You studied with two of modern India’s greatest masters of North Indian classical art – Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib and Pandit Chitresh Das. Can you talk about how this came to be? How did you discover and encounter each of them and end up being able to study both sarod and kathak so intensely with these great gurus?
I’m taking a deep breath as I begin because this story is a bit involved. My path to studying with these two master artists was fairly long and winding, but all of those experiences informed my capacity to learn from them, so I’ll do my best to be succinct! Growing up in the 1970s, it turned out that a few of my best friends were among the first generation of kids born to Indian immigrants following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act—a momentous piece of legislation that opened the US to immigration from much of Asia for the first time in almost 50 years. Lots of early experiences with those friends encouraged my interest in India and Indian culture. In the summer after sixth grade, for example, my friend Sri visited my mom’s Sunday School class to talk about Hinduism; afterward, as we played on the swing set behind the church, he taught me how to count to ten in Hindi, which I thought—and still think—was incredibly cool!
I planned to study abroad in India during college, and by chance, one of the music professors, Dr. Beth Bullard, was offering a course on Indian music in the second semester of my freshman year. It was the class that set my path for the many years since. She introduced me to the music of so many great artists! The internet was still in its infancy, so to hear more, I had to go to the library and make cassette copies of LP records, like one performance of rag Malkauns by shehnai master Bismillah Khansahib—I wore that tape out. Especially meaningful for me was a field trip we took to Swarthmore College on a cold winter evening to see a performance by Ken Zuckerman (sarod) and Zakir Hussain (tabla). That experience left me buzzing with excitement for days and cemented my intention not just to study in India, but to study music!
A year and a half later, I was heading to India for the very first time. The study abroad program my college was affiliated with, called SITA (an acronym for “South Indian Term Abroad”), was based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. And, of course, the classical music prevalent in South India is Karnatak, not Hindustani music. So while I was in Madurai in 1993 and again in 1995, I studied Karnatak vocal music and the veena. I wrote a senior thesis with Prof. Bullard comparing Hindustani and Karnatak music theory and practice. It wasn’t until graduate school at Harvard in 1998 that I again took a course in Hindustani music—called “Rāg and Tāl,” taught by Professor Carol Babiracki. I realized that even if I wasn’t going to focus my own research on Hindustani music, it might be a kind of “bread and butter” course for a professor with a focus on South Asia. Hopeful for my own career in academia, I decided it would be good to get some hands-on experience. I’ll never forget Prof. Babiracki’s advice: “if you really want to understand rāgs, you should go to George Ruckert.” I was a little surprised because his was one of the few non-South Asian names she mentioned. I quickly learned that he was one of the senior disciples of Ali Akbar Khansahib and set an intention to take lessons from him. Soon after that, when I was flying to Austin for the Society for Ethnomusicology’s annual meeting, I ran into a friend from the MIT bhangra team who was waiting to board the same flight. He mentioned, as luck would have it, that George Ruckert was also on the plane too(!) and pointed him out to me. Something came over me, and I asked the person sitting next to him if I could please exchange seats. I had to ask twice and was embarrassed that I was being a little bit pushy, but it somehow felt so important. Sitting next to Georgeji, I talked with him through the whole flight, and as the plane landed, he suggested we begin lessons the following week. And thus, my studies began in earnest.
Among the mentors I’ve mentioned already and others, I especially have to thank Georgeji for setting in motion my studies with Khansahib and with our Guruji. During one lesson, he asked me if I had ever thought of studying kathak. I replied simply, “no,” which makes me laugh today. Georgeji suggested I take part in an introductory kathak workshop his wife, Gretchen Hayden, was teaching at the Dance Complex in Cambridge. She, of course, is the senior-most disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das. I loved that experience and began studying kathak with Gretchenji on a weekly basis.
