 on Maui at an outdoor crafts fair where, on a small stage performing before a cadre of Buddhist monks, was a woman in ascetic white, dancing something quite intriguing with fluid gestures, precise spins, and rhythmic footwork. She was Lee Anderson, one of Pandit Das’s very first students, and on the stage with her was a musician I hardly noticed; Christopher Ris, my future husband. I only had eyes for the dance then, and after the performance I found Lee and learned she was studying kathak in Marin County, my home, where I was about to return.
I attended my first class at the Ali Akbar College of Music a month later. As I watched the advanced class, I thought, “Oh I can do this”. But of course when I tried, I felt incredibly uncoordinated. The other women were encouraging, Dada (“elder brother” in Bengali) was welcoming, and the euphoric rush at the end of an intense class was addicting; I felt both grounded and uplifted. While I had enjoyed the linear grace of ballet, I sensed the study of kathak spoke to something much deeper. At the time I was also taking classes in bharatanatyam, and although I loved them both, what kept me coming back to kathak was Dada; his mastery, depth of knowledge, charisma and intensity. I joined the many women from different walks of life who were studying with him and who quickly became a family of sorts united by this dance.
Can you describe what the environment at the Ali Akbar College of Music was like at that time, how your training schedule was, and what was it like for students to be studying both classical Indian dance and music?
When I signed up for my first semester of kathak classes at the Ali Akbar College I did not comprehend I was signing up for music and tal classes as well; I did not appreciate the depth of what was being offered me, and I did not take full advantage of it. I just wanted to dance (not realizing it was all part of a whole). Quickly that awareness changed but my time at the Ali Akbar College was relatively short as Dada left the college shortly after our first trip to India in 1977.
That said it was an amazing experience to have such masters among us, and even after Dada left the College to form Chhandam and later CDDC, many of us stayed close to the college through our musician friends. The explosion of interest in traditions of the East, and the West’s particular enchantment with Indian culture was life changing for many of us in our early to mid 20s. At that time it was easier than it is today to live happily and pursue an artistic life without a lot of money. I was also studying for a Master’s degree in special education, thinking I was going to work with autism, but my creative self intervened (“No you’re not really going to do that, you’re going to dance”). So after finishing my degree I worked odd hours in a medical facility while others found their ways to keep dance the priority. Honestly we needed as much time as possible because although we were relatively young, we had a lot of catching up to do! The environment at that time felt much like an immersion program; there was always something going on, even if it was just practicing with each other. Classes were five days a week for at least 3 hours, sometimes starting at 9 in the morning, sometimes in the evening. Dada was always teaching in some form even as we drove him, had lunch with him, or were working on promotional materials. Concerts on weekends meant we essentially lived, breathed, and even dreamt kathak.
There was a lot of intensity around Dada. He was only six or seven years older than most of us, finding his way teaching young American women who had little understanding of Indian culture. Drama happened. I would often go to class for three or four hours in the morning, and then spend the whole afternoon mentally processing the class and Dada’s sharp tongue. It was sometimes an emotional roller coaster, and not everyone chose to go through that fire. But those of us who did reaped great rewards.
You were on the tour when Guruji took his “American students” to perform back in India for the very first time. Can you talk about this experience? How were you received?
I will never forget that first tour. Dada wanted to show his family, his peers, and the dance world in Calcutta what he had been doing in America for six years. Eight of his students accompanied him. Coming from Marin County in 1977, India was a very, very different place. To me it was like going to another planet. Nothing was familiar and although people spoke English, even their meaning was sometimes quite different. But we were welcomed with such love and openness, treated like honored guests by Dada’s family and friends. We became the focus of plenty of gossip as we shopped in the local outdoor markets, and often felt like celebrities. We were presented on national television and performed in some of the most prestigious venues in Calcutta. I remember one concert when we opened for Ravi Shankarji; the entire curtain was made of long strands of tuberoses and we were enveloped in the most heavenly smell as we danced the drama of Sita Haran.
I believe Dada was proud that he was able to bring his students and choreography to Calcutta. I also think on that first trip, we Americans were very sheltered and unaware of any politics in the classical dance world that might have been lurking in the background. We were a novelty and being the lucky first, the audiences appreciated our interest in their culture. In later visits we would have to work harder to earn the respect of the Indian dance community.
The second trip to India was a different story. It was 17 people, an unwieldy 17, and initially many things went awry. Our housing fell through and we all had to sleep on a cement floor the first night. Christopher Ris’ sarod was broken beyond repair, some of our bags failed to arrive, and Dada and Julia had to run around Calcutta exhaustively talking to multiple officials to gain permission for us to participate in already booked concerts. As time went on students peeled away to travel, and a smaller group performed in New Delhi, Bombay and several other cities. One concert in Patna stands out. When we arrived, there was a large billboard promoting Chitresh Das and his troupe of American “danseuses” with all our very obviously Caucasian names written all over it. At that point it was only Julia Maxwell, myself, and a few others; not the sizable group of white women dancers promised. I think some of the audience’s expectations or fantasies were not met and the crowd became rowdy. As we waited in the wings, the power went off, the hall went dark, and suddenly soldiers with rifles surrounded us, protecting us from whatever might befall the American “danseuses”. At the same time, on stage, Dada was turning the audience to putty in his hands.
