Conversations with Women of the California Gharana: Gretchen Hayden

Conversations with Women of the California Gharana: Gretchen Hayden

As part of the Chhandam School of Kathak’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we are proud to present Conversations with Women of the California Gharana – a series of feature interviews with the many accomplished senior dancers and educators who were trained and mentored by our founder and legendary master, Pandit Chitresh Das, over the course of four decades. These incredible women have not only been and many continue to be devoted tradition-bearers but they have at some point played a prominent role in building Chhandam as one of the world’s leading arts institutions for Indian classical dance.

We start this feature with Gretchen Hayden – Pandit Chitresh Das’ senior-most disciple, having begun her studies with him in 1972 and today is an internationally recognized performer and teacher of kathak dance. Ms Hayden was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dance was always a passion for Ms. Hayden, but it was not until she walked into the world of kathak dance that her formal training began. She became entranced with this world of exhilarating footwork, theatrical stories, and the richness of the Indian classical traditions and culture.
Ms. Hayden started learning kathak in 1972 with Pt. Das at the Ali Akbar College of Music. In 1980, Pt. Das established his own dance academy the Chhandam School of Kathak dance and a performing company, the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC). At that time, Ms. Hayden became a principal soloist of the CDDC, and was teaching assistant at Chhandam for the next ten years. She traveled to India, Canada, and throughout the U.S. giving workshops and recitals. During a stay in India in 1987, she received training from Mr. Das’ parents, Nilima and Prahlad Das, and earned a Senior Degree from their Nritya Bharati Dance Academy (founded in 1942). She returned to the U.S. and performed a leading role in Pt. Das’ acclaimed production, The California Gold Rush.

In 1991, Ms. Hayden and her husband, celebrated sarodist George Ruckert, a senior disciple of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib, resided and taught in Basel, Switzerland and presented concerts throughout Europe. When Mr. Ruckert accepted a position in the MIT Department of Music and Theater Arts in 1992, they moved to the Boston area. Ms. Hayden established a school of kathak dance, offering classes for children, teens, and adults. Her school evolved into the non-profit Chhandika (Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance) in 2002. Today, Ms. Hayden is an active performer and teacher, often touring and performing with her husband. She teaches accredited kathak courses at Tufts University and Wellesley College. She teaches and performs regularly with her dance students, weaving tradition into innovative dance dramas, including The Legend of St. Lucy, The Story of Dymphna, and Kore. She, her husband, and Chhandika are bearers of tradition, carrying on the legacy of kathak and Hindustani music established in the U.S. by Pt. Chitresh Das and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Below are excerpts from an interview with her. It has been edited for clarity.

As the senior most disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das, having studied with him since 1971, what was it like to watch him transform as an artist and teacher?

I was 21 when I entered class with Chitresh Das, who was such a young man himself of 27. We were all so fully engaged in the process and dance experience together throughout the years. Consumed with it you might say! We were all growing, evolving, and transforming in our own ways. It wasn’t until much later, and often through the process teaching my own classes, that I reflected on the changes that occurred over the decades. I expressed some of my thoughts in the 70th birthday letter I wrote to him, just months before his death. [I’m happy to share this letter with you.] My husband George expressed the quality of Guruji’s artistry and teaching very beautifully and succinctly. They first met when Guruji “Dada” came to the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM), and were personally and artistically close throughout the years. He said to me “Dada was steadfast throughout, while also adapting—to situations and people before him. He was extremely steadfast in his concentration of conveying the practice of the dance, as well as the literature.” That steadfastness remained true all along, while his teaching style and artistry expanded over time.

As a well established kathak dancer, what is it like to look back on your experiences of kathak? What encouraged you to take your very first kathak/dance classes, and what was your very first class with Guruji like?

When I was 16, a friend gave me this book by J. Krishnamurti called “At the feet of the master” and something connected deep inside me. And then there was this other teacher Yogananda [Paramahansa Yogananda]. There was a lot of exploration with meditation, yoga, these teachers who came from India or many of the Westerners went to India at that time to really dive deeply into these studies. It was also the time of the civil rights movement. So there was this circulating in our collective psyche at that time.
When I was 21, one of my friends told me about some dance classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music. So one day we walked in to watch a class. I didn’t see Guruji but I saw these dancers who had been learning for maybe three or six months do tiga dha digga digga thei. It just hit something – something about the sound, the atmosphere, and everything that the room had, I just really wanted to try it. So, my friend and I signed up. And after the first session (that lasted for 3-4 months) my friend stopped. But for me, there was this fantastic exhilaration and clearly something resonated. So I continued. As Guruji said these were heady times, there was both clashing and coming together of cultures. We had this amazing experience of sitting in classrooms with Khan Sahib [Ustad Ali Akbar Khan] We drank it all in. It was a time where we could live more simply — work odd jobs and dance three or four days a week. I often remember the first namaskar in class. Guruji said, “Namaskaar the divine within me greets the divine within you”. I wasn’t thinking of the cultural barriers at that time — the class was all non South Asians. It was a joyous time and of course, there were struggles too. I personally did not want to perform and almost quit when we had our first performance because I had terrible stage fright. But I was determined to dance and performing was as part of it. I said if I can survive this first performance and live through it, I will learn to perform. I would never have expected to end up where I am today; teaching this art form. I was just living in the moment. But I do see that it was absolutely what I needed. It gave me groundedness in life and a path to go on. And that it was like, the divine put that there. What a gift.

You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Which years were you active with the CDDC? Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences to share from your time in the company?

