In Memoriam: Pandit Chitresh Das (1944-2015)


ACTA - Posted on 18 February 2015

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Pandit Chitresh Das with students of Chhandam Youth Dance Company.

The death of Pandit Chitresh Das, master artist of the North Indian classical dance form known as Kathak, came as a shock to many who knew him.  He had just marked his 70th birthday with a full performance of India Jazz Suites, a collaborative piece which toured the United States and India to great acclaim and which put him head-to-toe with rhythm tapper, Jason Samuel Smith, a performer more than 25 years his junior.  A recent article in an Indian paper reported that scientists were studying the athleticism of Mr. Das, who at his age was showing remarkable speed and agility with his lightening fast footwork and characteristic spins that are the signatures of his Kathak style.  So, to hear of his sudden death on January 4, 2015, was irreconcilable with the man whose energy and career trajectory were expanding, not contracting, with age.

While none of us have the prescient crystal ball to predict such matters, Pandit Das’ accomplishments were at their height: The Chitresh Das Dance Company was recognized for its excellence achieving what very few American-based, non-Western dance companies have done to vie for legitimacy on the American stage.  His Chhandam School of Kathak Dance is active with over 500 students in California, Boston, Montreal, and Kolkata.  In 2009, Chitresh Das received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, our nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.  He was a master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program four times, in 2013, 2009, 2007, and in the program's inaugural year in 2000.

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Pandit Chitresh DasThe story of his remarkable career is also tied to the inherent tensions of teaching a traditional art form outside of its home context.  Arriving in the United States in 1970 at the invitation of a seminal figure in American modern dance, Murray Louis, the cultural climate of this nation was a vocal counterculture where "question authority," "free love," and "expand your mind" were the catch phrases of the times.  Juxtaposed to the strict study of Kathak in India, where a student must commit to an unquestioning path of discipline and practice to a revered guru, the American landscape had to have been disorienting to the young Mr. Das.  The large immigrant community of Indian nationals would arrive twenty years later to provide support by enrolling their children to study Kathak in his robust schools and by attending company performances.

The first performing company was American and "very blond."  In the early years of the company, Pandit Das was asked by a presenter to make the dancers look more "Indian," an idea at which he scoffed.  This incident so dated and offensive by now, reflects, however, an important and seminal point.  He trained his dancers without a template based on a nationality, race, sexual orientation, or lineage.  It was Kathak that mattered.  The students who chose to study under him were pushed and driven to execute the movement with clarity, understanding the history of the stories that Kathak seeks to tell, the relationship of movement to music, and most importantly, to swim deep into the free-fall of improvisation, which tests the dancer’s mental and physical agility.  The presentation of non-Western dance in the United States was elevated by the excellence of The Chitresh Das Dance Company.

The Bay Area was his home since 1980, where he first taught at the Ali Akbar Khan School before launching his own school, eight years later.  He developed and taught the first accredited university course in Kathak at San Francisco State University and was guest instructor at numerous institutions of higher learning.

Celine Schein Das, the executive director of the school and company, eloquently spoke at his memorial service to a large gathering of students, community members, and artists, that he had prepared them all for this day and that he left at a time where the foundation was strong and the charge forward was clear.  Pandit Das will be remembered for introducing Kathak to the West.  As an educator and ambassador for the form, he was tireless.

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