The Making of the California Gharana: Ronda Berkeley

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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The Making of the California Gharana: Noelle Barton

The Making Of the California Gharana

Noelle Barton

Please begin by telling us a little about yourself and your dance journey. When did you begin studying kathak, what were your initial impressions of the dance form, and what most attracted you to the dance?

I’m a firm believer that nothing happens by chance. It’s as if I was predestined to be a kathaka. My childhood wasn’t the usual one. My parents were entertainers and I was raised on the road, a backstage baby playing in the wings during rehearsals. Theater life was a familiar environment. My mother sang and danced. My father acted, sang, wrote plays and was a female impersonator. My favorite play was The King and I, a musical. My dad played the king; a flamboyant, charismatic, dramatic presence. I was enamored by the elaborate Asian costumes, sets, and customs. I was three, but I already knew I was a dancer.

I studied ballet and classical piano for 4 years. But, when I was 13, I rebelled when my father died suddenly. Dropping classes, I left home at 15 and immersed myself in the sixties counterculture movement. I went barefoot and wore 12 brass bells around each ankle which I never removed. Yes, I was a hippie.

I first saw Pandit Chitresh Das (who in my earlier student days we called Dadaji) perform at the San Rafael Improvement Club on November 9th, 1977 with Zakir Hussain and George Ruckert. It was his 33rd birthday. I was amazed by his dynamic energy and drawn to the vibrant rhythms. He slapped his feet effortlessly and seemed to be challenging the drummer to go faster. My dentist had invited me to the concert. I was 26. The day after seeing him perform for the second time, I would be leaving for Nepal with my 7 year old son. I had no plans, but fate obviously did. I returned to live with my mom five months later, broke and sick. My first day out, I saw a poster that Kathak classes were being taught by Chitresh Das at the Belrose Studio in San Rafael. I decided to check it out. I already regarded myself as an established dancer in my own right. I copied the free form expressive moves of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. I’d danced onstage with the Grateful Dead for over a decade and performed in plays and improv groups. I thought I’d just drop in and take a few lessons so I could incorporate these interesting movements into my own dance form. Yes, I was consumed by my own greatness. My ego more than outweighed my talent. Dadaji had never seen such audacity. He used to say, “Noelle, she has a swollen head.”

My first class was on April 16th, 1978. I showed up early. Gretchendi [Gretchen Hayden] was setting up a rug, flowers, incense. Others arrived and greeted her. Dadaji had just returned from a tour of India with his first group of American dancers. I was unaware this was his first class since separating from the Ali Akbar College. There was only one level back then and new students danced in the back and floundered until an advanced student helped you figure out the footwork or composition. Gretchendi set the finest example of an elder guru-sister. I’d watch her feet. A few months later, classes moved to the Knights of Columbus building in San Anselmo, which would become our main hub for over a decade.

I loved the dance, the vigorous footwork, the dizzying turns, the recitation. It’s the mathematical element that has always attracted me most about Kathak. I loved the complex rhythms and the dance, but I never intended to stay or become a kathaka. I had a huge ego and a stubborn will. Dadaji knew I would be a challenge to tame. So one day as we were sweating through our hundredth grueling cycle of tatkar, he stood within inches of me and stared into my eyes, unimpressed, and said, “In the dance many will come, and many will go… the weak ones always run away!” Well, the challenge was on. How could I leave now?

What was the sociocultural environment like in the early days of your learning? What was the energy like in Pandit Das’ classroom and/or on the stage when he performed?

Classes were soooo different then. First of all there weren’t as many students, so we got a lot of one-on-one attention. He made us recite loudly every syllable as we danced, building intense stamina and endurance. After three hours of dancing we would sing, recite and write down compositions. He expected us to have bells on and be sweating when he arrived. Often, if you weren’t dancing up to par, you were told to sit down, watch and recite. That seemed like punishment at the time, because all we really wanted to do was dance.

About a dozen students started class in the summer/fall of 1978. Michele Zonka, Joanna Dunbar [de Souza], and Amrit Mann (my lifelong guru-sisters) started on the same week at the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco, where he held classes every Saturday. Dadaji had nicknames for his students. Michele, Joanna and I were his “Wolves.” He didn’t drive a car back then. So for many years Joanna, Michele and I picked him up at 9 a.m., making a loop around the Bay teaching classes, returning to Marin at 6 p.m. Between classes, as we drove, Dadaji would recite new compositions that we wrote in our journals. Every car ride with him was an intensive, especially on long eight-hour drives to teach in Los Angeles.

We all lived within a mile of dance class. For a few years Joanna, Michele and I shared the same house. We went everywhere together. We recited as we walked to class. After classes we’d go over the new material. Reciting and dancing was never-ending in our household. Classes were five or six days a week and rehearsals were a few evenings a week. After class, which ended after 9pm, we’d walk with Dadaji to the pizza place for dinner. He was always reciting and brainstorming. During one of those late-night-walks, I explained to him that the American audience didn’t get the mathematical element of Indian music and dance. They needed to be educated. That’s when the phrases “organic math” and “meditation in motion” were first coined. Years later Michele coined the phrase Kathak Yoga.

Not being in the professional work world, many of us didn’t earn a lot of money. Whatever we earned we put toward our tuition. All our money went into the dance. Even with the grant money, we had to do much of the work. We designed our posters, (laid out by hand, before computer graphics!), we did the mailing lists late at night, and sold tickets (by word of mouth). We sewed our own costumes from the cheapest kitchen curtain material and glued on sequins. We designed and made props with paint, glue, duct tape and cardboard. The day before a concert we’d make hundreds of samosas for intermission. Then on the day of the show, we were roadies: we unloaded rugs and stage props and set up the concert hall. Then with our costumes and bells on, we’d wear headsets to give lighting and sound cues from the wings before running out on stage to perform. The company couldn’t afford to hire people to do all that work. We performed to sold-out audiences—mostly friends, musicians, and students—and then we’d pack it all up again and go home. A very close bond developed between the three of us. Dadaji would say about his Wolves, “I feed them knowledge and they chew my hand off.” But he knew the level of our devotion. We dove into the dance and immersed ourselves in his teachings. We couldn’t get enough of the dance.

The Indian music scene was flourishing in the Bay Area in the late 60s and the 70s. Our audiences were enthusiastic and came to every concert. We had a devoted audience, mostly because of the hippie scene with its often naive interpretations of India’s spiritual ideology and mysticism. The Beatles and Sandy Bull had already introduced Ravi Shankar to some Westerners.

In 1967, Don McCoy, a family member of mine, contributed $20,000 to Khansahib [Ali Akbar Khan] to establish his dream of a school of Indian music and dance in America. Those were the seeds of dreams.

George Ruckert was there during those very early days of the College. He recently reminded me that Khansahib, Zakir Hussain, and Dadaji were on a quest to perform wherever and whenever possible. There were concerts every weekend in churches and theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley. As new students we did our first performances at schools, in nursing homes, at county fairs, and home concerts.

What kinds of challenges did Pandit Das face in his earlier years of teaching and performing in the US? And in your experience, what challenges and opportunities did the Chitresh Das Dance Company face, both in the US and in India?

One thing about Dadaji, he was able to adapt with the times. He realized that the American audience wouldn’t sit through a three-hour concert, no matter who was performing. He created pieces that were ahead of their time: Energy, Class Tech, and Rhythmics, which eventually led to Gold-Rush.

In America, we were dubbed “The Pioneers of Kathak Dance” by SF dance critic Alan Ulrich in 1980. During that same year, San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival was only a few years old. My belly dancing friends had performed the year before and I kept thinking, “Why aren’t we in the festival?”  But whenever I mentioned it to Dadaji he rejected the idea because of the term “ethnic.” He was offended and said, “Kathak is a classical art, not an ethnic dance.” I kept trying to explain to him: Americans refer to anything that originates from another culture as ethnic. He didn’t want to hear any of it. It was Christmas of 1980. He was away on tour in India. Gretchen, Michele, Joanna and I decided to call him and beg him to allow us to at least audition for the Ethnic Dance Festival. Reluctantly, he gave us permission and we landed the audition. We performed in at least twenty annual Ethnic Dance Festivals over the past four decades. We also performed in the 1984 Olympics, and for the World Drum Festival at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center in 1987. Another highlight was performing on the same bill with Ravi Shankar in Berkeley.

In India, it was a risky challenge for him to present his American students. At first we were viewed as a novelty. But eventually we proved our merit. At the end of the 1981–82 tour, Dadaji and the Company, which had dwindled down to Julia [Maxwell], Marni [Wieser Ris], Batina and myself, performed on national television. Back then there were only three channels showing old 1950s American TV programs. Imagine my surprise when twenty years later on a visit to Darjeeling I saw our performance on TV.

We toured by train across northern India. Sometimes to great acclaim and other times to skeptical reviews. Unlike his tours in later years, in those early days no one met us and took us to a hotel. On our tour in 1981–82 we arrived in Kolkata: 15 dancers including Dadaji’s wife Julia, sarodist Christopher Ris, my 11 year old son, and Dadaji. We were then informed our living arrangements had fallen through and we had no place to stay. Back then you had to bring everything with you, contact lenses and solution, batteries, iodine crystals to purify water, hair dryers, real chocolate! We each lugged heavy footlockers.

