The Making of the California Gharana: Seema Mehta
This interview series brings to life the behind-the-scene stories of how Pandit Chitresh Das’ influential and unique lineage of kathak developed over the course of four decades – a lineage that has been often coined today as the “California Gharana”. Learn more about Das’ senior students as well as musical artists who emerged from this treasured era of North Indian classical art in the San Francisco Bay Area. These artists played a vital role in this new gharana and each have left deep imprints on the rich legacy of the Chhandam School of Kathak and Chitresh Das Dance Company.
Seema Mehta is Director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati, one of India’s leading Kathak institutions with affiliate schools in North America and Creative Director of Kirtilals, a leading Jewelry brand across India and North America. A graduate in Fine Arts from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. For fifteen years she has trained in a traditional setting with the legendary Kathak Master, Pandit Chitresh Das,under the Guru-shishya parampara. As a solo artist, Seema has performed extensively at festivals and venues across India and North America. Her collaboration with Tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith in Rhythm Rewritten has been presented across cities in India, and in 2019 toured North America. In March 2019, Seema was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar, India’s highest civilian award for work in women’s empowerment, by the President of India.
As an established kathak dancer, what was your first impression of kathak dance? What encouraged you to take your first kathak class, and what was your very first class with Pandit Das like?
I had a long preconceived notion that Kathak was boring. In Autumn 1998, I was persuaded to attend a performance by Pandit Chitresh Das and the Chitresh Das Dance Company. In just two hours, my perception of Kathak was dramatically transformed. In the first half I was enthralled by the virtuosity and precision of the entire performance. During the intermission, I remember sipping my tea having no idea of what was to follow.
The whir and chatter of the full house gradually subsided as the lights dimmed. In pin drop silence, the air thick with anticipation, a small man appeared on stage. In an instant, I was mesmerized by his radiant energy. The immense force of his presence made him seem larger than life. His storytelling was enchanting. His performance of his renowned piece ‘The Train’ propelled me back to my childhood in India. I was intrigued by his ability, using his feet alone, to bring to life an inanimate object. I was spell-bound. At this moment I was captivated by the world of Kathak. I conceived an ambition to study with this great Master.
Less than one year later, I was at the Ashram on Fulton Street, San Francisco. Beginners were taught by Leah Brown, herself a dancer of extraordinary grace. From upstairs, we could hear the thunderous footwork from the advanced classes. Then we were summoned upstairs to join them. The space was vibrating with the sound of the tabla, ghungru, and the voice of Dadaji. I began to comprehend that through Kathak one could experience the depth of Indian culture and that dancing itself offered a path to a higher self.
Guruji instilled in us traditional etiquette, to bow, to honour the space in which we studied. He demanded we shed our self-created limitations. I was deeply moved by the sense of sacred solemnity created when he led the invocation of Pranaam. The entire space was illuminated by a touch of the divine which brought oneness and peace.
When you met Pandit Das you were studying painting at Academy of Art, and you also are design director for your family’s jewelry business, Kirtilals. Can you tell us about the places where kathak intersects with painting, and your experience in jewelry design?
My father encouraged me to draw when I was a child. I recall one time he drew a Mickey Mouse face, and pointed out that even a slight change in the angle of a pencil stroke could alter a character’s facial expression. His influence led me to study at The Academy of Art, San Francisco.
In my second year there, I also began to study Kathak. The parallels between Art and Dance were immediately obvious. Drawing a nude figure, a landscape or a still life, where one measures the relationship between various points is akin to the lines of motion which we draw with our bodies in space. Learning anatomy for drawing also helped me understand internal posture and body lines. Principles of drawing such as line width variety can be compared to the musicality of sounds produced by our feet or padhant (recitation). Just as we control the sounds of our feet, we sketch lines with a thick or a delicate stroke. The quality of light the painter captures can be compared to the particular raag, the essence of which defines the mood. Raag means coloring the mind.
The creative process in collaboration with designers from all over India, introduced me to the vastness of Indian aesthetics. For example, in researching traditional jewelry from southern India, I discovered ornaments made during the Chola dynasty, which were often depicted on the carved sculptures. This inspired a number of my later designs and influences the aesthetic choices I make in dance.
Which aspects of the dance most appeal to you and which are the most challenging?
The solo performance. You are required to hold up a mirror to yourself, to examine your strengths and weaknesses. Alone on-stage, the dancer is exposed and vulnerable. Storytelling requires the dancer to represent all the various characters, transforming from one to the other in the space of a second. To understand the particularity of each character, the dancer has to uncover aspects of their personal emotions. This can take hours of contemplation. Dancing stories, both old and new, connects us more intimately with our past as well as the present world around us. The interpretation and performance of the stories carries responsibility with regard both to the character and to the historical context.
Nevertheless Rhythmic improvisation with live musicians and its attendant risks is invigorating, exciting and joyful. The connection to the musicians, the passage of time, the vibrations of the surrounding space merge into a rhythmic conversation that conveys the dancer into the present moment.
I had learned two gat bhaav stories from Guruji; the Tale of ‘Kaliyadaman’ and ‘Govardhan Giri’. Studying these over many years made me understand how to approach the art of storytelling.
Can you talk about your training with Pandit Das in India and the re-establishment of the school of the parents of Pandit Das, Chhandam Nritya Bharati, an affiliate of Chhandam?
How much I would love to revisit our time with Guruji at our Salt Lake home in Kolkata. A few students from the city or from California would accompany him every year. We would wake up at six to begin footwork practice. Each day, while enjoying our morning chai with hot singada (Bengali samosa), we listened to two and a half hours of bhairavi, starting with N. Rajam ji’s stirring violin followed by Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb’s duet with Bismillah Khansaheb and Hari Prasad Chaurasiaji, culminating with the sublime bhavani dayani by Begum Parween Sultana, whose soaring voice uplifted our souls. Guruji taught us about music and how a Kathak dancer could respond to both the melodic and the percussive. Mornings were often given over to Guruji’s fascinating accounts of his childhood.
Guruji would tune his tabla while we tied our ghunghroo, doing our utmost to concentrate in spite of our nervous excitement. In Winter the marble floor was cold, while in Monsoon our backs would already be dripping with sweat before we began. Guruji would light incense and begin with pranam. The training would consist of an hour long footwork warm up, singing the lahara, a repeating melodic phrase. Meanwhile, Guruji would climb up and down the stairs wearing ankle weights and carrying five pound weights in each hand. He himself was in constant training. When he had reached the third floor, if one of us stopped even for a brief moment he knew precisely who that was as he recognized each of us by the sounds of our feet. He made sure we trained with closed windows and fans switched off. It did not matter if students made puddles of sweat. And there were, of course, no drink breaks. His training was harsh, but he was preparing us to perform in tough conditions both for dance and for life. He pushed us to surpass what we believed to be our limits. He led by example, always training, testing himself, finding new ways to challenge himself. Although his was a sensitive soul, his training was merciless. He would often ask us, individually, when we were least expecting it, to demonstrate something we had learned. In such moments, I hardly knew what was louder, the sound of the tabla or the beat of my heart.
I vividly recall much about the days spent with him, the scents, the sounds, the tastes of our shared food, the sweet scent of rajnigandha flowers (tuberoses) and chandan agarbatti (sandalwood incense) that filled the room at the start of our morning training. By the end when we were gasping for breath, the air mingled with the odour of mustard oil and fish cooked in the neighbouring house. It is as if it were yesterday.
Time away from the dance was just as intense. Guruji taught us to be acutely aware of and attentive to our juniors and peers. An open heart, a positive attitude and proper tehzeeb (conduct) were central to his teaching. He was strict but he could be warmly accessible. On occasions we would meet for dinner with other Masters who were Guruji’s childhood friends or collaborators. Such evenings regularly turned out to be more of a gharwa as they would always end in dynamic exchanges.
