Pandit Chitresh Das was one of the most dynamic and far-reaching visionaries to emerge from modern India. A prolific artist and educator, his thrilling solo performances, ground-breaking collaborations, cutting-edge choreography, evocative productions, holistic teaching pedagogy, and overall evolution of kathak dance, have influenced the art form world-wide.
A child prodigy trained from the age of nine by his guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Mishra, Pandit Das was schooled in the two major kathak traditions, embodying each in his artistry: the graceful and sensual elements of the Lucknow school combined with the dynamic and powerful rhythms and movements of the Jaipur school. His performing career was launched in India when he was invited by Pandit Ravi Shankar to perform in the first Rimpa Festival in Benaras.
Pandit Das was brought to the United States in 1970 on a Whitney Fellowship to teach kathak at the University of Maryland. In 1971, renowned Indian classical musician Ustad Ali Akbar Khan invited him to establish a dance program at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California. Pandit Das’ desire to reach out and expand his work prompted him to found his own dance company and school in 1979, the Chitresh Das Dance Company & Chhandam School of Kathak (CDDC), incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1980.Thirty-five years later, CDDC boasts one of the world’s foremost Indian classical dance companies and the largest kathak institution in North America. Pt. Das has additional schools in India, Boston, and LA.
Performer, Collaborator, Choreographer, Innovator
A master and virtuosic dancer, Pandit Das was also renowned for his music composing, rhythmic ability and abhinaya (acting). One of his critical mission’s was to preserve and promote the powerful kathak solo. As a master of the solo, Das not only performed it, but was known for contextualizing and engaging audiences around it, both the knowledgeable and the uninitiated. Das utilized the tradition of the kathak soloist to speak directly to the audience to bring them into his world, reciting poems and describing the story. Giving pieces of knowledge, artistry and often humor throughout the performance, Das created an interactive nature between artist and audience.
He performed throughout India and internationally in prestigious festivals and venues, including the Lincoln Center, the Olympics, Surya Festival, Chennai, Dover Lane Conference, Kolkata, the National Kathak Festival in New Delhi, the American Dance Festival, for the Maharaja of Jodhpur and many others. In 2004, Pandit Das was featured in a national PBS television program and his performance in a historic court in Kolkata was broadcast on BBC national U.K. television.
Throughout his career, Pandit Das believed in the universality of dance and collaborated with numerous artists of other genres, including tap, jazz, flamenco, balinese, kathakali, bharatanatyam, and many more. He created productions that did not fuse the different art forms, but rather highlighted each form in its purity, while finding a common ground. Most notably, his collaboration with Emmy Award winning tap star Jason Samuels Smith, India Jazz Suites (IJS) became an international sensation, placing first in the top ten dance productions of 2005 by the S.F. Chronicle and was named one of the top ten productions of the year in 2010 by the Boston Globe. The production toured all over the U.S, Australia and India many times over. In 2013, the US Department of Cultural Affairs sponsored a 5 city IJS tour to India as part of their Building Bridges through Dance program, hailing the production as an exemplary of Indo-American collaboration. UPAJ: Improvise, a film documenting their collaboration premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in late 2013, aired nationally on PBS in early 2014 and continues to tour the national and international film circuit.
As the artistic director of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Pandit Das conceived and choreographed close to 50 new company works throughout the course of his career. His critically acclaimed productions juxtaposed tradition with innovation, and were both evocative and commanding, linking the richness of ancient India with a socially relevant and contemporary sensibility. Based on his concept of “innovation within tradition,” Pandit Das explored the boundaries of kathak technique and performance, creating compelling, new works and techniques that are inventive, yet deeply rooted in the kathak tradition. His groundbreaking technique, Kathak Yoga, was the subject of a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University.
Visionary, Educator, Guru
Together with the affiliate organizations of his disciples, Pandit Das has created the largest Kathak training institutions in the world. Das is credited for spreading awareness of dance as a way of life, a path for attaining self-knowledge and as a service to society. He developed a unique holistic pedagogy and formalized curriculum for Kathak that has influenced dancers and artists worldwide, including the development of Chhandam’s 9 principles (a guide for study that lead to tenets for life).
Teachers at the institution are trained at the highest level of excellence and are leading artists in the Kathak field. Pandit Das spent a large amount of time in India performing, giving workshops and teaching at his school, Chhandam Nritya Bharati, in Kolkata and Mumbai. In April 2010, Chhandam Nritya Bharati opened its second Indian branch in Mumbai. In order to make the knowledge and self-awareness that comes with learning kathak accessible to all, he and Chhandam Nritya Bharati offered free, ongoing classes to underprivileged children in Kolkata and Mumbai, India in partnership with organizations such as Akansha and SMILE. As he was trained by his Guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, Pandit Das trained his own students, both in the US and India, within the guru-shisya parampara (the tradition of guru and disciple).
A Guru literally means “one who removes the darkness” through direct knowledge and training. Das was committed to preserving the traditional one-to-one transmission of knowledge between guru and shisya. Recognizing that the idea of guru was often misunderstood, undervalued or misused and that tradition must evolve, he loved to call himself “modern Guru in training”.
Among many awards, Pandit Das, received the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on a traditional artist, and, in 2011 he received the prestigious Sarba Bharatiya Sangit Parishad award in Kolkata, India. Pandit Das formed the first university accredited Kathak course in the U.S. at San Francisco State University and also taught at Stanford University. He was brought to teach twice at the West Bengal State Academy and represented the state of Bengal in tours throughout India.
A book on Pandit Das’ work by Ethnomusicologist, Dr. Sarah Morelli and published by the prestigious University of Illinois press is expected out in early 2016.