UPAJ Documentary: Interview with Pandit Chitresh Das

By Poonam Narkar

Photo by Edward Casati

A virtuosic master Kathak dancer, Pandit Chitresh Das is one of the most dynamic and far-reaching artists to have emerged from Modern India. A choreographer, composer, and director, Pandit Das has developed on the concept of “innovation within tradition” and has created compelling new works that are inventive, yet deeply rooted in the Kathak tradition. In 2009, Pandit Das was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor bestowed on a traditional artist by the U.S. Government – an award given to other major Indian artist such as Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Zakir Hussain. He also received an award from Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, a national arts institution inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, for outstanding contribution in the field of Kathak dance, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

His groundbreaking technique, Kathak Yoga, has been the subject of a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University and is pushing the edge of Kathak. Das has appeared on television on PBS, BBC, as well as Door Darshan and CNN-IBN. Das institute is one of the largest Indian classical dance institutions in the world, with over 500 students worldwide, and his professional dance company, the Chitresh Das Dance Company has toured internationally to award-winning performances.

Pandit Chitresh Das joined Jason Samuels Smith in 2005 to premier their collaboration, India Jazz Suites (IJS). IJS has since received extensive critical acclaim and has toured around the U.S. and India. The 2009 tour of IJS instigated the production of the documentary, Upaj, by The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) in association with Hindipendent Films.

Pandit Das graciously took the time to talk about his involvement in the documentary, Upaj, his experience with IJS, and the convergence of Tap and Kathak.

How did the collaboration between you and Jason begin?

Jason and I met at Duke University in North Carolina, at a dance festival; and when I came back, I knew I wanted to dance with him. Jason and I wanted to collaborate, but it did not happen until he came to San Francisco.  Celine [Schein] was instrumental in giving the name India Jazz Suites (IJS). She approached Elka[Samuels Smith] – Jason’s manager and elder sister.

He started coming to Berkeley, we would get plywood for him to dance on- that he would tear apart. Then I would go to Los Angeles and we would practice in the Debbie Allen Studio, where he taught. That’s how it started and the first show happened in San Francisco. It was wonderful, and the San Francisco Chronicle featured us as the top performance in their list.

But going to India was a different story. We went to India together for the first time for Seema’s (my student in India) brother’s marriage. It was a Jain marriage. Her family sponsored the entire IJS at the marriage – it was a huge endeavor and they covered significant expenses for the performance to happen. But the interesting thing is that the Jain community of Los Angeles presented IJS for the first time in LA; so we went from the Jain community in Los Angeles to the Jain community in India. From Hollywood to Bollywood!!!

It was an incredible experience performing at the wedding in Mumbai. But I think when Jason came to India, he came with a lot of pre-conceived notions. He wanted to change India – I listened quietly and said that for thousands of years people have come to India to conquer and change her, but instead they have been completely absorbed in the country. And that is what mother India does. After several visits, now Jason goes to India on his own. He goes to Goa and rents mopeds, drives around town and enjoys himself. This is a transformation – so India has absorbed him as a son. It took five to six years for this transformation and for Jason to understand India.

To me, Jason is like a younger [version of] me, and he learns more and more about Indian culture, by going to India than just dancing with me. He too has educated me about the African – American culture, jazz culture and jazz dancers like Peg Legg and many other great jazz artists. He used to carry on his I-pod, video clips of some old footage of these artists, which we unfortunately lost when he lost his I-pod. He has shared a lot of his life with me.

I am like his uncle, his friend, his rival – everything put together. Our energy together is the binding force. After watching the show, his mother said at Rachna Nivas and Prakash Janakiraman’s house, that “Now I know why my son talked so much about you for the last six months.” And she even came to Washington DC when I received the NEA award and said “I have come to see you dance with my son and see the energy.” So the energy they talk about with Jason and me is very important. When we dance we don’t think about age, culture, or anything else.

