Kathak yoga in California

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  • Published 23.03.08

It’s a lazy late-winter morning, but the second floor of Indira cinema in Bhowanipore is a whirl of frenetic feet. “Taka, dimi, taka dimi…. Hold it, I want more energy and power in the steps and movement…. We are not merely playing Lord Krishna here, we are becoming the Lord himself,” Pandit Chitresh Das bellows in his warm and engaging voice, as he corrects the pirouette of little Deblina.

For the 63-year-old kathak maestro, among the pioneers alongside the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to bring a slice of India’s soft power to the US, it’s been a full circle — from Calcutta to California to Kalighat.

Das, who first went to America on a Whitney fellowship in 1970 to teach kathak, now divides his time between India and the US. “I consider myself a Bengali Rajput Californian, because I’m a son of Bengal, my guruji was from Rajasthan and I spend a lot of time in California,” he says during his latest visit, which also gave him the opportunity to renew his tala ties with the kids of Kalighat NGO New Light.

Calcutta is where Das took his first kathak steps at age nine under the watchful eyes of Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, and trained in both the graceful style of the Lucknow school and the dynamic and powerful rhythms of the Jaipur gharana.

Misra, who also used to teach the tawaifs of Bowbazar, often took his young disciple along with him. “I remember those narrow lanes and can relate to the plight of the Kalighat sex-workers’ children,” Das says. Through a tie-up with New Light, which works to better the lot of these kids, he has sought to integrate them into the mainstream.

“Kathak can be a panacea and the spark to ignite a new life, feels Guruji and he is also keen to connect more effectively with his innovative technique he calls kathak yoga. It is based on the fundamental yogic concept of integrating the mind, soul and body,” explains Seema, a senior student, who now coordinates Das’s India lessons.

In kathak yoga, the dancer recites a chosen tala (rhythmic structure), sings the melody and the theka (language of the drum) of the tala, while practising precise complicated footwork.

“It has turned out to be a huge hit with Silicon Valley biggies for reducing stress. We are working on the logistics of bringing it to the IT companies in Sector V, and other corporate houses in the city,” adds Seema.

Kathak is known for its fast, powerful footwork and spectacular spins, called chakkaras, according to Charlotte, the principal dancer of Chitresh Das Dance Company. Calcutta can renew its date with the breathtaking pace and power of Das’s sumptuous East-West collaborative experiment with American tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith later this year.

“Yes, we will be back with our India Jazz Suites, perhaps in a bigger and more spectacular avatar, because Calcutta deserves the very best,” promises Das.

Plans are afoot to also bring to the city a world kathak festival, on the lines of the international kathak conference organised in September 2006 in San Francisco.

Kathak at the Crossroads, the three-day, $500,000 conclave presented at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was the largest Indian classical performing arts event in California’s history.

It brought together some of the greatest artistes, gurus, musicians, scholars and critics to discuss the past, present and future of kathak dance.