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Kathak's Return Journey

In 1970 Chitresh Das went from India to America to teach kathak, the North India classical dance known for its fast spins while wearing heavy anklet bells or ghungroos. In the documentary Upaj Das remembers coming to California.

CD1: I left India in 1970 with 8 dollars in my pocket a tabla bag and a ghungroo bag. My dream was to teach Americans.

Das passed away in 2015. This February his wife Celine Schein Das stepped onto a stage in Kolkata to introduce in Bengali a programme from the Chitresh Dance Institute which she cofounded .

CS1:Nomoshkar ladies and gentlemen, aamar naam Celine scheen Das. Aaamr swami chhilen Pandit Chitresh Das. Ektyu Bangla cheshta korbo, jodi bhookl korbo please koma korben

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata.

CS2: Ladies and gentlemen we present Invoking the River.

Invoking the River was choreographed by Charlotte Moraga one of Das’ early students and artistic director of the Institute. As she told the audience Chitresh Das had wanted to establish Kathak in America.

CM1: I am the product of that. For many many years I came back to India with him and performed. He passed as you know in 2015. This is the first time I am coming back to india with my company.

Das had always been a purist when it came to form and discipline but open to the world when it came to ideas says Moraga.

CM2: when he went to America, he didn't he didn't want he wanted to go to Harlem, and he wanted to marry a jazz musicians daughter. And he wanted to, you know, play with jazz. So from the beginning, he was already thinking contemporary, modern

Moraga, a ballet dancer knew how to pirouette but was amazed by Das’ spins or chakkars.

CM3: We do pirouettes in ballet, but he's wearing 5 pounds of bells and there's all this complicated rhythm. So when I met him, I was a dancer. So I could already do double, triple chuckers. But I had no idea where to stop. Where is home? Where is the first beat?

Das wanted to take kathak to America. But he was also freeing himself from some of the weight of rules and traditions that could put classical art in a straitjacket in India. In America he danced kathak alongside flamenco and tap and did kathak yoga and imparted that lesson to his students like Moraga.

CM4: what I've been taught, you know, is you don't have to stay in a box. You don't have to stay in a box

Involking the Rivers very much flows with Das’ vision marrying the modern with the ancient. The story derives from Indian traditions about the mythology of the rivers says Celine Schein Das

CS3: Vanita mundhra performs Ganga at the manikarbnika ghat representing loss and grief. A tribute to all those who were lost during covid. The Cauvery river. Mayuka Sarukkai represents the river trapped in a pot. She finally frees herself but once free she is pulled from every direction, her resources drained.

But accompanying the dancers is not just the usual tabla drums but something very surprising in Indian classical dance. Utsav Lal playing the piano live on stage alongside Alka Raghuram’s multimedia presentation.

ALKA1: One part oxygen breath itself u are me more than you are yourself

Utsav Lal’s piano fits right into Chitresh Das’ vision of belonging to the whole world says Moraga.

CM5: Lal, also born in India but has worked with Irish contemporary musicians, traditional music, jazz musicians. So we we are the world, we we are. It's like in in the in Alka Raghuram's multimedia she says, um, you are us. And we are, we are, we are them.

Invoking the River might seem to be telling stories about river goddesses. But Moraga says they fit into the very contemporary realities of the lives of her young Indian American dancers.

CM6: Mayuka played the role of Cauvery. The the the river who was trapped in a pot by her husband.

At the time they were working on the piece Roe v Wade was overturned.

CM7: She was very mad. she wanted to show how Kaveri breaking the pot, breaking out of the pot and when she's free she's like, okay, I did it. She regained her agency and her power.

But now several states in India fight over Cauvery’s water draining her resources.

CM8:  As an artist, I feel you have to say something meaningful. It's not enough just to be excellent craftsperson.

And that is perhaps the best way you to keep tradition not just alive but spinning out into the world. And yet as Das taught Moraga always knowing where home was.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW