It’s wrenchingly painful for me to come to terms with the fact that I will never again see those breathtaking pirouettes anymore.
Typically, Chitresh Das, Kathak exponent extraordinaire, would pepper his exquisite Kathak performances with one of those unforgettable series of pirouettes, each faster than the next to keep up with the rapidly rising tempo of the tabla, until the audience, mesmerized, could feel the palpable rise of tension as his increasingly faster pirouettes appeared to defy the laws of physics.
His pirouettes became fast-moving blurs, until none of us in the audience could bear it anymore—something had to give, right?
The tension got unbearable until, all of a sudden, Das would suddenly stop to a standstill as his body stood completely motionless in a finely sculpted pose, a grin lighting up his face as his piercing gaze set upon the audience, eyes lit with a gleam of triumph.
The audience would go ballistic. Joyous, sustained applause, liberally laced with hoots and cheers would greet Das. Typically, it would be a full house, with a rich mix of expatriate Indian Americans, South Asians as well as a huge presence of many mainstream Americans.
Chitresh-da, (Bangla for brother Chitresh) as he affectionately allowed this writer to call him, made every one of us expatriate South Asians stand proud during these special moments.
What we had just witnessed, we realized each time, was poetry in motion.
Through talent, unflinching hard work, a deep passion for his craft, and an unstinting commitment to Kathak, Chitresh-da managed to transcend ethnic cultural boundaries and become a truly American cultural treasure. It became official in 2009 when Chitresh-da was named a National Endowment of Arts Heritage Fellow.
It’s easy to underestimate the enormity of Chitresh-da’s undertaking.
To reach his level of excellence even in India, the home in Kathak, would have been remarkable enough. How on earth did Chitresh-da manage to do this in California, halfway around the world?
When Chitresh-da came to California after a stint in Maryland, it was the age of the flower generation and the hippies. Arts of the east had a special cache, and a host of Indian artists rode that wave—sitarist Ravi Shankar, sarode exponent Ali Akbar Khan, percussionists Allarakha, the still-prodigy Zakir Hussain and Swapan Chaudhuri, all eventually made California their home.
Chitresh-da had recalled those days to me once with a rueful, wry smile. Those psychedelic days of free love, with sensibilities frequently augmented with mind-bending chemicals, came as a cultural shock to him, he had told me.
Chitresh-da was a pure, committed artist, and he had an almost ascetic lifestyle. He was totally committed to the practice and promotion of his beloved Kathak, and appeared to have scant interest in any other material pleasures.
In the practice of Kathak, he brooked no compromise. Now Kathak is an exacting dance form, and mastering it well requires enormous physical fitness as well as years of practice to perform its finely nuanced and deeply rhythmic dance moves.
This is not necessarily a good fit for Indian American dance enthusiasts who tend to be weekend warriors. An ability to dance, or perform a classical instrument, is considered to a desirable skill, but only after time spent for academics.
Yet the Indian classical arts demand intense dedication and a considerable time commitment, and Kathak is no exception.
Chitresh-da could have easily gone with the flow and designed programs that were less exacting, but that simply was not acceptable to him.
He was very old-school, and several of his students have told me that he was a relentless, tough task master. And his students loved him all the more for it.
The results of his commitment are there today for all to see. Several of his students are now wonderful Kathak exponents in their own right. Chitresh-da had once quipped that this is the California gharana of Kathak.
For many of us, first generation immigrants who have made America our home, the cultural passage is a painful one. We suffer often what Edward Said has called “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”
Chitresh-da’s art spoke directly to many of us. After decades of struggle, he ultimately created a cultural oasis which especially resonated with us.
And yet, Chitresh-da had also mastered the rare skill of being deeply rooted in his art without being parochial. Inquisitive, forever artistically curious, he was constantly taking Kathak beyond its geographical and cultural boundaries. Many decades ago, in a riveting performance based on the California Gold Rush, Chitresh-da performed in denims and a rakish cowboy hat, with ghungroos tied around his ankles.
Many years later, I saw his ecumenical artistic ethos exemplified at his jugalbandi with tap-dancer Jason Samuel Smith. The performance was remarkable in that it showcased two discrete dancing art forms, and yet the language of rhythm appeared to inexorably bind them together. In the end, Kathak and tap dance both had their pristine place in the combined offering, yet the body language, the palpable warmth and magical chemistry between the two great artists borne out of genuine love made the jugalbandi far, far more than the sum of its parts, a true cultural collaboration.
Chitresh-da had a hugely ambitious cultural vision. His performances of excerpts of the Indian epic Mahabharata had all the pageantry and pomp of a Broadway musical. For all its rhythmic fireworks, Kathak comes from “katha” – Sanskrit for story. And that’s what Chitresh-da did in his elaborate, captivating performances from the Mahabharata. He had told me that his goal was to make this a sort of annual Indian American version of the “Nutcracker” performed every Christmas.
Chitresh-da, in my imagination I can see the heavens welcoming you into its arms, in eager anticipation of reverberating with the sound of your ghungroos and rapid-fire recitation of tabla routines. For those of us you have left behind, we thank you for your decades-long committed work to establish Kathak in California. We thank you for not only delighting us with your wondrous performances, your effervescent vitality and your surpassing humanity and compassion, but also setting the groundwork of Kathak’s California gharana, a cultural tradition that we all hope will endure.
Farewell, Chitresh-da. We will all miss you terribly.
(Ashfaque Swapan was previously a reporter for India-West and had covered many of Pandit Chitresh Das’s concerts. — Editor)