The Making Of the California Gharana

Ronda Berkeley

You came to study with Pandit Chitresh Das through your time dancing with the AMAN Folk Ensemble in Los Angeles. Can you first talk about AMAN and how you became a part of it?  

AMAN began in LA in the 60s when there was an exploding interest in world culture, arts and cuisine outside of the American bubble. I think it was a natural progression as the country was moving towards a more global posture in the post WW2 and Vietnam eras.

AMAN started with a group of ethnomusicologists at UCLA and local dance enthusiasts under the leadership of Anthony Shay, an accomplished scholar of Eastern European language, music and dance, Leona Wood a famous visual artist/painter who wrote and researched extensively on Middle Eastern Dance, and her husband Phil Harland, an astrophysicist by day and UCLA ethnomusicologist at night. Phil was the first person to create a notation system for the complex and sophisticated African drum rhythms. They were really charismatic and brilliant people; magnets, for all these young Americans looking for something beyond ballet and western classical music.

Los Angeles was a landing place for a very diverse group of artist emigres from around the world. Artists from the Soviet Union, the Middle East, Ghana, North Africa, and India would come to UCLA for periods of time as scholars and teachers and AMAN would find them. In the 70s with the company’s popularity growing, principal dancers and musicians from performing arts companies worldwide would seek out AMAN, and they would be with the company for a year or two  – or forever. Eventually AMAN artists traveled the world themselves on scholarships to learn material, collect costumes and instruments and bring them back to add to the company’s repertoire. Within a few years AMAN became the gold standard of multi-ethnic arts organizations; a force in the national dialogue about dance and music and a leader in trailblazing programs in local schools that inspired arts education nationwide. We toured everywhere. I mean everywhere – from the finest performing arts centers around the country to a wooden stage sitting on an ice rink in Muskegon (we had to run 25 feet across bare ice to get to the stage), and even an Inuit village rec center in Point Barrow Alaska.

I joined AMAN in 1974 when I was 14. I had washed out of ballet, just didn’t have the Balanchine body type – too short, too round. I followed Michele Gerard to an AMAN rehearsal one day. I followed Michele anywhere she would let me. During a break, Leona Wood looked me over, picked up a doumbek, started playing and asked me to improvise a dance.  I was so embarrassed after seeing these lovely dancers in action but I cobbled together some Armenian folk dance moves I had learned at church and I was in the company.  AMAN – an amazing community for me – led me to serious study of flamenco, of North African and Central Asian dance, Balkan singing – and of course kathak. I danced with AMAN for 25 years and was lucky to serve as an Associate Artistic Director with the company.

In the late 90s, multiculturalism was no longer fashionable as primary exponents of these art forms for the most part were now traveling the world with ease. AMAN was dissolved. But before the 2000s, companies like AMAN were the only way audiences had to experience the amazing diversity and beauty of Eastern European, African, Asian and South Asian art forms in performance and in the classroom.

Can you share your memory of meeting Pandit Chitresh Das for the first time, and how it impacted you?

I was tagging along with the big girls, Michele Gerard and Susan Marshall, another amazing dancer in AMAN, to Venice [Los Angeles] for my first ever Festival of the Chariots. What I didn’t know was that at the time Michele and Susan were there to see Chitresh Das. We squished up to the front of an outdoor stage with Hari Krishnas, hippies, surfers and skateboarders. It was hot and I was bored. Then he hit the stage. I had never seen anything like the guy – power, drama, humor, grace, musicality, and ropes of brass bells. It was sublime. 

One of the things that I was already giving a lot of thought to even as a teenager was the fact that I had this passion for world music and ethnic dance but I wasn’t really on board with the way everybody was making it. For me, even AMAN was sometimes too nerdy and niche, I was already asking myself how does one take a traditional art and make it interesting to an audience, particularly to an audience who doesn’t know what it is? And that was something that Guruji just inherently knew how to do. Watching him perform The Train, tell that story, I knew right away, this guy, Chitresh Das, here’s how to make traditional arts relevant. I am looking at it. 