In the meantime, during my Hindustani vocal lessons, Georgeji occasionally made comments like, “You know, Baba’s not getting any younger”—suggesting that if I wanted to study with the great Ali Akbar Khansahib, I should find a way to get myself to California as soon as possible. I had been exploring other possibilities for a dissertation topic, but the more I studied Khansahib’s vocal compositions with Georgeji, listened to recordings of Khansahib’s performances, and began developing a small understanding of his genius, the more I wanted to study with Khansahib while he was still teaching. So I decided to go to California for a three-month “pilot study” to explore dissertation possibilities. I bought my first car and drove across the country to California, seven years after my first trip to India. Three months became a full three years in the San Francisco Bay Area, during which I tried to absorb as much as I could from these artistic masters. It was an intense three years, and yet the time was impossibly short. But I’m still learning from them.
What were some of the benefits as well as challenges of your simultaneous experiences of learning from both Pandit Chitresh Das and Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib?
In this tradition, music and dance are part and parcel of the same artistic whole, so the studies naturally complement one another. It’s beneficial for any dancer to study music and vice-versa. And yet, studying with two genius artists in their respective fields was simply an embarrassment of riches. I was inspired on a daily basis, and I knew that it was an extraordinary period in my life.
Developing a personal connection with the teacher or guru is a deeply ingrained aspect of these traditions. I talk about the nuance of these relationships a bit in A Guru’s Journey: “In addition to logistical complications and limitations of physical and mental energy, serious study in more than one area of the North Indian classical arts is made problematic by the concept of guru. George Ruckert describes a guru as a teacher of the kind ‘one sees daily for years and years … with whom one lives nearly as a family member’ (1994, 2). … ‘No one can have two gurus,’ Pandit Das once said, … ‘Having two gurus is like having two husbands or two boyfriends; your heart cannot be in two places at once.’ At the time, Pandit Das was referring to dancers studying with more than one kathak teacher; however, I experienced a similar pull between my kathak and Hindustani music studies” (2019, 22).
I was fortunate to develop close teacher-student relationships with Khansahib and with Pandit Das, and I was completely immersed in both studies for my three years in the Bay Area. It was such an artistically nourishing time, and I tried my best to absorb everything I could. When I returned to Boston, I continued studying Hindustani music and kathak, again with my first teachers, Georgeji and Gretchenji. While writing my dissertation though, the intensity of my academic work focused primarily on kathak, and my artistic work eventually shifted in that direction as well. But it’s not like I chose one and discarded the other. All dancers need to study music, after all! As I continued visiting the Bay Area for performances and further research, Guruji welcomed me and, in fact, pushed me to continue to take my dance practice seriously–to work towards becoming the kind of artist-scholar that I still aspire to today.
In addition to being a student, performer, and educator of Hindustani classical music and kathak dance, you also have a PhD in ethnomusicology and wrote your dissertation at Harvard University on Pandit Das’s life work. Why did you decide to become an ethnomusicologist and how did you choose your dissertation topic?
As an undergraduate, I had studied abroad in Russia as well as India and focused primarily on music, language, and culture. I wanted to do more of the same as a graduate student. When I thought about ethnomusicology, I was thrilled by the possibilities to continue to study contemporary cultures of the world and various ways music is meaningful to people.
As I mentioned earlier, I was compelled to go to California primarily by a desire to learn from Ali Akbar Khansahib while he was still teaching. I hoped that a clear dissertation topic would emerge. At the time, there were a few recent ethnographies of western conservatories, their cultures, and the musical values they transmitted; I thought I might conduct a similar study of “conservatory culture” at the Ali Akbar College of Music. It turns out that another of Khansahib’s students, Cliff Winnig, wrote an MA thesis on that basic topic! But, that didn’t actually influence my dissertation focus. Most ethnomusicologists’ topics change through the course of their research. Even though we might come to our fieldwork with particular ideas, it’s essential to pay attention, adapt, and adjust to what we experience from those around us. For me, there were a few key moments that encouraged me to adjust my plans.
