The Making of the California Gharana: Pratibha Patel

The Making Of the California Gharana

Pratibha Patel

How did you come to take a kathak class with Pandit Chitresh Das?  What encouraged you to do it and can you talk about your experience of those first classes?  

As a first generation Indian-American, my parents expected me to make education my top priority (in addition to the attributes that would make me a good wife, daughter-in-law, etc.), and discouraged most extra-curricular activities such as dance or music. In fact, I was forced to quit Bharatanatyam classes because I broke a house rule. (I mean, who punishes their teen by NOT letting her learn Bharatanatyam?!?!?!). It was my third year at San Francisco State University (1988) and I came across the 2-credit kathak course as I was perusing the class catalog. I jumped at the opportunity to take a classical dance class during school hours.  It was the first year that the kathak class was offered at SFSU, and moreover, the first university-accredited kathak course offered in the entire country! For me, it was a dream come true – like stepping into a magical world of movement, music, history and transcendental art. I was transported.  

I remember going to class in my churidar with my dupatta tied just so perfectly and my hair tied back like a “proper” Indian student, but found myself surrounded by the most eclectic mix of people adorned in all combinations of spandex, scarves and jewelry. Some were there to get exercise or a PE credit, some pursuing a dance major in a different art form or trying to learn about another culture. Oftentimes, I think a couple people weren’t even on the same plane of consciousness as the rest of us. Imagine Guruji trying to teach this varied group of people!  As the weeks went by, only the hardier remained. He would play tabla and recite while the TA’s, usually Michelle Zonka or Gretchen Ruckert, and sometimes Noelle Barton, would lead in the front. We would follow the same standardized format all the time with varying levels of difficulty to accommodate the different skill sets of the students. Guruji was always working hard to keep everyone engaged and even threw in impersonations of Tina Turner or Michael Jackson moves a couple times! I think very few people were witness to those moments.

There were not many South Asians studying with Pandit Das at the time you began.  Can you talk about what it was like being one of the few and if you felt he taught you differently?  

I was the first American-born Indian that Guruji taught. Being first generation Indian-American, I easily vacillated between being very American and very desi.  I was quite the anomaly to him. While I looked and talked like an American, Guruji especially appreciated that I was fluent in my native language, could whip together a full range of Gujarati dishes and was very familiar with cultural ideologies and traditions.  However, I also represented a sector of immigrant Indians (my parents immigrated in the 1960’s) who were upholding a snapshot of the Indian life they left behind and were prioritizing financial security in lieu of everything else. Consequently, I would often bear the brunt of his tirades on the lack of patronage and value placed on the classical arts by the ‘Hotel Motel Patels.’  It was true, but after the fifth time, I wanted to scream that he was preaching to the choir. In my kathak written exam, I finally shared my thoughts about more effective ways of bridging the divide by understanding the contributing factors of that societal behavior. Survivalist mentality coupled with an absence of arts training in their childhood made classical arts unrelatable to many.  While it was frustrating to Guruji, other ways to reach the Indian diaspora had to be developed.  

By the next semester, my three desi friends as well as a Gujarati male joined, so there were five students of Indian descent in his class. On a funny sidenote, one of my friends was a tabla student who claimed she had two left feet, and he would often correct her mistakes by saying “no the other left foot!” With a few other students, we began to perform in the Ethnic Dance department’s shows or at city college events. The four of us crossed over and started extra classes at Chhandam. Guruji was certainly a lot more strict and intense in Chhandam classes than at SFSU. He didn’t teach us differently, but as desis, I think he expected us to understand quicker than other students, and be ambassadors in our communities. I found it interesting that Guruji would incorporate folk dances in the school show, perhaps as a way to connect with the community a bit more.  For example, we took part in a Bengali Santali dance as well as a special dandia-raas he choreographed for us “Guju girls.” The tempo and “jhulan” are completely different doing dandia at Navratri versus on stage with a classical twist. 

What did you find most inspiring about Pandit Chitresh Das’ approach and teachings?