How did kathak and specifically Guruji’s teachings of kathak come to be part of AMAN?  

Susan Marshall was the first in our group to see and meet Guruji. She arranged for him to teach some master classes at the studio of Aisha Alia who researched and taught most of AMAN’s North African repertoire. Susan and Michele Gerard immediately began serious study with Guruji, arranging for him to travel down to LA monthly and they would spend the summer in Northern California dancing with him every day at the Ali Akbar College of Music and later in San Francisco and San Anselmo. AMAN helped to finance their study and Guruji started to create choreography for the ensemble. I was so lucky that Susan and Michele invited me to work with Guruji when he was in LA. When I turned 18, I started to travel to NoCal myself and studied on scholarship with Guruji in the summertime every day. It was incredible. Gretchen Hayden taught much of the class in the morning and Guruji would show up later.  We would dance in the back following behind. Later in the day we’d regroup in San Francisco for more classes with Guruji.

Working with AMAN was the first time that Guruji had been tasked with creating an ultra-short work, 6-10 minutes, that would convey all the elements of kathak – kind of a kathak calling card. Of course conveying all the elements of kathak was impossible but he created and continued to evolve a pure nritya dance piece for us with a little bit of abhinaya that consisted of a pranam, thaat, some bols and even a little bit of saval javab with the musicians. Guruji then created a 12 minute solo piece to perform as a guest artist with AMAN that changed the structure of his solo performances going forward. It was an incredible challenge for him and he embraced it – how to distill HIS kathak into 12 minutes. Guruji also helped us to rework some Gujarati folk dances that had been in the AMAN repertoire for some time as well as a bhangra choreography that men and women of the entire ensemble would perform.

When AMAN’s kathak material debuted successfully, the company was prepared to commit ongoing development of the repertoire and sponsored Ritesh Das, Guruji’s brother, who worked with AMAN’s musicians and toured with the company throughout the 80s. It was an amazing experience to work with such a talented and accomplished musician. Babua’s [Ritesh Das] open heart and mind and his enthusiastic joie de vivre were infectious on stage and off.

I only ever really performed kathak within the context of AMAN. Whether in Los Angeles or across the country, no matter where we were, we could be in a cafe-gymna-torium full of school kids who had never seen dance in their lives, or we could be at the Joyce Theater in New York City with the most jaded and sophisticated dance audiences, and still his choreography would stop the show. 

Can you describe what it was like to dance and train with Pandit Das? 

I am a rhythm junky. It is what drives me to dance and to play music. So, once I worked with Guruji I was hooked; all those bols, tihais and the jatis. What I did not know would happen is how his approach to kathak would change my entire disposition towards learning, to discipline, and to performance. I wasn’t a lazy dancer but I was enough of a natural that most everything came easily to me. But that was not enough for Guruji. He pushed and pushed and pushed me to be precise, to be able to understand and articulate what it was that I was doing at all times, to dance faster, harder and with more passion than I ever thought I could have. I was able to apply what I learned from Guruji to other dance and music disciplines through the way I approached my practice, honored the dance space, honored my teachers and fellow artists, and approached teaching and programming dance and music later in my career.

Which aspects of the dance resonated with you the most and which were the most challenging?  How did Pandit Das teach those different aspects?  

The athleticism, the rhythm, that all came very easily to me. As both an artist and an audience member, the speed, lines and postures of kathak appealed to me the most. The biggest challenge for me as a performer was always the acting aspect of kathak, being a kathaka, being a storyteller. I’m pretty shy and the biggest issue for me was depicting the feminine. I was always a tomboy and the masculine characters and actions were an easy mask to wear. Depicting the feminine was too close to home. Guruji would make me “pull my ghoonghat” over and over until I cried. I’d be weeping, and he’d be making fun of me in front of the whole class. He would mimic me pulling the ghoonghat. He’d say “Oh, you think you’re a woman. You’re what? 16? 17? You think you are a woman now. You don’t know anything. I’ll show you what a woman is.” And then, of course, he would do it twenty different ways, with twenty different expressions and twenty different emotions – women of all ages, from sixteen to grandma, and he would say “See that? That’s what you’ll learn eventually.” He’d then be completely goofy and funny, and we’d laugh our guts out, and it would be over. 