The first night we camped out in Dadaji’s childhood friend’s house, sleeping in the living room, under dining tables with mosquito nets, and on the veranda, until all the dancers got rooms at the YWCA for $5 a night which included breakfast: a hard-boiled egg, toast and chai. The YWCA was halfway between Flury’s Bakery and Mother Teresa’s Mission, and just a short walk to New Market. The week before Christmas nine of us, Dadaji included, shared a two-room flat on Merlin Park Road. It was a few miles walk from Birla Academy where we rehearsed and had class. During load shedding [periods when the power would be out for areas of a city], we carried buckets of water up flights of stairs to bathe. We washed our clothes on the roof, shooing away giant crows. It was definitely an adventure like none other. ITC sponsored the tour. Sometimes after a concert, late at night, we had to walk around carrying our heavy costumes and bells, searching for a cab driver who would take us back to Ballygunge.

That tour was fraught with ups and downs. Lack of funds, lack of accommodations, etc. The concerts were always well received by the audiences. But, because of tradition and rivalry between gharanas [lineages of dance and music] some critics would write less-than-complimentary reviews. Dadaji had new ideas which challenged “tradition” and they questioned whether it should be acknowledged. That tour was far from easy. By the end of three months only six of us returned from that tour together; Amrit, Batina, my son and I, and Dadaji and Julia.

I only wish I’d been a more knowledgeable student at the time. We performed in the homes of very prestigious musicians and dancers and we were clueless to the incredible company we were in. The dynamics of some of the events I witnessed while performing and traveling with Dadaji were out of my league to understand or appreciate fully. One night we were treated to an evening at the home of Vilayat Khan, where we shared dinner with his mother, two sons and his daughter, and then were treated to a private concert by him and his adult children. It was a mind-blowing experience.

While on that India tour, a group of us decided to visit Kathak Kendra to watch a class taught by Pandit Birju Maharaj. After his class ended, he asked us how his teachings differed from Dadaji’s. We were put on the spot. I wasn’t impressed with the reserved image the few advanced students were giving, so my big ego decided to offer up a vibrant example. I was only a three-year student, and before I realized what I’d done, I started reciting a complex chakradhar tihai. The recitation went well, but then I had to dance it, while Pandit Birju Maharaj and his entire class and musicians kept tal. I prayed as I took those 35 turns that I’d end on sam. Talk about being put under a microscope! I never told Dadaji about that experience until decades later.

I recall a concert in Patna that stands out from the many concerts we performed. It was near the end of our tour. There was a huge billboard announcing there would be ten American dancers, but by then it was only Marni, Batina, myself, and Julia left. The stage was plywood covered in burlap which bounced if we danced too hard. The crowd was loud and rowdy. Shortly after Dada came onstage, the power went out because of load shedding. He had just begun his 81 turns. Police came to protect us in the wings and they shined flashlights on his feet. From my sightline I could view him turning. As he looked out into total darkness with nothing to spot on, he turned without drifting an inch and ended on sam to a roaring audience. He had won their hearts. I also treasure the last few weeks of that tour when my son and I lived at the home of Ma and Baba, Dadaji’s parents. His mother loved my son and she would tease him, saying she was going to adopt him and raise him as her own.

Dadaji’s way of teaching evolved in the mid-eighties when a large Indian population migrated to the Bay Area. He began children’s classes in San Pablo and Berkeley where nine-year-olds Antara Bhardwaj and Labonee Mohanta began their studies. In 1988, he got the opportunity to teach at San Francisco State University and he had to create a curriculum for the classes. Michele and Gretchen helped design a course that could be credentialed. But really, what can a student know about kathak after a college course?

Like I said before, I don’t believe in coincidences. In December of 1997 while visiting Kolkata I met up with Ritesh (Dadaji’s brother) and Joanna who were there on tour with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble. It was the day before Christmas. I had plans to leave the next day for Darjeeling. They insisted I go with them to the airport to get Dadaji. I hadn’t seen him in a few years and I was the last person he expected to see in India. Later, as we ate dinner, he gave me the third degree. “Where have you been? How’s your son and your mother? Why aren’t you dancing?” I had never stopped dancing. I had taught some classes to Girl Scouts and performed in small venues, but I didn’t tell him that. He’d just say I had a swollen head.

When I returned in 1998, the classes had been altered again. The footwork exercises were different. Pranam was shorter. Jatis and bhants weren’t emphasized as much. Classes weren’t as long, so much fewer cycles were dedicated to each exercise. Singing of devotional songs was more prominent. I was never great at singing, I have a low register and it’s difficult for me to hit the high notes. It was interesting to come back like a new student, taught by people I didn’t know who’d only been studying for a few years. I knew all the compositions, but a lot of the choreography had changed. I had to humble myself: out of practice, overweight, nine years older, once again I was a new student dancing in the back of the room.

I believe he made changes to accommodate his new audience. The majority of his students were Indian now and he wanted to get everyone dancing onstage. School shows had 300 students of all ages performing with all the mothers helping to maintain order backstage. Though it was nothing like our experience, I was totally impressed by how his classes had grown.

Back in 1980, when we were just sixteen struggling students in class, he would say to us, “I want 500 students and schools around the world. I want to dance with Gregory Hines. I want to leave a legacy of dancers after I’m gone.” And we wondered how he’d ever find 500 students.

He had set goals for himself, to leave a legacy. He lived every breath consumed by his passion, the dance. He also expected, though somewhat unrealistically, that same dedication from his students. We had jobs and children and other family obligations, but to him, those were just excuses.

Kathak Yoga is an innovative practice Developed by Pandit Chitresh Das. What does Kathak Yoga mean to you? Can you shed some light on where and when it was developed?

Kathak Yoga was developed during my absence. I’d studied almost twelve years and finally performed my first solo in the 1989 Asian Dance Festival, the grand opening of the Cowell Theater. My mom was ill, my teenage son needed parenting, and I had moved an hour away from classes. I tried to explain I needed some time to devote to my home life. Then I took an eight-year sabbatical. I didn’t try Kathak Yoga until I returned. I was intrigued, as well as overwhelmed, by the concentration it took to split the mind like that.

“Kathak Yoga” was first performed by Joanna Dunbar [de Souza] and Michele Zonka for a packed audience at Dadaji’s Alma Mater, Rabindra Bharati, In Kolkata in December 1995. Joanna danced and recited bols in Jhaptal and Micheledi danced and recited in tintal. Dadaji had developed it during his eight year break from performing in India, but had yet to perform it himself.

What strikes you the most about Pandit Das’s teaching?

One of the many intriguing qualities that our Guruji possesses is the ability to SEE into each person he teaches. He sees their strong points as well as the blocks that may hinder them from reaching their full potential. Like a diamond cutter, he finds the hidden qualities and polishes them. When I think of the many lessons I learned while under Guruji’s tutelage it was more than lessons about dancing or singing or knowing a lot of compositions. It was more about a way of life. A mindfulness. He’d tell stories of visiting his Guru’s home as a boy and how he was taught to eat without leaving a mess around his plate. How to place your shoes outside the door. Be on time. Show respect to one’s elders. Knowing Dadaji made me accountable.

From my journal entry 12/13/78: “Friday was our last class. It’s Christmas break and Dadaji is going to India. At the end of class he began thanking us for all he learned this year about teaching American women and how he was going to practice everything he learned. Interesting instead of telling us we ‘should’ practice, he shows by example how to be, learn, think, and feel. A tear came to my eyes. I was afraid, in his absence I would lose my self-discipline.”

Dadaji had many sayings:
“Don’t cheat; you are only cheating yourself.”
“Americans are always seeking, but they won’t practice.”
“Stop escaping. Clear your head. Practice harder.”
That was his answer to everything, “Practice, practice, practice!,” as if with enough practice everything else in life would inevitably sort itself out.

Chitresh Das was only human, with flaws like any one of us. He said, “When I point my finger at you, three fingers point back at me.”

He was also an incredible master of layakari [rhythmic prowess] and tyaag [sacrifice], who taught himself to be a teacher. He became a legendary Guru…and I was honored to walk by his side. On my life journey he was an elder brother, a father, a dear friend, and my beloved Guru forever.

While growing up under his influence I learned many things. Endurance, humility, timing, respect, honor, integrity, patience… not that I’m good at those things all the time. But he gave me the tools.

What advice can you share with aspiring and future kathak students?

To the students of the future: A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Practice, practice, practice, and always know you must work hard to attain anything in life. Don’t take the easy path. Going through the fire builds strength of character that will carry you through the rough times. Be confident yet humble. And honor your elders for paving the way.

Namaste, Noelle

Noelle Barton

Noelle Barton was born in Hollywood. Raised on the road as a backstage baby, she called Miami Beach, Los Angeles and San Francisco home until her parents finally settled in Marin County, CA in 1960. Dancer, ceramic artist, archivist, and author, Noelle has performed and lived in Nepal, India, and Europe and presently resides in western Sonoma County.

Photo Credits: Photo 1 – photo shoot at Knights of Columbus studio in San Anselmo, photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 2 – Pandit Chitresh Das and Noelle as Ravan & Sita 1988, photo credit Bonnie Kamin; Photo 3 – Pandit Chitresh Das, Joanna de Souza, Michele Zonka, Noelle Barton, Amrit Mann, Marni Ris, and Julia Maxwell at Knights of Columbus studio, photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 4 – Michelle Zonka and Noelle performing Daandia Raas at Marin Showcase Theater 1980, photo credit Sandy Barton; Photo 5 – Pandit Chitresh Das and Noelle on her birthday 1978, photo credit Sandy Barton, Photo 6 – 1985, photo credit Bonnie Kamin.

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The Making of the California Gharana: Christopher Ris

The Making Of the California Gharana

Christopher Ris

How did you begin studying sarod and specifically under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib?  What drew you to Indian classical music?  

