The Making Of the California Gharana

Rachna Nivas

What were  your first experiences like studying kathak with Pandit Chitresh Das? As a member of the South Asian Diaspora what influence did Pandit Das’s teachings have on your life?

It was 1998 and I was a student at UC Berkeley studying Molecular Environmental Biology with a minor in South Asian studies.  Just to paint the scene of that time – the internet or as we called it “the information superhighway”, was just on the brink of transforming the world (unbeknownst to us).  “Dot com” companies were emerging, but the vast majority of people did not use the internet outside of email and we certainly didn’t have cell phones or even laptops. Technology was not mobile in any way so when we left the house we were focused on absorbing the sensory world around us.  The UC Berkeley campus was as socially charged as ever and not a day went by that I wasn’t in awe of being immersed in this global think tank for science and the searing social issues of the time, like the controversial Prop 209 prohibiting affirmative action in California. 

I was a spirited 1st generation-born South Asian American and very active in our South Asian community and activities on campus, like the Indus club.  We put on sold-out shows of 4000 people every year with a line-up of folk and classical dances (there was really no such thing as Bollywood dance yet), hip hop offerings (it was the 90s golden era of hip hop/R&B), and elaborate comedy bits riddled with inside jokes that only children of South Asian immigrants could collude on.  We were young, brown, and proud.  And it was the most formidable time of my life.  The only problem was that while my South Asian pride was well-intentioned and pure-hearted, I didn’t have any real depth of knowledge about this culture that I claimed to be so proud of.  I was naive, sophomoric – arrogant even. I thought that participating in culture shows, eating Indian food, and wearing Indian clothes made me a worthy ambassador for my heritage. Until I stepped into Pandit Chitresh Das’ class…

I loved dance (bhangra was my favorite at the time), so when I heard about kathak classes by this great master, I was intrigued. I was at the age where the world was a candy store. I was constantly searching for a purpose but still hadn’t found it.   When I casually arrived just across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to an ashram called the Cultural Integration Fellowship, before even walking into the class I could hear sounds of ghungroo vibrating the whole building.  That in and of itself was an energy that hit me.  When I walked in, there were several women dripping in sweat in their salwar kurthas, not looking left and not looking right.  The potential energy in the room that was generated from their focus was palpable.  They were doing things with their feet and bodies that I had never seen in my life.  And at the front of the room was this little firey man – he was yelling “Do or Die!”.  My jaw dropped.  I didn’t understand what was happening.  This is an Indian dance class?  I had seen Indian classical dance, but this level of intensity and focus was otherworldly.   I sat and watched him teach the entire class – it was unrelenting, uncompromising, and provocative.  He was purposefully trying to ignite a fire under his students.  At times he would get up and make goading statements, holding a mirror up to each student and blowing up their programmed thinking about the world.  As I sat there, every part of my body was shaking.  I had no idea that Indian dance could be this physical, emotional, and spiritual all at the same time.  It was an India I never knew.  It was a human experience I never knew.  And I had never ever seen a teacher who gave every drop of his soul to his students in every moment that he was teaching.  At some point, Pandit Das finally looked at me and smirked his first words to me,  “Who are you?”.  Of course he partially wanted to know literally who I was and what I was doing there, but his question was also laced with a deep weight.  It was more like a challenge, “Who are you?  Why were you born?  Do you even know?” 

I didn’t know.  But I was determined to find out.  The rest is history.   

What was it that really drew you to the dance?  Are there any aspects of it that resonated more with you?  What was the most challenging?  

What initially drew me into the dance and made me keep coming back for more was the life philosophy with which Guruji made the dance a platform for.  I was struck by the deep intention we were expected to have in each moment, beginning with how we walked into the classroom, how we conducted ourselves, and what level of consciousness we had at all times.  He reminded us regularly of his own Guruji’s famous words, “I care more about how you walk into the classroom than how you dance.”  It was always about what attitude and open-heartedness we brought into the room and how that should be translated to the way we lived outside the classroom.  I was mesmerized in my early days of study just by the pranam (opening invocation) that we do at the start of every class.  It’s such a deep level of intention, humility, and mindfulness combined with movement, melody, and beauty.  Those four cycles of 16 beats perfectly enwraps the idea that we are not there to just learn dance pieces or execute choreography, but rather to wholly offer ourselves to the pursuit of a higher consciousness, a higher self, and a higher truth of who we each are as individuals in this world.   