First, about a year into my study with Khansahib, I went to his home to formally ask him for his blessing to write my dissertation on the Ali Akbar College of Music. Rather than telling me yes or no, he asked me, “What can you write about music that is as beautiful as the music itself? Practice, practice!” I left that meeting confused and somewhat distraught about my next steps. Without Khansahib’s blessing, I certainly wouldn’t write about the College. But what then? Should I leave my Ph.D. program and focus on my music practice? I definitely wanted to continue studying with Khansahib, but leaving my doctoral program didn’t seem like a wise choice. In the meantime, I was becoming more and more involved in kathak classes—dancing and accompanying. And Chitreshji would say to me sometimes, “Yeah, you should write about what we are doing too!”
Because I was in an ethnomusicology program and dance studies were then somewhat uncommon in the discipline, I was still blinded by the artificial distinction between music and dance that I keep talking about in this interview, and I hadn’t fully embraced the possibility of focusing on kathak. But then—and this leads me to the second experience I want to share—I had to go back to Harvard to give a presentation on my research. Following my presentation, discussing the “two worlds” of Indian classical music and dance in Northern California in which I was involved, all the questions I got were about kathak, about Chitreshji, and especially about his practice of kathak yoga. I had shared a video clip I had taken of him in practice: playing tabla, reciting, singing, dancing, and even holding dumbbells and moving them about gracefully. These experiences helped shift my thinking, and by the next time Guruji said, “you should write about us too,” I was ready to reply that with his blessing, I would like to write my dissertation on kathak and his teaching and artistry. The rest, as he might say, is history.
How did you approach your studies in the artforms, both as an ethnomusicologist and as an artist? How do these approaches differ?
There are so many ways to answer this question, but what comes to mind here is to share a general scenario: say Guruji was giving a lecture in class, with very pointed comments about me or another dancer. Wearing my student hat, I might go home and reflect deeply on what lesson he was trying to convey. How might it help me mature in my attitude, grow in my approach to learning, improve in some specific aspect of my dance, or evolve my general understanding? If I were wearing my scholar hat, I might instead reflect on how that critique related to broader issues of teaching Indian classical dance in the US to an ethnically-diverse group of students. In other words, I’d think about how that specific lesson could be contextualized or understood more broadly. In all honesty, it was sometimes helpful to zoom out and think about larger questions (related to culture, pedagogy, identity, etc.) because it could be a painful process to apply his lessons to one’s own life. But staying present during these raw moments is also so crucial for our personal and artistic growth.
Music was an integral part of Guruji’s approach to kathak and its aesthetics. As a trained Hindustani classical musician yourself, can you explain the importance of sangeet? What would be your advice to dance students to become more musically aware and educated?
That’s an important question! First of all, sangeet is a word that refers to music and dance as one composite art form—all together. It’s a fairly old term.The terms on a treatise on the performing arts from around 1230 CE called the Saṅgīta Ratnākara, which means “ocean of sangeet.” In it, sangeet is described as including voice, instruments, and dance (gītam, vātam, nṛittam). In our Guruji’s lineage, we usually speak of the three elements of sangeet as “melody, rhythm, and movement,” distinguishing the voice and melodically-oriented instruments from percussion, its own vibrant field. But, we don’t have an English word that encompasses all of these elements. And if there is a linguistic separation, then there’s a conceptual separation as well. That’s really a problem! As I mentioned earlier, this distinction between music and dance made me slow to take up academic studies of kathak; only later did I begin to more clearly understand sangeet as one unified practice.
I was still caught up in a conceptual divide between music and dance when my parents visited me during my first year of study with Guruji. They loved attending our class, and when we left, my father, who sang in our local opera company, remarked on what an outstanding musician Guruji was. That small comment really hit me. And it’s true! Guruji was leading classes playing tabla, reciting, singing, and sometimes dancing all at once. In every class, we too were asked to produce music with movement; of course, there is the percussion of our footwork, but also reciting tabla and kathak bols (the accompanying syllables specific to drumming and dance), and singing throughout the class. In that way, we became immersed in music-making throughout our training, helping us become more fully aware of musicians’ roles long before they might actually interact with live musicians in solo performances. Guruji’s development of Kathak Yoga – in which the dance is solely responsible for producing all of these elements at once – was a natural and brilliant evolution, ; in which a dancer is solely responsible for producing all of these elements at once.
