Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith performing a short recital from “India Jazz Suites.” (CDDC photos)

By Shalini Narang, Special to India-West

The documentary film, “Upaj: Improvise,” premiered March 2 at the annual Chitresh Das Dance Company annual gala at the Computer History Museum here. 

The film focuses on the early days of the collaboration and presentation of the first four shows between Kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith to create “India Jazz Suites,” the award winning cross-cultural show.

The film also offers an insight into Das’ lineage, especially his deep reverence for his guru Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, and his experiences of viewing the new youthful India that Bollywood has taken over, and Smith’s tribute to the late Gregory Hines.

Das is a 68-year old artist who exemplifies the elegance and mathematical precision of Kathak. Smith is a 32-year old African American tap dancer who hails from the freestyle, streetwise American tradition of contemporary tap.

“You have to evolve with the audience of the time. The important criterion is how to evolve without giving up your integrity,” says Pandit Das.

Together the dancers have toured over 40 cities worldwide.

Shot backstage and on the streets of Calcutta and Mumbai in India and New York and Los Angles in the United States, “Upaj: Improvise” captures the exhilaration and exhaustion of the “India Jazz Suites” tour, and the journey of Das and Smith that transcends traditions, nationalities and cultures.

“My guruji always said dance in such a way that everything becomes one,” said Das, who also introduces Smith to the ancient revered guru shishya parampara (teacher disciple relationship) in India’s performing arts.

Before the movie, 16 dancers of the Chhandham Youth Dance Company presented a piece titled “Manjira,” showcasing Kathak Yoga, a style in which the dancers not only dance but also play a musical instrument, in this case small cymbals or manjiras.

After the documentary, the two artists performed a short recital highlighting their deft percussive footwork. In a solo performance, Das demonstrated a short piece of Kathak Yoga by dancing and playing the tabla.

“We are not trying to do each other’s style but we are not shying away from influence,” said Smith. “I wish I had met him when I was younger, but I am happy that I met him.”

In the movie, Celine Schein, Das’ wife and executive director of CDDC and Chhandham School of Kathak, lamented that “the tradition of classical Indian arts is rapidly declining in India.”

The Center for Asian American Media were presented CDDC’s Art Seva award. Special guests at the program included Indian Consul General N. Parthasarathi, Fremont Vice Mayor Anu Natarajan and San Jose city councilmember Ash Kalra.

“Upaj: Improvise” is slated to air nationally on PBS this year.

Watch the trailer below: 

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