The Making of the California Gharana: Julia Maxwell

The Making Of the California Gharana

Julia Maxwell

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Julia Maxwell

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


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

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The Making of the California Gharana: Joanna de Souza

The Making Of the California Gharana

Joanna De Souza

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Do you have any advice for aspiring young kathak artists?

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


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

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



About Joanna de Souza

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

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

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

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

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The Making of the California Gharana: Gretchen Hayden

The Making Of the California Gharana

Gretchen Hayden

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

I had never seen kathak before walking into the class being taught by the young Chitresh Das at the Ali Akbar College of Music—at that time housed in the ex-San Rafael Military Academy in San Rafael. I had come to simply observe a class because a dear friend (who was also exploring various dance offerings in the Bay Area) suggested we try out kathak. She had heard about the class through a musician student at the AACM who had given her a ride while hitchhiking. 

To step into the AACM building was to cross the threshold into another world. Upon entering, one was greeted with he sounds of music, tal, tabla, and kathak dance classes wafting from the various classrooms.  

In those days Guruji was referred to by his name, Chitresh. He would often have a student accompanist nearby, as he conducted the class standing, dancing in front. Before I had enrolled, I had first observed a class comprised of students who had been studying for 3-6 months. These students were of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Nearly none were of South Asian heritage at that time. I sat on the floor and watched him conduct the class and the experience was completely mesmerizing. Even at this “beginning” class level, one could feel something very powerful going on. The students I observed were focused, sweating, and giving it their all.

I registered for one semester—three months…and then for the next semester…and the rest is history. Something struck a deep chord in me early on. It was exhilarating. Difficult. Grounding. Vast. And I felt another universe open before me. I quickly realized this could be a lifelong pursuit, although that was not my intention at that time. I had no desire to perform. I was taking it moment by moment, being present with being immersed in kathak and training with Chitreshji.   

I can’t recall exactly what the first class was like, although do know it made me happy, uplifted and exhausted. I do recall at least a few internal “ah ha” moments that must have made me feel at home early on.  

  • My first Namaskar and Chitresh saying “The Divine within me greets The Divine within you.”  This sentiment went straight to my heart and melted any barriers I may have felt to trying to do a “foreign” dance form. He would also use the words “…Great Soul within me greets that within you….”
  • He also spoke of the Moghul court influence as we followed our pranam with Ahmad/Salaam. “Peace be upon you.” learning the kathak style of showing this adab greeting. Beautiful.

And then the first experience of tatkar, feet to floor, led by the completely animated and captivating Chitresh Das—who can forget that!


As the senior most disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das, having studied with him since 1971, what was it like to watch him transform as an artist and teacher?

I was 21 when I entered class with Chitresh Das, who was such a young man of 27. We were all so fully engaged in the process and dance experience together throughout the years. Consumed with it, you might say! Each growing, evolving, and transforming in our own ways. It wasn’t until much later, and often through the process teaching my own classes, that I reflected on the changes that occurred over the decades. I expressed some of my thoughts in the 70th birthday letter I wrote to him, just months before his death.

When I mentioned this question to my husband *George, he summarized an essential quality of Guruji’s artistry and teaching very beautifully and succinctly. “Dada was steadfast throughout (the decades), while also adapting to situations and people before him. He was extremely steadfast in his concentration of conveying the practice of the dance, as well as the literature.” That steadfastness remained true all along, while his teaching approach and artistry expanded over time.

*I assume that many of you reading this blog do not know anything about George? George Ruckert was one of the early western disciples of Ali Akbar Khan. He helped establish the AACM in the late 1960’s. He worked extensively with Guruji and they remained close, artistically and personally, throughout the decades.


You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Which years were you active with the CDDC? Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences to share from your time in the company?

To understand the history of Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company we have to include the ‘70’s time period (and even late ‘60’s) before the CDDC was officially incorporated in 1980—what we might call the AACM years. Guruji was teaching under the umbrella of the college, which provided a nurturing environment for him to establish classes, develop his student base, be regularly presented in solo concerts, and create his early dance-drama productions of Sita Haran and Giri Govardhana. Khansahib composed and students provided wonderful music!  Guruji’s wife Julia (also his student) handled the business matters and the planning of our ensemble performances. Throughout this time, they had the support of the AACM staff (comprised mostly of Khansahib’s advanced students). Although the location of the college often had to relocate, the AACM managed to maintain an office, classrooms and a thriving music store.  And during those years, they saw to it that there was a proper space for the kathak classes—at one point going so far as to build the dance floor themselves, by hand, in a small shopping plaza. We dancers had the luxury of walking into a space fully prepared for us by them. 

By amusing coincidence, one of the early AACM locations was the Arequipa Girl Scout Camp in the hills of Fairfax. The very camp I had once gone to as a young girl!  In 1973 it was home to the AACM during the week. This meant that George and a couple of other male students had to move bed bunks, furniture, etc., out of the main spaces to allow for classes. They cleaned and prepared the rooms for Khansahib, Guruji, and others to teach.  At the end of the week they had to return the building back to its girl scout camp form.  Hours of labor. Every week. All summer long! This, along with their other jobs and music classes and practice.

