The Making of the California Gharana: Seibi Lee
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.
Seibi is a leading disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das. She is a Co-Founder of the Leela Dance Collective and Dean of the Chhandam School of Kathak. Seibi has toured worldwide earning accolades and deep respect for her artistry. She received an Isadora Duncan Dance Special Award for Pandit Chitresh Das and the performing ensemble for East As Center and received two subsequent nominations for performances in Das’ Pancha Jati and Shabd. Seibi has gone on to evolve her own distinct voice through the development of virtuosic character roles in Das’ critically acclaimed works: the scheming maidservant Mantara in Ramayana, the dual roles of the tormented demon Marich and beloved tribal prince Hanuman in Sita Haran, the belligerent General in Darbar and in Das’ final work – the electrifying Guru in Shiva. Her outstanding portrayal of Hanuman became the inspiration for the central character and creation of Leela Dance Collective’s Son of the Wind – the full length dance drama bringing to life Hanuman’s rarely told heroic and valorous adventures from the epic Ramayana.
Seibi has a deep and abiding passion for the art of Kathak and for continuing the legacy of Pandit Das. As Senior teacher at Chhandam, she has mentored many generations of dancers and in 2016, she was recognized by The Alliance of California Traditional Arts as a Master Artist. She has produced several featured shows including Pacific Pathways, Aarambh and Harvest Moon Festival. Seibi continues to forge her own unique path within the artistic tradition and has created, with the support of the Haas foundation and a 2-year Artist in Residence with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, the mesmerizing solo choreography for Houyi and Chang’e, the heart-rending tale of great heroism and of tragically star-crossed lovers. Most recently, she featured as a solo artist at the Continuum Festival in San Francisco and Drive East Festival in New York.
You have dedicated over thirty years to studying and teaching an artform that is not from your culture. What drew you to kathak? What was your first experience like? Which aspects of the dance resonated with you the most and which were the most challenging?
In 1991, while studying music at the University of Toronto, Canada, I saw a kathak recital for the first time. The musical style was unfamiliar to me and the dance form was mesmerizing. Vigorous footwork with intricate rhythms, fast spins interspersed with sudden stops in beautiful body stances and punctuated by gentle movements of the neck, wrists and eyebrows. I had studied ballet as a child and this was so very different and I hoped to find a chance to try it. Later that year, senior disciple Joanna De Souza brought her Guru Pandit Das from California for a week-long dance intensive. I had no idea what to expect. I was about to hurriedly run into the dance studio for the class and I was arrested by a strong and resonant voice before I could cross the threshold, “Stop. Go to the restroom. Put water on your wrists and beneath your ears. Take a deep breath and bow in respect to the room before you enter.” I was quite taken aback. What was all this about? As I felt the cool water on my wrists, I felt myself relax and my breathing slow down. I walked in a more controlled manner back to the studio and as I made my bow, I felt all the thoughts of the outside world disappear and ready for what was to come.
What a transformative experience. I had a Bachelor of Science degree and was working towards a Master degree in music performance and I felt that everything I had learned up to this point was needed to understand kathak. Mathematics to wrap my mind around the complex rhythms, music to mimic the recitation syllables and the melodic phrases, ballet to give body awareness to approximate some of the movements and gestures and psychology to understand motivation and emotion for storytelling. It was and still is at once daunting and thrilling.
As a professional harpist, you started your dance studies with a deep knowledge of western classical music. How did this prior training inform your dance? What aspects of Guruji’s teaching style were different from your musical training and what aspects were similar?
It has definitely been helpful to have a naturally strong orientation to understanding the world through the aural and tactile senses since, in our lineage, recitation and singing are inextricably linked to the physicality of the dance. However, on a conceptual level, there are significant differences. Generally, western classical music is rhythmically based linearly and melodically polyphonic with multiple melodic lines interacting with each other) while Hindustani classical music is based on a rhythmic cycle and melodically homophonic with single melodic line which can be embellished in an improvisatory manner). Western classical music is carefully notated and the musicians strive to reproduce the exact pitches notated. Individual expression happens at the level phrasing and interpretation of dynamic markings with beauty in conveying the composer’s intent through the musician. Hindustani classical music is rarely notated as this would be contrary to the concept of leaving room for the musician to improvise and beauty lies in the individual musician’s unique ability to evoke feeling through a melodic framework, a raag.
In kathak, the music and the dance are inextricably linked yet for a traditional solo there may be little or no rehearsal between dancer and musicians prior to the live performance. It is the deep understanding of the taal, the rhythmic cycle, and how intricate rhythms are produced upon this cycle that make this possible and at its best, produce riveting and spontaneous exchange and co-creation between dancer and musicians.