It was about a girl.

It was 1969 and I was teaching a beer making class in Madison, Wisconsin. In the next room a young woman (Leslie Anderson Curchak, the elder sister of Lee Anderson, who 7 years later would introduce Marni – my future wife – to kathak) was teaching an Indian music appreciation class.  She told me that she studied sitar with Ali Akbar Khan; I had heard of him in college back in 1966 when we were talking about the spiritual and cultural train coming from the East to the West.  There was Zen meditation, mantra meditation, yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, tai chi, aikido, Chinese medicine, African drumming and Indian music – all these traditions and teachers were coming to the West. We marveled that anyone could study with Ali Akbar Khan – no audition necessary – just show up and pay your tuition. It was unheard of for master musicians to teach anyone who was interested.

And the question was: is the train coming on its own or is our generation pushing the train to the west by going and being captivated by these rich cultural traditions? Was it also a kind of reciprocal relationship where it gave meaning to the people from those cultures where the old traditions were increasingly ignored and undervalued? It is the irony of colonialism – they go and screw up a country and then their kids fall in love with its cultural treasures.

At that time I was playing open tuning guitar, a kind of modal music, and hanging out with some Black Afro – Cuban drummers at the university who taught me to play a simple rhythm they would then solo over. Then a visiting friend of Leslie and Lee’s put a sarod in my hands and I made one sliding sound “brrrruuuum” and went “Oh my god, I just made that sound.” That was it, that sound. That vibration hit a visceral nerve and I felt a calling I could not ignore.

And so I came to California to study at the Ali Akbar College of Music.

What were your early days of training like at the College? 

It was September of 1971 and I started full immersion right away, thinking of nothing but music from morning til night. At the Ali Akbar College of Music (at that time housed in an old military academy), there were two dorms and a lot of people lived on campus. It wasn’t like a community college where people came from far away then went home. There was a giant kitchen with two meals a day and a dining hall where we all hung out when we weren’t practicing, so we were around each other a lot. 

When Khansahib (Ali Akbar Khan) went to India for the winter in ’71–‘72, George Ruckert (senior student of Ali Akbar Khan who started in 1967) taught the younger students the approach to riyaaz (practice) with lots of exercises. It was a wonderful way to start because right from the beginning, rather than being totally on my own, I had a lot of guidance from George and a number of the other older students. Khansahib taught in the style we called the “Sufi scatter method”. You just get thrown into this rushing river with rocks and obstacles, and you have to learn not only to swim, but to navigate and become skilled in that. There were many who “drowned” or just floated away and left the College.

Two years later Leslie and I lived in the same little town called Forest Knolls as George and Lee Anderson (Leslie’s sister and George’s girlfriend at the time) and we had many dinners together. Pretty soon, George would say, “Hey, bring your sarod, let’s play a tune.” So I had great mentoring from the start.

How did you encounter Pandit Chitresh Das?  What was it like to meet him for the first time?

When I started the AACM in September of 1971, Dada (“elder brother,” as he later instructed me to call him) had already been teaching for one semester.  Across the hallway from the big room where Khansahib taught there was a large sunroom – that was the dance room. When you walked through the main entrance of the military academy you’d immediately hear the thundering of many feet and bells and Dada yelling above them all: “Faster! Give me full power, you hippie California girls!”

He was 26 years old at the time, and he definitely had a few chips on his shoulder. He also was trying to find himself and his place in this strange new world.  He strongly felt he had the mantle of a kathaka upon him given by his guru and his parents and he was preparing to challenge the kathak “establishment” in India. Many, particularly in India, didn’t yet recognize him, so he was “turned up all the way” most of the time to prove himself to the world. It was overwhelming for many, but I was drawn to the dance because my sister was a professional dancer and growing up I went to many modern dance performances.

From the beginning Dada engaged George to compose music for his dramas; the first major production done was Giri Govardan in 1972.

How did you start playing and accompanying for Pandit Das and what was your experience making dance and music in the same space?  

In the beginning I was just focusing on getting up to speed on the sarod and figuring out how to learn and notate the flood of compositions Khansahib was teaching every week. The dancers were very much part of the College scene and we would socialize and sometimes practice or do little gigs together. Dada was always looking for people to play in his classes and I would occasionally play. I soon joined the New Maihar Band, first as a vocalist and later on sarod, and we would periodically perform for Dada’s many dance -dramas where George Ruckert would compose and integrate Khansahib’s music.

George accompanied Dada’s solos from the beginning and continued sporadically through the decades nearly until Dada’s passing. Peter Van Gelder and his vocalist wife Marsha accompanied many of Dada’s solo concerts; they taught him Khansahib’s Hindol Tarana. Then James Pomerantz started performing with Dada and the Company. In mid 1980, as I was transitioning into performing with him, Dada was asked to inaugurate the new sound stage at George Lucas’ Marin County studio. Swapan Chaudhuri (”Swapan da”) played tabla, James played sitar, Dallas Smith played bansuri and I joined on sarod. Here’s a photo of that night.

In the beginning with Dada I just played laharā (cyclical melody that keeps the rhythm). Soon he wanted me to play his bol (compositions) and tihāīs, both for the excitement and to help cue the various tabla players accompanying him.

I believe this was the beginning of one of the major innovations that Dada made to kathak – he wanted the musician accompanist to be full in, not just a human metronome, as he once called me. He said to me, “Chris, try to steal my spotlight!” He wanted me to be that much a part of it. I composed music for many of his bols, gintiand tihāīs and learned to follow when he would improvise weaving parts of different compositions together. Then came the stories and the company dance dramas. Each character would have a theme and variation, sometimes in different ragas. I had been schooled by George Ruckert as he masterfully composed music for Dada’s epic dance-dramas weaving in excerpts from Khansahib’s raga lessons and the beautiful songs he’d taught.

In November of 1975 Dada presented an epic version of Sita Haran. George was composing for a large ensemble with four different parts plus tabla. Every rehearsal Dada would change a scene or a bol or a tihāī and George would rewrite the music for the next rehearsal.  On the morning of the show, Dada wanted to change something and George had to say, “No, that’s it! The music is written and printed and it’s too late to change anything!” Dada’s response was a challenge: “What kind of musicians are you that you can’t remember and you need to have it written out for you?”

We met in the hall the morning of the show, George handed out the music and we started our rehearsal about 10 am. The show was at eight and the soundcheck was done on the fly with the many dancers and endless scenes. It took until 7 pm to get through the whole drama. The show started at eight and ended about 11:30 pm.

Here’s an example of how passionately we all felt about our art:

I was learning the bols in Dada’s class and was really trying to play along with the dance and be evocative and creative with the music, even with the lahara. Dada’s brother, Ritesh (we called him Babua), had just arrived in the States in the early 80s and he came to a rehearsal. After Dada left he said to me, “That’s not how you play lahara; what are you doing? You’re not keeping it properly. You’re improvising and not showing the structure of the tāl.  What are you doing, man? This is not right!” An intense argument ensued and before we knew it we were rolling around on the floor wrestling and yelling at each other. We were actually fighting about art!

This was like the stories about riots after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and people fighting in the streets at operas for God-knows-what reason, and there were Babua and I having a physical altercation over the nature of kathak accompaniment!  This was the beginning of a great friendship and we later collaborated on a number of projects with his and Joanna Das’s (now deSouza) group M-Do and the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.

It was a very special time and place for the rise of Indian classical performing artists who would later become prolific masters of their respective traditions. What were some of the more exciting moments on stage between a young Chitresh Das and young Zakir Hussain and Swapan Chaudhuri?  

Those solo concerts that Dada would present in those very early days with Zakir-bhai were crazy. There was hardly room for music other than laharā and a song at the end. The musicians would just keep the shape of the tāl and Dada and Zakir-bhai would go at it for hours! Thundering footwork, thundering tabla, long simultaneous improvisations, buckets of sweat on the floor! For me as a young sarod student it was both thrilling yet overwhelming and exhausting! Back and forth and back and forth, feeding off each other’s energy and creativity. Zakir-bhai was a mind reader – he just knew where Dada was going and met him there, before sam, after sam, on-beat, off-beat. Here’s a photo by Betsy Bourbon from one of those concerts; Chitresh-da with Zakir-bhai on tabla and James Pomerantz on sitar.

Later on when Swapan-da came to the States and eventually started playing with Dada it was different. They knew each other growing up in Kolkata, but I don’t think they had performed together. As they got to know each other on stage, Swapan-da was solid, refined, steady and musical but always ready to bring the thunder. Pranesh Khan played many concerts with Dada during this period as well.

How did your training at the Ali Akbar College of Music serve you in working with Pandit Das?  

Dada loved Khansahib and really responded to the beautiful melodies that poured out of him. He also loved how Khansahib manifested upaj (spontaneity), which was the fuel that fed Dada’s fire. Khansahib had many admonitions he would constantly tell us and besides “Practice!” (his number one admonition and answer to every problem) the one I can still hear the most is “Bring the beauty.” Even when you’re going full tilt, remember to bring the beauty. Dada sometimes just wanted relentless virtuosity at full intensity, but I still tried to bring the beauty. I was always drawn to the mood (rasa) and was a little lazy about the riyāz it took to play fast and furiously. But Dada made me do that, constantly challenging me to be quick, clear, and powerful. Dada at that time was not as into this emphasis on mood. “Rasa schmasa, forget this namby-pamby stuff,” he would say. “Give me full dhoom dham” (the sound of strong open strokes on the tabla). But he always appreciated the beauty of the ragas, and as time went by his invocations danced to ālāp (unaccompanied sarod) became longer and longer. The clip of his invocation in the video shows one of those nights. I was to play as he entered and did his pranām and then Mala Ganguly with her haunting beautiful voice would sing the conclusion. Every time I thought he was wrapping up my segment, he would start up again. We went on for seven minutes before he was ready for Mala’s song.