What are your observations about the kathak dance scene in LA from when you started dancing up until today?

There really was not a kathak scene in LA at all in the 70s. There were a couple of accomplished bharatanatyam artists and there was the Ravi Shankar Music Circle presenting Indian Classical Music as a concert series at Occidental College. Every couple of years they would present a kathak dancer from India. So experiencing kathak back then always left people wide eyed. And seeing Guruji, well that was just mind blowing.  

There are quite a few kathak teachers working at varying abilities serving the South Asian community in Southern California, but still very few performance opportunities. There is a lot of work to be done getting kathak in front of audiences. Obviously Bollywood and the interest in India and Indian culture is high now like it was in the 60s, but I still don’t think people know the difference between what they see on “So You Think You Can Dance” and seeing the real thing. Currently world arts are more accessible than they’ve ever been. You can go on YouTube and you can see all kinds of performances. There are more artists out there, some good and some not so good. So we now have a platform glutted with all kinds of stuff. How do we encourage audience discernment? How do we make kathak stand out?  We need to choose what we do wisely and we need to perform with the highest production value that we can muster, and that’s as commercial as talking about lights and sound and staging. The downside is there’s not a lot of dollars for kathak right now. So we have to be smart about how we spend what capital we have, be smart about what artists we present and how we present them. And I think even if it’s the smallest performance, even if it’s a culmination solo for someone who has been studying for five to seven years going up on YouTube, we need to think very seriously about how we present the dance and make sure that it is excellent. 

Then the second aspect is how do we get kathak in front of the presenters? Who will understand the value and will actually pay for what we are giving them?  I work in television, and I see what videos go viral. I’m so encouraged by, for instance, the success of Syncopated Ladies. They are putting out videos like nobody’s business and getting out there in some different ways. It’s not just content going out to the African American community. It’s not just going out to the jazz community. That stuff gets out there. We have to keep focused and do everything we can to put out the best content that we can muster. The excellence has to be there.

Are there any specifically memorable experiences you would like to share? 

When AMAN asked Guruji to perform as a guest artist and tasked him with creating a twelve minute solo for himself, what he did was incredible. He was on stage, I think it was the Olympic Arts Festival at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. He finished his twelve minute piece, he looked into the wings, and he looked back at the audience and he said, “So that was my twelve minutes. Do you want to see some more?” It was already set to be a two and a half hour concert, and we were already running late. We were in a union house. The manager of AMAN, Michael Alexander, was standing in the wings looking at his watch, thinking “holy crap, now what am I going to do?” Guruji probably did another eight or nine minutes, the audience was screaming. It was brilliant.

Can you share your observations about the evolution of Guruji’s dance style, since the time that you studied with him to the more recent times that you had seen him and as well as his teaching across generations of students and dancers?

I think that from a nuts and bolts place, it changed dramatically. I mean, just even from the way he would teach a chakkar [turn] – the posture, the timing, the center of gravity – his teaching style changed.  In the early days Guruji was teaching adults. When you’re one person alone, who is doing a masterclass for people who have a wide variety of backgrounds that you may never see again or you’re doing six weeks of classes at San Francisco State and it’s just you and a bunch of people who have never been on the dance floor before, it’s very limiting to you as a teacher and as a guru. I think that once he had the infrastructure of the Chhandam School, and a lot of really wonderful disciples that were teaching beginner students, he could come in and be more dynamic in the way he interacted with students and was free to innovate and inspire. I think that is when things started really taking off. And that’s why I think that the current generation of dancers, the youth company, the current artistic leadership, is so exceptional, because they have come up in a much more holistic learning experience.