He was an absolutely brilliant and puissant artist, a powerhouse and a wellspring of knowledge. He opened up a window to a bygone era and brought it to the modern world. He taught in such a way that we could taste it, feel it, hear it – the aura and atmosphere from those storied times was palpable through him. He was a catalyst in the bliss factor.  What I found so inspiring was his ability to share the joy of the artform by helping his students tap into that bliss factor. He knew how to push and inspire us, injecting a vast amount of energy into the classroom through direction, singing and tabla-playing. Riding the wave of energy in class, we were able to power through compositions that were very difficult to replicate at home by ourselves. He was giving us the tools to eventually reach those heights through sadhana – granted that we applied them with discipline and vigor.  

Over the decades, I witnessed and admired how he evolved. When I started learning, Guruji always had his senior dancers or company members serve as liaisons with the students and their families. Although he was a strong presence in the class, he was personally far less accessible. Only in the 90’s and later did he start to become more approachable to his students, and he’d figured out how to connect with them directly while still preserving his due respect. The greatest strides were made in this area when he started inviting parents into the classrooms and including them in pointed discussions with his students. Now he was directly communicating with the parents and his messaging was reaching the extended community. 

The daily, multi-hour classes of the early 70’s were no longer viable with the changing society and lifestyle of the 90’s and 21st century Indian diaspora. Everything had to be distilled into shorter, fewer, and larger classes. With a growing student base and the need for newer teachers, Guruji had to embrace the standardization of classes and teacher training. Furthermore, although never compromised on his standards, he became more empathetic as the Chhandam student base gained more children and mothers, and subsequently, more teachers who were mothers. When he became a father, he fully understood how to lead within the challenges inherent in balancing work, family life and dance studies. 

I admired his intuition and insight. Many times, he seemed to know people better than they knew themselves. He didn’t mince words in sharing his thoughts on what their biggest fear or problem was, and it was quite difficult for us to hear and own up to it. In the presence of a guru, you have to be willing to face some truths about yourself on that dance floor. If you came in with an agenda and an ego, you were going to get shot down. It wasn’t going to be easy. You always had to make sure you checked your ego at the door, came in with the right attitude, and were open to receiving. Again, first principle of Sadvyavhar aur Tehzeeb (attitude and etiquette)! That is how trust and true growth was developed.  

You have had extensive teaching experience in different parts of the country over the years and are known for your superpower as a community organizer and in inspiring students to study the art deeply.  What drives you to teach and build community?  

My path to teaching was not typical – I had to take several breaks during my kathak studies but I always came back, even if it meant starting from the beginning again. On my third break, I was living in New Jersey when my daughter turned 5, and I wanted her to learn kathak. When my request to Guruji’s nearby shishyas to start teaching wasn’t feasible, he recommended that I start teaching myself. That meant taking multiple trips to California to observe how Guruji and other Chhandam instructors taught so that I could emulate his teachings in New Jersey. Simultaneously, I was charged with developing my riyaaz (practice).  He literally told me to “practice until you can do four cycles of solahgun with even sounds, and then fax me.” And I did! Despite Guruji’s strict adherence to the oral tradition of Indian arts, I was the first student he allowed to record and use videos to learn remotely. He instructed me to videotape Jaiwanti Das Pamnani (one of Guruji’s senior disciples who sadly passed away in 2007) to learn Rang Manch and other compositions with the expectation that I would demonstrate my progress upon my return. In 1999, with his blessings, I started classes in my renovated basement studio, eventually offering intensives, a ghungroo ceremony and annual recitals. Throughout, I kept the students connected to Guruji with stories, pictures and messages from him, as well as having the children write him cards for their ghungroo ceremony. 