He was very musical and sang both while dancing and accompanying his dancers, and over the years he composed a number of melodies that are iconic still today.

We have heard over the years that initially there was some tension between Khansahib’s perspective of the music he was teaching and Pandit Das’ incorporation of music into the dance.  Can you talk about that and how it evolved into a deeper exchange?

Khansahib did not like the idea of his students and disciples playing with dance. He felt it was a cheapening of the music which was inherently deep and sacred. Ragas are to be played at very specific times of day. When playing Malkauns Tarana at 10 am in the morning, I used to pray he would never find out, because Malkauns is a late-night raga. You really prepare to play it and when you play it properly, “The jinns (spirits) come and they open hidden worlds to you.” So when I was playing it in the morning, I tried to think of it as a five note combination that we did for the dance in order to separate the two. From the beginning, Khansahib told me not to play with dance, that the music should never be in a subservient position. I disobeyed and believed I could be a “four Ssquare” musician and play solo, play for dance, compose music for film, and play in ensembles like the New Maihar Band. One day he finally said, “OK, you married the dance, so what can you do? But you must keep your study and practice your main focus.”

For his part, Dada deeply respected Khansahib and his music and worked to elevate it.  Every program began with a ten-minute sarod solo and he encouraged me to weave more and more musical nuance into his programs.

Early on Dada choreographed dances to Khansahib’s compositions such as Hindol Tarana and, Khammaj Tarana. And a number of times, Dada prevailed on Khansahib to compose music for the dance. There are some beautiful songs that became part of the dance company’s repertoire for a while.

I think it was the summer of 1977 when Dada left the college – the AACM had just purchased its permanent home and there was no room for a dance studio. But he stayed close to Khansahib and the College. There was quite a bit of romantic mingling between the dancers and instrumentalists. There were three couples of kathakas married to sarod players – Marni and I actually lived right next door to another such couple for years. Visitors from India couldn’t believe it, exclaiming “This doesn’t even happen in India.” George and Gretchen lived nearby until they moved to Boston in 1992.

What is particularly challenging playing with Pandit Das? 

The challenge for me was I never knew what he was going to do and at what speed, and whether he would conflate two bols or change it at the last minute–and so I had to be really quick to catch it.  The one I always missed was in the story of Shakuntala. He’s riding along in his chariot and he sees a bee bothering Shakuntala, so he pulls up and goes over to protect her. The bee was buzzing around and he would chase it and just as you try to catch a fly in mid-flight, he’d make a lightening move and snatch the bee. It was different every time (you can’t do a big tihāī; the bee would see it coming and get away!) and I almost always missed. The challenge was to watch and play and be ready for anything.

In 1984, Dada was invited to perform at Kathak Kendra in Delhi. He was planning to do the story of Krishna stealing the gopis’ saris. We had always done it in fast tīntāl (16 beats) with themes and variations for each character. I was all set for that and Dada comes out on stage, turns to us musicians, and suddenly sets the tempo in rupak tāl (7 beats). I had to recompose every theme on the spot in seven beats instead of sixteen, which meant compressing everything or expanding the themes to two or more cycles. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not. All the bols had to change too, so he started pulling out all his rupak bols and tihāīs, many of which I kind of knew. It was terrifying and thrilling!

Dada had a thing about speed, speed was the currency of virtuosity, and if things felt boring he’d just go faster. You will see this in the videos of the Hindol Tarana and Marni’s Khammaj Tarana; these were both much faster than in rehearsal and the Khammaj was so fast I could barely play it. But Marni’s ability to float on the rhythsm belies how fast it was.

You worked with Pandit Das for almost 30 years until around 2000. Is there anything you can share about how you observed him evolve as a teacher/artist and how you also came to evolved as an artist?  

I think Dada’s second and final calling was the Indian community. After dealing with all these American women who were close to his age, he found a niche. I believe America tries to suck the culture out of many immigrant communities; the movies, the junk food, the fads; it does a very good job of it. And it drives Indian immigrant parents crazy because they could go somewhere like South Africa, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malasia, or Fiji where for 300 years not much has changed culturally and anthropologists go to study them because they’re preserving the traditions from 300 years ago of the village they came from. Then they come to America and in half a generation, it’s out the window. And Dada had a way of bringing traditional Indian culture to the kids that was as compelling as Instagram and Tik Tok. He was more Bengali than the Bengalis! He would admonish and cajole and enthrall parents and kids and suddenly there was this respect for the bells and respect for the teacher and a deep feeling for what pranām and namaskār mean. He was able to present it in a way that really made everyone feel it viscerally.

Regarding my own evolution: early on, Marni and I started working together assimilating her training with Dada and my study with Khansahib and Dada to bring the depth of raga music and our own aesthetic to our music and dance. Just as Khansahib didn’t like me playing with dance, Dada didn’t like Marni performing and promoting her own work while part of the company. One day Dada saw our poster at the entrance of a local grocery store and admonished us in front of the class: “I see Chris and Marni are performing for sheep and goats in bathrooms and closets around Marin.”  Everyone giggled but his message was clear.

Marni would sometimes ask for Dada’s blessing and at other times, particularly on our annual trips to Hawaii, we would just quietly do our performances. Here’s a photo of us with Daniel Paul who sang and played tabla with us for many years in the US and India. Later we began playing with Dana Pandey, first a vocalist, then a sarod player, and finally a student of Zakir Hussain on tabla.

Then Kali appeared as you’ve read in Marni’s interview. The many passive, weak, exploited, disempowered women who were portrayed in the stories from mythology appeared as one dimensional caricatures: Radha, Sita, Draupadi, the gopis who lose their saris, Shakuntala and Rati of Madan Basma, whose eroticism was exploited to break Shiva’s meditation so he’d fall in love with Parvati. They each had inner strength, devotion, piety, and compelling virtue but it was rarely explored.

One final thing: In the years I worked with Dada I had the opportunity to play in many prestigious festivals and venues, stages I might never have had the honor to play on. Through him I made many friends in the Indian community and met many fascinating people in our far-flung travels. It has truly enriched my life!

You played on many of Pandit Das’s repertoire recordings from the 1980s, several of which have turned into iconic performance pieces for so many subsequent generations up until today!  Did you ever think those recordings would become so prolific? How do you feel about your legacy living on in this way?  

I’m honored to learn that these recordings have become part of the fabric of Dada’s teaching and brought so much inspiration to so many young dancers! In truth it was so long ago and those recordings were never on my radar because they were only used when I wasn’t around.  The first time I heard them was in a school show at Cowell Theater in SF many years ago. At first I didn’t recognize my playing and thought someone else had recorded the music!

I learned later that Dada would use some of these recordings when he traveled without musicians. Dancing to a recording, especially in performance. must be easier for the dancer; the music on tape is the same every time; in live performance, especially with Dada, the speed would vary (usually speeding up with the excitement of either Dada or the musicians) and sometimes I or Dada would forget a section and have to either patch it up quickly or just keep going.

Fifteen or twenty years after the recording sessions I was asked to digitize the master tape of the recording session. The recording was done in a tiny room at the home of one of Dada’s friends and patrons. We were all crammed in there: Dada, Swapan-da on tabla, George on violin, Dallas Smith on bansuri, Pranesh Khan on dholak, myself on sarod, and maybe even a manjira player. Dada was directing and reciting while lighting endless sticks of incense. It was terrifying: there were so many of us playing at the same time with no possibility of editing later; it was all done in one take. If someone made a mistake, either we started over or just went oh well. I’m telling this next part for all of you who have danced with these recordings:

I borrowed the actual reel to reel tape recorder used in the session and brought it home, plugged it into my stereo, and took the precious master tape out of its plastic sleeve. The tiniest hint of incense wafted up. I put it on the reel and as the tape spooled, the floral essence of Dada’s incense filled the room. I was transported back to that session so many years ago. When you’re dancing, if you get your senses tuned just right, you might just smell it too! Khansahib’s sister Annapurna (who played surbahar, a bass sitar) spoke of delicate heavenly scents appearing during her practice. I’ve experienced this as well and it always feels like a prasad (blessing) from the gurus of my lineage.

Finally, I’d like to say to all of you that the true enduring legacy of Chitresh Das is all of you who have known and been touched by him and his disciples. As you practice and learn and grow, you each will have something unique to offer, and the more you get to know each other and share what you know and support your kathak sisters and (hopefully) brothers, the more you and your art will be enlivened.

I’m speaking from experience: There is a group of about 15 of Khansahib’s early disciples who started in the 1960s and early 1970s.  We each have solo careers of varying degrees and although we are friendly and occasionally played together over the years we did not regularly share our art with each other, especially as a group. Ten years ago, I started a semi-annual mehfil (gathering of artists) where we would come together and perform for each other and a very small audience, sometimes six in one evening and sometimes six on Saturday evening and six on Sunday morning. Knowing the others would be our harshest critics (it felt almost as intimidating as playing for Khansahib!), it was very challenging. But as time went on, a generosity of spirit emerged and we became increasingly supportive and less competitive, realizing how each of our gifts had the potential to elevate the others.

For more info, music, and soon to be uploaded videos of Marni’s dance, please visit my website at or contact me.