The AACM institution was run by various serious students of Khansahib, including Rod Blouin, Jim Kohn, Burton Swan, George Ruckert, James Pomeranz.  They arranged the visas, established housing for the teachers and for visiting artists, arranged concerts, did all the promotion (creating some materials by hand), handled the administrative tasks and more. This was the springboard for the birth of the CDDC. 

To answer the question about which years I was active with CDDC…as a student, CDDC dancer, class assistant and I was active from the beginning until we moved to the Boston area in 1992. Twenty years. And even after that—I was in close contact with Michele Zonka through the process of developing the initial 6-year curriculum and guidebook. Much of this done via faxes between the two of us—a few of which I have kept.


Our lineage of kathak emphasizes a very deep study of kathak, including physical readiness, rhythmic facility, beauty, delicacy, understanding of hindustani music theory, Indian philosophy and culture, and storytelling. Which elements of kathak came more easily to you, and which were the most challenging?

First – just to add that I do see others who emphasize this idea of deep study also. Taking a step back in time—when I was sixteen, a friend gave me a book by J. Krishnamurti called At the Feet of the Master and something resonated deeply, although I didn’t analyze this at the time.  Books and teachings by spiritual masters were circulating amongst some of my friends and me—including Meher Baba’s Discourses and Parmahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.   A resurgence of interest in Eastern culture, spirituality, and philosophy was circulating in the collective psyche of many during that time period. It was also the time of the Civil Rights movement. Something far deeper than the so-called “hippie movement” was creating a cultural shift, and a broad spectrum of individuals were immersing themselves in deep studies and training of meditation, yoga, Indian music/dance. Many of these “westerners” spent time in India studying under the great masters  of that era. We in California in the 1970’s had the good fortune to have of some of the great ones teaching us in our own backyard. And by the time we walked into their classroom, we were eager and open to what these teachers had to offer!

Without needing to be told, I quickly realized that kathak related studies were vast and could be a lifelong path. I can’t say that anything came easily, but I felt quite at home being on the kathak dance floor and all that that entailed. One had no choice but to be humble in the presences of the great artistry and teachers before us. It was effortless to be fully present and focused in each class. I enjoyed the discipline and intensity of the class experience. I believe it also helped counter-balance my dreamy and introverted nature.

Elements that I was less at ease with?  Performance, for sure—especially solo. I’ve had to overcome a strong stage-fright and aversion to public-speaking, I say thank you to Guruji and kathak for pushing me over that hurdle! I was extremely shy about singing, and certainly did not take as much advantage of my time being in AACM classes with Khansahib as I might have (sigh). And abhinaya continues to be challenging, while being one of my favorite aspects of his art. 

Being White/Western has presented some challenges of its own of course. Among them—we dealt with presenters who didn’t want to present White women doing classical Indian dance and later on with parents who did not want their children to study with a non-South Asian (which I actually could empathize with at the time).  I also recall struggling with rendering such characters as Ram and Lakshman. At one point I think we all were faltering and questioning, along the lines of  “…but how can we (White women) portray these revered Indian characters …?”  The sharp reply was something along the lines of “That’s just your ego speaking… study/learn… trust… research…!”  Implied in those words was simply the directive, as well as a vote of confidence—to not over-think; to dive in fully, do the work, do one’s best.




In what ways were you involved with the organizational aspects of Chhandam? Can you tell us more about your involvement?

First and foremost, I was a student.  This sometimes involved also preparing the dance space for each class. We took turns clearing the room (if needed) sweeping the floor, setting up the rug where Guruji would sit—with table, water glass, often Fresh flowers and incense. Then I moved into becoming a performer and CDDC dancer. We did some of the stitching of our own costumes back then. My facility with memorizing the materials was sharp in those days and, with the departure of dancers more advanced than myself, I was sometimes called upon to lead classes/rehearsals while Guruji and Julia were in India. 

I assisted Michel Zonka during the time when she was running the school. Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Co. owe a great deal to her! A strong, hard-working woman with much wisdom to offer.  

For a period of time I drove Guruji to his class at SF State and assisted with compiling class materials and exams for those classes. After moving to Massachusetts, I continued to assist Michele with creating Chhandam School 6 Level Course Completion Program that she and Guruji put together in the ‘90s. I also assisted with compiling materials for what was to become the Chhandam Kathak Handbook (later called Guidebook).


You are the Artistic Director at Chhandika, founded in 2002. Describe the role that your organization plays in the local community.

First and foremost, Chhandika presently is a kathak dance academy dedicated to the legacy of Chitresh Das and focused on training the next generation of kathak dancers, while also offering classes to those who choose to do kathak simply for personal fulfillment and nourishment. We strive to provide a welcoming environment for each student who enters our classroom, acknowledging the fine human being within each individual. Our students and families have become a mutually supportive community, within the larger local communities of this area.


How has your experience been to study an Indian classical artform as someone who grew up in the US?

Hmmm. Too big an experience to fully address in this blog!

