The Making of the California Gharana: Pratibha Patel
Pratibha began her study with Pandit Chitresh Das in 1988 and was Guruji’s first student of Indian origin at San Francisco State and at his behest, started teaching Kathak in New Jersey. After returning to the Bay Area, Pratibha created CAPS, the Chhandam Association of Parents and Students, the analogous to a PTA for Chhandam, and in 2003, she became Das’ Gandhabandan disciple. She founded the Chhandam Sacramento center and grew a community from the ground-up, of which many students were inspired to continue more advanced studies by traveling to the Bay Area. Pratibha also played an important role in CDDC productions and festivals as narrator and master of ceremonies for a number of years.
On the administrative end, Pratibha served on the Board of Directors for 11 years, and served as Interim Executive Director for 2 years, working with Seibi Lee and Rachna Nivas to transition the organization after Pandit Das’ passing. As a sales, marketing and product management professional in the health insurance industry, Pratibha leads high-performing teams and is a key contributor delivering on Blue Shield of California’s growth strategy.
How did you come to take a kathak class with Pandit Chitresh Das? What encouraged you to do it and can you talk about your experience of those first classes?
As a first generation Indian-American, my parents expected me to make education my top priority (in addition to the attributes that would make me a good wife, daughter-in-law, etc.), and discouraged most extra-curricular activities such as dance or music. In fact, I was forced to quit Bharatnatyam classes because I broke a house rule. (I mean, who punishes their teen by NOT letting her learn bharatnatyam?!?!?!) It was my third year at San Francisco State University (1988) and I came across the 2-credit kathak course as I was perusing the class catalog. I jumped at the opportunity to take a classical dance class during school hours. It was the first year that the kathak class was offered at SFSU, and moreover, the first university-accredited kathak course offered in the entire country! For me, it was a dream come true – like stepping into a magical world of movement, music, history and transcendental art. I was transported.
I remember going to class in my churidar with my dupatta tied just so perfectly and my hair tied back like a “proper” Indian student, but found myself surrounded by the most eclectic mix of people adorned in all combinations of spandex, scarves and jewelry. Some were there to get exercise or a PE credit, some pursuing a dance major in a different art form or trying to learn about another culture. Oftentimes, I think a couple people weren’t even in the same plane of consciousness as the rest of us. Imagine Guruji trying to teach this varied group of people! As the weeks went by, only the hardier remained. He would play tabla and recite while the TA’s, usually Michelle Zonka or Gretchen Ruckert, and sometimes Noelle Barton, would lead in the front. We would follow the same standardized format all the time with varying levels of difficulty to accommodate the different skill sets of the students. Guruji was always working hard to keep everyone engaged and even threw in impersonations of Tina Turner or Michael Jackson moves a couple times! I think very few people were witness to those moments.
There were not many South Asians studying with Pandit Das at the time you began. Can you talk about what that was like being one of the few and if you felt he taught you differently?
I was the first American born Indian that Guruji taught. Being first generation Indian-American, I easily vacillated between being very American and very desi. I was quite the anomaly to him. While I looked and talked like an American, Guruji especially appreciated that I was fluent in my native language, could whip together a full range of Gujarati dishes and was very familiar with cultural ideologies and traditions. However, I also represented a sector of immigrant Indians (my parents immigrated in the 1960’s) who were upholding a snapshot of the Indian life they left behind and were prioritizing financial security in lieu of everything else. Consequently, I would often bear the brunt of his tirades on the lack of patronage and value placed on the classical arts by the ‘Hotel Motel Patels.’ It was true, but after the fifth time, I wanted to scream that he was preaching to the choir. In my kathak written exam, I finally shared my thoughts about more effective ways of bridging the divide by understanding the contributing factors of that societal behavior. Survivalist mentality coupled with an absence of arts training in their childhood made classical arts unrelatable to many. While it was frustrating to Guruji, other ways to reach the Indian diaspora had to be developed.