Christopher Ris

Christopher Ris began his study of sarod and vocal music in 1971 under Maestro Ali Akbar Khan. He has since performed as a soloist, with Khansahib’s orchestra, The New Maihar Band, has composed music for three films on life in India and an episode of the television series Young Indiana Jones. He has collaborated with flamenco dancer Rosa Montoya and flamenco guitarist Guillermo Rios, as well as the principal oudist of the National Orchestra of Turkey, Necati Celik. In 1974 he began a long-lived relationship with the renowned kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das. In 1980 he became Mr. Das’s primary musical accompanist and composer-in-residence for both his personal performances and his Chhandam Dance Company. Together they dramatically changed the style of kathak accompaniment, bringing the instrumentalist into the simultaneous improvisations with the dancer that were formerly the province of the tabla drummer alone. He has also collaborated and performed extensively with his wife, kathak dancer Marni Ris.

Photo Credits: Photo 1 –  photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 2 – Ali Akbar Khan & Christopher Ris, video screen capture; Photo 3 – Christopher Ris, photo credit Hans Ris; Photo 4 – Chitresh Das & Christopher Ris;  Photo 5 – Swapan Chaudhuri, James Pomerantz, Dallas Smith & Chris Ris, (Chitresh Das Band) 1980, photo credit George Lucas; Photo 6 – Christopher Ris 1984; Photo 7 – Zakir Hussain, Chitresh Das, James Pomerantz, photo credit Betsy Bourbon;  Photo 8 – Sita Haran Program; Photo 9 – Chitresh Das & Christopher Ris, video screen capture; Photo 10 – Daniel Paul, Marni Ris & Christopher Ris (Indus Dakini and the Mantra All Stars); Photo 11 – Christopher Ris, photo credit Marni Ris; Photo 12 – Christopher Ris & Marni Ris 1978.

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The Making of the California Gharana: Marni Ris

The Making Of the California Gharana

Marni Ris

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, what 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 taal classes as well; I did not appreciate the depth of what was being offered to 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 taal, 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 taal 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.

What your experience studying an artform that is not of 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 a 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.

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.

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.

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The Making of the California Gharana: Julia Maxwell

The Making Of the California Gharana

Julia Maxwell

You are unique from everyone else being interviewed for this series in that you began studying under our Guruji’s father, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das, in India. Can you tell us a little about why you decided to study classical Indian dance and the atmosphere of Nritya Bharati?

Firstly, I should mention that my various name references for Pandit Chitresh Das, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das, and Srimati Nilima Das reflect the time and circumstances of our relationships. Please know that I have loved and regarded all with deep respect.

I met Chitresh, your Guru, in 1967. At that time, I was studying Bharatanatyam with his father, Nritya Acharya Prohlad Das. In addition to his work as the Director for the Nritya Bharati Institute, Sri Prohlad Das taught at the Birla Academy and lectured at Rabindra Bharati (Tagore University). He had developed a system of dance notation and was widely acknowledged for having contributed to the national standardization of dance education. Sri Prohlad Das also served regularly as a visiting lecturer and examiner in schools across northern India. What I found most interesting, however, was how Sri Prohlad Das had participated in the revolution against the British Raj. He had choreographed and staged Abhyudaya, translated as “Awakening.” It was a dance drama with a bold, anti-colonialist statement. Members of Congress and several leaders from the “Free India” movement had seen it. Later they encouraged Sri Prohlad Das to establish the Nritya Bharati Institute, which was eventually given formal recognition and financial support from the West Bengal government.

I had been urged to meet Sri Prohlad Das by the renowned dancer, Indrani Rahman. The Institute was located at #81 Karaya Road. There I entered through a large green gate to a lovely courtyard in bloom with bougainvillea. Sounds of music, footslaps, and bells filled the air. The school’s caretaker directed me to one of the studios located in the back of the Institute’s main building where a class was in progress. There, Sri Prohlad Das greeted me with a brilliant smile and an invitation to sit next to him on a rug, from where he instructed his prize Bharatanatyam student. As you are likely aware, this dance style, developed in the South, emphasizes above all qualities, “balance.” Point to counter-point, curving lines move gradually from a tilt of the head,downwards, through the torso, hips, and limbs. Sri Prohlad Das explained how it was all about the flow of prana (life force). I related this to the East Asian concept of chi and told him how I had studied kung fu with Bruce Lee in the musty basement of an old Seattle Chinatown restaurant. Nodding kindly, Sri Prohlad Das remarked that my experience back then would have prepared me for my study now. I felt inspired, and immediately made arrangements to begin my dance tutelage with him which also include dance theory, history, and philosophy.

I learned four dances that developed progressively. First came Alarippu, a pure-dance or technical piece. Jatisvaram followed, with more complex technique and rhythmic compositions. Tillana came next and combined rhythmic phrases with sensuous stances. The final piece I was learning was a series of vignettes about Lord Shiva called Nava Rasa. It depicts nine basic sentiments, or emotional states—love, humor, pathos, heroism, anger, fear, disgust, wonder, and peace. It was during this time that Mr. Das introduced me to the ancient aesthetic theory of rasa, expounded by the sage Bharata Muni in the Natya Shastra around the first century CE. Rasa refers to the dominant emotional theme of a work of art that carries the potential to elicit a shift in the viewer’s awareness, causing a sense of wholeness or unified consciousness. For this reason, rasa is referred to as the “juice of a performance.” It’s an influence that can last long after the performance has ended, sometimes mirrored in emotional shifts that occur in one’s daily experience. For this reason, rasa is also referred to as “the essence of life.”

What elements of kathak came easily to you? And what was more challenging?

My study with Sri Prohlad Das greatly influenced my training with Chitresh when we settled in California and he began his teaching of kathak dance at the Ali Akbar College of Music. My strengths were favored in technique (the child in me loved to turn) and in bhava. This was also nurtured during my brief study with Chitresh’s guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra in his teaching of ghunghat. Ghunghat is a series of vignettes that depict a woman opening her veil, often revealing her innermost feelings as she searches for her lover. Lifting the veil also signifies the lifting of a perceived barrier between mind and body, echoing kathak’s ancient yogic roots.

What I felt challenged by was in the recitation of bols. I felt awkwardly shy. My early background was in Modern dance in which there was no verbal expression and it is also not favored in Bharatanatyam. Much later, I realized that it was the sudden shift in the dancer-audience relationship that caused a problem for me. It broke aesthetic distance, the altered state of reality that’s created through performance. Later, while considering this more deeply, I realized that this was a great strength in kathak. When the dancer is reciting, he or she is engaging the audience directly. On a musical cue, the dancer’s body becomes a conduit for an explosion of energy—a blur of color and form with footwork punctuating the composition. That energy is imparted to the audience when the bol ends in a crescendo with a tihai. Once again aesthetic distance is broken. The energy of appreciation from the audience is absorbed by the dancer and fed into the next bol.

Guruji always spoke about being tremendously influenced by his mother, Srimati Nilima Das. What was she like? And what were her unique contributions to the arts community they developed at Nritya Bharati?

Srimati Nilima Das was an extraordinary artist, designing sets, costumes, and special works of batik that decorated the Das’s home. Srimati Nilima loved her son unconditionally, but she also knew how to employ tough love when it was needed. She held great respect for Chitresh’s guru and made sure that he understood the depth of responsibility to his guru and kathak. Srimati Nilima saw to it that Chitresh had an excellent education culminating with his studies at Rabindra Bharati University. Through her charitable work, she ensured that Chitresh came in contact with great philosophers, poets, and people of all walks of life whom she felt would enrich and broaden his understanding.

During my first stay in India, when I was studying with Sri Prohlad Das, Nilima and I became close friends. I was a young woman, halfway around the planet from my mother, and Nilima provided the comfort that only an older woman could. It was a time of great challenge for me. My American husband had fallen in love with an Indian co-worker, and I was falling in love with Nilima’s son. It was an unexpected challenge for her too, but she found the courage to guide me through it all—firstly as a woman rejected and later as her daughter-in-law.

Your role was central to so many of the foundational aspects of the history of our lineage. What were those earliest days like in Marin?

Chitresh and I were married in Seattle, Washington, where my daughter, Jennifer (six years old at the time) and I lived in Madrona, a beautiful neighborhood with spectacular views of Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains. Jennifer already knew and liked Chitresh very much and he was brilliantly playful with her.

In September of 1971, we moved to California where Chitresh would teach his first kathak classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music, headed by the renowned sarodist, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. At that time, the AACM was housed in a former military academy, on a campus that flourished with big oak trees and lush green lawns. This was a golden age for Indian studies and Indian culture on college campuses across America. However, the intersection of East and West at the AACM was somewhat more complex. Teachers and students were engaged in a serious and lengthy endeavor that went well beyond a few units of Indian studies at a university. Early on, however, it became clear to me that the faculty and students were somewhat at odds. The AACM faculty had been stringently schooled in India—to respect their teachers and elders, and to assume a secondary stance in their presence. But their American students were part of a generation that was questioning authority. Many sought an egalitarian lifestyle and classroom manner, much to the amazement, amusement, and often disdain of their teachers. Students searched for spiritual insights they were told could be found in the music. They endeavored to give the effort demanded by the discipline but often struggled against the social conformity their teachers insisted go with it.

It is important to consider that Indian artists had struggled for over two decades following national independence to educate and generate interest in India’s public about classical music. Consider also that Indian artists would have enjoyed far fewer opportunities in the West, had it not been for their counterculture students who rode the evolutionary wave of the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The struggle to understand student-teacher relationships proved to be a very long and bumpy ride.