It’s this concept and the way in which Guruji extracted it from his students that continued to draw me in.  Because let’s also be clear, it wasn’t about finding a higher consciousness through being New Agey and gentle and sensitive.  Rather it was old-school, tough love with an aim to make us warriors.  And he was okay with his methods weeding out those who couldn’t handle the heat.  He always said “I don’t give sugar coated pills”.  He was actually looking for students who responded to the heat with determination and perseverance – even if it meant taking short-term losses.  Another line of his was “When you tell the truth, you will lose students, but you will gain disciples.” Lucky for me, I was searching for someone to tell me the truth, not just make me feel good in the moment.

And he utilized every aspect of the dance form to do this – its intense physical demands, powerful musicality, emotional breadth of storytelling, spontaneity of improvisation, its playfulness and sensuality, and of course the sheer beauty.  All of them were tools to go deep into the crevices of the human experience, particularly what was uncomfortable.   And when we were drenched in sweat, could barely breathe, and were too exhausted from exertion to tell the difference between our tears and sweat, he would use those moments of emotional nakedness and openness to challenge our belief systems and to breakthrough thinking from inside the box.  So if you ask me about what aspects of the dance resonated with me, I can’t talk about those without pulling up to a higher plane of what it all means.  To me, those specifics are the nuts and bolts of the practice.  I have come to be passionate about each and every aspect of the dance and I feel they are all deeply important to pursue knowledge of in order to be a true kathak artist.  You can’t pick and choose.  You have to be strong in taal, technique, physical stamina, grace, expression, music, recitation and poetry. Tayari, layakari, khoobsurti, nazakat, abhinaya, sangeet, parhant, and kavit.   

But if I’m being honest, if Guruji were a martial artist putting forth the same life philosophies with the same approach and style, I would probably be a martial artist today, not a kathak dancer.  

You have been instrumental in advancing the practice of Kathak Yoga developed by Pandit Das, by pioneering the practice of dancing while playing harmonium.  Can you share your reflections on Kathak Yoga as meditation in motion?

So I can’t talk about Kathak Yoga without telling a great story.  In the first 3-4 years of my study, the Chitresh Das Dance Company was on a trajectory of rising visibility on the mainstream stage.  While I was most struck from Day 1 by the life philosophies with which Guruji imparted the knowledge of the dance, I couldn’t help salivating over the glamour of performance.  So when Guruji started putting me in choreography for the stage, I was thrilled.  I thought I had made it.  At that time, I measured my progress in my study of the dance with the choreography I was placed in or the particular group of dancers I was put with.  So it’s an understatement to say that when he kicked me out of an ensemble piece one day, I was indignant.  

“Rachna, you don’t look good in this and you can’t keep up with the others.  Go stand over there and play manjira (finger cymbals)”.  My ego (and I had a lot of it) was shattered.  How dare he tell me I’m not good enough to dance with them.  I AM good enough.  I stood to the side, playing manjira, pouting, and watching the others do beautiful choreography.  The reality was that I was struggling with that choreography. My body lines were not developed yet as a dancer and I didn’t have the refinement necessary for professional choreography, especially on a western stage, where that was the most important value.  But Guruji wasn’t angry with me in this scenario.  In fact, he seemed totally unphased, which made me even MORE angry.  Did he not care that I didn’t progress?  Am I just dispensable?   At some point, there was a harmonium on the side and he told me to start playing it.  My fingers moved fast on it because of my piano training and he was pleased with it.  But I didn’t like being good at it.  I was angrier than ever. I did not want to be a musician.  I wanted to be a dancer.  And I especially wanted to dance and perform with my friends.  Isn’t that what this was all about?  