From this early experience in New Jersey, my mindset had shifted from me to them. For the next two decades, anytime I learned new material or had a transformative experience with Guruji, I automatically tried to figure out how I could share it with my students.The focus was not on myself as a student. Instead, it was about creating the best experience for my students, making kathak fun and relatable whilst instilling respect for the tradition and the joy of achievement. Every student enters the classroom striving for something, whether it is connecting to culture, spiritual development, fulfilling a dream to dance, stress release or simply “me time.”  Often, I had to encourage mothers or older women to take the big step and start learning at any age. I’d tell them “If I can do it, so can you!” And they did! If they didn’t want to dance, I would get them involved in ways that were meaningful to them. It was important to me to nurture an environment which lifted people, connecting them to a greater energy, to Guruji and a larger arts community. Regardless of whether I was teaching in New Jersey, the Bay Area, Sacramento or France, I used this as a guiding principle in building communities through the dance. 

You have faced some difficult injuries that steered you on a different path for your journey as a student of the dance.  Can you talk about the challenges of going through that and how you overcame those obstacles and stayed deeply committed to your journey, to your Guru, and to the work of Chhandam and Chitresh Das Dance Company?  

I was born with pronating ankles and alignment issues which led to chronic foot, joint and back pain.  Repetitive, high-impact movements were highly discouraged.  Yet, I was hooked and I continued to dance despite all the warning signs. To counter the harm, I cross-trained, and partook in therapies such as yoga, pilates, physical therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture etc. I wore ankle, knee and back braces during class to minimize impact. Regardless, I suffered recurring injuries, one of which put me out of commission for six months in 2002.  My doctors advised that I should stop dancing to avoid the risk of premature disability. This was a very difficult pill to swallow. In response, Guruji decided to start a Low-Impact class for injured and pregnant students with less emphasis on footwork, and more emphasis on gat bhav and layakari. Eventually, I rejoined regular classes (with the full set of braces, of course!) and I danced the same compositions with fewer turns and substituted with slower speed of footwork.

Shortly after my return to dance in 2003, Guruji asked me to become his disciple. I was probably a level II student at the most, so this honorable request was very confusing to me. Why? How can I be his disciple? What does he expect, and can I fulfill the role of a shishya? Thus far, all his disciples were company members who performed throughout the world. While I was a teacher and always stayed connected with him throughout the years, how was I worthy of disciplehood? In response, Guruji said, “Pratibha, you have the virtues and values of a disciple. There is more to being a disciple than the dance itself.” In accordance with the first of the Nine Principles, Sadvyavhar aur Tehzeeb, he said his Guruji cared more about how a student walked into the dance room than how well he danced. It was such a profound honor and  privilege, but I didn’t say yes right away. Not knowing if I could fulfil that role, I asked him what was required. He said it wasn’t different from what I was already doing – remaining committed through adversity, having an open and humble demeanor, promoting and preserving the artform and carrying his work forward.  It is about maintaining a strong relationship, taking care of each other and the extended family, cooking together (he loved my Gujarati daals and I loved his lamb curry!)  and he said that I was doing all of that. He wanted me to be an example for others about how you connect and treat people, making no excuses and moving the art forward. With me, the conflict of a disciple establishing herself as a dancer versus supporting the growth of the school would not be an issue. I was concerned about how he would justify choosing me as his disciple but I also understood his reasons. So, of course I said “Yes!”

The larger question still loomed in my mind: How would I teach kathak classes? In 2007, I had moved to the Sacramento area, and was going to start a school there on my own. How would I manage the advanced classes without dancing all the material?  Guruji told me “I never saw my Guruji (Pandit Ram Narayan Misra) dance. Learn how to teach without dancing.” I thought to myself, “if this great master has faith in me, who am I to doubt myself.” I went full speed ahead with Chhandam-Sacramento and built an incredible dance community, many of whom still remain connected to dance and are part of my extended family.  

You had a traditional gandabandhan (string tying) ceremony in Kolkata with Pandit Das to become his disciple.  What was this experience like?  