One of the best places for a dancer to fully understand this is to be on the musician’s platform as opposed to being on the stage dancing. Part of my training with Guruji included playing manjira, keeping time with the musicians, reciting compositions for the dancer and playing surmandal to add texture to the musical accompaniment. To be able to watch the interplay between Guruji and the musicians was a revelation. There was an excited alertness on the platform to be ready to catch and support a new composition that Guruji felt inspired to present or an improvisatory section of intricate footwork or unrehearsed embellishment in his storytelling.
You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company from 1998 to 2015. Can you describe this experience, particularly the transformation and growth during that time of the company in major large-scale productions on mainstream stages? Do you have any particularly memorable experiences to share from your time in the company?
This period of time was one of great creative inspiration for Guruji. With the meteoric growth of Chhandam School, a strong cadre of dancers were being trained and developed for the company. It truly was an amazing experience to be a part of this history.
Highlights of CDDC productions include: Panchajati at Cowell Theater, San Francisco and Birla Sabghar, Kolkata, India 2002; Kathak at the Crossroads (included 40 kathak artists from around the world) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco 2006; Sampurnam Cowell Theater 2007; Shabd Cowell Theater 2007, Chicago International Kathak Festival, Chicago 2009, Meany Hall, Seattle 2009, in India NCPA Tata Theater, Mumbai, Shaniwarwada Dance Festival, Pune, the Bangalore Club, Bangalore 2010; Sita Haran, Cowell Theater 2009, Birla Sabghar, Kolkata, India 2010; Darbar, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco 2012 and SHIVA, Z Space, San Francisco 2013.
SHIVA was definitely one of the most intense experiences for me. During Guruji’s childhood, ascetic sadhus would periodically come through Kolkata on their journeys. The choice of extreme lifestyle and mystery of these holy men made a deep and lasting impression on him. In his early 60’s Guruji began to impress upon us that he would not be with us forever. He wanted us to understand and prepare for this time and in his own way, he was also preparing himself. Inspired by the recitation of a set of tabla bols introduced to us by his brother, Ritesh Das, Guruji had us practice this recitation with immense concentration and force. It became a powerful and fervid chant that he joined with the personas and imagery of tantric sadhus worshipping the destructive force of Lord Shiva in the crematory grounds.
Two stories were interwoven through this production. On the earthly level, the anger of a tantric guru with the weakness of his disciple. Then on the spiritual level, the all consuming rage of Lord Shiva who burns Madan, god of love, who had broken Shiva’s deep meditation and withdrawal from the world due to the death of his wife Sati. His anger spent, Shiva relents and brings Madan back to life. But since his body has been burned completely, Madan is now An-anga, the bodiless one. The tantric guru realizes that if the great Lord Shiva can forgive, then who is he to hold such anger towards his own disciple and recognizes his own harsh lesson of forgiveness.
This production thematically was difficult: guru/disciple, uncontrolled anger/forgiveness, death/rebirth. For the dancers, it was some of the most intensely vigorous choreography as we were representing the extreme practices of tantric sadhus with the equivalents in rigorous footwork and myriad chakkars (spins) deep in the character portrayals of the sadhus. My role as the “guru” character is this production was one of the most raw emotionally yet simultaneously one of the most refined spiritually; one of the most strenuous physically yet simultaneously one of the most mentally meditative experiences.
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?
Pandit Das was a source guru: virtuosic performer, intuitive composer, phenomenal teacher and brilliant choreographer. For Panchajati, Das explored the Carnatic rhythmic counting system of jatis: 3, 4, 5 (2+3), 7 (3+4), 9 (2+3+4) intricately developing them choreographically within the Hindustani nagmas (melodic phrases) in tintal (rhythmic cycle of 16 beats). For many years in America, Das did not always have access to musicians as he had in India for classes. He often played tabla while reciting for and teaching his students. In his own practice, he found the challenge of outlining the theka (taal on the tabla), manifesting complex rhythmic compositions with footwork and singing the nagma required such an immense amount of focus that it required a type of meditative yogic state. Das named this “Kathak Yoga” and in 2007 he created the performance piece Shabd. The dancers were unaccompanied by musicians, performing complex rhythms, compositions and choreography while singing theka and nagma and further playing manjira (finger cymbals) and harmonium (an organlike keyboard). Throughout his life, he continued to evolve the art form within the tradition.
Guruji believed that the art of kathak, although developed historically within the subcontinent of India, had the capacity and power to speak to the world. Students of any background and experience could embrace kathak. An open mind and open heart backed up with desire and hard work were instrumental for his teaching to thrive. He was a true embodiment of the art form and he believed in the individual potential that he could see in each and every student. These are aspects I strive to emulate in my own kathak journey.