They pointed many flashlights to illuminate his feet, allowing him to continue the performance and in little time the almost riotous crowd became a receptive, supportive, and enthusiastic audience! It was stunning to watch his skill and enjoyment in transforming hostility into cheers and thunderous applause.
There was another concert at the Palace of Jodhpur. It was a magnificent outdoor setting with huge columns and the palace as backdrop. It felt like dancing on an MGM Grand set in Hollywood, but of course it was real. Antonia Minnecola, Julia Maxwell, Michelle King, and I danced down huge marble stairs to where the stage was… but there was only flagstone and sand. No way to dance kathak on that, even with canvas stretched over it! But once again Dada prevailed. It was always an education to watch him meet such challenges so masterfully.
You performed with the Chitresh Das Dance Company from its inception through 1997, what are some of your most memorable and meaningful experiences?
The CDDC established a loyal following in the Bay Area during the early 80’s and then expanded to impressive venues throughout the US, India and Europe. It would take a book to include all the memorable performances, but one of the most meaningful to me was a performance at the Kathak Kendra Dance Festival in New Delhi in the winter of 1982 where Dada first presented himself and the company to the kathak elite of India. Never one to play it safe he impulsively challenged himself on the spot to present his solo unaccompanied “train” footwork in tal, something he had never done. The gradual speeding up and slowing down as the train leaves and returns to the station had to now be done in jatis over the tal and were not as successfully articulated as he’d hoped. Watching from just offstage we all wished he hadn’t attempted that in THAT important concert. But to Dada the prospect of failure did not stop him from taking big chances. He thrived on spontaneity and that quality always brought excitement to his performances (and kept us dancers and his accompanists ready for anything!).
Another personally meaningful experience was the Ethnic Dance Festival in 1988 where Dada, Michele Zonka, and I danced the Hindol Tarana in its latest form. It is most memorable to me because I was 3 months pregnant at the time, but it is also one of the few video records of my time on stage with Chitresh Das. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XdRLpD2t2w
How has your experience been to study an artform that is not from your cultural background? How did you embody the universality of kathak?
I did sometimes ask myself why a red headed white girl would be dancing this art form, but the world of kathak was so compelling and kept opening me to deeper and deeper levels that it became my life for almost 30 years. Dada was such an effective teacher and made the dance so accessible, I rarely thought the fact that I wasn’t Indian mattered. I was just learning about a beautiful art form. Perhaps under Dada’s auspices we were granted a kind of pass. It was later when Christopher and I would try to book concerts on our own and apply for grants, some people would say “when we want Indian classical music or dance, we’ll get Indians to do it”. That was disheartening, but we just worked harder.
I have always loved learning about ancient cultures and traditions and being transported to another place and time. Kathak was something I could never completely master (though I had fun trying) and that allure continued throughout the years, sometimes just out of reach and sometimes seemingly lightyears away. The technique was what drew me at first; I loved the intensity and the challenge of it and I would be sad on the weekends when we didn’t have class! Abhinaya and “leading an audience toward the experience of a sentiment” was another matter entirely, especially with regards to the portrayal of women. That is where the dance felt foreign. I was often cast in soft, passive female roles which did not feel authentic. It was when I started to create my own work that I felt the true universality of kathak as a vehicle for the expression of my heart.
You created a powerful original solo work on Goddess Kali, which was groundbreaking and revolutionary at the time. Can you share your experience working on that project, its music, and theme?
Although expressive worship of the goddess in her multiple forms has never ceased in India, the West was just beginning to look beyond stereotypes of patriarchal society towards more enlightened understanding of feminine energy. I wanted to highlight the power of the feminine as it can be expressed through kathak. When I learned that Kali was said to have sprung from the brow of the great goddess Durga during a battle to annihilate demonic male power, I could relate. Dada was such a strong personality and he encouraged, even goaded us to be strong women, to go through ‘the fire’ to find our own power. “Kali” was a culmination of what he inspired in me.
My first introduction to the goddess Kali was in1983 in Calcutta when Christopher and I stumbled upon a Kali temple. It was earsplitting and so intense we couldn’t stay long. Some years later… it was something I can’t really describe… the piece created itself. It felt like a kind of visitation.