I was the last disciple to have my gandabandhan ceremony in Kolkata at the banks of the Ganga river on a private estate overlooking the Dakshineswar Kali Temple.  My husband and I flew in at 1 am thinking my gandabandhan was the following day, but I didn’t count the days properly, so it was actually that same morning! Guruji and Celine (Guruji’s wife) took care of all the arrangements and I had no idea what to expect. Guruji, Celine, Jaiwanti Das-Pamnani, Charlotte Moraga, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, and Cimi Ahluwalia had already arrived in Kolkata. We left at 7 am to do darshan at the Dakshineswar Temple and the Ganges river prior to the gandabhandhan ceremony. We received VIP expedited service to bypass the long lines into the templte. I was doing my best to hold on to Guruji because we were being woven through the crowds to be positioned in front of the temple. As soon as we arrived near the altar, the doors opened and Guruji had a direct line of sight to Ma Kali. It was very auspicious. I was standing almost right next to him but unfortunately, I couldn’t see over the crowds.

Thereafter, we proceeded to a historic estate which was a throwback to British colonial times. The house was charming and eclectic, filled with all sorts of clocks, and sat on beautiful grounds with a small sati temple. I was dressed in my red and white sari and Guruji was resplendent in his traditional Bengali dhoti outfit. My husband and I sat down with Guruji inside the temple. The priest conducted a havan and pooja where he literally tied a “nadachadi” string around all three of our wrists. Then, Guruji blessed the ghungroo, and bestowed them upon me. Afterward we had a big feast. The local newspaper and TV station were present to interview Guruji and the ceremony was featured on the news that night! It was such a surreal experience! You hear about it or you see this happening in movies but I never imagined it would happen to me. I was so emotional leading up to the ceremony, but during that day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. It was unbelievable. I had become the disciple of one of the greatest kathak masters of all time.  

You have worn many different hats over the years for the Chhandam organization – from dancer to teacher to administrator.  Can you talk about some of the different leadership roles you have had? 

I have served as a teacher, branch director, organizational lead, Executive Board member and interim Executive Director for the Chhandam School of Kathak. When I moved back to California in 2001, the organization was beginning to expand quickly but I noticed that it was challenged by a lack of infrastructure to support the growth, and there was a serious messaging gap between Guruji, the teachers, and the students. Chhandam needed additional resources, and yet wasn’t tapping into the community of parents and students who wanted the connection. Guruji was an enigma – this figure who would come in, teach, and give so much energy. However, all his teachers or administrators weren’t necessarily very good at connecting or sharing information.I saw an opportunity to bridge this gap and harness the resources available through the students, and at the same time, help support the students in their dance progression. I partnered with Rachna Nivas and started CAPS (Chhandam Association of Parents and Students). It was like a Chhandam PTA. We created CAPS Yahoo Groups for every single branch to facilitate regular and informative communication to all students and their parents. Importantly, this was a scalable solution. We started to build the Chhandam community with the support of parents to facilitate volunteering and carpooling to events, increase attendance at shows and intensives, schedule practice sessions, and support fundraising. Whether it was going to be monetary or resource based, we figured out how everyone could contribute. CAPS was so important because it helped develop a bridge between Guruji and the school to the community. This was a game changer in our outreach and education efforts.  

Guruji saw in me a business acumen paired with a desire to be in the arts. I wasn’t the best dancer but I sure had a heck of a lot of passion, dedication and corporate experience. Over two separate periods, I served on the Board of Directors for over ten years, and had the privilege to work with some of the most exceptional people during this time. The Board was responsible for financial oversight, and for enabling the transition from being run like a family business to a professional arts organization with over $1 million in operating budget. During the years of rapid expansion, it was especially critical that Chhandam remained financially sound and compliant as a nonprofit. Not only did the Board serve a vital role in fundraising, we also assisted in bringing in pro bono consultants or cultivating new Board members with specialized skills to support regulatory compliance, and ensuring that strategic planning and programs aligned with the mission of the organization. 

As a disciple and teacher, I helped represent the artists’ perspective when context was needed. While serving on the Board and being a disciple put me in a tricky position, the Board made sure we eliminated any conflict of interest since Celine Schein Das as the Executive Director, and Guruji as the Artistic Director, were employees of the organization. Being on the Board meant I had to partake in some difficult decisions, such as denying salary increases in lieu of bonuses if productions met projected income.  While Guruji was not a fan of these decisions, I had to remain steadfast in what the Board believed was best for the financial health of the organization. Directly after Guruji’s passing in 2015, the Board made tremendous strides to assist in the transformation of the organization such as increasing teacher and artist salaries, shifting decision-making powers to artistic directors, etc. Later that year, at the risk of not being liked or understood, we had to make difficult decisions in order to ensure that Chhandam remained dedicated to its mission, and that all Guruji’s disciples could freely carry forth his legacy. As the acting Executive Director, the Board and I made the necessary changes for far-reaching benefits that may not have been apparent in the short term. Today, I am heartened to see that his teachings are joyfully being shared in all corners of the world by his numerous disciples, in their own ways or with their own organizations.

You have also been an omnipresent “voice” of Chhandam and Chitresh Das Dance Company in that you became the familiar emcee and narrator that everyone grew to expect and love. Do you have any good stories from this experience?

Since mine weren’t going to be any of the feet on the stage floor, it was awesome that my voice was a nearly permanent fixture on the platform! It was such an honor to introduce Guruji to a thousand audience members, or to set the tone for a production or scene. I have  a particularly memorable experience from my time as an emcee at the Kathak at the Crossroads festival that Chhandam hosted at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.  Each performer was allotted a specific timeframe for their piece(s).  One of the dancers had significantly exceeded her allotted time which subsequently would delay the timeline for the rest of the day. I had to respectfully and decisively interrupt her dance and cut it short. That was difficult to do! 

Another great memory was my first narrating experience at East as Center – a Kathak, Kathakali and Balinese dance drama collaboration. Besides the herculean effort of trying to effectively narrate over music and the sound of ghungroo without sounding like I was yelling, Guruji also wanted me to scream on behalf of Surpanaka when her nose was cut off.  I was to introduce the scene which began playful and flirty but ended in pain and anger. In the middle of the scene, I had to go from zero to a full throttled scream in sur!  The first few tries, I sounded really bad because I was scared to let it all out and couldn’t get the pitch right. So, Sarah Morelli and I went outside the theater to the corner where I proceeded to scream until I got the pitch and pain right.  I would scream and Sarah would coach “almost there”, “a little bit higher”, or “a little less loud but with more pain” until I got it just right.  Only in San Francisco!  The show ran for eight days, and I would sit next to the musicians platform dressed elegantly in a sari with flowers in my hair, use a soothing tone to introduce the scenes, and then let out a blood curdling scream that would really freak people out. It was hilarious!

You played a very difficult role in the days following Guruji’s passing – one that required enormous strength but for which many of your gurusisters admired and were grateful for. Can you tell us more about that? 

As his senior and desi disciple, I led the efforts in coordinating the final rituals during Guruji’s funeral. According to some of my guru-sisters, I was a rock in the days leading up to his cremation. I coordinated with the family priest to organize the rituals according to Bengali and Hindu traditions. I took care of the work that needed to be done to help his soul transition peacefully, such as preparing his body for cremation by washing his feet in Gangajal (holy water), placing tulsi and gold in his mouth, and including the required artifacts in his casket. I even took imprints of his footprints for all his disciples. I kept everyone on track to make sure the family and guru-sisters were present and the ceremonies conducted in a timely manner. I remained at the head of Guruji’s casket along with his brother and other senior disciples to greet the almost 1000 guests at the funeral, and made sure they had flowers to offer Guruji in their final farewell.  While this was a very difficult time for me, I knew that upholding tradition was very important to Guruji. Meaningful rituals were important to him – he would light incense every day at his altar, he was very selective on when and by whom his feet could be touched, and our ghungroo ceremonies were meticulously planned where he blessed each and every student individually following the same protocol.  I knew it would be important to him that his last rites were conducted according to tradition to ensure his peaceful transition. 

Can you tell us about one of your particularly meaningful or favorite memories of your kathak journey?  

There are so many to choose from!  However, one of my most poignant memories is from the Evolution school show which was in June 2013. I had been teaching in Sacramento for five years, and had been very successful in keeping my students highly engaged with Guruji and Chhandam in the Bay Area, often having the highest percentage of attendance at intensives, retreats and events. How? I told them I was a conduit for them to connect to the source, and  that my greatest power was to connect them to Guruji and to all of the senior Didis. While I gave them 150%, they understood that what they would get in a half an hour from Guruji would be lightyears beyond.