In 2005, he invited his guru-sister Madhuri Devi Singh, a reputed courtesan, to teach and to share her invaluable knowledge of the Kathak Art with us. She dances vigorously with poise and elegance. Her experience of performing six to eight hours daily, seven days a week over five decades has abundantly nourished her imagination. Her natural abhinaya together with intricate ornamentation make of her a rare gem. Since 2016, she has been teaching our students in Mumbai. Together with her wide knowledge of the Art, she brings her lively spirit, and a wealth of experience. She represents a tradition of courtesan artists that has all but disappeared. I am extremely fortunate to have her in my life and to continue to study with her.
A special memory was the celebration of Saraswati Puja, when we would perform a short Puja and enjoy a lavishly made Bengali lunch. Even today, my students and I gather on this day to sing and dance and celebrate the goddess of Art, Music, Knowledge and Learning.
When Guruji questioned what we wanted as our legacy, my own answer was resoundingly clear. In April 2010 I founded Chhandam Nritya Bharati in Mumbai.
You worked closely with Pandit Das when he was working at the New Light Foundation. Can you say something about Guruji’s philosophy on Seva through the Arts? What impact did this work have on the children and families? And what impact did it have on you?
In 2005, Guruji watched a documentary about child trafficking and expressed the will to transform one girl’s life through dance. During that Monsoon season, following my Guru-sister Charlotte Moraga’s solo performance in Kolkata, we were introduced to Urmi Basu, the founder of Newlight Foundation. Urmi had established a shelter on the terrace of the red light district in Kalighat. She is an immensely brave woman, a visionary who established this foundation to protect, educate, and support the deprived and grimly disadvantaged children of the sex workers. This was primarily to give the children some space away from the cramped homes and circumstances where they were confined to wait while their mothers worked close by.
Urmi invited me to spend some time introducing these children to Kathak. The intended life transforming experience ironically turned out to be mine. In the beginning I could feel the mothers eyeing me with suspicion. They doubted my purpose.
I taught twelve girls for three days after which they presented to their mothers what they had learned. After our pranam or invocation, they performed tatkar footwork, and finished by joyously singing and dancing an uplifting Bengali kirtan: Sri Krishna Chaitanya. One by one, the mothers kissed my hand, thanked me and affectionately said “phirey aashun didi”. Please come back.
Later during Guruji’s trips to India, he invested a considerable amount of time to training these young women. He trained them in dance, he talked to them, listened to them, made them laugh, celebrated their birthdays, discussed their plans for the future. He brought joy to each one. A few years later, those Newlight students received a travel grant to perform in Germany. A significant moment of pride. Evidence that this was indeed a path of change for each of the girls involved.
At Chhandam Nritya Bharati we aim to open dance and music training to children from all walks of life. We believe that dance is not a privilege but a right. We provide outreach dance programs in Mumbai through Akanksha, Smile, and at the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Home for Children.
You were instrumental in creating opportunities for Pandit Das to travel back to India to share his Art across the country. What were some of the challenges and successes of that work? What is it like for you to represent him and his work in India?
I remember watching Guruji perform at Ramkrishna Mission, Narendrapur for a young audience. Observing his performance from the wings or from the musicians’ platform was a remarkable experience – to feel the floor vibrate, to sense how he connected with the audience and musicians and how they in turn communicate between themselves. The audience’s overwhelming reaction to this undiscovered genius made me decide to dedicate myself to the promotion of his brilliant artistry.
I did whatever it took to bring his work to India. I booked auditoriums, designed posters, sold tickets, invited guests, helped prepare the backstage, hosted musicians, organized meals, and threw myself into the formidable task of raising funds to make it all possible.
Touring with Guruji was a tremendously enriching experience. My favorite time was the dress rehearsals in the midst of a phenomenal acoustic and organic exchange, witnessing Guruji co-creating with renowned artists. One of the most striking moments was to see the smoke from the agarbatti drifting toward him as he made a powerful entrance on stage, intentionally making eye contact with each musician and finally with the audience.
Representing him in India is no ordinary undertaking. His artistic and philosophical contributions are beyond measure. He is irreplaceable. He was a source guru, who maintained a traditional approach yet created a Kathak dance style which influenced many in the dance community. His inheritance weighed heavy when he suddenly left us. I continue to practice what he taught and I endeavour to uphold the integrity of his artistic vision. However, in his last years, when he felt I was ready, he encouraged me to find my own voice.
