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The Calcutta mastaan

Arunabha Deb | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on February 20, 2015

Chitresh Das during a performance in Coimbatore in 2005. Photo: K Ananthan

Tap in time: Chitresh Das and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith perform in Chennai in 2013. Photo: K Ananthan

Arunabha Deb

Kathak legend Pandit Chitresh Das, who passed away recently, brought grace, vigour and a no-nonsense attitude to his performances

Few Hindustani musicians trouble subeditors when they die. My last column was an obituary of sarod player Zarin Sharma, whose death was hardly reported in the media. It would have been naïve to expect otherwise, so I thought it better to write about her than about how our media engages with Hindustani musicians. This time though, there is reason to sound shrill. Pandit Chitresh Das, Kathak legend, passed away on January 4. But if you google his name and hit the ‘news’ tab, you will not find a single report about his death in an Indian publication. I was embarrassed (though I don’t know on whose behalf) when I saw that The New York Times (NYT) had carried a comprehensive obituary of the master.

And NYT had reason to. Das was the best-known face of Kathak in the West; he was no less an ambassador for Kathak than Pandit Ravi Shankar was for the sitar. He first went to the US through a teaching fellowship at the University of Maryland in 1970. In 1979, after a few years at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, where he created a Kathak curriculum, he started his own school, Chhandam School of Kathak. He set up the Chitresh Das Dance Company in 1980. Over the next 35 years, he institutionalised Kathak in an unprecedented manner. Today, his school has several branches across the US and Canada with more than 500 students (a formidable number, given that it’s not in India and it teaches only Kathak). He also ran two schools in Kolkata and Mumbai. Apart from setting up the school and the company, he engineered the integration of Kathak into the performing arts fabric of the West, especially in the US and Canada.

Though I dealt with his teacher-visionary avatar first, Das’ brilliance was best expressed on stage. No other word but ‘electric’ comes to mind when I think of his performances. The musicians on the side on the dais would start the first piece (usually a divine invocation) and the audience would stare at the empty stage for a minute or so. And then you could hear the faint sound of anklets from somewhere backstage and a few seconds later (I have to confess I have goose bumps as I write this), like blinding light, he would enter the stage dancing, holding a thali of flowers and incense, his divine offering at the start of the recital. After the first piece, he would speak to the audience, introducing each piece as he went along. His interactions were legendary. He was a charmer as well, but there was something loutish about his charm, which made him even more likeable.

He had a popular piece in which he conveyed the movements of a train through his ghungroos. Once, just when he was about to start the ‘train’ piece, there was an interruption from the audience. I was around 10 or 12 at that time, so I don’t remember too well, but a woman (quite a renowned dancer herself) made some comments about the train piece being gimmicky and not traditional Kathak. (Such an interruption could only occur in Kolkata.) Das lost his cool. The woman got a dressing down that I am sure she will never forget. And then Das refused to perform the train. Some in the audience pleaded with Das, while others told the woman what they thought of her. Finally, Das not only agreed to perform the piece but also demonstrated step by step that he fused traditional bols and patterns in such a manner that they cohered to form the rhythmic movements of a train. He would keep saying that he thought of himself as a Calcutta mastaan; the ‘don’t mess with me’ sentiment was there for all to see that day.

But he also knew how to disarm. After a show, the organisers gave him a rajnigandha garland. Das wore it around his neck and shouted out to a photographer. “Please, please take a good photo,” he said in Bengali, “one of these costs $40 in the States.”

As a performer, he combined elements of the Lucknow and the Jaipur schools of Kathak. The mix of the two styles informed his recitals with grace and vigour in equal measure. His footwork was unmatched. There were moments — like those in Ustad Zakir Hussain’s music — when it was impossible to comprehend how such speed and clarity could coexist. But he was uncomfortable with all the attention that his footwork and virtuosity received. Once, he said to an audience, “This chap told me that from here to here (he indicated the region between his knee and ankle), there is nobody like Chitresh Das. I said, ‘What about the rest of me?’” He went on to perform an unforgettable abhinaya-based Radha-Krishna piece.

Like all visionaries, his understanding of his art went beyond his own classical training. His collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, which the duo called ‘Indian Jazz Suites’, was as enriching as entertaining. He also danced with the flamenco dancer Antonio Hidalgo Paz on the show ‘Yatra: Journey from India to Spain’. Many people have spoken of the similarity between tap and Kathak, and flamenco and Kathak (because of the complex footwork), but it took Das to imagine a seamless cohesion, and design performances around it. These collaborations, if carried forward by his students, will probably form the most important part of his global legacy.

Personally, though, I will remember him by his Calcutta concerts, as much for the banter as for the brilliance.





Published on February 20, 2015
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