For Evolution, my top students were going to perform Rang Manch alongside fifteen other students that Guruji had been training directly for several years, including Brandon Brown, Sylvie Beaudart, Shruti Iyer, Amrit Mann, and so many more. We made regular trips to the Bay Area for joint rehearsals, and spent endless hours practicing for this big moment on the stage. All six of the Sacramento students were placed on the left side of the stage. They would have to be lock-step in sync with everyone else, matching their graceful movements and chakkars.  They danced beautifully! I was so proud of them, but the biggest reward came later. At the end of the show, their parents came to meet me and told me they were in tears as they watched their daughters perform (even some of the Dads)! The grandeur and power of the piece was breathtaking, and seeing their daughters seamlessly dance with the entire group exceeded their expectations. I remember how touched the parents were, how thrilled and proud my students were to accomplish this feat, how I was so proud of my students for working so hard, and how Guruji was so proud of me for developing my students to that point. One of my favorite pictures from all time is from that day, and those families still remain an important part of my life today. 

Another interesting factoid that I love: I was Guruji’s hair stylist since 2000. I enjoyed having the opportunity to style his hair for performances to achieve the right balance of natural, artist curls and a hairdo that would keep its shape despite thunderous chakkars, footwork and sweat! Initially, I was a nervous wreck thinking one bad snip would be seen by thousands of his fans, but eventually, I was comfortable enough to cut his hair after class in the dance studio! 

Do you have any words of wisdom to the next generations of kathak students aspiring to make an impact?  

If you want to study this artform, do it from the heart and do it for yourself – be happy! But if you take the journey seriously, your work must be about the art and about cultivating others. That is how legacy is created. 





Pratibha Patel

Pratibha began her study with Pandit Chitresh Das in 1988 and was Guruji’s first student of Indian origin at San Francisco State. At his behest, started teaching Kathak in New Jersey. After returning to the Bay Area, Pratibha created CAPS, the Chhandam Association of Parents and Students, the analogous to a PTA for Chhandam, and in 2003, she became Das’ Gandabandhan disciple. She founded the Chhandam Sacramento center and grew a community from the ground up, of which many students were inspired to continue more advanced studies by traveling to the Bay Area. Pratibha also played an important role in CDDC productions and festivals as narrator and Master of Ceremonies for a number of years.

Interim Executive Director for 2 years, working with Seibi Lee and Rachna Nivas to transition the organization after Pandit Das’ passing. As a sales, marketing and product management professional in the health insurance industry, Pratibha leads high-performing teams and is a key contributor delivering on Blue Shield of California’s growth strategy.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo 1 – Autour de l’Inde 2018, Grenoble France; Photo 2 – San Francisco State University 1989, Sanjay Patel, Mona Mehta, Neha Raichur, Pratibha Patel; Photo 3 – performance of Natawari Nrithya for a Chhandam school show; Photo 4 – Jaiwanti Das Pamnani 1999 and Pratibha Patel, San Rafael; Photo 5 – Pratibha Patel and Pandit Chitresh Das 2013; Photo 6 – Gandabandhan ceremony in Kolkata, January 2003; Photo 7 – Evolution 2013, Sahya Patel, Aishwarya Pattnaik, Niharika Kaul, Priyanka Gupta, Nikita Bhat, and Pratibha Patel; Photo 8 – Pratibha Patel, Pandit Chitresh Das and Sahya Patel at Dancing Deer Ranch, Templeton for Chhandam Retreat 2012;  Photo 9: Pratibha Patel; Photo 10 – Evolution 2013, Sahya Patel, Aishwarya Pattnaik, Niharika Kaul, Priyanka Gupta, Nikita Bhat, and Pratibha Patel; Photo 11 – Millbrae 2002; Photo 12 – Sacramento World Dance and Music Festival, Spotlight on India 2011, photo credit Shashank Deshpande.

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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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I live in another city

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.