At 68, he dances with ghungroos weighing two kg each tied to his feet, and brings alive stories from the yore with his abhinaya. If Kathak is known for its fast footwork and spectacular spins, called chakkaras, its maestro Chitresh Das is popular for breathtaking pace and power. So, when he took to the stage during the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Festival, where he performed Sri Krishna Chaitanya Prabhu Nityananda, art connoisseurs of Bhubaneswar were spellbound. Das also presented his popular piece, My Train.
Choreography, the dancer feels, is a Western concept. “But my creations are mostly based on ancient India. Like, Pancha Jati is based on sets of rhythms. Sita Haran, Subali Sugriwa and East as Centre (collaboration with Kathak, Kathakali, and Balinese dance) are all based on the Ramayana. But I choreograph with a twist. For example, in Sita Haran, I ended with the shock on Bali’s face after Ram shoots him in the back with an arrow. There’s no closure. This leaves the audience questioning if, in this age, violence is the right answer,” says the California-based dancer.
Kathak, for Das, can be a panacea and the spark to ignite a new life. To his credit Das innovated the Kathak Yoga in which a dancer accompanies himself without the benefit of musicians, reaching yoga-like concentration in the process. In Kathak Yoga, the dancer recites a chosen tala (rhythmic structure), sings the melody and the theka (language of the drum) of the tala, while practising complicated footwork. However, Das does it with a slight twist. Instead of ghungroos, he ties dumbbells around his wrists and ankles while dancing. He does the tutkar with his feet, while playing theka on table and humming nagma.
“Kathak Yoga is a form of extreme empowerment. It is based on the fundamental yogic concept of integrating the mind, soul and body. You are the dancer, the musician and the singer. You create mediation in motion which is transformational in its practice,” Das says. “When you are perspiring, the toxins go out of your system. You feel light and the healing process begins.”
Das took his first Kathak steps in Kolkata at the age of nine under the watchful eyes of Pandit Ram Narayan Misra. He got trained in both the Lucknow gharana and the dynamic Jaipur gharana.
Das, who first went to America on a Whitney Fellowship in 1970 to teach Kathak, now divides his time between India and the US. He formed Chitresh Das Dance Company and Chhandam School of Kathak in San Francisco in 1980. “I am challenging my students and dancers to go deep into their heritage, and find innovation within the ring fence of tradition, instead of looking to fusion which really has not much depth. Indian art is like an ocean, with unending and limitless potential,” he says.
Few years back, Das collaborated with American tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith and their collaborative performance was chosen as the No 1 performance of the year by SF Chronicle; and currently, Asian American Media is making a documentary called Upaj which will be aired on the PBS by next year. “At the American Dance Festival, I met Jason outside the green room where he was practising. I was repeating what he was doing with his tap shoes, with my bare feet, and that’s how we connected. My wife Celine said we must create a collaborative project with Jason. Since then we have toured all over the US, Australia and India with India Jazz Suites or known as Fastest Feet in Rhythm in India,” says Das.
“In all my collaborations, I make sure we have sections where we clearly establish our own art forms, and then have other sections,” he says. He is now planning to tour with a new production, with one of Spain’s top Flamenco stars Antonio Hidalgo.