‘It is the challenge to do something different that keeps me going’

One can’t miss the passion in his voice when he speaks about Kathak and Indian culture. Neither can one miss his calm and down-to-earth demeanour despite the extensive fame and numerous awards that he has won over the years. Pandit Chitresh Das has become synonymous with the Indian classical dance form Kathak in the United States, where he has been residing for more than 30 years.

The dance guru is credited with having innovated Kathak Yoga, a form of dance exercise. It is a unique technique of letting your mind, body and soul perform in sync with each other. The dancer sings a melody while playing a musical instrument along with performing complex compositions with feet. Born into a family of dance gurus and performers, Panditji was initiated into a life of music and dance from a very young age. In 1979, he established the Chhandam School of Kathak and the Chitresh Das Dance Company in California. In 2002, he founded Chhandam Nritya Bharati in India. Today, there are over ten branches of Chhandam worldwide, with more than 500 Indian and American students.

Jigna Khajuria caught up with the 67-years-old ‘young and modern guru in training’ and tried to unravel his fervour on stage, and the man himself.

You say Kathak is a path to self-discovery; it is a way of life. How is that? Would you elaborate?

I ask my students and myself: Why we are born? Indian classical dance is historical as well as philosophical; it is organic math and highly spiritual. Self-discovery is also spiritual; it has nothing to do with any religion. You can discover yourself with any form of art, sport, yoga or even seva and tyaag (service to society and sacrifice). Self-discovery happens only when you are put into a challenge. Kathak has been my means of discovering myself. It became my way of life, my destiny from a very young age.

If you weren’t a performer or a dance guru, what would you have been? Did it ever occur to you to try and do something different?

Not really; my mother set me up. She said, ‘this is your destiny; move ahead’. But yes, during my teenage, I did feel frustrated sometimes when I didn’t get enough opportunities to perform. I could have been a politician, but for a short while. Or I could have been a professor, but I wouldn’t have been an ordinary professor. I would have been an active professor, who would have loved to challenge himself.

You have travelled the world. Is there any place where you wish to perform?

Stage is the temple and audience is the God. Anywhere I get these two, I enjoy performing.

You are credited of introducing Americans to Kathak. What kind of difficulties did you face some 35-40 years back in doing so?

Yes, there were difficulties. They would not understand if you are performing a piece from the ‘Ramayana’ or ‘Mahabharata’, unless you told them the story before-hand. So when I went to America, one had to tell them the story in English or write it down, and that was a challenge. That challenge I am facing now in India! If our children are not aware of their history, if they are not taught about their mythology, they cannot be expected to understand our dance forms. The children of today have lost touch with a rich resource of our culture like ‘Amar Chitra Katha’, which I love very much. Anybody, children or adult, who wants to know about India should read ‘Amar Chitra Katha’.

The challenge now is how to educate Indian children in India, who are bombarded with cricket and Bollywood, about our classical art forms! They say ‘hi’ instead of ‘namaskar’ and have forgotten to touch the feet of elders. Do watch cricket and Bollywood if you enjoy it, if you like it; but do not forget your history and where you come from. I used to play cricket as a child. I liked old Bollywood movies, the black-and-white ones. I tell my students to enjoy Bollywood movies and dance, but not forget our tradition. I believe in being inclusive of modern influences; excluding them would not help.

How did the world view Kathak earlier? And how has the situation changed now?

They didn’t know much about Kathak then, nor do they know of it even now. But yes, little by little the situation is changing. Indians abroad are becoming more confident of their identities and language and culture. I got an award from the American government because I have been preserving Indian tradition through Kathak dance (In 2009, Pandit Das was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honour bestowed on a traditional artist by the US Government, signed by President Obama).

How did the idea of Kathak Yoga occur to you?

All my life, I’ve been inspired by the Sadhus and Sanyasis of our country. When you grow up on the shores of the Ganges, you do notice the life and certain elements of the Yogis and Tantriks. Besides, I’ve always loved challenges; I’ve always wanted to do more and push myself beyond limits. In my school days, I was a captain of our cricket and soccer teams and I was very good at these sports. I always wanted to do something new, but within the realms of Kathak. What is that one thing that you are doing that nobody else has done before, that was my challenge.

Kathak Yoga is good for everyone as it helps in blood circulation and respiration. It is good for cricket players, for Bollywood actors, athletes and even children preparing for exams as it sharpens your concentration level. Your body becomes an energy that can transform to spirituality. Kathak yoga is like following the spiritual path laid down before us by the philosophers and the Siddha Maharpurush of our country.

Is there any artist/dancer you would like to collaborate with?

I would like to dance with Bollywood actors! Jokes apart, I want to dance for the young Indian athletes, the soccer players, kabaddi players, and cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. I want to show them Kathak Yoga, because they will understand what kind of energy I am using. I would also like to collaborate with very fast sitar or guitar players.

Which dance forms, other than Kathak, do you like?

I love Kathakali and Odissi. I even enjoy the south Indian movie dances with their typical ‘dhinkachika’ tunes. Among the western forms of dance, if anything very good comes up by a dancer, I like to watch that. I love Lavani dance; it is so full of joy.

Do you sing?

I don’t sing professionally, but I sing for my own joy. I try to sing, let’s put it that way.

What does Chitresh Das, the person, do in his free time? Do you read/ any movies or sports you like to watch?

I have a 5-months-old baby. I look after her. I cook for my wife. I used to jog a lot, but I stopped due to a knee-problem. I watch TV a lot, especially news. But I also love to watch Discovery and History channels – I like anything historical and ancient. I love to watch food channels as well! I don’t read much. I like to watch international movies, like Indian movies made by NRI women, Chinese and Korean movies, those kinds of movies I watch.

What is the reason behind your superb health?

I do riyaaz (practice) every day, but you also have to be very careful about what you eat. I try not to eat too much when I am in California. I eat one meal in a day. I eat lots of broccoli and Daal and fish. But when I come to India, I can’t help eating. The food is so good here that I am unable to follow my regular diet regime.

What is the reason behind your passion and dedication? What keeps you going?

My mother. I believe that your mother is your first guru, your father second, and you yourself the third guru. She encouraged me and said, ‘go and do something in life’. Besides that, I’ve always felt that I should do something that the world can benefit from even after my death. In any classical art form, a guru must work and set a good example; I want my students to be inspired by me.

(Pandit Chitresh Das will be performing in Mumbai on the 19th at the Worli Centre and on the 26th at NCPA.)