A maestro remembered

Kathak exponent Chitresh Das has left behind a richness of creativity that can only be celebrated, never regretted, says Katherine Kunhiraman.

Published - January 14, 2015 05:10 pm IST

Kathak maestro Chitresh Das Photo: K.Ananthan

Kathak maestro Chitresh Das Photo: K.Ananthan

On January 4, Chitresh Das suddenly died in Marin County, Northern California, of a tear in the aorta, surrounded by family and loved ones. On January 9, more than 400 students, colleagues and friends gathered under a clear winter sky for a memorial that included recollections from his brother and several important members of his company. Many of the artists from different disciplines, who had worked with him on creative projects, offered their memories and condolences. Sanskrit shlokas filled the air and despite the sad circumstances, an atmosphere of celebration for a life well-spent in the arts was sustained throughout the ceremony.

Chitresh Das had made Kathak a household word throughout his more than 40 years in the United States, with a large performing group, a school with branches throughout California and across the globe. His innovative projects with masters of other dance styles such as Jazz, Tap and Flamenco helped carry Kathak beyond the Indian community, making it an established thread in the fabric of the American culture.

The son of Kolkata artists, Prahlad Das and his wife Nilima Das, Chitresh Das had his early training from them and Ram Narayan Misra.

Impeccably trained disciples with total grasp of the mathematical precision in Kathak technique and the accompanying music have been the hallmark of his tradition, spread through the Chitresh Das Dance Company, and Chhandam — his school of Kathak — will carry on his legacy. He began with a small company of dedicated American students, and over the years the growing Indian community flocked to him as well, leading to the creation of a special youth company, ready to move forward to continue his dream.

He had been on the faculty of the San Francisco State University, the Stanford University, and other institutions, the recipient of many awards including the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival “Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award. A documentary, “Upaj: Improvise”, has been recently featured across the U.S. on National Public TV.

His was a life of total dedication to his art, supported by a talented artist and arts administrator wife Celine. He is survived as well by two young daughters, Sivaranjani and Saadhvi, and a musician brother in Toronto, Canada.

Looking back

It was 1965 and I had just turned 21. I had been sent back to the States after two years in India to find myself and make my future, but the Indo-Pakistan War reminded me that part of the world could close off from the rest, and its cultural richness lost to us. The day the war ended I booked my ticket back, and soon found myself a student at the Rabindra Bharati University, where I could spend all my days studying the dances I had come to love. Although Kathak was not where I ended up, it was where I began, and I had already studied it privately for two years.

Between classes I often noticed an energetic boy my age who looked one in the eye with total confidence. I nicknamed him “the American Bengali”, and soon realised that his energy extended beyond dance to school life and broader cultural activities.

My husband Kunhiraman later recalled having seen him dancing with aplomb as a young child when he visited them with Rukmini Devi. Considered a prodigy, he was already a seasoned professional at 20 and organising variety programmes including regional folk dances. His famous “train”, was already on the menu and made perfect sense to a world in which steam trains were still the norm, his ankle bells perfectly imitating the chug-chug and whoosh we all knew well.

We see performances all the time where a dancer begins with great power that wanes through the course of the recital, and then we more rarely see a performer carry through with explosive energy that lasts and lasts. We can imagine them going home and doing it all over again.

Such a person was Chitresh. In every aspect of his life he brought sustained power to every undertaking.

I was not at all surprised when I returned to the U.S. for a visit that he was already making a name for himself here. The “American Bengali” had found his other home.

During school days, he was the mainstay of the student organisation at Rabindra Bharati. Our school was in the front yard of the grand old house of the Tagore family, and Saraswati Puja was important for students of the arts. Chitresh is not in the photo of me with my classmates, because he also wore the hat of official photographer! We set up our beautiful statue of the Goddess and prepared the prasadam, groups of volunteers chopping and scraping, cooking in the college grounds. Once the puja was over, Chitresh found there was some money remaining from what we had collected, and called all the volunteers back a few weeks later for a second feast we enjoyed preparing collectively. He understood that your work is also your play when you love it.

He masterminded an excursion into the Bengal countryside for a picnic. No sandwiches and potato chips! We met at dawn at the Sealdah Station, still surrounded by the hovels of refugees from East Bengal who had never been able to assimilate, the smoke from their fires mingling with the dawn mist. There were our schoolmates with Chitresh at the helm, huge cooking pots and gunnysacks of provisions. As we left the city behind, the beautiful green countryside enveloped us, and finally reaching a remote spot we set up camp for the day. An entire feast, including the delicious jam-like chutney was prepared on the spot.

Those were the days that brought me a closeness with India that I knew I would never relinquish.

The relationships and experiences survive over 50 years. We both fell in love with these arts and our Kathakali guru, Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty, with whom we both had a life-long relationship. Chitresh is my “guru brother”.

Although we never cooked and ate all the feasts we later planned, we shared a connection. Both of us were so immersed in the paths we had chosen and for both of us art came first above all else.

In the past seven months, since the loss of my own husband Kunhiraman, I have had to think philosophically about death. It is not the other side of the coin from life, but both are on one side; the other side is our legacy. A life of dedication to the arts, and the sharing of the arts can only be celebrated, never regretted. Chitresh was part of the momentum that keeps creativity alive.

(The author is a Bharatanatyam and Kathakali exponent based in Berkeley, California. She is the founder, along with her husband, the late Kathakali maestro K.P. Kunhiraman, of Kalanjali: Dances of India, one of the oldest institutions to teach Indian classical dance in the U.S.)

“There are no barriers in dance”

“Race and colour do not matter if you are passionate about your art.”

“Life and death are the only reality. You come alone, you go alone — only thing to do in between is practice and do whatever you do with love.”

Chitresh Das on dance...

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