San Leandro, Calif. — Kathak dance maestro Chitresh Das, who founded Chhandam, North America’s largest Indian dance school, died Jan. 4 from acute aortic dissection (a tear in the aorta) at the age of 70.
A memorial service will be held Jan. 9 at 9:30 a.m. at the Mount Tamalpais Mortuary and Cemetery in San Rafael, Calif.
During the past year, the noted dancer and choreographer had performed with several international artists such as American tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith and noted Flamenco artist Antonio Hidalgo Paz.
“Travel well, Guruji, the world is forever changed because of you. We will dance again one day,” Smith tweeted Jan. 5.
Das also proved his dazzling skill in solo Kathak artistry, and was able to execute improvised rhythms and tell dance “stories” lasting up to three hours, made up on the spot.
“There are no barriers in dance,” Das told India-West reporter Sunita Sohrabji after a performance of the original dance program “Yatra” with Paz at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in September 2014. “Race and color do not matter if you are passionate about your art.”
Das described his art form to India-West as “meditation in motion.”
“Lord Krishna is a role model to me, one of the greatest characters of Indian history. I am worshipping him with my dance, which is true bhakti,” he said.
A statement from his Chitresh Das Dance Company Jan. 5 stated, “Pandit Das did not suffer and was surrounded by family and loved ones.
“His contribution to Kathak, to dance, to art, to India, to community, to humanity, and to life stretch across the globe and beyond. In his words, ‘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.’ He certainly did that and then some.”
Das is survived by his wife, Celine Schein, and his two daughters, Shivaranjani and Saadhvi, who live in San Rafael, Calif., and brother Ritesh Das of Toronto.
Das was the subject of the acclaimed 2013 documentary film “Upaj: Improvise,” by Hoku Uchiyama which recently did the rounds of festivals and aired on PBS.
Born in Kolkata Nov. 9, 1944, Das was a child prodigy who started an intense study of Kathak at the age of 9 by his guru Pandit Ram Narayan Misra. His parents, both accomplished dance teachers, encouraged their young son in his artistic pursuits.
He first achieved fame in India when he was invited by Ravi Shankar to dance at the first Rimpa Festival in Benares; and he made his first appearances in the United States in 1970, when he received a Whitney Fellowship from the University of Maryland to teach Kathak dance.
In 1971 he was invited by Ali Akbar Khan to teach at Khan’s music academy in Northern California and by 1980, Das had founded his own school.
He has taught at San Francisco State University and Stanford University; today, his Chhandam school has branches in California, Boston, Toronto, the Washington, D.C., area, Denver, Tokyo (Japan) and Kolkata and Coimbatore in India. The Chhandam School of Kathak, which offers classes at six venues in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the largest Indian classical dance school in North America, according to a spokesperson.
Among the many honors, fellowships and grants he received were a 2009 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and awards from the Olympic Arts Festival, the National Dance Project, the California Arts Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Irvine Fellowship in Dance and a lifetime achievement award from the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. In India he was honored by the Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan in 2007 for his contribution to Kathak dance.
The Chitresh Das Dance Company announced it will continue to present performances in his honor, and this March, the company will perform his composition “Shiva,” a full-length dance drama, at U.C. Berkeley March 29.