Published: Vervemagazine.in February 2015
Last month, a legend passed away. A man that danced for the people, but with gay abandon, precision and humour. Born in Calcutta, he was one of the finest performers of the North Indian style of Kathak with a contemporary twist. A maestro of virtuosic footwork and compelling storytelling, he can be most admired for his own innovation, Kathak Yoga (simultaneously dancing, singing and often, playing an instrument) which went on to become a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. He is also remembered for bringing international rhythm to local art, with the ‘India Jazz Suites’ (‘Fastest Feet In Rhythm’ in India) with Emmy award winning tap dance star Jason Samuels Smith, recently made into a documentary, Upaj.
Calcutta Roots Das’ parents founded Nritya Bharati, one of India’s first institutions for dance.Growing up in his parents’ dance school in Calcutta, he was surrounded by literary artists, poets, dancers, and gurus of the times.With encouragement from his mother, Das began his study of Kathak at age 9, schooled in both major Kathak traditions, embodying each in his artistry: the graceful and sensual elements of the Lucknow school combined with the dynamic and powerful rhythms and movements of the Jaipur School. Das, a child prodigy, attained national fame, performing at age 11 and was brought to America in 1970 on a Whitney Fellowship to teach Kathak at the University of Maryland. He subsequently taught at the Ali Akbar College of Music, Stanford University and founded the first university accredited Kathak course at the San Francisco State University.
American Living He made Kathak an intrinsic part of the Indian diaspora in America with the Chhandam School of Kathak and the Chitresh Das Dance Company in California (1980).
In 2006, Chitresh Das and Chhandam organised a festival of Kathak dance in San Francisco, the largest Kathak festival ever to take place outside of India; it brought together Kathak dancers from all over the world. In 2009, Pandit Das was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honour bestowed on a traditional artist by the US Government. Das received the award, signed by President Obama, at a ceremony at the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill.
Indian Legacy In 2002, he founded Chhandam Nritya Bharati in India. With multiple branches of Chhandam worldwide, Das legacy lives on through his institutes imparting the knowledge of dance as a way of life, a path for attaining self-knowledge and as a service to society.
In a tribute to the maestro, three others take the stage on February 28. Jason Samuels Smith flies down from America while locally, Padma Bhushan awardee Begum Parween Sultana and the director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati (India), Seema Mehta come together in what promises to be an electrifying and touching performance with a unique blend of tap dance, vocals and Kathak.
Seema Mehta: “Guruji has left behind a group of powerful and dedicated women of all ages and races who will be taking his vision and dream forward. I am incredibly fortunate and blessed to have trained directly with him for 15 years. He has given ever so generously and it is now my dharma to take it and share the knowledge and joy with the future generations. Guruji will live through each one of us who will keep his work alive. As he said, ‘his legacy is his after-life’.
Begum Parween Sultana: “I have known him for decades. I’ve had wonderful times with him touring all of south India. It is a great loss to the world. He was the Sadhaka the way he used to perform. His achievement was unparalleled and we cannot seen his magical feet again….”
Catch Rhythm Rewritten on February 28, 2015 at 7pm at the Tata Theatre (Nariman Point, Mumbai).