About the Festival

Interview with Pandit Chitresh Das

Can you talk about what the larger vision was for presenting a festival of all classical Indian dance forms?
In 2006 we presented Kathak at the Crossroads, a historic international Kathak festival that garnered major national and international attention, bringing together over 50 Kathak artists and 2000 participants from around the globe. However, the question is bigger than Kathak.  India is a complex country and its diverse classical dance forms reflect that.  This festival, Traditions Engaged, expands the conversation to include an international gathering of Indian classical dance and music artists of the various Indian classical traditions.  Also, doing this festival at such prestigious venues, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and REDCAT (Roy & Edna Disney CalArts Theater), we are putting Indian classical dance on a world-class stage, along side the ballet and the opera.

Even more important is that Traditions Engaged is not only about entertainment.  Its also about education and enrichment where people will have the opportunity during the daytime to interact with India’s greatest gurus and master artists in intimate lecture/demonstrations, performances and discussion sessions. We will also be placing a special emphasis on youth where young students will have an opportunity to watch student showcase performances of other young students of Indian classical dance and participate in youth panels and discussions.

What was the impetus for some of the daytime sessions you are holding?
One of our goals in this festival is to take a deeper look into the practices that surround these traditional art forms – the Guru-Shishya Parampara (handing down the tradition from guru to disciple).  This is an ancient tradition which is rapidly evolving as the world we live in changes. What is a guru in modern times? In my experience guru has the greatest responsibility. guru is one that removes darkness.  guru gives blood and like the Zen say, the guru is like the stone the shishya (disciple) steps on in the river so that he or she can go forward.  But times are different now.  So what is guru nowadays? And in this modern day how does a guru pass on his or her tradition in a way that enables the shishya to both maintain tradition and evolve?

Also, I have to wonder how much individual performances enable audiences, Indian or not, to grasp the depth and complexity of these traditions?  How many people know that kathakali has a veritable sign language used in performance and that the make up can take up to eight hours to apply?  Or that as Western contemporary dance works with concepts, rhythm itself can be a concept in Indian classical dance?  Or that in all Indian classical dance forms, theater is a critical component—who can perform a dance form rooted in storytelling without exceptional abhinaya (the art of expression)?  These are also some of the questions we will be investigating at this festival.

How has your background prepared you to put together a festival of this caliber?
I was born and raised in pre-Independence India, at a time when the nation was experiencing a cultural renaissance. My parents, Nrityacharya Prahlad Das & Srimati Nilima Das founded and directed one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious Indian classical dance & music institutions – Nritya Bharati in Kolkata. My father produced one of India’s first revolutionary dance dramas, Aubudhoyo (Dawn), presented to the Indian National Congress.

I studied with one of the greatest Kathak gurus, my Guruji – Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, who also taught the baijis, or courtesans, of the time. And I grew up surrounded by some of India’s greatest classical artists and gurus.  Srimati Rukmini Devi (bharatanatyam), Srimati Balasaraswati (bharatanatyam), Guru Atomba Singh (manipuri), Pandit Shambhu Maharaj (kathak), Guru Gopal Pillai (kathakali) and so many more regularly visited, performed and taught at Nritya Bharati.

How would you describe your relationship with dance?
Dance has always been a medium for me- a medium for sharing, gaining and exchanging knowledge, a medium for personal expression, a medium for connecting with something greater than myself be that God, the Divine or the person sitting next to me.

What do you see as current issues coming up in the field of Indian classical dance today?
As I reflect on what is happening in the field of Indian classical dance today, I have a lot of questions. I see that for each generation of artists, the paths keep changing.  I recently met with a young, promising kathak dancer in India.  He said to me, “I don’t know if I should follow my guru or if I should follow contemporary dancers. How do I find success?”  He is not alone.  Many artists, in search of audiences, move towards fusion or blend their art with Western dance concepts and movement.  Is that because they seek new forms of expression or simply because there are not job opportunities open to “traditional” Indian classical artists?

Why do you feel traditional dance is so important to preserve today?
Indian classical dance is referred to in different ways – “traditional dance” or “ethnic dance”. But,  what do these labels really mean and why is this medium different from “Western dance” or just “dance”? For many, the label of “traditional” conjures up images of things stale, static, archaic on one hand or of things foreign and exotic on the other.  These characterizations are one-dimensional and in the end obscure the depth, nuance and dynamism inherent in Indian classical dance.

Tradition is relevant now more than ever. The classical art forms of India hold ancient knowledge and messages that are universal and timeless.  The Ramayana’s villain, the demon King Ravan, warns us about the dangers of greed, arrogance and lust.  The disrobing of the Mahabharata’s heroine, Draupadi, reminds us how we can loose sight of basic human dignity during difficult times.  The concept of Ardhanariswara, so central to Indian classical dance, shows us the way to the masculine and feminine within each of us.

Traditions are evolving. They must. And they must have a central place in our cultural and artistic milieu.  Traditional art, precisely because of its inherent link to history provides us with a unique means for cross-cultural dialogue, exchange and deep understanding.

Do you have any closing remarks to the community about the upcoming festival?
I invite you to attend and enjoy Traditions Engaged, An International Festival of Classical Indian Dance and Music.  It is a chance to celebrate the great diversity and depth of the various Indian classical traditions.  It will be a place to give voice to those bearers of tradition – those great gurus who have preserved and advanced the traditional art forms of India and those young emerging artists who will continue that work in the future.  A place to give audiences an opportunity to engage with Indian classical dance – in depth, in detail, and with historical and social context so that we can create a forum for greater understanding across disciplines, cultures and peoples.  It is my hope that you are not only entertained and enthralled but also enriched by what ancient and modern India has to offer.

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