Naturally there were some cultural obstacles, while there were also cultural exchanges going on!  If I hadn’t gotten together with George and instead had a partner who was in a very different realm, who didn’t understand what it was to learn these classical arts (as a westerner) it would have been more difficult. George shared in the experience of training with these master-gurus. During really difficult times, we had each other’s understanding to help get us through. We both recognized the teachings being given to us to be the treasure they are—pure gold, so to speak! How to reach the mountain top? It’s going to take going through the brambles and going through a lot of fire. And sometimes you don’t want to. It helps to have somebody who supports you through the obstacle course.


The vision of Pandit Chitresh Das was always to strengthen the relationship between music and dance – what has been your experience collaborating with musicians?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have my husband/partner George to collaborate with all through the years of our relationship. Extremely with a capital E! We have a wide circle of wonderful musician friends, from a wide variety of musical traditions. Added to this are the numerous stellar Indian music artists that we’ve had the great fortune to work with and who have become part of our musical family.  I feel deep gratitude for the musical support I have been given along the way, that’s for sure. I look back at my early years as a budding dancer performer and am humbled by being able to dance to music composed by Ali Alkbar Khan and performed by the New Maihar Band,  and that I have had the experience of being on stage with the likes of tabla masters Swapan Chaudhuri, Zakir Hussein, Gyan Prakash Ghosh, among others.


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

Another very big question/topic worthy of another conversation. It has of course been complex. When we were studying, it was under male gurus. An overwhelming percentage of Guruji’s students (and mine) have been female.  Guruji often talked about powerful women, and at the same time there was a kind of contradiction because he could be very harsh with his female students. Let’s keep in mind that his Guruji was very harsh with him, also. From my experience, I do believe there are instances when that direct sting applied skillfully by a teacher is exactly the wake-up call that is needed. Through the intense training, practice and performing we tapped into our individual feminine-energy strengths. along with power and resilience, and hopefully Wisdom over time. 

NOW is a different time. I see a flowering of women coming forward. Who are going to be the gurus? What is a guru? Who will be true solo artists?  Those are other questions for us to consider. We who teach often discuss best practices, and how to be in concert with the times. It’s so essential to adapt, to be nimble and to keep our teaching approaches fresh and as in-tune as possible!  

On a side note—for some time I’ve wanted to widen the gender, racial and cultural make-up of students in our kathak classes. Still working on this!


Do you have any advice for aspiring young kathak artists?

As the saying goes, “give it your all!”  Stay as true and honest as you can. Know that the path is a winding one—it also goes up and down. Love of the dance will carry you along. Stay curious. A sense of humility is good to keep in touch with, especially in light of the truly great artists in the kathak world. 

Trust inner instincts. I don’t know what was at play, to have brought my guru and myself into this connection together in this lifetime and kathak. I do believe in these inner voices that often might not make sense immediately, but if we pay attention to our deeper selves, we receive our own inner-guru guidance along the way. 

Don’t fall into the pitfall of “mutual admiration society!” (Guruji’s words) often resulting in mediocrity. Be curious. Follow Guruji’s advice, “Be happy.” Delve into the Nine Principles. Of course, we come to the mantra we all know so wellPractice Practice Practice!


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

Most inspiring about his work? Simply watching him dance! He lived and breathed the dance every moment of every day. His honesty, his approach, his depth, his courageousness, his humor, his amazing artistry. His generosity as a performer, teacher, guru was immense!

For the future of kathak? That the art and artistry be put first, before self-promotion. Today there is a good amount of “when can I perform?” before the process of serious study is undertaken. I expect that there may be just a few who become artists in the true sense of the word. As kathak remains rooted in tradition while also expanding/changing over time—I hope future kathak dancers keep sight of the vast potential of the kathak solo experience itself. Forget the shimmer-shine-gloss and dig deep into the soul of the dance/music and your individual experience with this. Ultimately, I wish for all dance arts to be appreciated and acknowledged for the entirety of what they are and what they have to offer.



About Gretchen Hayden

Gretchen Hayden is the daughter of actor/author/seafarer Sterling Hayden and Betty deNoon Hayden, step-daughter of Catherine Devine Hayden. She credits these parents for filling her developing years with art, beauty, nature, creativity and original thinking.  She is an internationally recognized performer and teacher of kathak dance, and is senior-most disciple of the renowned master and guru, Pandit Chitresh Das. Ms. Hayden has dedicated the last twenty-eight years to fostering kathak in New England. She and her husband, sarodist George Ruckert, are bearers of tradition, carrying on the legacy of kathak and Hindustani music established in the U.S. and India by Pdt. Das and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Together and with a few others, they initiated the founding of MITHAS (MIT’s Heritage for the Arts of South Asia). Their collaborative original works weave tradition into innovative dance solos and dramas, including The Legend of St. Lucy, The Story of Dymphna, and Kore. Established in 2002, her school Chhandika (Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance) is a vigorous non-profit organization, offering classes and outreach programs in the greater Boston area. Chhandika’s endeavors also include the training of next generation kathak soloists, teachers and the Chhandika Youth Ensemble. Ms. Hayden has been teaching accredited kathak dance courses at Tufts University and Wellesley College for the past twenty years, and is a frequent guest lecturer in MIT’s World Music classes.

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