Kathak is a traditional north Indian dance known for its precise and rapid-fire footwork, theatrical display and signature spins. The modern Bollywood style of dancing derives itself from Kathak.
Das, the son of two well-known dancers, was born during the resurgence of Indian culture in the 20th century, a time when the last dregs of British colonial rule were slipping away. His parents owned and ran a well-respected arts school, so although during the day the young Chitresh Das went to a Roman Catholic missionary school in the heart of Calcutta – not far from Mother Teresa’s first hospice operations – he went home to music, dance and literature.
“(The school) was how my mother chose my guruji (teacher),” Das said. At age 9, he admits, he wasn’t sure he wanted to become a dancer, but, he said, he fell under the power of the man who would become his dance teacher.
“It was a rigorous time,” Das said of his years of dance instruction. They would practice for hours as soon as day broke, he said. They practiced while wearing almost 10 pounds of ghunghru – the signature string of small bells worn around the ankles – and they practiced in the middle of summer’s humid and stifling heat.
“My parents never intervened,” Das said. “My father would occasionally express some sympathy, but from my mother, there was no sympathy. ‘I chose your guru for that moment,’ she would say.”
While his mother was the sterner of his two parents, it is she who Das ultimately credits for his successes as a dancer. “I believe strongly that mother is the first guru. If mother puts in the head and in the mind and body and spirit, than the child grows up to be very beautiful, boy or girl.”
Das’ mother would be proud to see that her son, now in his sixth decade, has not only followed in her footsteps, but has opened several schools of Kathak dance around the world, from San Francisco to Tokyo. She would be proud to know that he developed a style of yoga based on Kathak.
But she would even be more proud to see that her son has gone back to Calcutta to establish another school, this time for the girls who live in the city’s Red Light District. According to Das, learning the classical Indian dance could be a way to console and empower the vulnerable girls, who are often forced into prostitution before they hit puberty. And they’re taken off the streets.
It’s not much, he said, and dance is pretty much the only thing he knows to do and teach. But for the girls who find safety and knowledge in his classes, it’s sanctuary.
Pandit Chitresh Das performs at 8 tonight at the UCSB Multicultural Center. For tickets, call 805.686.4315.