Despite this turmoil inside of me, I kept doing as he asked. I started trying to do some footwork while playing the harmonium since he often did footwork while playing tabla. He coined this technique Kathak Yoga because of its concentrative characteristics.  When I started doing this, it made him very happy which made me even more depressed.  I would cry while playing the harmonium and the keys would get wet before I could wipe away my tears.  One day, he came over to me as I was crying.  He slowly leaned over the harmonium and pierced his eyes into mine – something he did sometimes when he wanted to deeply reach your psyche.  It was unnerving, as if someone was peering into your soul.  He paused for a moment and said “Why are you being so stupid?  Don’t you see what this is?  I’m trying to give you truffles and you want Kit Kat.”  He pointed at the harmonium, “truffles” he repeated, and then pointed at the dancers doing choreography, “Kit Kat”.  Then he cracked a very small, mischievous smile and smirked, “Just trust me”.  And he walked away.  

I didn’t fully grasp what he was trying to tell me.  But there was one thing that was very clear –  he believed in something in me.  I didn’t know what it was.  But somehow I had faith in it and I believed that whatever he had in mind, was in my best interest. I didn’t spend time analyzing it or intellectualizing it.  I just surrendered – not to him the person, but to the lesson he was trying to teach me.  So, I started taking the harmonium more seriously.  In other words, I started practicing.  A lot.  We went to India that winter and I was living in the same house with all my guru sisters and Guruji.  We would train together every morning.  But I was so determined to develop the “truffles” that I would wake up before everyone else and secretly work on doing footwork with the harmonium. I was focused.  I was determined.  And I was fueled by my ego, channeling its double-edged sword.  I was not going to allow myself to be left behind. I was going to do whatever it took to make myself relevant and I was going to rise to what Guruji saw in me.   

The more I practiced, the more interesting it became.   I started playing with the different speeds of 8 with my feet, overlaying them on the cycle of 16 while playing the cyclical melody, and also singing it.  It was hard and it demanded a fierce level of focus. It was impossible to think about anything else while attempting it.  At first, I found myself mentally exhausted after practicing it–  a sign of my nervous system being stimulated in ways that my neurological pathways were not accustomed to.  But slowly, I found my mind and body to integrate and I would feel even calmer when I finished my practice then when I started.  Without realizing it, I was embarking on a new journey of looking inward and of elevating my higher self.  The moments of total stillness of mind during the practice of Kathak Yoga, was giving me great power.  But not power over others. Not fleeting power from the external validation of performance. But a spiritual power that was deeply grounded in the discovery of knowledge.  Knowledge of the art, knowledge of the self, knowledge that was building the perfect whole of dance and music.  

When we returned from India, we were in class one day at the ashram and Guruji suddenly rubbed his chin and titled his head up in a scheming manner “I heartd that Rachna is doing layakari (complex playing of rhythms) footwork in kathak yoga with the harmonium?  Is it true?” He looked at me.  I knew better than to fall into the trap of boastfully saying yes.  I clasped my hands together and put my head down in a humble acknowledgement of his statement.  “Show me.”, he said.   I walked over to the harmonium and started doing kramalaya (ascending speeds of footwork).  I started simple with 16 on 16, 32 on 16, but then I went on to fitting 24, 48, 96 on 16 beats while playing the 16 beat cycle with my right hand, pumping the instrument a-rhythmically with my left hand, and singing the cyclical melody.  He was surprised as I kept going – I could feel his surprise and it was motivating me more.  When I finished, he stood there and slowly started clapping his hands in applause, cueing the others to join in. He walked over to me and in a very rare act of affection he lovingly embraced me into a hug.  “These are my teachings.  She is following my teachings.  This is sadhana (lifelong pursuit of knowledge)”.  Then he turned to me and winked, “Now watch the fun my dear.”

There was no turning back from there.  Every class he would put my harmonium table next to his tabla table and we would both play and dance.  He started coaching me specifically in this practice and giving me homework that I excitedly inhaled.  I would call him with my practice stories and share my discoveries.  My footwork technique went from being the softest with the worst clarity in the class to being one of the loudest with the most clarity.  I was innovating with spins while playing, I was improvising for the first time and trying new time signatures like 9.5 beats.  My entire interest and curiosity of the dance was unhinged and my whole being was fulfilled in a way that was indescribable.  It wasn’t even occurring to me that for two full years I didn’t really perform and I didn’t really care.    