I had observed Chitresh as both a disciple and a teacher. I saw firsthand his very difficult struggle to find a balance between the ideals he held about the guru-shishya relationship based on his own experience, and the reality of teaching in California. Chitresh’s request to create his own company grew out of a desire to engage that challenge. In May of 1980, we incorporated the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Per advice from our lawyer, Glen Spain, we included Chhandam as a second name to allow for an additional function of our nonprofit international arts organization.

What are some of the meaningful and memorable experiences that you’ve had as a kathak performer?

I believe one of my most meaningful and memorable experiences as a kathak performer came on a tour during the 1981–82 winter concert season in India. It was just a little more than a year following the creation of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and scarcely a decade since the loss of Chitresh’s guru.

Following our first performance in Calcutta, we received a review in the Statesman newspaper as having “brought his [Chitresh’s] work on a universal plane.” It continued, “The enactment of the episode from Shakuntala—the love at first sight between Shakuntala and Dushyanta was a pas-de-deux in kathak style. Julia Das as Shakuntala excelled in the exposition of the character” (December 14, 1981). Such a nice review would have you thinking that Chitresh and I would repeat our duet in our upcoming performance for the Sangeet Research Academy’s distinguished audience. After having read the review, however, Chitresh made it quite clear to me that we would not present Shakuntala again on the tour. His explanation was that it gave me importance over his other students and that would cause resentment. The praise I received from the Statesman newspaper was very meaningful to me. It indicated that I was reaching across time and cultures to convey something which was valued highly. Chitresh’s response to the review was both defining and memorable. It scaled my future opportunities from the possible to the probable. Simply, it broke my heart. In retrospect, one has to consider the challenge Chitresh had in teaching women of his own age, at a time when he was just beginning to establish his own presence in the kathak world.

You worked very hard to put kathak on the mainstream map and to build an audience base for an art form that in the 1970s and 80s was completely unknown in the United States. Can you talk about what you had to do to make that happen? For younger readers, could you describe the specific challenges of that time period?

Response to these questions needs a little background. During my first visit to India, the time when Chitresh and I were becoming close friends and lovers, I learned a good deal about the career challenges he faced.  In the early days of his career, sponsoring organizations in Calcutta often chose to invite Birju Maharaj over Chitresh to perform for their musical conferences and there was some marketing logic behind this choice. When India had become an independent nation, there was a great need to re-establish the arts and bring them into public forums. Naturally, the new government sought the most prominent representatives available.

For the Lucknow gharana of kathak dance, they looked to the courts of Wajid Ali Shah and to the descendants of the dance gurus who had served him. Shambu Maharaj, along with his young nephew, Birju Maharaj, was appointed to head the newly formed institute, Bharatiya Kala Kendra, in New Delhi. It was funded generously by the central government, bringing these men a great deal of status and power. At the time, the general population also had little knowledge of the classical arts that had developed in the private worlds of kings and noblemen. All these factors, combined with Birju Maharaj’s gift for stirring the audience’s imagination with the lost glamour of palace life, kept presenters looking to New Delhi and booking accordingly. It also had reviewers overlooking Chitresh’s performances. That is, until Jug Suraiya, a young writer for the Jr. Statesman put Chitresh’s face on the cover of their magazine and captured his performance with “Lightning-fast turns on firecracker feet.” Finally, Calcutta’s audiences were ready for Chitresh.

When we were settled in California, Suraiya’s tag for Chitresh’s performance provided a culture-free way for me to introduce him to Western audience as an international artist. Later, when we created the Chitresh Das Dance Company, I began attending booking conferences for the Western Alliance of Arts Administrators. “What’s a Chitresh?” was a question asked more than once by presenters visiting our booth. It was a hard truth to swallow, but I knew that I still had much to do in promoting Chitresh before I could turn much attention to promoting our Company. When that opportunity came, it presented a whole set of other problems for me at the WAAA conference.

At that time, dance was divided into “ballet,” “modern,” and “ethnic” genres, and they were valued and funded in that order. Our Company was also comprised of fair-skinned, American women, several of whom were blonde. Even though ballet companies already had prominent dancers of different ethnic backgrounds, we were still an oddity, making it difficult for American presenters to sell us to their audiences. In India, it worked the other way around. We were still an oddity, but very marketable.

With regard to acquiring funding from grantmakers, that opportunity came suddenly and it was not to be missed. Our first Company grant was through The Buck Trust. When Mrs. Buryl Buck died in 1975 she bequeathed oil stocks worth $11.7 million to support the arts in Marin County. At the time I submitted our first proposal, it was worth $250 million and grew to $1 billion by 1999. The San Francisco Foundation administered the Buck Trust in those days. When our proposal was first turned down, Chitresh insisted that I make an appointment for him to meet with Mr. John Kriedler, who had overseen our application process. In his office, Chitresh wasted no time. “We’ve worked extremely hard over the last decade, trying our best to add to the Bay Area’s cultural bouquet.” True, our aspirations were worthy and we had put all our energy towards achieving them. What I learned in Mr. Kriedler’s office was that our proposal had been declined because we were too new. We had only recently incorporated our Company. Much of our support materials also featured Chitresh as a solo dancer. For us to be funded, we needed to demonstrate public support for the Company.

I pointed out to Mr. Kreidler that our group of dancers had functioned as a company well before we incorporated. Following a brief rundown of our beginnings, I asked Mr. Kreidler if I could submit further documentation. He replied yes and said that our proposal would be reviewed again. Chitresh and I left the office feeling encouraged. I admitted to him that I would likely have accepted defeat had he not insisted we go to see Mr. Kreidler. What I didn’t mention was how encouraged I had felt by Mr. Kreidler’s remarks about the American component to establishing our California-based kathak dance company.

At home, I began sifting through old correspondence and newspaper clippings. I pulled out engagement contracts and other indicators of growing interest in the Company. There were ticket sales from performances we had produced in San Francisco and Berkeley. I found a few reviews of Chitresh’s performances in Germany, where we were beginning to establish some European contacts. Surely that would indicate future international possibilities for the Company, along with a newspaper article announcing Chitresh’s arrival in India with American students. Still, we were being funded in Marin County and needed some local documentation too. Then, I remembered that during the winter when several students went to India with Chitresh, I stayed home to finish my studies at St. Mary’s College. Antonia Minnecola (Hussain) had also stayed home that winter, and we decided to offer a series of kathak classes for children. Beth Ashley of The Independent Journal headed the article announcing our classes with, “Marin Women Teach Ancient Indian Dance” (Jan. 21, 1976). “Can’t get better than this,” I thought, adding the article to my growing pile of support materials.

That winter, I had also taught a series of workshops at Sonoma State University, experimenting with kathak and modern dance. An impressive letter of appreciation from the Dance Director, Nancy Lyons, supported the fact that Americans were already experimenting and innovating with kathak. I sent the whole shebang in a new packet to the Foundation and marveled at the entire process. Poring over the boxes of photos and press releases had reminded me of our collective accomplishments. Our extra application efforts were rewarded with funding from the Buck Trust, promising a supportive future. Awards from the California Arts Council followed. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded us their prestigious “Company Grant.” We were the first company with a non-Western dance style to receive this, and we were barely eight years old. This accomplishment could take even “mainstream” companies much longer to achieve, and funding would continue to be awarded to us annually.

New funding also allowed us to create a book. CHITRESH: Calcutta to California. On the cover, I had used a photograph by Betsy Bourbon, an extraordinary photographer who documented the early days of the Ali Akbar College of Music. The photo was of Chitresh’s feet. One bell-laden foot was frozen in action, while the other was a blur of motion. I skewed and wrapped the photo around the entire cover, and placed a small inset of the image on the front. Amar Singh, one of our board members arranged for our full-color book to be published in China. It was “impressive…handsome and informative,” said Janice Ross in Dance Magazine (November 1986). Encore, the quarterly for the Archives for the Performing Arts in San Francisco also praised the book and reprinted the entire last section detailing Chitresh’s personal stories (Vol. 3 No 4, Winter 1986/87). India West, California’s premier weekly for Indian news also gave us a superb review. Copies of our book accompanied grant proposals and press packets. They were distributed to major donors and sold at performances. The book opened with a short description of kathak dance history, along with Chitresh’s family and dance background. The second section, “In Performance,” recounted a traditional solo by Chitresh, in his voice. This allowed me to present kathak’s technical information in a personal and accessible manner. The next section, “Innovations and Choreography,” explained kathak’s tradition for innovation, while pointing to significant choreographic innovations and showcasing our Company’s repertoire with photographs. A side column gave excerpts from newspaper reviews to expand the viewers’ perspective on the choreography—from traditional kathak pieces to Rhythmics, a jazzy piece with music set in classical tal and featuring both Eastern and Western instruments. Finally, the book concluded with “Discipleship and The West”. For this part, I encouraged Chitresh to remember things he saw, smelled, and heard on the way to his guru’s home. My thinking was that it would draw the reader vicariously into the rich cultural context that had shaped Chitresh’s discipleship and career.

New students came, and in addition to their commitment to the dance, they offered their time and talents to help establish our Company—selling tickets, learning stagecraft, and cooking for fundraisers. We developed regular home-season and touring programs. Our repertoire settled into a comprehensive format, presenting ancient, medieval, and innovative themes during the first half of the performance, and a dance drama following intermission. The fact was, dance-dramas were crowd-pleasers and a good focal point from which to launch media campaigns, most often for a production of Sita Haran (the Capturing of Sita), based on the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

We were also making a real breakthrough in India. A national magazine called Eve’s Weekly (Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 1987), had recently interviewed Chitresh and me for a story called “Kathak in California.” Ever since our Company’s tour in the winter of ’81-82, we had received periodic attention from the Indian media. The Voice of America radio program interviewed me for broadcasts in India. This was something that happened periodically over the years, ever since my maiden performance of Bharatanatyam during my first visit to India. Funny, that they always asked the same question. How was it that an American could so fully embrace an art form that grew out of a culture so different from that of her own? As always, I tried to convey to the VOA audience that I felt there were more similarities than differences in the true spirit of our cultures.