There is just so much to learn. So my advice to kathak students is to take things step by step. First, engage with the “musical” elements that are part of your study. Practice your singing and recitation as well as your dance. Practice these elements individually, in different combinations—reciting and dancing, dancing and singing, singing and reciting—and all together. If you are drawn to do so, take music lessons: voice, tabla, or another instrument. Find out which musicians your teachers particularly respect and actively listen to those artists with curiosity and intention. Listening to music with knowledgeable others—friends, teachers, fellow students—is also very beneficial. Ask questions about what they’re hearing, and pay attention to what they respond to (verbally or otherwise). In these ways and more, you can develop your own musical sensitivity and understanding.
You accompanied many iconic performances during your time in the Bay Area. Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences you would like to share?
I was fortunate to be able to attend and be part of so many incredible performances while I was in the Bay Area—by our Guruji and Khansahib, as well as other great artists. Once I left the Bay Area, I was flying back at least once a year for the home season performances of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and our Guruji’s solos. On many occasions, I was “on the rug,” whether playing tanpura, reciting, singing, or playing harmonium, and it was the best seat in the house! Guruji even invited me once to accompany him on sarod for a solo performance in Erie, Pennsylvania, sharing the rug with Pandits Ramesh Mishra (sarangi) and Samir Chatterjee (tabla). If I recall, another musician was unable to make the concert in the eleventh hour. Although I had been playing sarod regularly in dance company classes, I was a very young, inexperienced player. It was a huge push for me, and I was pretty scared! But I had faith in Guruji’s decisions; I knew he was willing to take risks and challenge his students, but I trusted that he understood each student’s capacity and wouldn’t put us in situations that were too far beyond our reach. Rameshji and Samirji were also very generous and supportive.
When I think about the most memorable concerts, I remember Guruji’s solo, Master of Tradition, in September 2008; several video excerpts of that incredible performance accompany my book. And I can’t help but remember a performance Khansahib gave at the Palace of Fine Arts; the power went out over several city blocks during the concert. Many audience members left, but those who stayed gathered close to listen by candlelight with no sound amplification. But I have to say that some of my most profound experiences took place on a trip to India in the winter of 2000/2001. I was less than a year into my studies with Khansahib and Guruji. On Khansahib’s invitation, I had gone to India after spending a few weeks in Basel, Switzerland, where Khansahib had given a series of classes and concerts organized by Ken Zukerman (who, as I mentioned above, performed the very first Hindustani concert I ever attended!).
In Kolkata, I was attending a full day of performances at the Ramakrishna Mission and had just seen Pt. Birju Maharaj perform. During a break, I called the house where I knew that Pandit Das was staying with members of his dance company. I hadn’t yet been able to get in touch with them and thought the middle of the day might be a good time to try again. Success! Guruji’s disciple Jaiwanti Das Pamnani picked up the phone. She excitedly told me that he was performing that evening at a house concert and I should come quickly. Even though there would still be several hours’ worth of performances at the Ramakrishna Mission, I ditched my ticket, said goodbye to the people I was at the festival with, and set out for the address Jaiwanti had given me. It was only the second time I’d ever seen Guruji perform, and it was amazing to see him in that atmosphere. The traditional baithak, or house concert with a small, knowledgeable audience, was so different from the first performance I had attended in a large concert hall in Boston. Again, I was quite early in my studies, but even then, I knew it was a rare opportunity to see these two kathak masters back-to-back on the very same day. And it was extremely educational to experience for myself, performances by these two artists I would hear being compared so often. Both were riveting, moving, inspiring performances. Later that night, I reflected that if Maharaj-ji was like the moon, then Guruji was like the sun. Maharaj-ji’s concert left me feeling as if I had bathed in a cool river on a moonlight night, and Guruji’s performance felt like fire; all my senses were humming as I tried to take in the sheer energy and intensity he channeled. Where that energy came from, I didn’t know, but I was strongly compelled to dive more deeply into my studies with him.