One day he began choreographing for a new work to be premiered in the fall home season show.  He decided to create Shabd  – his first ever artistic work showcasing his company doing the technique of kathak yoga.  My guru sisters played manjira and I played harmonium while we danced and sang with no musical accompaniment.  He said “The time has come for the world to see kathak yoga for what it is.  That my students are going deeper into the tradition in contemporary times.  I want the audience to be brought into our practice room.”  And there came the full circle: from desperately wanting to perform, to not caring about it anymore, to being put in an anchor position in a major choreography.  

I realized that when you finally understand that art is ultimately not about performance – but rather a journey of gaining real knowledge – then when you actually acquire knowledge, you treat performance as a responsibility to share the art with the world, rather than a self-serving act.  And the purity of your attitude makes you an even more powerful and impactful performer.  My experience with kathak yoga saved me from the trap of what performance is so often motivated by –  vanity and an empty quest for fame.  Through this practice, I dug my grounding in the art form with deep purpose, knowledge, and responsibility.  

You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company from 2000 – 2015. Can you share your experience of being in such sophisticated productions of that era?  

By the time I was emerging as a performer,  CDDC was gaining quite a bit of visibility in the western performing arts scene, particularly in San Francisco.  This was in part due to Celine Schein Das’ (Guruji’s wife and Executive Director of Chhandam at the time) vision to raise the profile of the company.  CDDC did also have a profile in the 1980s due to Julia Maxwell’s work (Guruji’s 1st wife and original principal dancer), but in the 1990s, Guruji was much more focused on the school and training the next generation. I feel blessed and very lucky to have come in at a time when I had the opportunity to be part of so many spectacular productions that Guruji created, like Sampurnam, Pancha Jati, Shabd, Sita Haran, Darbar, India Jazz Suites, Yatra, Shiva.   It was a time in his career where he was an overflowing wellspring of creative energy.  And he was finally getting to match the caliber of his creative genius with high production value in staging, sets, lighting, and musical accompaniment from great musicians and composers of India who began to work consistently with him year after year (artists like Jayanta Banerjee, Debashis Sarkar, Kousic Sen, Swapnamoy Banerjee).  I think also for the first time Guruji had the support from a burgeoning community of South Asians and a large student base, many of whom were at the level to teach classes and run the school so he could focus completely on being a choreographer and artist.

Just being in the room when he was creating was revelatory, but to be one of the bodies he was painting his choreography on, was sheer joy and exhilaration.  It was the training ground for me to grow as an artist under his close watch – from the almost impossible physical demands of Pancha Jati to the deeply synchronized meditation in motion of Shabd, to the exploration of both male and female character portrayal in Sita Haran and Darbar, to the extremely challenging feat of doing 108 chakkars and high speed footwork wearing a wig and mask, while depicting a stoned tantric sadhu in Shiva.   

While it was thrilling and fulfilling, it was also the most grueling years of training, physical injuries, and deep emotional battles.. It was a constant roller coaster ride both with Guruji’s intense personality and the personalities and group dynamics with my dance sisters.  

Many dancers came and many left for a myriad of reasons, but often taking pieces of me with them, since we all shared such deep emotional experiences – literally trading sweat and tears and moments that no one else in the world could possibly know.  

The price tag was high for being in his company.   But, I think for me, the way that I was wired was that I felt that the price tag of not being in that room with him was even higher.  That is what kept me persevering.  

I think perhaps one of the most invisible aspects of the performing arts is what goes into creating those 1 or 2 hour onstage performances.  From start to finish what does it take? And how is it valued in society?  People know how hard professional basketball players work year-round to compete at the level they do – there are cameras and media and writers at every practice, chronicling every step.  But for dancers, we are behind closed doors.  No one is capturing the labor.  There are no records of the real magic that happens in training and rehearsal.  What is visible is when we step into that spotlight for a brief time, only to disappear again into the rehearsal room.  

You became a full-time dancer in 2010 – not a typical career choice for South Asian Americans and that too after graduating from Berkeley in science and pursuing an MPH.  What led you to make this shift?  What is it a difficult transition?  

Being a dancer was most definitely not what I ever imagined I would be.  There is no road map for it and as a South Asian American, it’s even more against the grain to choose a career that is not lucrative or frankly even viewed as a profession.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have attended Indian gatherings and had people say, “How’s that dancing going? Are you still doing that?”.  One time I responded, “How’s medicine going?  Are you still a doctor?”.  So yes, it has come with a very large set of challenges, none of which help my own insecurities around it.  It wasn’t a simple transition even for me.  In the South Asian community we are indoctrinated with a very particular set of values around education, career, “respectable” professions, and earning power.  As the diaspora now grows into 2nd and 3rd generations, things are evolving out of this singular paradigm thinking.  But I grew up in the 80s.  There was no other generation.  My generation was the first to be born in the U.S and there were not very many of us.  Our parents had no safety net whatsoever.  They gave up their entire families and homes, often going months, even years, without speaking to their own parents, maybe receiving a telegram or two because it was too expensive to call India and the connection was atrocious. So there was no grey area around career.  You study, work hard, go to a good college and get a good paying job. 

My parents, however, were more fluid and progressive when it came to how hard they pushed me. They wanted me to do well and provided me with an environment to excel, but they never put the same kind of pressure that I saw many of my South Asian peers go through.  And they always encouraged me to follow my passions while continuing to pursue my studies.  So when Guruji called me in 2009, the day after my MPH graduation, offering me a full-time position as Co-Director of the Chhandam School, I was faced with a conundrum.  On one hand, it was the most exciting thing to happen – to be able to do what I love, devote my time completely to what I was truly passionate about and not have to continue splitting my mind and energy with an entirely different career.   But on the other hand, I had to confront my programmed ideas of success. I would have to take a dramatic pay-cut from my public health work.  I would have to contend with the question – will I be respected in society?  In my community?   

In the end, it dawned on me that there were hundreds of thousands of people who could do the public health work that I was doing.  But there were maybe 10 people in the world who were being trained at the level that I was being trained by such a rare and extraordinary master of an oral tradition and artistic lineage that had somehow survived multiple wars, regime changes, attempted extinction by British colonizers, and was now being handed to me on a silver platter on a different continent like a precious jewel.  In addition, I had not only the emotional support of my husband, but the financial safety net to take the risk.  I knew that many of my guru didis who came before me and a few of my guru sisters at the time did not have this privilege.  It was an even harder struggle for them to make this choice. I had the chance to embrace the privilege that I had.  And my parents, while hesitant and concerned about my individual financial agency, were ultimately supportive of me to follow my dreams.  I would never have been able to do it without this emotional support of my family.  It is an uphill battle everyday to choose the path of an artist but if you have to fight for it at home also, it would be next to impossible.  Their sacrifices through the years can never be separated from my journey and my successes.  

Can you share your thoughts on activism in arts? As an arts activist, what are some of the issues you are most passionate about?

Its funny – a lot of people have asked me why I consider myself an activist.  Some people are even confused by it.  It seems that there is something intimidating about that word.  In the dictionary it’s defined as, “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change.”  There is no mention of how you go about bringing that change.  So while my kathak journey has not been political, it certainly has been always about bringing social change.  The day I met Guruji, I saw him as nothing but an activist.  He himself said, “I’m not a dance teacher, I’m a dance preacher.”  And his entire approach to the dance was how it can be utilized as a platform to undo the shackles of societal norms that we live by.   And he pushed us everyday to mobilize community, raise awareness, and most importantly change and expand people’s perceptions of Indian classical art.  This is the piece that resonated with me the most, particularly as a South Asian.  I was angry when I first began studying the dance (and I still am!).  I was angry that I was so ignorant about Indian classical art.  How come there are so many White folks devoting their lives to this and adopting a culture not even their own, yet the masses of South Asians were uninterested, uninformed, and even misinformed about Indian arts.  Fifty years after colonization we have continued to devalue our own great cultural innovations, while the rest of the world is in awe of them.  It’s not the fault of my community – our battered history is the root cause.  But this is why it’s one of my biggest drivers of advocacy and activism.  To first change how my own community values its own culture – not today’s Indian pop culture that is entirely framed by the West.  But rather, the rich artistic heritage birthed in the Indian subcontinent – aspects like her dance, music, poetry, literature, yoga, and ayurveda.  

The other issue paramount to my work is how kathak dance is viewed, funded, and presented in the western arts field.  It requires a great deal of advocacy to elevate a non-Eurocentric art form within the framework of a field created and managed by White Americans.  The West values constant innovation, disruption, individuality, irreverence, and anti-authoritarianism.  While the East values tradition, continuity, consistency, community, depth of knowledge, reverence of our elders.  As an arts activist, I take very seriously the charter to create a bridge between these two often clashing value systems – bringing relevance and modern thought to evolving our art in modern times but without losing its intended purpose and integrity,  just to make it fit in the western system.  That means fighting that system as well as having the courage to create our own system, including how to value Indian artists financially.    

You have an incredible ability to reach youth, particularly through your mentorship and direction of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company.  Can you talk about this experience and why you consider it a youth empowerment program?  

Teaching is a gift.  It was instilled in us early on that the trajectory of one’s study of the dance must include teaching. And fundamentally, Guruji did not believe one can isolate performance from teaching.  I am forever grateful for this foundational value.  Over the years, I have come to realize that teaching provides the necessary delicate balance from the often ego-driven performance aspect of being an artist.  Performance is incredible, exciting, and necessary to transport oneself and the audience through the medium of the art.   But performance is not always a spiritual experience.  There is high pressure, concern for the audience’s reaction, insecurities about your work, technical problems, stage and sound limitations, and so forth.  And the adrenaline, while exciting is usually fleeting.  Even further, it’s hard to understand the impact you are making when you perform since you often never see those audience members again.  That is why teaching brings such a contrast.  It brings patience, long-lasting relationships, community, empathy, understanding of life experiences different from your own, and deeper knowledge of the art form itself.  Teaching is truly a mirror to yourself as you start to see your own characteristics in your students – both good and bad.  

As far as teaching youth are concerned, I never consciously saw it as a particular calling for me. But I started to realize over time that I have an ability to relate to the kids, particularly children of South Asian immigrants, whose lives I had lived 20 years earlier.  And while I was frustrated with my own peers and my parents’ generation for knowing so little about Indian classical art, I realized that I could channel that passion to ignite a fire in the next generation.  Somehow that passion turned into something more meaningful than I could have ever imagined.  The kids teach me so much more than I feel they learn from me.  And on a personal level, I have gone through over a decade of fertility struggles and have been unable to have children of my own.  So having the opportunity to nurture children means more to me than perhaps I have even realized and more than I’ve ever spoken about.  

With the Leela Youth Dance Company, I have shifted the focus from being only a pre-professional performance troupe to being a youth empowerment program.  I think it’s important to instill in our youth, particularly South Asian youth, not just pursuit of excellence, but also compassion, leadership, agency, responsibility, and their own amplified voices for social change.  Gen Z is a special generation!   They are poised to truly shift our systems that determine how much tolerance, inclusivity, equality, and social consciousness we have as a society.  And embracing the depth of their own heritage and history while pushing their physical and spiritual boundaries through the dance, is the leverage they need to truly become the leaders of tomorrow.  For me as their mentor, I measure my own success as a leader, not by how many students I train, but rather how many new leaders I create.  

You are known for your charisma and dynamism as a kathak artist. Which aspects of your style do you feel are more directly derived from Pandit Das’s teaching, and which are more unique to you and your experiences as an artist?

It’s a tough question because when you study in a one-to-one mentorship for so many years, the lines become blurred as to what is your own and what is an extension of your teacher.  I can certainly say that what I naturally gravitated towards was the dynamism of the dance – growing up I have always played and competed in sports.  So the athleticism, the spontaneity, the improvisation, even its playfulness and excitement of not knowing what’s coming next are aspects of my style in the dance today that are derived from both my background as well as Guruji’s approach.  Guruij, himself, used to talk at great length about his own love of sports.  So it’s something that was a big part of him that inspired his style and that I also chose to develop more because of how it resonates with me.  

I also very much appreciate the tradition of kathak that allows for the performer to address the audience (breaking of the 4th wall).  I have always found this to be such an endearing, sincere, and human aspect of the solo kathak performance tradition and it comes naturally to me as well.  I prefer to connect with the audience through not just my dance but also words, humor, and personality.  To me, it provides a human pathway to relating to the art, rather than leaving it entirely up to the interpretation of audience members and the performer being an unknown enigma.  

I do find that my own artistic works that I create are emblematic of not only my personal life journey but also my place in this world as a woman.  I chose to create a work called Meera, about the 16th century princess Meerabai, born into steep patriarchy, but finding ultimate liberation through poetry, song, and dance.  I felt connected to her not only as a woman but also because of the way spirituality was exposed to me in my childhood upbringing – which was rarely through temples or priests but rather through kirtans (singing devotional songs for the divine) especially for Lord Krishna.  This is in stark contrast to Guruji’s upbringing.  I also found that the kathak/tap collaboration, SPEAK,  that me and Rine Mehta co-created with female tap artists Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, has a very different take on the kathak/tap conversation that Guruji and Jason Samuels Smith had in India Jazz Suites.  Those of you who haven’t seen the show will have to watch it to make that assessment for yourself!  

You have served in many administrative roles at the Chhandam organization during your many years.  Is there any particular highlight of this work that you would like to share? 

I served in so many different facets of the organization – starting when I was 20 years old taking in student inquiries, which taught me at the very beginning how to speak about the art form, the teachings, and the community we were serving.  In later years I had the opportunity to build the Fremont branch and gain an even deeper understanding of what was required to raise awareness, appreciation, and commitment of Indian classical art amongst the South Asian community.  But what I am most grateful for and was the most impactful learning trajectory for me was stepping into the role of Co-Director with my gurusister Seibi Lee.  In these years, Seibi and I had the great honor to direct huge dance drama productions under the guidance of Guruji, particularly the Ramayana school show in 2009 and 2011, presenting close to 300 students on stage with community members and parents chanting the various Sanskrit verses pertaining to each scene.   These were massive undertakings – not only did my own understanding of these great epics deepen, but I was able to observe Guruji’s own influences from Uday Shankarji in Kolkata around dance dramas and I had the chance to apply that artistic knowledge in real time with the students.  

It was also a great honor to develop and further the curriculum of Chhandam under Guruji’s guidance.  We were able to build upon the groundwork that former CDDC principal dancer, Michelle Zonka, had laid and we had the opportunity to spend hours upon hours with a magnifying glass into Guruji’s brain on why each and every piece of the curriculum was created and ordered in the way it was in order to manifest a knowledgeable and well-rounded kathak dancer.  It is these experiences that I carry forward with me as we now continue to evolve and build our standards-based curriculum into 2021 and beyond!   

You were scheduled to have a gandabandhan ceremony with Pandit Das on January 31, 2015.  He sadly passed away 3 weeks before this.  What was guru shishya parampara to you and do you have any feelings about not getting to go through with the ceremony? 

The word “guru” in our society has become either used too lightly (finance guru, a teacher from one workshop) or something that evokes images of a cult leader who robs you of your individual agency. I have been taught that the guru-shishya relationship is an evolving and growing bond through which the knowledge of the discipline you’re studying unfolds over time. A guru is much more than a teacher.  He/she does not just teach you in the classroom. That goes without saying and the training is brutal and merciless.  But after the class is over, when the body is exhausted and the mind is invigorated, that is the time when our defenses, biases, and blockages are the most open to change.  It’s that time spent off the dance floor that I had my most profound moments of realization, perspective shift, of expansion of thinking. 

It was the post class trips to Whole Foods together, the private rides to/from the airport, the plane rides on tour, the thousands upon thousands of meals we shared together, the many trips to India, and the social gatherings that he always pushed for.  A guru takes the time to get to know the student inside and out, what makes them tick, what is the context of their upbringing, and gets to know their family members and the people who are important to them. A guru has the ability to make the student feel seen and believed in, while pushing them to see their flaws.  

Guruji loved being called “modern Guru in training” because it meant that he was always learning too.  He knew he had to evolve and continue to grow until his last day.  But there is no such thing as a Guru without a willing disciple.  So I did my part too, which was trusting in the relationship.  That was not always easy.  There were many ups and downs and coming to terms with his flaws too. That was very difficult for me and did not happen right away.  Guruji was not always an easy person to be around.  It was a pressure cooker and often his volatility was due to his frustrations and pains of his own journey. His pain often came out in the presence of my family members or friends, who had no way of understanding that context – which often made it more challenging for me to garner the very support he was seeking.  And I had to learn the hard way how detrimental it was for me to absorb his pain, as opposed to listening and preserving my own boundaries. They say that if you stay too far away from the Guru’s fire, you will never get to experience it’s warmth, but if you get too close you can be burned.  It is an art to learn that push and pull.  

I often feel sad that my gandabandhan ceremony could not happen.  To me it was a symbolic legitimacy of the 17 years I spent with him.  But I have come to see it as not happening for a reason – that since in my heart I never needed it to truly honor the relationship, the ceremony was not necessary.  The “string” is forever in my spirit.  

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the next generation of dancers could learn from? Do you have any words of advice?

There are hundreds of lessons but here are three top of mind: 

  1. That the dance shows you a way to face your insecurities and fears.
  2. That as a South Asian, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to preserve and promote pride for classical Indian art, culture, and history and to open the window of its universality to people of all backgrounds. 
  3. How to do seva (service). But when I say seva, I am referring to sevafor myself. I wouldn’t have the audacity to claim I am doing sevato others since ultimately, doing service to the community is cleansing and polishing my own inner self.

My advice to all is simple.  Think less. Feel more.  Art is not an intellectual exercise!  

I am referring purely to studying the art itself.  Not about how to organize or be an arts administrator or promote yourself or be a professional dancer.  Those all require a different set of skills.  But if you don’t study the art.  Really study.  None of those other things matter.  From disciplined study and practice, all the other answers will come to you. 

As 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?

I have been very fortunate to have many powerful gurusisters over the years.  I am not in touch with all of them anymore but each one of them has meant something different to me and I will always cherish the time I spent with them and the many things I learned from each of them.  I have been even more fortunate to have a few gurusisters – Seibi Lee, Rina Mehta and Sarah Morelli – who I have been able to build a longer lasting sisterhood with, and whose values align with mine at the very core of our approach.  The most important value being that we wanted to build something into the future that was not about any one of us.  That was not built on one singular personality or leader.  But rather was built on collective leadership, collective creativity, multiple voices, and a larger cause that we hope will continue far beyond our lifetime.  That is what the Leela Dance Collective represents.  Our premise is to carry forward the teachings of Pandit Das while taking the art forward, creating cutting-edge artistic works of our own, and making the art increasingly accessible while preserving its depth and integrity.   It’s not an easy feat by any means.  But we felt that if we can work together, even if it might be harder to navigate group dynamics (never a dull day!), ultimately we would go much farther.  

With the help of the next generation and blessings from the divine, we have been able to build a national presence in four cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Denver.  I am humbled by the incredible women I get to work with and excited to continue to carry the torch of our lineage into the future.  

Rachna Nivas

Rachna Nivas is a leading artist, educator, and activist in Indian classical dance, bringing a relevant voice to kathak.  She is a founding artist of the all women-led and artist-led Leela Dance Collective producing powerful works through the collective creativity of trailblazing women in kathak.  She is currently touring her collaborative work SPEAK, bringing together kathak and tap, as well as her dance ballad, Son of the Wind, featuring 20 dancers and a live orchestra.  Her original solo work, Meera, was featured at the ODC Walking Distance Festival in San Francisco and at Salvatore Capezio Theater in New York City. Her original work Stir, choreographed for the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, was featured at the WorldWideWomen’s Girls Festival.  Her works have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, California Arts Council, and Zellerbach Family Foundation.

Prior to her work with Leela, Rachna was principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, of which she received two nominations for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award while performing in numerous productions.  Rachna is also the artistic director of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, shepherding excellence, leadership, and creative discovery amongst teens. She is also Director of Leela NY, the NYC chapter of Leela Dance Collective, bringing her lineage of kathak to the dance capital of the world.

PHOTO CREDITS: Rachel Neville, Margo Moritz, Brooke Duthie, Matt Sumner, Rama Sivamani

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