The Making of the California Gharana: Joanna De Souza
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-shisha-param-para 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 1981 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.
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 teachers training in Marin, with Dadaj, 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 led to the opportunity of teaching through the University of Toronto’s Athletic Department, to my first group of independent students outside of U of T, and the beginning of a new path. This fresh direction included annual study travel to California, annual India trips with Dadaji, regularly bringing Dadaji to Toronto and to growing our 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 bases 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 – 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 to never, 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, to his dedication to kathak’s inspired longevity and to always being open to artistic opportunities 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 practise 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) be wide awake. It was a total state of being. When I traveled back to California to study, after working in the field of kathak all the time, 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoNjpIezVVQ)
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.
Photo Credit: Dianna Last, Jose Garcia, Ian de Souza, Vivian Wang.