We are presented with two, very different cultures in the film: ancient Indian and modern American traditions. Aside from the artistic differences in the dance forms, can you talk about the cultural nuances associated with the two dance forms and how did you and Jason negotiate/traverse through the cultural and even generational differences as you started working with each other?

The two dance forms are poles apart. The sounds I make, are with my bare feet and ghungroos, while Jason’s sounds come from the tap shoes. However, it stems from both the mind and body as we move together. Jason is extremely open and very alert. He sometimes prides himself by saying that he is the boy from the “hood” and perhaps that is what makes him alert, but it is also naturally ingrained in him. So it helps him on stage when we perform, because we improvise a lot. The hoofer style he comes from also has improvisation at its heart- as much as in Kathak. Improvisation is the key ingredient in our collaboration. Because he and I both come from the tradition of heavy Upaj, it works. We are not really thinking of technique at that time, we just go and produce sounds and rhythms that are similar.

Now, I sometimes do use the subtlety of Indian classical dance- with hands, eyebrows and neck when I perform the solo part; but I try not to use too much of that when I dance with him, because I am mainly using my feet then. It’s a different approach, as I prioritize what I do when dancing with him and he does the same. Improvisation is an important phenomenon in our upbringing and training. Upaj is life too – you have to improvise in life. He has been through tremendous ups and downs in his life. So he reacts to all kinds of environmental pressure – from agony to ecstasy and we work through. It’s very challenging.

How did you traverse the cultural and generational difference off stage either working together or just spending time?

Jason is not always very easy to work with and he may say the same about me. But I am the older man so I pretend that I am not offended by some of the things he would do. At the same time, I take it upon myself to point them to him at a right time in a way and manner that he will listen. But I have to say that he is very respectful to the older generation. That is why he does the Tap festival – not that he makes an enormous amount of money from it. I have seen him go through grief and pressure doing that, but he does it because he wants to give it to the children and show respect to the older generation.

There were several incidents that happened in India, in restaurants or when we would be outdoors, when he and I had to talk to him about some of his actions and explain things to him. I would take him to the side and say I want to talk to you – he would instantly understand that I am going to say something important to him, so he would calm down and listen. So far he has never argued, but always listened quietly and thought over it.

On one occasion when we were in Coimbatore in South of India, he was in an angry mood and in the middle of the night he wanted to step out of the house to go get something. The drivers there drive recklessly and he wanted to go out on his own. So I gave him a flash light and my cell phone; I looked at his legs and said those are priceless you should take very good care of them. So go get whatever you want and let me know when you come back. He listened and just said thank you and good night.

I always talk to him openly, but I have never lost my temper with him, because he can react to that and is used to having someone yell back at him. But when I explain to him quietly that why he should not behave recklessly he understands.

I see in him, a younger [version of] me and I don’t want him to make the same mistakes that I did, so I try to point that out to him. That is how I approach him. But that doesn’t mean he is not volatile around me – he always is. But I also have fun with him. Once when we were at an airport we sat and talked for a long time and went on drinking as we talked. So he too likes to spend time with me. But he is young – he likes girls, I teach women and I am surrounded by girls all the time, so I don’t want to be around girls …. (chuckling) …. That’s the difference!

Being filmed (particularly on stage) is certainly not a new concept for you. What was it like being filmed off stage and behind the scenes?

We didn’t have time to think about it. Sometimes it was just fine but sometimes it was annoying. I remember once, I was very hungry and I was eating and all these cameras were around me. It was so difficult to eat, Indian food in India. The Bengali fish curry and everything – I didn’t know what to eat and what not to eat, I was so uncomfortable. And then sometimes they have to stage the scene and they instruct me to walk this way, that way, pretend I am walking out of the door, talking on the phone, etc. Then they make me go out and come in ten times and I have to not look into the camera and look natural and so many instructions. It’s kind of funny – [we used] haasya ras in the making of the film.

Having performed in India since childhood and then going back again at this point in your career and performing in collaboration with a non-Indian artist, what was different about the experience? What sort of response did you receive from the audiences?