Chitresh and I had achieved much together and we toasted to this at Sausalito’s Spinnaker restaurant some years following our divorce. My decision to leave Chitresh and the Company we created together was very complex. I could relate it to many things, but the truth is that it was simply time. Chitresh needed to make the Company his own, to bring it and his teaching into a form drawn from his innermost desires. A similar exploration was burgeoning within me. Following a Master’s in Dance Education at Stanford University, I stayed on in the adjacent town of Palo Alto. It was the early 1990s, the dawning of the Information Age. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation for great things and I felt excited to be at the heart of it all. It was at this time that I began to explore ideas in science that resonated with kathak’s inherent yoga. Working in Palo Alto offered me new opportunities for creativity. For a while, I flirted with computer graphics as a way to express my dance interests.

As might be expected, I threaded ideas from my dance background and science into a website project, DanceStage, complete with video clips and “wave to particle” animated dance gifs—some created with software from Sairus Patel, a friend from Stanford who had landed a job with Adobe. Remember, this was a time when many were attempting to bring art, science, and technology together on the Internet for the very first time. Tongue-in-cheek, I called what I was doing “cyberography”—the movement of information in electronic environments. As I brought my practice from the dance stage to the yoga studio, I simply called it Yoga Aesthetics ( For those who might be interested, I have published two books. The Jewel & Filigree, a memoir that penetrates the intimate complexities of mixing cultures and, offers an expansion of the stories provided here. Yoga Aesthetics: Quest for the Creative Interface, explores an ancient idea about the creative interface between consciousness and physical reality. This idea formed the basis of India’s yogic practices, preserved over time through arts. Both books have been recently revised for self-publication on

From your time as a kathak performer and advocate, do you have any lessons you learned that could be of good advice for aspiring young kathak artists today?

Actually, I would like to offer a thought for kathak teachers and students. He’s coming back. What might you do to be ready? I ask this question with the underpinning belief in reincarnation. Chitresh offered you kathak—direct from his experience of it—bringing it to the West with all of its potential for an unbound future. Your guru will expect much from you. Bring it!

Julia Maxwell

Julia Maxwell is a dancer, entrepreneur and author. She co-founded the Chitresh Das Das Dance Company in 1980 and is responsible for incorporating the first ever American kathak dance company as an official nonprofit organization. Serving as its Executive Director, she aligned artistic vision with business goals, putting kathak on the mainstream map, representing the company to presenters, establishing relationships with grantmakers and media, and growing audiences. She also spearheaded the making of the 1986 publication, Chitresh: Calcutta to California. As a principal dancer of the company herself, she performed on tours in the U.S. Canada, Europe, and India. In addition to studying kathak with Pandit Chitresh Das, she studied dance theory, history, and philosophy under Das’ father, Nityacharya Prohlad Das, director of Nritya Bharati Institute and lecturer at Rabindra Bharati in Kolkata, India. Following a 20-year performing career and a Master’s in Dance Education from Stanford University, Julia brings her knowledge of aesthetics from the dance stage to the yoga studio (

Photo Descriptions: Photo 1, Julia Maxwell as a young aspiring dancer; Photo 2, Sri Prohlad Das at his home; Photo 3, Julia Maxwell doing a traditional kathak palta; Photo 4, Julia Maxwell with the young Pandit Chitresh Das and Mother Srimati Nilima Das; Photo 5, Julia Maxwell and Pandit Chitresh Das duet photo; Photo 6, Julia Maxwell pirouette; Photo 7, Marni Ris, Michele King, Chitresh Das, Julia Maxwell, Jane Simmons [1980s] Photo credit Ritesh Das; Photo 8, board member Amar Singh and Julia Maxwell signing the publication.
Photo Credits: John Bagley, Bonnie Kamin Morrissey, Ritesh Das
Videographers: Clark Higgins, Elain Trotter, Andy Neddermeyer

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The Making of the California Gharana: Joanna de Souza

The Making Of the California Gharana

Joanna De Souza

As a well established kathak dancer, what is it like to look back on your experiences of kathak? What encouraged you to take your very first kathak class, and what was your very first class with Guruji like?

Throughout my life, I have figured out what it is that I want to do, by discovering what it is that I don’t want to do. I was immediately so smitten with kathak and Dadaji’s classes of course, that I never thought much about the future. I only knew that I was going to go to class, and had to go as much as I possibly could. My study path continued like that for the years I was in California and in India. My study did include teacher training in Marin with Dadaji, however, I never thought about being a teacher, or even about being a professional dancer. My mind was absorbed with being a student.

When I returned home to Canada in 1987, the first time living here for some years, I was forced to take personal stock. I realized that my passions, interests and abilities were all kathak dance related, so I began shifting from the mindset of being a full-time student, to being a student that included sharing what I love, in whatever way I could. This let to the opportunity for teaching, through the University of Toronto’s Athletic Department, my first group of independent students and the beginning of a new path. This fresh direction included annual travel to study in California, annual trips to India with Dadaji and bringing Dadaji regularly to Toronto to teach at our growing school M-DO/KathakToronto. Dadaji came a total of 18 times to teach in Toronto with me.

It is surprising to look back and have so many years behind you. A road with one basic focus, and the incredible variety of experiences that this focus can facilitate. I feel incredibly lucky, and absolutely in awe that my life  path aligned me with giants in the field of North India dance and music. Through Dadaji, I was introduced to his brother Ritesh, and therefore their parents Nrityacharya Prohlad Das and Smt. Nilima Das, the great Ustad Ali Akbar Khan,

Padmashri Swapan Chaudhuri, and through a friendship with Antonia Minnecola, her father-in-law and husband, Ustad Alla Rakha, and Ustad Zakir Hussein. The generosity of these amazing artists, leaves me with a deep sense of gratitude.

How did this begin? On a fateful Sunday afternoon, I  saw an outdoor performance at Fisherman’s Wharf, by Marni Ris, along with a live tabla player and sarod player. I was mesmerized by her performance, and spoke with Marni after. She directed me to the classes in San Anselmo across the Golden Gate bridge, and I travelled the next morning to observe a class. I hadn’t planned on taking class, but Dadaji told me to go in the back and try it. Once on the floor, where Dadaj encouraged us to sing while he played the tabla, I was hooked. Somehow or other, it made sense, even though none of it made sense. At the end of the class, he said, “you know, I think you need a beginner class” (obviously- and THANK YOU Dadaji) and he directed me to the classes on Fulton Avenue in San Francisco. I went to the ashram I believe, the next day and that’s where I met Michelle Zonka, who was to become my long term duet partner. It was her first class too, and we met on the porch of the ashram. She’d seen an ad in the newspaper. So we both walked in to take class with him for the first time together. We were very dedicated to kathak study for many years, and remain close friends to this day.

As one of the senior most disciples of Pandit Chitresh Das, having studied with him since the 70s, what was it like to watch him transform as an artist and teacher?

As a young man in Calcutta, Dadaji often worked with different kinds of dancers and did different types of  performances. He even worked at the Grand Hotel a couple of nights a month, doing folk dance with a friend of his from Manipur, who was a master folk-dancer. That’s why Dadaji was such a great folk dancer as well. He had a knowledge of the traditional repertoire of the particular folk dances from the north and the northeast of India, and we were the benefactors of that. The influences of Lok Nritt, or the dances of the people, is undisputed as the basis of classical dance forms around the world. Our exposure to these folk dance styles increased our knowledge of movement vocabulary, rhythm and melody.

As a younger student I just danced what I was given to dance, or shall I say TRIED to dance what I was given. Having nothing to base our level of study upon, it was just class with Dadaji and we were all in love with it. Many esteemed musical and dance guests would visit the class and be so impressed with the material he was giving us and the level to which we were all trying to express it. It wasn’t until I went to India however, and went often with Dadaji’s father (Baba as I called him) to dance events and competitions that I realized what gifts were regularly given by Dadaji. All respect given to the teachers in Bengal at that time, but the understanding of sangeet, layakari, khoobsurti and nazaqat that we were imbibed with from Dadaji was so far and beyond what these students had been exposed to.

Over the years many things changed. Society as a whole changed and not so many could dedicate the open time required to truly embody this art.  He understood fully what he was up against and distilled his teaching methods masterfully never to ever short change the art, nor the learner, in this situation.

Once I moved back to Canada from India, I spent less time around Dadaji. For some of those years I  saw him twice a year, once in California in the summer, and in India during the winter. Some years travel did not work out, and it would be an extended time that I wasn’t with him. This allowed me to see his personal artistic transformations in distilled chapters. The most important things to witness were his continued dedication and persistence to his artistic path and growth, to his dedication and inspiration as a teacher and Guru, his dedication to kathak’s inspired longevity, and his continued openess to artistic opportunities cities and challenges. There was never any question of retirement. It was inspiring and overwhelming. It was just who he was.

What was it like to study with Pandit-ji’s father, Pandit Prohlad Das? 

Sri Prohlad Das was a very well respected dance scholar throughout India and was a major examiner in Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, and Odissi. While living in his home in Calcutta, I seasonally saw stacks of written examination papers, coming wrapped up in cloth and secured with wax seals, delivered to him by post. He, with tremendous discipline, as he had in many facets of his life, would open these exams, and methodically grade them, over weeks.