You are known for your sophisticated musicality and exceptional character portrayal as a kathak artist. Which aspects of your style derive from the work of Pandit Chitresh Das, and which are more unique to you and your experiences as an artist?
Character portrayal has been an ongoing exploration over many years for me. Guruji was extraordinarily observant. His acuity in understanding the body and facial movements that could reflect both extreme and subtle sentiments meant that he could a breathtaking range of contrasting characters. Watching his expressive story-telling was mesmerizing and intimidating. I am not a natural mime. I feel quite uncomfortable “doing impressions” of others. However, I found for the stories and poems that he taught us in class, I was able to forget myself and enjoy immersing myself in that moment.
In 2009, Guruji created a full scale production of Ramayana for Chhandam School. It was fascinating to see which students he chose for each role. Some facet of their actual character seemed to be part of the decision. For me, he chose Manthara. I was somewhat shocked as everything I knew of the character at that time was that she was very manipulative and was the instigator of Prince Ram’s exile of 14 years. This was exceedingly in the opposite direction of how I strove to live my daily life. I began to read many stories about Manthara and also multiple versions of the same stories. I found that Manthara’s motivation for many of her actions were due to her intense loyalty and love for the queen Kaikeyi whom Mantara had taken care of since Kaikeyi’s childhood. Even though the scene I was in did not show this background, this knowledge was integral for helping me understand how to bring forth a character who on the surface is manifesting one part of their personality but whose actions are motivated by a completely different part.
If the audience cannot feel the full character, then they will not be able to understand or sympathize with the character’s actions. That depth of connection is integral to a portrayal that makes an indelible impression on the audience. This approach and philosophy has been the foundation of all my character portrayal since then from the demon Marich to the heroic Hanuman, from a betraying General to tantric Sadhu, from the kidnapped princess Sita to the heavenly immortal Chang’e.
You created a beautiful original solo work that is traditional kathak but based on a Chinese story. What was your inspiration and process for creating this and how did you approach using the kathak idiom to tell a story from a different culture?
The cultural context of kathak is intertwined with its development over time but, as with any art form, the individual dancer brings their own unique experience and history. Guruji was always interested in a student’s heritage and wanted the student to take the time to acknowledge and reflect on that heritage to help them understand who they were.
I was born in America but raised in Canada since the age of four. While I was growing up, there were very few Asians. I only understood that I was “different” from others due to the almost daily teasing I was subjected to. Children would say “Why is your face so flat?”, “Did you slam your face in a door?”, “Why are you eyes like that?”, and they would call me derogatory names. I didn’t want to be Asian and tried my best to be like everyone else and ignored the fact that my father was Chinese and my mother Japanese.
Growing up, dance had been a place of respite from the outside world. By the time I was in university, there were many more new immigrant populations and demographics had shifted. There was great interest in learning about and from other cultures. I embraced kathak and immersed myself in its study. Little did I know that after many years later, it would bring me back to my own heritage. I began to think about my parents, their struggles growing up in their respective countries of origin, to come to this unknown continent and to provide for their children born and raised in this new world. I wanted to honor their histories and the life they had given me.
In 2013, with the support of the Haas foundation and an Artist Residency at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, I began researching important mythological stories in Chinese literature. Much of the gestural language developed in the storytelling aspect of kathak can be understood universally: the stance and movements of the heroic archer Houyi, the posture and imperiousness of the Jade Emperor, and the delicate plucking of flowers by the beautiful Chang’e. These could all be shown by recognizable kathak gestures and other techniques including footwork, chakkars (spins) and compositions. But there were two things that shifted the underlying cultural context significantly. The first was quite subtle. I watched Chinese classical and folk dance and observed a particular way of walking which I developed for the immortal Chang’e. The second was the music composed by Jayanta Banerjee. In rehearsal, I sang the melody of an old Chinese song and, from that melodic pentatonic scale, he developed a striking melodic framework on the rhythmic cycle tintal that at once was in the Hindustani tradition and immediately mirrored the context of the tragic love story of Houyi and Chang’e.
It has been remarkable to see how this story has affected audiences. For those familiar with the many stories from the Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, it brings a story from another culture to them with the familiarity of kathak. For those familiar with Chinese mythology, it brings the art form of another culture to them through their beloved story. I am now working on a new work, honoring my mother in a similar fashion with the treasured story of The Bamboo Cutter and Kaguya-hime, the moon Princess.