By the next semester, my three desi friends as well as a Gujurati male joined, so there were five students of Indian descent in his class. On a funny sidenote, one of my friends was a tabla student who claimed she had two left feet, and he would often correct her mistakes by saying “no the other left foot!” With a few other students, we began to perform in the Ethnic Dance department’s shows or at city college events. The four of us crossed over and started extra classes at Chhandam. Guruji was certainly a lot more strict and intense in Chhandam classes. He didn’t teach us differently, but as desis, I think he expected us to understand quicker than other students, and be ambassadors in our communities. I found it interesting that Guruji would incorporate folk dances in the school show, perhaps as a way to connect with the community a bit more. For example, we took part in a Bengali Santali dance as well as a special dandia-raas he choreographed for us “guju girls.” The tempo and “jhulan” are completely different doing dandia at Navratri vs on stage with a classical twist.
What did you find most inspiring about Pandit Chitresh Das’ approach and teachings?
He was an absolutely brilliant and puissant artist, a powerhouse and a wellspring of knowledge. He opened up a window to a bygone era and brought it to the modern world. He taught in such a way that we could taste it, feel it, hear it – the aura and atmosphere from those storied times was palpable through him. He was a catalyst in the bliss factor. What I found so inspiring was his ability to share the joy of the artform by helping his students tap into that bliss-factor. He knew how to push and inspire us, injecting a vast amount of energy into the classroom through direction, singing and tabla-playing. We were able to power through compositions riding the wave of energy in class that were very difficult to replicate at home by ourselves. He was giving us the tools to eventually reach those heights through sadhana – granted that we applied them with discipline and vigor.
Over the decades, I witnessed and admired how he evolved. When I started learning, Guruji always had his senior dancers or company members serve as liaisons with the students and their families. Although he was a strong presence in the class, he was personally far less accessible. Only in the 90’s and later did he start to become more approachable to his students, and he’d figured out how to connect with them directly while still preserving his due respect. The greatest strides were made in this area when he started inviting parents into the classrooms and including them in pointed discussions with his students. Now he was directly communicating with the parents and his messaging was reaching the extended community.
The daily, multi-hour classes of the early 70’s were no longer viable with the changing society and lifestyle of the 90’s and 21st century Indian diaspora. Everything had to be distilled into shorter and fewer, larger classes. With a growing student base and the need for newer teachers, Guruji had to embrace the standardization of classes and teacher training. Furthermore, although never compromising on his standards, he became more empathetic as his student base gained more children and mothers, and subsequently, more of the Chhandam teachers were mothers. When he became a father, he fully understood how to lead within the challenges inherent in balancing work, family life and dance studies.
I admired his intuition and insight. Many times, he seemed to know people better than they knew themselves. He didn’t mince words in sharing his thoughts on what their biggest fear or problem was, and it was quite difficult for us to hear and own up to it. In the presence of a guru, you have to be willing to face some truths about yourself on that dance floor. If you came in with an agenda and an ego, you were going to get shot down. It wasn’t going to be easy. You always had to make sure you checked your ego at the door, came in with the right attitude, and were open to receiving. Again, first principle of Sadvyavhar aur Tehzeeb! That is how trust and true growth was developed.
You have had extensive teaching experience in different parts of the country over the years and are known for your superpower as a community organizer and in inspiring students to study the art deeply. What drives you to teach and build community?
My path to teaching was not typical – I had to take several breaks during my kathak studies but I always came back, even if it meant starting from the beginning again. On my third break, I was living in New Jersey when my daughter turned 5, and I wanted her to learn kathak. When my request to Guruji’s nearby shishyas to start teaching wasn’t feasible, he recommended that I start teaching myself. That meant taking multiple trips to California to observe how Guruji and other Chhandam instructors taught so that I could emulate his teachings in New Jersey. Simultaneously, I was charged with developing my riyaz (practice). He literally told me to “practice until you can do 4 cycles of solahgun with even sounds, and then fax me.” And I did! Despite Guruji’s strict adherence to the oral tradition of Indian arts, I was the first student he allowed to record and use videos to learn remotely. He instructed me to videotape Jaiwanti Das Pamnani (one of Guruji’s senior disciples who sadly passed away in 2007) to learn Rang Manch and other compositions with the expectation that I would demonstrate my progress upon my return. In 1999 with his blessings, I started classes in my renovated basement studio, eventually offering intensives, a ghungroo ceremony and annual recitals. Throughout, I kept the students connected to Guruji with stories, pictures and messages from him, as well as having the children write him cards for their ghungroo ceremony.