Early on, Guruji wanted to be a great teacher. He took it very seriously. He wasn’t going to just be an okay teacher. He took it on. He constantly evolved and adapted. Imagine what it took to teach a handful of white adult women from disparate backgrounds, and then, 15 years later, to take on the enormous task of teaching all of these children of the South Asian Diaspora. I’m not sure people know how much he gave up as a performing artist at his peak in order to build the Chhandam community into a powerful service organization and to build all the artists that are now carrying on his mission. I am not sure people really get that. 

I think that Guruji’s development of the California Gharana is exponentially more dynamic, and the artists he trained are more accomplished in their breadth of understanding, not just in the dance, but in the music, and of course through kathak yoga. They are more sophisticated and accessible than any other exponents of kathak dance in the world. Each new generation gets better and better. What you guys are doing now on the dance floor, I couldn’t dream of doing when I was dancing. It’s just amazing, and it’s due to his drive to be a great teacher.

Guruji always used to refer to himself as a guru in training, and he really meant it. He really did evolve.  It was all out there for everyone, and he was brave in that way. He was fearless. Absolutely fearless. He may have stumbled, but he would own it. He just owned it all the time, and that was what made it special. For someone like him to be so self-effacing and so utterly transparent about what he was trying to do, about what he wanted to do, about how he wanted to do it, it was always a breath of fresh air.

You have seen many productions under Guruji’s artistic direction and also seen recent productions conceptualized and directed by some of his senior disciples. Can you share your thoughts on the productions? 

Two things. One is solo performances. I am struck by what Guruji was able to do as a teacher to pull out of each artist their own individuality. Encouraging them to create stories close to their hearts, stories that don’t even come from the mythology and the storytelling in the kathak canon, and his ability to empower them to perform their own original content. When I look at Guruji’s disciples, I see both the ability to present the legacy material and the confidence to imagine, develop, create and perform their own original content. I think they are the fully realized future of kathak. 

Guruji was also an inspired choreographer. I would argue that Pancha Jati utilizes the finest and most sophisticated explorations of not just rhythm, but also spatial relationships between performers on the stage; literally where they are standing on the stage, and how they move from one side of the stage to the other. I think that he is one of the most gifted choreographers in any dance form that I’ve ever seen with the risks that he took, his flexibility and willingness to grow a choreography over time and the things that he tried and accomplished in spatial relationships. 

When I watch the ensemble performances that are now being constructed by the disciples, when I watch the Leela Dance Collective, I think that they are beginning to evolve and touch on that kind of vision and that kind of power. I think that the evolution of Son of the Wind was really dramatic. It gets better every time they do it. SPEAK is fantastic. It was fantastic out of the gate. I would argue that while India Jazz Suites was built on the charisma of Guruji and Jason Samuels Smith, the SPEAK women applied a sophisticated approach to building a show that demonstrates a thoughtful and deep understanding about what they wanted to convey that honors India Jazz Suites and continues to move the kathak/tap conversation forward in a wildly entertaining format that appeals to the broadest of audiences.

What do you think Guruji’s legacy is, and what do you think we need to do to continue that legacy?

I think I’m most proud of Guruji’s community service in California, and maybe most importantly, the work he did in India; the red light district work. I think we really need to not take our eye off that ball and figure out how to continue to serve. We also need to continue to move the bar creatively for kathak. I would hope that the California Gharana can inspire other kathak dancers outside of our gharana to pursue excellence and innovation in the same manner that he did.