The company was formed in 1980. It was such an awesome and memorable time. I wasn’t that involved in establishing CDDC but was involved in running CDDC after a few years and helped Michelle Zonka. She really kept the school and company going — meticulously organized woman! She was also instrumental in drawing out a lot of Guruji’s philosophies about what he was trying to be. She would challenge him in discussions and a lot came out of those. They bounced off ideas and it was interesting to see what came out. I was really focused on dancing and dancing with the company and being at all the rehearsals. I also assisted him in his initial classes at San Francisco State. This later came in very handy when I started teaching at Tufts because I could draw from those experiences.

Our lineage of kathak emphasizes a very deep study of kathak, including physical readiness, rhythmic facility, beauty, delicacy, understanding of hindustani music theory, Indian philosophy and culture, and storytelling. Which elements of kathak came more easily to you, and which were the most challenging?

The spiritual elements felt natural to me and resonated with me. Somehow the disciplined atmosphere also worked for me. I have a very dreamy, imaginate sort of nature. The discipline demanded, grounded me and helped me focus.
It helped me be fully present, just listen and follow. He was not one for a lot of questions in class because it interrupts the energy. The intensity of the training felt fantastic. After some months of study I realized this whole universe that was opening up to me. The rhythm, the beauty, the abhinaya. Just to stand in class and look at his hands and his breadth of expression, the sound of the bells just engrossed me. The cultural aspect of performing characters that we didn’t look like was challenging. When we went into drama and were trying to look a certain way, we became self-conscious that we don’t look right for this. He would quickly dispel that and told us to just dance. When I had to play Ram, I thought ‘how can I begin to do this’? Dadaji said, “Go deeply into the character. Just dance. Not being able to play a character is just your ego talking”. So he propelled us this way and that enabled us to get over some hurdles.

In what ways were you involved with the organizational aspects of Chhandam? Can you tell us more about your involvement?

I was not put in any role. When Guriji you would go to India, I would lead the class and I could keep the class going. That helped train me when I started Chhandika here in Boston. And, organizationally I worked with Michelle Zonka during the 80s. I planned and supported events but she was doing quite a lot of the office work and kept the school going.

You are the artistic director at Chhandika, founded in 2002. Describe the role that your organization plays in the local community.

I love the way Chhandika has been able to build a community here and is able to reach the Indian community here. When I started here, it was a very mixed and diverse class. And I think this was partly because South Asians were very doubtful about wanting to study with a Westerner, and that was something to overcome. Also when I first started studying Kathak, the South Asian community was not so interested in learning dance. They were trying to establish themselves here, understandably but that has changed. I am glad to see people appreciate what this art has in itself. I’d like to see it get back into bringing a wider base of people into the world of Kathak and maintain a high standard.

How has your experience been to study an Indian classical artform as someone who grew up in the US?

As I mentioned earlier, I was primed due to the times and the influences in my life to get into the world of kathak. But there were still some cultural barriers. If I hadn’t gotten together with George or gotten together with a partner who was in a very different realm, who didn’t understand what it was to learn these classical arts, it would have been difficult. Often I could talk to George about the struggles of studying with these masters, these gurus as a westerner and he would understand. Even during really difficult times, we had each other’s help to get through because we knew gold for what it was. We’re being given this gold. It’s going to take going through the brambles and going through a lot of fire. And sometimes you don’t want to. And it helps to have somebody who helps you go through those times.

The vision of Pandit Chitresh Das was always to strengthen the relationship between music and dance – what has been your experience collaborating with musicians as a dancer so deeply trained in music?

Honestly, I have not applied myself that deeply to musical training. Of course, we trained at that time in the music of Ali Akbar Khan Sahib. I’ve worked, of course, a lot with George, my husband. So that’s another huge support I’ve had, because that’s enabled me to do pieces a bit differently when I performed as a soloist and to have my husband be able to play. So to have a musical partner is an amazing gift and has given me unique experiences for my kathak life. It would have been very different if I had to go find musicians. It also has its issues. But it has mostly been hugely beneficial.

Can you describe your experience as a female artist, and your thoughts on women in the arts?

When we were studying, it was all under male gurus. Now, this is a different time — who are going to be the gurus? What is a guru? That’s another huge question. Setting that heavy question aside, of course I see a flowering of women coming forward. Guruji often talked about powerful women. Even though there was a kind of contradiction because he could be very harsh with the women. Yet, out of that came strong women. So I think it’s just reflecting society. Women’s lives and roles — it all manifest in the art too. Although, I do hope to get some more male dancers!

Do you have any advice for aspiring young kathak artists?

Enjoy the process. Be true and honest. Know that the path is a winding one — it goes up and down. So hopefully you enjoy the process and give it all your love. Trust one’s instincts. I don’t know what was at play, to have brought my guru and myself into this connection together in this lifetime and Kathak. I do believe in these deeper things that our voices often might not make sense immediately, but if we pay attention to them they will be good guides along the way.

Pandit Chitresh Das was a visionary and devoted his life to sharing kathak with the world. What did you find most inspiring about his work, and as one of his senior most disciples, what do you wish for the future of kathak dance?

Well, his honesty, his approach, his depth, his courageousness, his amazing artistry. And I hope that his legacy continues at a high standard. What the legacy is, generations will determine. Of course people will find new ways with it. I’ve long felt one thing with how dance in general is regarded in school and university education. In school it was clubbed with PE class. Even at universities it’s low on the totem pole. Which means people do not understand dance and especially a dance such as Kathak. They do not know what a high art form this is. So when I moved to the East Coast I wanted to teach and in a way that made people aware of him and his teachings and what he gave to the world in the field of Kathak. People knew of Bharatnatyam. Hardly anybody did Kathak. Over time that has changed. There aren’t western and eastern dances anymore. Its world dance. And kathak is a world dance along with flamenco and such. Kathak is just coming into its own in a full way. Kathak doesn’t need to fuse with anything to be interesting. It’s got so much in itself and it is fantastic. So I hope the future generations take Kathak and explore it and keep moving it forward.