From this early experience in New Jersey, my mindset had shifted from me to them. For the next two decades, anytime I learned new material or had a transformative experience with Guruji, I automatically tried to figure out how I could share it with my students.The focus was not on myself as a student. Instead, it was about creating the best experience for my students, making kathak fun and relatable whilst instilling respect for the tradition and the joy of achievement. Every student enters the classroom striving for something whether it is connecting to culture, spiritual development, fulfilling a dream to dance, stress release or simply “me time.” Often times, I had to encourage mothers or older women to take the big step and start learning at any age. I’d tell them “If I can do it, so can you!” And they did! If they didn’t want to dance, I would get them involved in ways that were meaningful to them. It was important to me to nurture an environment which lifted people, connecting them to a greater energy, to Guruji and a larger arts community. Regardless of whether I was teaching in New Jersey, the Bay Area, Sacramento area or France, I used this as a guiding principle in building communities through the dance.
You have faced some difficult injuries that steered you on a different path for your journey as a student of the dance. Can you talk about the challenges of going through that and how you overcame those obstacles and stayed deeply committed to your journey, to your Guru, and to the work of Chhandam and Chitresh Das Dance Company?
I was born with pronating ankles and alignment issues which led to chronic foot, joint and back pain. Repetitive, high-impact movements were highly discouraged. Yet, I was hooked and I continued to dance despite all the warning signs. To counter the harm, I cross-trained, and partook in therapies such as yoga, pilates, physical therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture etc. I wore ankle, knee and back braces during class to minimize impact. Regardless, I suffered recurring injuries, one of which put me out of commission for six months in 2002. My doctors advised that I should stop dancing to avoid the risk of premature disability. This was a very difficult pill to swallow. In response, Guruji decided to start a Low-Impact class for injured and pregnant students with less emphasis on footwork, and more emphasis on gat bhav and layakari. Eventually, I rejoined regular classes (with the full set of braces, of course!) and I danced the same compositions with fewer turns and substituted with slower speed of footwork.
Shortly after my return to dance in 2003, Guruji asked me to become his disciple. I was probably a level II student at the most, so this honorable request was very confusing to me. Why? How can I be his disciple? What does he expect, and can I fulfill the role of a shishya? Thus far, all his disciples were company members who performed throughout the world. While I was a teacher and always stayed connected with him throughout the years, how was I worthy of disciplehood? In response, Guruji said, “Pratibha, you have the virtues and values of a disciple. There is more to being a disciple than the dance itself.” In accordance with the first of the Nine Principles, Sadvyavhar aur Tehzeeb (attitude and etiquette), he said his guruji cared more about how a student walked into the dance room than how well he danced. It was such a profound honor and privilege, but I didn’t say yes right away. Not knowing if I could fulfil that role, I asked him what was required. He said it wasn’t different from what I was already doing – remaining committed through adversity, having an open and humble demeanor, promoting and preserving the artform and carrying his work forward. It is about maintaining a strong relationship, taking care of each other and the extended family, cooking together (he loved my gujarati daals and I loved his lamb curry!) and he said that I was doing all of that. He wanted me to be an example for others about how you connect and treat people, making no excuses and moving the art forward. With me, the conflict of a disciple establishing herself as a dancer vs supporting the growth of the school would not be an issue. I was concerned about how he would justify choosing me as his disciple but I also understood his reasons. So, of course I said “Yes!”
The larger question still loomed in my mind: How would I teach kathak classes? In 2007, I had moved to the Sacramento area, and was going to start a school there on my own. How would I manage the advanced classes without dancing all the material? Guruji told me “I never saw my Guruji (Pandit Ram Narayan Misra) dance. Learn how to teach without dancing.” I thought to myself, “if this great master has faith in me, who am I to doubt myself.” I went full speed ahead with Chhandam-Sacramento and built an incredible dance community, many of whom still remain connected to dance and as part of my extended family.
You had a traditional gandabandhan (string tying) ceremony in Kolkata with Pandit Das to become his disciple. What was this experience like?
I was the last disciple to have my gandabandhan ceremony in Kolkata at the banks of the Ganga river on a private estate overlooking the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. My husband and I flew in at 1am thinking my ganadabandhan was the following day, but I didn’t count the days properly, so it was actually that same morning! Guruji and Celine (Guruji’s wife) took care of all the arrangements and I had no idea what to expect. Guruji, Celine, Jaiwanti Das-Pamnani, Charlotte Moraga, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, and Cimi Ahulwalia had already arrived in Kolkata. We left at 7am to do darshan at the Dakshineswar Temple and the Ganges river prior to the gandabhandhan ceremony. We received VIP expedited service into the temple to bypass the long lines. I was doing my best to hold on to Guruji because we are being woven through the crowds to be positioned in front of the temple. As soon as we arrived near the altar, the doors opened and Guruji had a direct line of sight to Ma Kali. It was very auspicious. I was standing almost right next to him but unfortunately, I couldn’t see over the crowds.
Thereafter, we proceeded to a historic estate which was a throwback to British colonial times. The house was charming and eclectic, filled with all sorts of clocks and sat on beautiful grounds with a small sati temple. I was dressed in my red and white sari and Guruji was resplendent in his traditional Bengali dhoti outfit. My husband and I sat down with Guruji inside the temple. The priest conducted a havan and pooja where he literally tied a “nadachadi” string around all three of our wrists. Then, Guruji blessed the ghungroo, and bestowed them upon me. Afterward we had a big feast. The local newspaper and TV station were present to interview Guruji and the ceremony was featured on the news that night! It was such a surreal experience! You hear about it or you see this happening in movies but I never imagined it would happen to me. I was so emotional leading up to the ceremony, but during that day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. It was unbelievable.I had become the disciple of one of the greatest kathak masters of all time.
You have worn many different hats over the years for the Chhandam organization – from dancer to teacher to administrator. Can you talk about some of the different leadership roles you have had?
I have served as a teacher, branch director, organizational lead, executive board member and interim Executive Director for the Chhandam School of Kathak. When I moved back to California in 2001, the organization was beginning to expand quickly but I noticed that it was challenged by a lack of infrastructure to support the growth, and there was a serious messaging gap between Guruji, the teachers, and the students. Chhandam needed additional resources and yet, wasn’t tapping into the community of parents and students who wanted the connection. Guruji was an enigma – this figure who would come in, teach and give so much energy. However, all his teachers or administrators weren’t necessarily very good at connecting or sharing information. I saw an opportunity to bridge this gap and harness the resources available through the students and conversely, help support the students in their dance progression. I partnered with Rachna Nivas and started CAPS (Chhandam Association of Parents and Students). It was like a Chhandam PTA. We created CAPS Yahoo Groups for every single branch to facilitate regular and informative communication to all students and their parents. Importantly, this was a scalable solution. We started to build the Chhandam community with the support of parents to facilitate volunteering and carpooling to events, increase attendance at shows and intensives, schedule practice sessions, and support fundraising. Whether it was going to be monetary or resource based, we figured out how everyone could contribute. CAPS was so important because it helped develop a bridge between Guruji and the school to the community. This was a game changer in our outreach and education efforts.
Guruji saw in me a business acumen paired with a desire to be in the arts. I wasn’t the best dancer but I sure had a heck of a lot of passion, dedication and corporate experience. Over two separate periods, I served on the Board of Directors for over 10 years, and had the privilege to work with some of the most exceptional people during this time. The board was responsible for financial oversight and in enabling the transition from being run like a family business to a professional arts organization with over $1 million in operating budget. During the years of rapid expansion, it was especially critical that Chhandam remained financially sound and compliant as a nonprofit. Not only did the board serve a vital role in fundraising, we also assisted in bringing in pro bono consultants or cultivating new board members with specialized skills to support regulatory compliance, and ensuring that strategic planning and programs aligned with the mission of the organization.
