Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith share their reverberating passion for Kathak and Tap Dance, both on and off stage,
Lord Krishna, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, Kalighat, chai, Brahmins, slavery, Shiva, Shakti…conversation flew back and forth between Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith before a performance titled “Fastest Feet in Rhythm”. It was just the beginning of a scintillating conversation that would continue on stage later that evening.
The concert opened with Jason in a black jacket and white tie tapping his way round the stage, his shiny black shoes with their metal heel and cap creating music of their own. His tapping feet were accompanied by Theodore Hill on the piano, Sascha Jacobsen on bass and Andrew Atkinson on the drums. As the tempo rose, Jason discarded his jacket, rolled up his cuffs, turned his face up to the ceiling and, dripping sweat, launched into a whirlwind of moves, his feet clicking, tapping, sliding, knocking and thudding on the wooden stage, his arms sometimes by his side, sometimes raised to counter balance his feet. For many in the audience, this was their first introduction to tap dancing, and they welcomed it with loud cheers, whistling and applause.
When west met east
Jason then introduced the next part of the evening when Pandit Chitresh Das would perform kathak. He spoke of their long association. It was at the American Dance Festival in 2004 that the two first met. “I was dancing, and he was messing with me,” recalled Jason. He was practising his steps, and whenever he stopped, he heard an echo of his foot taps. That was Chitresh, effortlessly duplicating Jason, step by step! “I knew nothing about Indian music or dance, and I watched, amazed, as Chitresh, barefoot in his ghungroo, danced. Life was never the same again.”
Chitresh and Jason have since performed together in a collaboration called India Jazz Suites and have won critical acclaim, including the Isadora Duncan Dance Award. Both believe dance can heal and build bridges. They teach dance to underprivileged children, in ghettoes and slums. Chitresh has also taught dance to children of sex workers in Kolkata.
That dance could be uplifting was proved yet again as Chitresh came on stage in a black silk angarkha and chudidhar with ghungroo wrapped around his calves with flying scarlet tassels and a tilak to match. The hall filled with familiar music as Biplab Bhattacharyya on the tabla and Jayanta Banerjee on the sitar played a prelude while Debashish Sarkar sang beautifully. Chitresh began with Upaj, where he displayed stunning foot work in time to the 16-beat teen taal. It was mathematics at its most fascinating as Chitresh reworked and realigned the beats into rhythms, while sticking within the framework of 16. It was this very mathematics of beats and rhythm that drew Jason and him together, said Chitresh. He then performed a piece he learnt as a nine-year-old. His guru must have capitalised on the love all little boys have for trains and taught him the dance. As his feet moved, it sounded remarkably like a train chugging out of the station, gathering speed, going over a bridge, pulling into a station…. He followed that up with a Valentine’s Day special, as he danced the love story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, complete with the king on a charger, the damsel in distress, the romance, the parting of lovers…
When both the dance maestros came on stage together, it was mind-blowing. Kathak took on Tap. Everything Jason did, Chitresh did. Every time Chitresh executed a complicated taal, Jason followed. While Chitresh teased the western musicians daring the bass, piano and drums to keep up with him, Jason did the same as he initiated a sawal jawab with the Indian tabla, sitar and vocals. As Chitresh sang out the bols, Jason rapped. Then, they both launched into a flurry of dance steps to ta kit e taka dhimi ta kit e taka dhimi and soon it became impossible to say where the sound of feet ended and the music began. They were definitely the fastest feet in rhythm.
(The event was organised by the U.S Consulate General, Chennai, and Kirtilal Kalidas along with GRD College of Science)
Jason Samuels Smith is an Emmy Award-winning Tap Dancer, and he fiercely loves tap dancing. Incidentally, his great, great, great grandmother was a slave while his great, great, great grandfather was a Scotsman. Jason explains its history. Tap dancing is an extension of West African dance, he says.
When they were brought to America as slaves, the Africans were stripped off everything that tied them to their motherland — their music, dance, language, history, culture, everything. The slave owners knew that drumming was a means of communication for the Africans, and so they outlawed that as well. But the slaves evolved a language of their own through dance steps, that also served as music.
That tapping and shuffling of feet gradually absorbed other dance moves into what became the American tap dance, made popular by the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr and so on in Hollywood Musicals and Broadway. There are many lineages in tap dancing, loosely similar to the gharanas in Indian music. One of Jason’s idols is the incomparable Gregory Hines. Jason won the Emmy and the American Choreography Award for outstanding choreography for the opening number in a tribute to his hero. He also received the 2007 Gregory Hines award.