How did you stay connected to Pandit Das, and your guru-sisters in spite of the geographical distance and why does that continue to be important to you?
As I was leaving California in 2004, Guruji knowingly read deep sadness on my face and said, “Don’t cry, practice hard, very hard and then say namaskar to me. I will feel it from wherever I am.”
Once I moved to India, the intense training I received during the Monsoon and the Winter kept me fueled for the rest of the year. As for staying close to my guru-sisters, I built a more profoundly rooted connection with them.
We each have unique personalities but we share a common passion to pass on Guruji’s heritage to the next generation.
Over the past six years, my students and I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time learning from two of Guruji’s senior disciples, Joanna De Souza based in Toronto and Gretchen Hayden based in Boston. Through them, I have gained an extended perspective on how Guruji’s Kathak style has evolved over time. Their mentorship is beyond price.
The vision of Pandit Chitresh Das was always to strengthen the relationship between music and dance – what has been your experience with this vision of his and how have you incorporated this into your own approach to the dance?
Music and dance offer access to spiritual knowledge and self-realization. Beautifully rendered alap in dhrupad or khayal lures the listener into a meditative state. One can notate or transcribe music composed by masters, but the ultimate magic lies in the delicate details between the notes, which can be passed on solely through oral tradition.
Guruji grew up in Park Circus, Kolkata at a time when some of the most prominent Indian musicians were living and performing nearby. Later, in California, his work was notably influenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Much of the music to our signature gat bhaav or storytelling work such as ‘Sita Haran’, ‘Madan Bhasma’, were composed by Ali Akbar Khansaheb and his son Ustad Aashish Khan. Later the work was arranged by Khansaheb’s senior disciple, George Ruckert, who also composed the music for ‘Gold Rush’. Without exception the musicians with whom Guruji chose to work were respected soloists. Learning these compositions provoked my curiosity to understand why a particular raag was chosen to depict the story. This later inspired ‘Ragamala, stories of sound’, a collaboration between Chhandam Nritya Bharati and the Sound Space where we explored the interplay between the raag and Ragamala paintings of the 16th century. Learning from Jayanta Banerjee who is not only a sitar artist par excellence, but who also understands how to compose for dance has been resolutely formative and rewarding.
We were trained to sing while dancing; this encouraged me to study singing more formally. I started learning from thumri artist Dhanashree Pandit Rai who stressed “blend your note with the tanpura, you will know when you do”. I began to listen to music far more attentively. Though we sing sitting in our vocal class, I cannot help but mentally choreograph. The rasa or essence of the raag provides a palette to paint a story.
When Guruji started a class, he always played the drone of the tanpura to which he hummed, then later started singing, often in Bairagi. His powerful voice created an aura which helped us to be both in the moment and yet to feel transported. I aim to bring this holistic approach into my own practice and classroom.
You have created a number of interesting projects of your own, both as a solo artist and with your students of Chhandam Nritya Bharati, many of which have taken place at the prestigious National Centre for Performing Arts of Mumbai, as well as other venues. Can you share some of those projects that you are most proud of?
I have recently set out on the adventure of creating my own work. An evening presentation with Dhanashreeji on depicting various horis deepened my understanding of bhava and anubhava. Since 2015, I have been closely working with tap dance virtuoso, Jason Samuels Smith, who had a long working relationship with Guruji.
Dancing with Jason is an intense experience. He pushes technical elements of the dance to the boundaries. More importantly, he brings with him a commitment to educate people about his artistic lineage and the collective struggles of his predecessors.
More recently, for the celebration of Belgian King’s Day, I was commissioned to perform a Belgian story, ‘Maneblussers’ or ‘Moon Extinguishers’. There were risks in developing this. I launched into a humorous story requiring European costume and dancing a well-known traditional Belgian folk tale in the Kathak style.
What are valuable lessons you have learned as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers can learn from? Do you have advice for them?
Work, learn and discover.
PHOTO CREDIT: Margo Mortiz, Donald Woodrow, Gauri Vipat