To invoke Goddess Kali was to invoke a most intense part of myself. The piece portrays her in battle with the demon Raktabija, whose name means ‘”seed blood”. From each drop of blood Raktabija shed in battle, a new demon would emerge to join the fight. Kali must drink again and again the blood of Raktabija to vanquish him. Her tongue lols red, her hair is disheveled. She wears a necklace of skulls and a belt of severed arms. She transmutes the poison in his demon blood to bring the world back into balance. That image is the Kali we in the West are most familiar with, but Kali is also embraced as Divine Mother. And as Divine Mother and the essence of feminine power, Shakti, Kali’s divine manifestation brings worlds to birth… she sustains them… and she reabsorbs them, in a never ending cycle of her own opening and closing.
As far as the music, Christopher and I worked line by line in rag Prabha Kali. Dada was very supportive. I wanted Mala Ganguly to sing the vocal lines but he said, No, no, no, YOU must sing it yourself. His support gave me both permission and confidence to reach beyond what I thought I could do. He also suggested some wonderful and characteristic demonic touches. We premiered Kali in 1994 at St John’s Church in Berkeley where Dada presented his most senior dancers at the time, and where three of us, Gretchen Hayden, Joanna de Souza, and I also performed our own choreography.
Five years later, in 1999, although I was no longer dancing with the company, Dada told me he’d like to incorporate the Kali dance into a piece he was creating for the annual Bengali Association convention at the Santa Clara Convention Center. He was exploring the nature of true sacrifice and wanted to portray a tantric Shiva devotee worshiping in the burning ghats (he would go on to develop his production of Shiva for the company a few years later). As he sat before the pyre, invoking and praying to the Goddess Kali, he was grappling with the reality of ritual goat sacrifice in Bengal and the concept of personal sacrifice. The Goddess appears before him and illuminates the difference. The musicians were Shri Swapan Chauduri, Ramesh Misra, Mala Ganguli, Pranesh Khan and Christopher Ris. We never rehearsed, only talked through Dada’s vision, and then “met for the first time” (a phrase he loved) on stage, relying on Christopher’s and Pranesh’s knowledge of the Kali music. I share this because as students we always used to hear how we needed to be ready for anything. If you are fully practiced then you have a well to draw from. On stage Dada was always reaching into his depths.
One last thing about solo works: Kali was to be the first part of a trilogy of strong female characters. The second part of this trilogy was “The Girl Who Called Rain”, the story of Mian Tansen’s daughter, Saraswati. Tansen was the most famous composer and exponent of the classical singing tradition of Moghul India, and many of today’s classical musicians trace their musical lineage to Tansen through this daughter. Legend from the sixteenth century court of Emperor Akbar the Great tells us that Tansen was challenged to sing the “fire raga” at court, and instructs his daughter Saraswati to sing a rain raga to extinguish the flames he conjurs. Christopher and I performed this in the style of the kathakas as a kind of dance-theater-opera with more narrative and song than usual, creating harmonies with the simultaneous singing of the two ragas.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after the completion of this piece that I had a career ending injury. I never got to present the third part of the trilogy, Savitri, the woman who cheated death. Maybe one of you will.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and studying with Pandit Chitresh Das that the younger generation of dancers and leaders could learn from?
It was the vitality and athleticism of the pure dance and Dada’s spontaneity and dazzling speed that attracted me to kathak, but it was the exploration of the human spirit that inspired and sustained me. Study with Dada, himself a dynamic masculine energy, was a lesson in the different faces of power: Shiva’s wrath, Ardhanarishvara (the manifestation of masculine-feminine balance), Parvati’s eroticism and piety, Krishna’s love games, Durga’s woman warrior. The mythology was an endless procession of human emotion and experience. What did I learn? That disciplined technique becomes the vehicle for a more profound expression of art.
Few will become true masters of this art form, but at every level kathak is an arena for creativity and self knowledge. I didn’t always appreciate the wealth of what I was receiving, but I learned many things: how to stay strong in the face of adversity, how to be flexible (bend but not break!), how to navigate being both a respectful student and a creative artist, the blurred lines between my limits and aspirations, the meaning of true character.
To the future generations of dancers and leaders, I would say that practice is the only path. There’s really no way around it. As Dada would always say, “Freedom comes from refined discipline”. You have to put in the time.
So respect the dance, give it your all, and then go forth and make it a beautiful expression of your own divinity.
Photo Descriptions: Photo 1, India 1984; Photo 2, Forest Meadows concert: “Vandana” (‘traditional’ costume by Dada’s mother) early 1980’s, photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 3,stage rehearsal, photo credit Christopher Ris; Photo 4, with MA 1983, photo credit Christopher Ris; Photo 5, Marni as Sita, Herbst Theater early 80s, photo credit Betsy Bourbon; Photo 6, first India trip 1977-78; Photo 7-8, Kali 1999, both photos by Shallin Ris; Photo 9, pre-concert Pranam, photo credit Christopher Ris; Photo 10, Marni and Chitresh in India 1977.