On that trip, I also had the great fortune to accompany Khansahib and a few others to Maihar, where his father had been a court musician. We stayed in the haveli where his father had trained him, his sister Smt. Annapurna Devi, and other master artists of the next generation. It is a legendary place. Being the only woman on the trip, I was assigned to sleep in Annapurna Devi-ji’s room. On one night, Khansahib called us to his father’s room. There he played alap for about an hour with three or four of us sitting quietly. Alap is like a prayer in melody—without consistent rhythmic pulse or strict rules of time, alap is a meditation on notes and phrases as they unfold within a specific rag. Khansahib’s alap was in rag Puriya Dhanashree, which he mentioned was his father’s favorite rag. Looking around the room, I saw photos of his father and other earlier-generation artists, Khansahib himself, and his son, Alam. Khansahib put it very simply: he was playing for his father that night. Although this was one of my favorite rags, too, I wasn’t analyzing the music at all; trying not to disturb the magic unfolding, I was enveloped by a sense of reverence for everything around me.
Your research continued well beyond your dissertation and culminated in the publishing of your book, A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora, in 2019. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this book?
Writing about Guruji, a human being for whom I had such incredible admiration, was a challenge in many ways. First, as an ethnomusicologist, I was working to write a book that had scholarly merit. It shouldn’t be merely a hagiographic piece lavishing uncritical praise and tales of his great deeds. And I hoped the book would be both relevant to kathak artists and accessible to laypeople. Second, though Guruji was one of the most influential people in my life, he certainly wasn’t a perfect human being—none of us are. How could I describe the elation, joy, and feeling of empowerment he could help his students achieve, as well as the pain and drama—in a way that was both accurate and respectful?
Fortunately, even he didn’t want a shallow book filled with gratuitous praise. He even told me, “make it controversial!” Third, the book isn’t just about his life. Guruji’s artistic development was so closely intertwined with his work as a teacher and guru, and training many generations of dancers profoundly influenced his artistic directions.
Trying to capture all that complexity took up a lot of my mental space. The thought also occasionally crept in, “what if I die before I finish this?” It wasn’t about vanity or my career as a scholar; that thought just pointed to how seriously I took my work and how important it felt to share this story. As I completed edits on the book many years later, some of my most productive times would be during Leela Dance Collective Residencies. As opposed to those difficult times in grad school writing by myself late into the night, being in a dance room filled with the sounds of ghungroo, tabla, and melody, and the energy of my dance-sisters as I read, edited, and reread sentences filled me with joy and energy to push the project over the finish line.
You have worked diligently to establish kathak dance in Denver, Colorado as a dance scholar, ethnomusicologist, professor, performer, teacher, and mentor. How has this experience been for you and how has the community in Denver responded to your efforts?
Growing a community of dancers in Colorado has been a big job, in addition to the various kinds of work in an academic career. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it on my own! For many years, members of the Indian community in Denver had asked me if I would teach kathak classes; I, of course, invited interested prospective students to attend the classes I was already offering at the University of Denver. But starting a school is a whole other matter. All the work involved, from renting studio space to advertising classes and cultivating longer-term students—basically launching a small business—was beyond my scope to do alone.
That changed when a small group of dedicated University of Denver students, who had been taking part in my ensemble for several quarters, wanted to continue training after graduating. Carrie McCune also approached me to ask if the group could attend a retreat being led by Guruji that summer in San Francisco. They worked hard to try and prepare for the retreat, but still, they were thrown into the deep end! Guruji had a special ghungroo ceremony for them at the beginning of the retreat. I felt a mixture of nervousness and pride as I watched them struggle, flail, and sweat through an intense weekend dancing what was mostly new material from them—even a tarana in a 12-and-a-half beat time cycle! Guruji gave the group, whom he nicknamed “the Game of Thrones Girls,” so much care and attention: talking with them over dinner, inviting them to his home on the day after the retreat, and they returned to Denver with a new level of excitement and commitment to the art form.