As a disciple and teacher, I helped represent the artists’ perspective in case context was needed. While serving on the board and being a disciple put me in a tricky position, the board made sure we eliminated any conflict of interest since Celine Schein Das as the Executive Director, and Guruji as the Artistic Director, were employees of the organization. Being on the Board meant I had to partake in some difficult decisions, such as denying salary increases in lieu of bonuses if productions met projected income. While Guruji was not a fan of these decisions, I had to remain steadfast in what the board believed was best for the financial health of the organization. Directly after Guruji’s passing in 2015, the board made tremendous strides to assist in the transformation of the organization such as increasing teacher and artist salaries, shifting decision-making powers to artistic directors, etc. Later that year when I rejoined the board, at the risk of not being liked or understood, we had to make difficult decisions after Guruji’s passing to safeguard that all his disciples could freely carry forth his legacy, and that Chhandam remained dedicated to the education, promotion and preservation of kathak dance. As the acting Executive Director, the Board and I made the necessary changes for far-reaching benefits that may not have been apparent in the short term. Today, I am heartened to see that his teachings are joyfully being shared in all corners of the world by his numerous disciples, in their own ways or with their own organizations.
You have also been an omnipresent “voice” of Chhandam and Chitresh Das Dance Company in that you became the familiar emcee and narrator that everyone grew to expect and love. Do you have any good stories from this experience?
Since mine weren’t going to be any of the feet on the stage floor, it was awesome that my “voice” was a nearly permanent fixture on the platform! It was such an honor to introduce Guruji to a thousand audience members, or to set the tone for a production or scene. I have a particularly memorable experience from my time as an emcee at Kathak at the Crossroads festival that Chhandam hosted at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. Each guest dancer/institution was allotted a specific timeframe for their piece(s). One of the dancers had significantly exceeded her allotted time which subsequently would delay the timeline for the rest of the day. I had to respectfully and decisively interrupt her dance and cut it short. That was difficult to do!
Another great memory was my first narrating experience at East as Center – a Kathak, Kathakali and Balinese dance drama collaboration. Besides the herculean effort of trying to effectively narrate over music and the sound of ghungroo without sounding like I was yelling, Guruji also wanted me to scream on behalf of Surpanaka when her nose was cut off. I was to introduce the scene which began playful and flirty but ended in pain and anger. In the middle of the scene, I had to go from zero to a full throttled scream in sur! The first few tries, I sounded really bad because I was scared to let it all out and couldn’t get the pitch right. So, Sarah Morelli and I went outside the theater to the corner where I proceeded to scream until I got the pitch and pain right. I would scream and Sarah would coach “almost there”, “a little bit higher”, or “a little less loud but with more pain” until I got it just right. Only in San Francisco! The show ran for eight days, and I would sit next to the musicians platform dressed elegantly in a sari with flowers in my hair, use a soothing tone to introduce the scenes, and then let out a blood curdling scream that would really freak people out. It was hilarious!
You played a very difficult role in the days following Guruji’s passing – one that required enormous strength but for which many of your gurusisters admired and were grateful for. Can you tell us more about that?
As his senior and desi disciple, I led the efforts in coordinating the final rituals during Guruji’s funeral. According to some of my guru-sisters, I was a rock in the days leading up to his cremation. I coordinated with the family priest to organize the rituals according to Bengali and Hindu traditions. I took care of the work that needed to be done to help his soul transition peacefully, such as preparing his body for cremation by washing his feet in gangajal (holy water), placing tulsi and gold in his mouth, and including the required artifacts in his casket. I even took imprints of his footprints for all his disciples. I kept everyone on track to make sure the family and guru sisters were present and the ceremonies conducted in a timely manner. I remained at the head of Guruji’s casket along with his brother and other senior disciples to greet the almost 1000 guests at the funeral, and made sure they had flowers to offer Guruji in their final farewell. While this was a very difficult time for me, I knew that upholding tradition was very important to Guruji. Meaningful rituals were important to him – he would light incense every day at his altar, he was very selective on who and when his feet could be touched, and our ghungroo ceremonies were meticulously planned where he blessed each and every student individually following the same protocol. I knew it would be important to him that his last rites were conducted according to tradition to ensure his peaceful transition.