You have trained many generations of students and have developed a particular superpower as a teacher and educator of kathak. What is it that has drawn you so much to teaching and what philosophies do you employ in your teaching approach that you can share for other aspiring teachers?
“Superpower!” How amazing it would be to have one! However, that is not really the way I see myself as a teacher. kathak calls upon the student in a myriad of challenging ways.
Fundamentally four aspects must be worked on and well balanced. Tayari, readiness stemming from strong dance technique including strength and stamina. Laykari, a deep understanding of rhythm such that the dancer can eventually improvise. Khoobsurti, the grace with which the body moves and Nazakat, the delicacy of the beauty in subtle movements of the neck, eyebrows, wrists and breath. Add to this the dramatic aspect of storytelling for which the dancer must embody the essence of whatever character they are portraying and in a split second be able to switch from one character to another. Furthermore, history, philosophy, music, and sophisticated rhythmical mathematics are inextricably woven through the dance context.
No student comes to study kathak fully equipped in all these qualities or this knowledge base. At some point or at multiple points, each student must face aspects, concepts, movements that they are uncomfortable with even possibly have an aversion to. This journey can be difficult and intense. The teacher must know how to guide each student on their own unique journey. The teacher’s responsibility is to see the full potential of each student and be a beacon of inspiration and knowledge for the dancer to follow to reach their highest potential.
You have been deeply involved in curriculum development and pedagogy at Chhandam since 1998. How would you characterize the essence of Guruji’s pedagogy?
For me, the essence of Guruji’s teachings is that kathak is “meditation in motion”. From this flows many facets of the dance that he emphasized. Guruji said of his own training, “My Guruji didn’t care how I danced, he cared how I walked into the room.” That is, the respect that one has when entering the dance space reflects the respect one has for the dance. Guruji felt that pranam, the blessing of the dance space, was the ultimate reflection of learning. No class could begin or end without it. No thoughts of the outside world should disturb the intent and focus of the pranam. It connects the dancer to the taal, the circle of rhythm and of life; the nagma, the melody flowing through the taal, through the body, through the voice; the energies of the earth and the heavens centering them through the mind, the voice and the heart and it prepares the dancer to receive the knowledge that is passed from generation to generation with humility and respect.
You have served in a variety of roles at Chhandam including teacher, branch director, Co-Artistic director and Dean. Can you talk about your history with the organization, including some of your biggest challenges and greatest successes?
I began in 1998 as a teacher at the beginning levels and as a Coordinator for registration and tuition for Chhandam School. At that time, there were around 50 students. Towards the end of 1998, I became Berkeley Branch Director and, as the school opened up a number of new branches in quick succession, I added the responsibilities of creating the infrastructure for the school as its Director in 2000. There were many rewards and challenges that came as the school continued to grow. By 2009, we had over 300 students and 10 junior/intermediate level teachers and when Rachna Nivas came on as Co-Director with me, we reached over 550 students, 6 branch locations, 15 teachers and 60-65 weekly classes throughout the year. On the one hand, we were able to provide access to a wide community throughout the Bay Area through our classes, but on the other hand, as a non-profit organization, our resources were quite thinly stretched. Since Guruji’s passing, as Dean and Co-Artistic Director, I have overseen an important period of consolidation for the school which has stabilized and prepared it for sustainable growth. This strengthening of resources is part of what has helped us quickly pivot and to provide online classes for our community during this time of “shelter-in-place”.
I have been responsible for developing and supporting many successful programs at Chhandam including Kathak Retreats for Teens and Adults, Kathak Summer Camp for children, and Curriculum Development as well as numerous student performance showcases including Ramayana and Evolution. Although a great deal of hard work over the years, it has also been a great joy to be such a large part of the kathak journeys for so many of our students.
You had a gandabandhan (string-tying) ceremony with Pandit Das that was quite different from any of your other gurusisters who had the ceremony. Can you share your reflections on both the ceremony itself and on the overall concept of Guru-Shishya parampara? How do you see this tradition evolving in the contemporary times?
I met Guruji in 1991. At that time, no one called him Guruji. He was affectionately called Dada “elder brother” or with the added honorific Dadaji. He called himself a “modern guru in training”. It took many years before he decided to take on the mantle of “Guru” and the first shishya (disciples) that he tied strings with were the most senior of our guru-sisters Gretchen Hayden Ruckert and Joanna De Souza. At this time of significant change, it was important to Guruji to make an even deeper connection of America and the disciples he had created there, to India, the country of kathak’s origin and Guruji’s own birthplace of Kolkata.
My gandabandhan was a number of years later and quite different. In some ways, it was “informal”. We did not visit a temple and there was not a priest officiating. However, it was deeply personal. Guruji himself lit fire in the havan, tied the string and blessed my ghungroo. My husband was by my side as the commitment to this dedicated life of dance affected his life also.
This was truly one of the happiest days of my life and it also happened on my 50th birthday. To my great sadness, less than 3 weeks later Guruji passed away suddenly so this time of year has so many emotions and memories woven through it.
A classical art form can be studied in a group situation up to a point. But at its essence, it thrives on the profound one on one relationship of the teacher as the conduit and often the source of knowledge and the student as the receiver. The teacher cannot teach each student the same as another. To fully immerse oneself in the artistry of a given teacher, the student must commit to this one path to reach their highest potential. This is not to say that the student must close themselves off to all other endeavors but it does mean that the student must choose not to allow themselves to be too distracted as to interfere with the learning process.
More recently you became a co-founder of the Leela Dance Collective. Can you share your thoughts on the role that LDC plays and will continue to play in the global kathak community trained in Pandit Das’ pedagogy?
When Guruji passed in January 2015, it was a great shock. Out of this came a profound understanding of the responsibility to the legacy that he left to all his disciples. The Chitresh Das Dance Company was founded on Guruji’s singular artistic vision and as a vehicle for his original works. Before he passed, he made known that each of us, along with his training and pedagogy that we share, that we also held individual expressions of this and that working together would yield the strength of a different kind of vision. The Leela Dance Collective was founded in 2016 with the spirit of venturing into collective creativity. It is a space that can support individual artistic vision and also the synergy arising from multiple artistic voices respectfully heard and contributing to a larger production.
In 2016, on the inspiration of a character portrayal of Hanuman I had done in CDDC’s 2009 Sita Haran, I delved into researching other aspects in Hanuman’s mythology. I was intrigued by the tales of his valor and heroic adventures and felt compelled to bring some of these lesser known stories to the forefront in a new epic narrative entitled Son of the Wind. In collaboration with fellow artistic directors Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta, we worked closely with composer and sitarist Jayanta Banerjee, vocalist Debashis Sarkar and tabla player Satyaprakash Mishra on the development of the musical score and premiered this new full length dance drama at the Green Center in Sonoma in 2017. With subsequent performances at OCD Theatre, San Francisco 2018, and in 2019 – the Bhramara Festival at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai, India, the Agama Festival at the Miriam Theater, Philadelphia and the Ford Theater, Los Angeles. The challenging choreography and powerful character portrayals have provided a strong showcase for LDC’s senior artists, an exceptional training and performance experience for our next generations of dancers, and another chapter in our lineage’s history of dance drama creations.
What is your advice to the next generation committed to treading this path of studying the art of kathak?
Studying any classical art form such as kathak it about depth and breadth. There are no shortcuts or fast tracks. One must accept this with an openness for both challenge and joy, and must have the patience, the diligence and the discipline necessary to begin to discover what the art form holds.
Knowledge is like the ocean, vast and stretching beyond the horizon. There are many choices of experience. Do I want to stand safely on the shore with the beach in front of me and the water far away and only listen to the waves playing upon the shore? Do I want to stand by the edge, where with each wave, the water moves to an fro, splashing at my ankles? I can now feel the saltiness and smell it too. But I can easily choose to move back at any time. Do I want to wade in up to my waist? I feel the tug of the unknown undercurrent. I may lose my footing and fall beneath the water. But I also can feel more of the waves and I can choose to jump up and feel weightlessness momentarily. Do I let go completely and let my feet leave the sand – sometimes to easily float and sometimes to have my head briefly submerged as the waves pass over? If I do this, then I may learn how to swim in this sea of knowledge. Never to know everything, but each day getting stronger and knowing a bit more about myself and the universe.
My advice? Dive in!
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo 1 – PC Rucha Chitnis: Photo 2 – PC Margo Moritz; Photo 3 – Pandit Chitresh Das and Seibi Lee; Photo 4 – Seibi Lee from Shiva; Photo 5 – Seibi Lee as Hanuman, PC Margo Moritz; Photo 6 – Seibi Lee as Marich, PC Anil Mallya; Photo 7 – Seibi Lee in Houyi and Chang’e PC Rucha Chitnis; Photo 8 – PC Brooke Duthie; Photo 9 – PC Eric Mindling; Photo 10 – Seibi Lee; Photo 11 – Pandit Chitresh Das and Seibi Lee; Photo 12 – photo taken at gandabandhan ceremony; Photo 13 – Seibi Lee as Hanuman from Son of the Wind, PC Margo Moritz; Photo 14 – PC Margo Moritz