Baba, was 48 years old when India got its independence, so he lived quite a full life as an artist while India was still a British colony.  It was a very different reality; one where there was no Pakistan or East Pakistan, no Bangladesh. Baba was originally from East Bengal, now Bangladesh.

When I arrived in Calcutta, Baba and Ma talked with me about my dedication to kathak, to the fact that as a non South Asian, I would need to work hard to be respected and to uphold the teaching I was receiving through their son – Dadaji. They introduced the idea of a dance degree in kathak, which was a new concept to me. Due to my years with Dadaji, I was allowed to go directly to a Bachelor’s Degree, and work towards a Master’s.  Both of these degrees required not only solo performances with live musicians, but also 3-hour written examinations.

It fell perfectly into place then, that Baba as a dance scholar, took me under his wing and became my theory teacher, and  prepared me for the written examinations and guided my ideas as to what to present in the examination solo dance formats.

Where Dadaji was the genius, inspired firebrand, Baba was the quiet, methodical, disciplined theorician. He sat with me every evening, gave me homework, and corrected it daily, reporting back to me with what was correct, and what needed improvement.

I believe he felt I was in very good hands studying with his son, Dadaji, so, though he came regularly into my dance practice room, he rarely corrected me. He did however share his gems of insight and wisdom about kathak with me. Keep in mind that he was a man of 82 years old when I first met him, but he exhibited the incredible persistence that is so evident in the collective Das’ gene pool!

Had it not been for the support and love showered on me by both Baba and Ma, I would never of completed my degrees, nor had the opportunity to embody kathak as an individual.  My time with them helped set the road I continue to walk today.  Ma and Baba, I love you.

What elements of kathak came easily to you? And what was most challenging?

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I played piano, guitar, flute, and sang in a variety of vocal ensemble settings, so the musical elements of kathak, came the easiest. Its storytelling aspects are where I felt more vulnerable, as I’d never been in a drama group to experience that, and of course the stories we traditionally tell in kathak, were all new to me. The formal classes were of course very very concentrated times of kathak aesthetic and technique, and time outside of the classroom with Dadaji is where we became more apprenticeships rather than students.  This was invaluable time, where we would hear stories, be given histories, philosophies, techniques and challenges, all in a very organic way. The main thing was that we made ourselves available to the time he was willing and able to spend with us.

Kathak is really physically challenging and at our peaks in Dadaji’s classes, many of us were practically elite athletes. For many years, over 25 of us studied directly under him, from 10 am- 1 pm – so  3 hours/day, for 5 days/week.  A number of us then took evening classes. Michele Zonka, Noelle Barton and I also accompanied Dadaji each Saturday, on what we called the ‘round robin’. We would leave Marin at 8:30 am, do a few classes at the Ashram in San Francisco, eat lunch on Clement St., then travel over Bay bridge to Berkeley, then Hayward then back to Marin via the Richmond bridge and be back to his home by 6 pm.

This type of training, where the highest we could possibly give, was his normal expectation of us (and FOR us), has cemented the physical, mental and spiritual centre of my life path.

To be in his class was to try your best to be constantly (like having spider senses)  wide awake. It was a total state of being. When I traveled back to California to study, after working in the field of kathak, here in Toronto,  I would say to myself “Whoa, I gotta polish up here”, as I would feel asleep at the wheel compared to what was necessary to be in the room with him. Such a challenge and so very blessed.

When were you an active member of  the Chitresh Das Dance Company and what are some of the meaningful and memorable experiences that you’ve had? 

I had no background in dance, except a brief course in Afro-Brazilian, and a background in figure skating. I came in as a 22 year old. I had played music and I did piano recitals, but it was really different, and I had never “put myself out there”. I had never been on a stage before. The moment I got out on the stage in my first student recital however, I loved it. I was formally in the CDDC from 1982 until I left to go to India in 1985. There were so many memorable experiences. I got to dance at UCLA and in San Francisco and be part of the Ali Akbar College of Music concerts. Some concerts were more intense experiences than others, but they were all really great learning times. Dadaji was creating new work for most of these performances, so that was really a creative time. There were some difficult times too, you know, and it  wasn’t always easy. Putting people on stage and being on stage doesn’t always bring out the best in people, but what an education the early days gave me!

Actually, if it taught me anything, it is just how important it is to be taiyar or prepared, and then to be in the moment, and follow your heart. You can’t pre-think it, you just want to be in the flow with everything that is happening. Easier said than done, but when it does all coalesce it is pure magic!

Can you describe your experience as a female artist, and your thoughts on women in the arts?

I’m a little tired of the patriarchy in all the arts. In the past, there have been so many fabulous women that got little or no opportunity, and now I am happy to see this changing. For myself, the fact that I am, racially speaking, outside the culture, was always the first point of any friction, as opposed to me being a woman. I have never felt that I wasn’t able to do something in my field because I am a woman. I have at times however, been accused of cultural appropriation. I do understand where this comes from, but feel the only way to open conversations about this topic, is to take each situation individually. Cultural appropriation, or the lack of cultural appropriation cannot be painted with one brush.

I value collaborating with other female artists. Collaboration has to be much more about the person I’m collaborating with energetically than the subject, and the obvious connection of the art forms. I’ve collaborated a lot with a flamenco dancer, Esmeralda Enrique, and our work together has way more to do about who we are as women, and then about the power of our two concentric dance forms.  (

Most recently, I collaborated with an incredible contemporary dancer from our prairies ( mid-west in the US) Misty Wensel from Saskatchewan. We fortunately received national funding to create a collaborative work we call BARDO, and were able to tour to five major Indian cities in January and February of 2018, with 9 dancers, and 3 musicians.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young kathak artists?

The most valuable lesson I have learned from my experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the younger generations and leaders can learn from is perseverance without expectation. Always check in with yourself to make sure the intention behind what you’re doing is sitting properly with your heart, and try your very best not to prejudge a situation. Perseverance is a big one because it allows you to keep an open heart and to keep at the root of why you’re doing in this case, kathak, in the first place. So many artists can become bitter, and I understand how it can happen. I refuse to become bitter. I just refuse. I’m going to quit if I start to become bitter because I just can’t go that path. So yes, I would say that’s it to try and keep an open heart to really constantly revisit why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you expect out of it. For me, it boils down to a pretty simple joy of why I do what I do, and what I want out of it. I’ve grown to not expect much from the outside to dictate my decisions. Dadaji used to always say, “I should be charging you people $100 an hour as a psychiatrist. The amount of money I’ve saved you from and time from lying on a couch and some doctor’s office”. And it’s true. This lockdown is proving how important this kind of personal and current relationship is for each of us. Each time I get on the floor with kathak during this COVID time, I am so much stronger, happier and myself, once I’ve finished a session. Let yourself have unbridled time with this form. A time when there is nothing particularly to prepare for – like a concert. It’s not just the subject, but it’s how you approach this subject. It becomes your solace and your escape hatch, and your world.

Pandit Chitresh Das was a visionary and devoted his life to sharing kathak with the world. What did you find most inspiring about his work? And as one of his senior most disciples, what do you wish for the future of kathak dance? 

So I’ll tell the story and put it in a nutshell and this is simply this. Dada came up to me in class one day at the Knights of Columbus Hall and he said, “Listen to me. You are seriously studying kathak dance. Don’t waver from this path. But always keep your ears and eyes open.” And what that said to me was this: that I was seriously studying in one direction – in one lineage, but, that as an artist, you have to always keep open to what’s going on artistically in the world around you, and that it can influence and inspire you on your artistic path, without compromising our amazing kathak form. My main inspiration was that he would keep going and keep creating, never be satisfied with his status quo. I cannot live up to that as fully as he did, but we all keep trying our best to live up to ourselves – what a role model, guide, inspiration and Guru.

About Joanna de Souza

Coming from a strong music, and figure skating background, Canadian born Joanna de Souza began her life-long study of kathak under the Late Pandit Chitresh Das in 1978. Under his guidance, in the traditional one-on-one, guru-shishya parampara context, she received knowledge in all aspects of Kathak dance performance, theoretical understanding and teachers training. She was a part of the Chitresh Das Dance Company from 1982 until she left for India in 1985, but continued to perform with the company in the US, India and Canada until 1999.

With funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Joanna lived in her guru’s home in Kolkata, India from 1985-87, and under the guidance of his father, dance scholar, Nrityacharya Prohlad Das, she received her Master’s degree in Kathak- through the Prayag Sangit Samiti- where she stood first across India. During this two-year period of intense immersion, she also studied sarangi, with Pt. Ramnath Misra, the late father of famed sarangi master the late Pt Ramesh Misra. Joanna has formally represented Canada in International arts festivals in Cuba, Pakistan, and India.  Her return to Canada, and the  establishment of M-DO/KathakToronto, was fueled by the intent to increase the art form’s presence in Canada, from her unique perspective. She continues to lead the artistic direction of the school, and teaches regularly throughout the greater Toronto area, across Canada, in the US and in India. She established Chhandam Dance Company in 2003, and with company members, creates new work for kathak, that deeply respect tradition and supports a present-day sensibility.

Excerpts from our interview with her. It has been edited for clarity.

Photo Credit: Dianna Last, Jose Garcia, Ian de Souza, Vivian Wang.

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Leela boasts studios in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and New York. In addition, its affiliate centers serve Boston, Toronto, and India. Students in other cities and countries are invited to join our online studio.