Can you tell us about one of your particularly meaningful or favorite memories of your kathak journey?
There are so many to choose from! However, one of my most poignant memories is from the Evolution school show which was in June 2013. I had been teaching in Sacramento for five years, and had been very successful in keeping my students highly engaged with Guruji and Chhandam in the Bay Area, often having the highest percentage of attendance at intensives, retreats and events. How? I told them I was a conduit for them to connect to the source, and that my greatest power was to connect them to Guruji and to all of the senior Didis. While I gave them 150%, they understood what they would get in a half an hour from Guruji would be lightyears beyond.
For Evolution, my top students were going to perform Rangmanch alongside fifteen other students that Guruji had been training directly for several years, including Brandon Brown, Sylvie Beaudart, Shruti Iyer, Amrit Mann, and so many more. We made regular trips to the Bay Area for joint rehearsals, and spent endless hours practicing for this big moment on the stage. All six of the Sacramento students were placed on the left side of the stage. They would have to be lock-step in sync with everyone else, matching their graceful movements and chakkars. They danced beautifully! I was so proud of them, but the biggest reward came later. At the end of the show, their parents came to meet me and told me they were in tears as they watched their daughters perform (even some of the Dads!). The grandeur and power of the piece was breathtaking, and seeing their daughters seamlessly dance with the entire group exceeded their expectations, and they were so happy and grateful. I remember how touched the parents were, how thrilled and proud my students were to accomplish this feat, how I was so proud of my students for working so hard, and how Guruji was so proud of me for developing my students to that point. One of my favorite pictures from all time is from that day, and those families still remain an important part of my life today.
Another interesting factoid that I love: I was Guruji’s hair stylist since 2000. I enjoyed having the opportunity to style his hair for performances to achieve the right balance of natural, artist curls and a hairdo that would keep its shape despite thunderous chakkars, footwork and sweat! Initially, I was a nervous wreck thinking one bad snip would be seen by thousands of his fans, but eventually, I was comfortable enough to cut his hair after class in the dance studio!
Do you have any words of wisdom to the next generations of kathak students aspiring to make an impact?
If you want to study this artform, do it from the heart and do it for yourself – be happy! But if you take the journey seriously, your work must be about the art and about cultivating others. That is how legacy is created.
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo 1 – Sacramento World Dance and Music Festival, Spotlight on India, 2011, photo credit Shashank Deshpande; Photo 2 – Autour de l’Inde 2018, Grenoble France; Photo 3 – Mona Mehta, Pratibha Patel, Neha Raichur, Mayura Vali, 1990, photo credit George Mason; Photo 4 – San Francisco State University 1989, Sanjay Patel, Mona Mehta, Neha Raichur, Pratibha Patel; Photo 5 – Pratibha Patel and Guruji 2013; Photo 6 – performance of Natawari Nrithya for a Chhandam school show; Photo 7 – Jaiwanti Das Pamnani 1999, San Rafael; Photo 8 – Masterclass at the Maison des Habitants, Centre-vile, Grenoble France 2019, students Sabrina Four and Jennifer Flament; Photo 9 – Pratibha Patel; Photo 10 – Pratibha Patel and Guruji; Photo 11 – Gandabandhan ceremony in Kolkata, January 2003; Photo 12 – Gandabandhan ceremony in Kolkata, January 2003, Jaiwanti Das Pamnani, Cimi Ahluwalia, Celine Schein Das, Kasturi Misra; Photo 13 – Evolution 2013, Sahya Patel, Aishwarya Pattnaik, Niharika Kaul, Priyanka Gupta, Nikita Bhat, and Pratibha Patel; Photo 14 – Pratibha Patel, Guruji and Sahya Patel at Dancing Deer Ranch, Templeton for Chhandam Retreat 2012; Photo 15: Pratibha Patel; Photo 16 – Evolution 2013, Sahya Patel, Aishwarya Pattnaik, Niharika Kaul, Priyanka Gupta, Nikita Bhat, and Pratibha Patel; Photo 17 – Millbrae 2002; Photo 18 – Sacramento World Dance and Music Festival, Spotlight on India 2011, photo credit Shashank Deshpande.