I will say that performing in Kolkata, in a very conservative environment and then in National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai the people not only gave us a standing ovation, but people continued to clap for 4-5 minutes. Some critic said they stopped clapping when their hands got tired. But I think they react this way because they just don’t know what to say. They see two energies dancing together. That’s all they see. They cannot explain what it is. When I asked one of my friends what he felt about the performance, he said I did not have time to look around. So again, as Jason’s mother said, it is the energy of both of us dancing together.

Once in Seattle, after a show, I was sitting across the table from a gentleman who runs the Jazz Radio station and he was also in one of the consortiums of Jazz groups in the US west coast. So I asked him how the show was and if we should perform in jazz circle. He said, “I don’t know what to sell”. I said, “What do you mean you don’t know what to sell? You just saw the performance.” He said, “I don’t know. This cannot be talked about or shown on a video.” And I said, “Are you kidding?”

That’s the reaction we get. Any one that we speak to says you have to be in the moment. And it is right. Every show is different, although the structure is the same.

Do you think the Indian audience is ready for this kind of a collaboration?

The Indian audience has always been ready, because they like Upaj. When we performed in India, the audience did not see that this is a sixty six year old man dancing with a young man half his age. May be they see it in the beginning when I come in alone but not after that. When I was performing in IIT Kharagpur, where all the young college kids were in the audience, I thought they will look at me as an old man but within a few minutes of us dancing, they went bananas! I was joking around with them, when I met them in the college cafeteria after the show.

See, I never look at myself as an “old” guru. I have a very childlike attitude in my life and I think that helps me connect with young people. Many of my friends tell me that I should act my age. But what is that? I don’t know. My energy says one thing, and I have to act another….. yeah I may look old – but so what?

What was your most memorable moment during the filming?

From day one of this filming, everything was very memorable. Never in my life had I had two cameras following me like this and two incredible, not just camera men, but good film-makers – Shaun from Australia and Hoku from United States. I had heard a lot about both of them, but I didn’t realize it until the filming started – the intensity with which they were working. Then there was another gentleman, Mr. Anand who is an incredible sound man who understands sound so well. Hoku was the balance because he is both African-American and Japanese. So he understood the African American culture and it helped him to work with Jason and exchange ideas with him. And Shaun who is from Australia had worked with Antara Bhardwaj, who also is a filmmaker and understands the dance very well, the sentiments, and understands the Indian scene. She has worked in India, so it all worked very well with that group of people.

I was fascinated to see them all piling in a car with their equipment as they all moved together. It was fascinating to see them all arrive with their equipment at the airport. The two –three weeks that they were around us I really enjoyed it – well, not always, but when I look back now, I feel how lucky to have all these people working together and also with Jason, in such an endeavor.

Many thanks to CAAM who helped bring the pride of Indo-American culture and dance as a medium to people.

In your mind what is this film about and what would you like people to take away after watching the film?

I read in CAAM’s brochure that this film breaks all the barriers of race, culture, and age. What does that mean? It means that through dance we are trying to bring peace and harmony in the world. That is the message.

While science is for the mind – dance, music, arts, literature, and sports are for the soul and bring balance in the world. These should be given importance in our lives. Just studying in college is not enough because that is just one aspect. The physicality that art brings is important.

As I said earlier, this is Indo-American. Those who are not Indians or American should also take pride in the dance as the art form, because it is not just Indian culture or American culture, but it is world culture. Because Jazz is everywhere and India is everywhere. It is becoming global. So if we are talking global, then this is a perfect match of two human beings from different races, cultures and different generations, coming together and performing. And as they perform (as my Guruji always said), they become ONE. Its is a very spiritual realization when we perform together and the energy becomes one along with the audience.

The documentary, Upaj, will be screened as a part of the 2011 SF International Asian American Film Festival. Pandit Chitresh Das will be performing along with Jason Samuels Smith on Friday, March 18th at 7:00 PM, after the screening of the film.

Click here to purchase tickets to the documentary screening and performance