I think his legacy is excellence, preservation of the canon, and innovation. I think innovation has to be emphasized – the art form needs to continue to evolve. I think that’s one of the things that’s so exciting about the development of new stories that can be put into the canon that younger disciples can then learn and perform – the expanding repertoire. That was one of the things that he did, whether it was applying South Indian music to kathak in an innovative way, or whether it was exploring things like some of the more modern works that he did, doing pieces that were just straight dance, and yet balancing that with being able to regularly present traditional dance dramas at the best level. Like I said, I think the California dancers and musicians Guruji trained are the best of the best, and I don’t say that lightly. Continuing to pursue that kind of excellence is paramount. And then it’s just a balance of preserving the legacy and finding ways to create a space where artists can innovate. 

What are your reflections as a board member of both Chhandam and Leela?

It’s been very rewarding to be a board member of both Chhandam and Leela. Guruji’s passing was shocking and painful for everybody. I joined these boards at a time that was fraught with tragedy, but as a board member, I endeavor to do everything that I can to further his mission. I want to support all of his disciples as much as I can, and I want to support the goal of the endowment, which is to facilitate that support. I’m proud to serve.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of dancers?

Dance joyfully. Seriously, make it joyful. At 60 I have to do 90 minutes of yoga every day so that I can do 10 minutes of joyful tatkar. And it’s worth it.

Ronda Berkeley

Ronda Berkeley has been helping writers, directors, producers, programmers and distributors create, buy and sell movies, television and live stage programming since 1986. She has developed numerous award winning television and movie projects and taught screenwriting and writing for television.  At ViacomCBS, Ronda is the Vice President of Legal Clearance where she advises the studio’s over 40 active television series, on issues of intellectual property, copyright, trademark, defamation and right to privacy. In the areas of arts and education, Ronda worked with Love Letters Ltd. where she was integral in the branding and creation of content for the WORLD BOOK KIDS website, the most popular English language paid children’s reference site in the world with more than 20 million subscribers and WORLD BOOK TEACH WITH THEATRE,  with more than 11 million paid subscribers in twenty three countries. For Anschutz Film Group/Walden Media, Ronda supervised the branding and development of WALDEN FAMILY PLAYHOUSE a series of live productions with full curriculum for K-12 at the historic Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco and at a newly built 7 million dollar theatrical venue in Denver. 

During Ronda’s tenure as Associate Artistic Director of AMAN WORLD MUSIC AND DANCE, she was integral in development of new works, traveling gallery installations, administration, grant-writing, marketing materials and fund-raising and participated in a wide-reaching educational program of teaching residencies across the country as well as membership on the MCOT (Music Center on Tour) roster of performers and teachers in Los Angeles. At that time, AMAN WORLD MUSIC AND DANCE was one of the top ten dance recipients in the nation of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and was granted the Lester Horton Award for Production of Multi-Cultural Dance and Music. Continuing to work in the arts as a director and choreographer of live theatre, Ronda most recently served as the associate director for the 7th season (2016) of the musical ROCK ODYSSEY at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami – a production yearly attended by more than 25,000 students in the greater Miami Dade area. She has also served on the boards of Leela San Francisco since 2016 and Leela Los Angeles since 2014.

Photo Credits: Photo 1 – Ronda Berkeley and Mardi Rollow from AMAN Archive; Photo 2 – Chitresh Das and Ronda Berkeley in 1976 by Deborah Davidian; Photo 3 – Michelle Gerard at the Hollywood Bowl from AMAN Archive; Photo 4 – Ritesh Das, Susan Marshall and Ronda Berkeley from AMAN Archive; Photo 5 – Michele Gerard by Rita Oliver; Photo 6 – Ronda Berkely and Michele Gerard, Peggy Caton, Dan Ratkovich and Ritesh Das from AMAN Archive ; Photo 7 – Ronda Berkeley and Michele Gerard, AMAN Archive; Photo 8 – Ronda Berkeley, Michele Gerard and Susan Marshall from the AMAN Archive; Photo 9 – Michele Gerard, Ronda Berkeley, Susan Marshal from AMAN Archive; Photo 10 – Susan Marshall from AMAN Archive; Photo 11 – Ronda Berkeley by Mandana B Fard

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