Then we started our work. We founded Sureela in 2016 with just two weekly classes: one beginning-level class and another open to students who had studied with me previously. Since then, we have developed a close-knit and warm community of dancers with sincere love and appreciation for this art form. These days, at kathak retreats like the one my early students attended, students from Denver are the first to tear up over the beauty or poignancy of their experiences. Our reputation for such sensitivity and sentimentality leads to a lot of good-natured teasing! As our school has grown, connecting Denver students (from Sureela and the University of Denver) with our broader kathak community continues to be an important part of our philosophy and practice. We’ve also worked to create programming in Colorado that exposes audiences to high-caliber art. These concerts provide vital learning experiences for my students and artistic enrichment to the broader community.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers could learn from? Do you have any words of advice?
First, find your mentors. I have been fortunate to have generous professors, mentors, and guides throughout my academic and artistic career. Find the people who genuinely care about you and your growth and who are willing to share their time and wisdom with you. As they say, one lifetime is not sufficient to learn any of these arts. And perfection is not possible. So it is enough—more than enough—to strive to continue to grow in our understanding and abilities. Be curious, study, and learn as much as you can, but also be judicious in where you put your energies. Make sure that the things you are studying will feed you. Ultimately we can use almost every life experience in the art. That’s what makes kathak such a powerful tool for self-discovery, for creating community, and for connecting to energies beyond ourselves.
As a co-founder of the Leela Dance Collective, can you share your thoughts on the role that LDC plays and will continue to play in the global kathak community trained in Pandit Das’s pedagogy? What is your vision for the future of the field of kathak?
We founded the Leela Dance Collective out of a desire to create a framework for working collaboratively in developing new works while also supporting one another in solo pursuits. Our Guruji was a visionary who worked for 45 years to establish kathak in the United States, and with the Leela Dance Collective, we are working to build upon that solid foundation. Grounded in his philosophy of “innovation within tradition,” we aspire to push kathak in yet new directions while continuing to plumb its depths. It is invigorating to see dancers of the next generations growing as artists, and I hope the Collective will continue to support artists for generations to come.
About Sarah Morelli
Dr. Sarah Morelli has studied India’s performing arts since 1992 and is active as a kathak performer, scholar, and educator. She was blessed to receive much of her artistic training from two legends of North Indian classical performance: renowned kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and maestro Ali Akbar Khan, from whom she studied vocal music and the sarod, and from their disciples Dr. George Ruckert, Gretchen Hayden, Steve Oda, and Pt. Rajeev Taranath. One of the co-founders of the Leela Dance Collective, her recent performances have included traditional kathak solos, collaborative works, and the Leela Dance Collective productions Ardhanari, En Route: From Calcutta to California, Pragati, the Pilgrimage collaboration, and Son of the Wind. Sarah received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in Ethnomusicology (2007) under the mentorship of Prof. Kay Kaufman Shelemay. She is currently an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music and Chair of the Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology. Her book, Tales of a Modern Guru: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora, is an ethnographic examination of Pandit Chitresh Das’s contributions to kathak dance, and the development of kathak’s “California gharana.” An energetic, inventive pedagogue, Sarah embraces opportunities to share her understanding of the arts in various contexts, from graduate university seminars to kids’ kathak classes, professional kathak performances, and lectures at academic conferences. At the University of Denver, she teaches courses in which students examine the profound and varied connections between music, dance, and other aspects of human experience and leads the DU North Indian Classical Ensemble. Sarah is also founder of Leela Denver, offering kathak classes to members of the broader Front Range community and guest teaching at related schools of kathak.
PHOTO CREDITS: Photo 1 – 2017, PC: Thomas Jennings / Photo 2 – 2017, PC: Paul Docktor / Photo 3 – 2003, Ali Akbar Khansahib and Sarah Morelli / Photo 4 – 2016, PC: Wayne Armstrong / Photo 5 – 2016, PC: Sundar Anupindi, Kwikpin Photography / Photo 6– 2015, PC: Seema Mehta / Photo 7– 2006 / Photo 8 – 2019, PC: Carrie McCune / Photo 9 – 2019, PC: Travis Broxton / Photo 10 – 2019, PC: Travis Broxton / Photo 11 – 2017, PC: Rama Sivamani
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