Interview with Senior Youth Company Member Ishani Chakraborty

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member Ishani Chakraborty


As part of our YOUTH VOICES SERIES, we share an interview with Ishani Chakraborty. Ishani began learning kathak at Pandit Chitresh Das’ institution in 2008 at the age of seven, and auditioned and was accepted in to the youth company in 2011 when she was ten. She has since performed at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Opera House, Zellerbach Hall, and at the National Conference of the International Association of Blacks in Dance in Los Angeles, and many other prestigious events.

CDI interviewed Ishani in anticipation of her Youth Company Senior Graduating Showcase performance, Ritu Ke Rang on June 29th, along with her three fellow graduates and guru sisters, Gauri Bhatnagar, Ruchira Rao, and Atmika Sarukkai.

When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

Ishani Chakraborty (IC) My first Youth Company performance was at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in 2012 and I vividly remember performing threes shows in front of a sold out hall of over 5000 people. When rehearsing on the small stage, I pricked my foot on a staple and was profusely bleeding all over the stage just minutes before the first show. Despite the pain of my injury the 5000 bright smiles in the audience, the live orchestra, and fellow ballet dancers brought great joy and energy to my dance and confirmed my love and passion for performing and continuing kathak.

 What is the thing you're most scared about? 

IC I’m scared about the day of the show, and how my nerves may prevent me enjoying the stage and allowing myself to explore the stage as a soloist. I fear that my preoccupations may keep me from being my best self on stage and possibly hinder the confidence that I’ve been tirelessly working to build up over the past 4 months.

 What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance? 

IC I’m most excited about performing in front of my friends and extended family to showcase the cultivation of what my guru sisters and I have worked on for the past 4 months. This whole journey of preparing for the solo showcase, mentally, physically, and artistically, is a very personal and introspective process that has allowed me to reflect upon my strengths and even what doesn’t bring out the best in myself. This is also my first time performing pieces that my guru sisters and I have choreographed ourselves, which I’ve never done before and I’m really excited to showcase this to my family and friends first.

 What is next for you with your dance? How will you continue your dance past youth company?

IC This solo showcase is only the beginning of my kathak journey. Although this performance is a cultivation of what I have practiced, learned, and prepared until now, I wish to expand my artistic knowledge of dance and make it my own, giving me the creative license to further explore kathak as an art over a dance form. Beyond college, I intend to continue my involvement in kathak and take up any opportunities offered to perform and attend dance workshops.

 What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?


 1) I want to share the joy I get from performing and hopefully get a reciprocated response.

2) Kathak is a really nuanced and complex artform and isn’t just another classical Indian dance, and I want people to be able to take something new from the performance whether it’s the mathematical complexity or stylistic flourishes that make up this dance form

3) I want to share an energy that encourages people who have never danced or have even, to start kathak!

What do you hope for future Youth Company members? 

IC I encourage future Youth Company members to make the most of all the performance opportunities they have. I really regret not being able to perform as much due to school commitments or certain schedules that I prioritized over dance. Every performance, big or small, is truly a learning experience and instead of complaining about the circumstances, try to think about how you can adjust oneself to fit occasion and perhaps even get ideas of how to circumnavigate the obstacles there may be. I think what I believe is most important in being a company member is staying true to oneself. In retrospect, every performance is a milestone because there is so much you can change or grow from, and it’s still not the end of the world.

One bad performance doesn’t validate you as a good or bad dancer, because you still have a whole journey ahead of you.

Tell us one story about Dadaji that illustrates why he was so important to you and many others.

IC Dear Dadaji,

It’s still difficult to accept that you left us 4 years ago, however, you left me with the most beautiful gift I could ever ask for. You haven’t just passed on kathak to this legacy, you have cultivated the path for exploring a new genre of kathak. You passed on your style of dance and discipline to each one of us, and each one of us has made kathak our own. In essence, the proverb you would always repeat at the end of YC class: “You come alone, you go alone” continues to ring in the back of my head. These words only recently began resonating when I realized I cannot take my parents, teachers, or friends with me to college. These past few months, I’ve been able to reflect on how meaningful kathak has been to my life, and it really has been the backbone of my lifestyle. I cannot imagine a life without monthly performances, weekly 4 hour dance practice, and all the opportunities I had to bond with and meet new dancers. While it’s been a rollercoaster in coming to terms with your departure, you found the best in us, pushed us to our limits and have motivated us. With this, I promise to surprise my granddaughter's Boyfriend with 24 gun (speed) tatkar at the age of 70. I cannot put into words how thankful I am for thisgift you have left us and so much more. I’m eternally grateful for who you’ve sculpted us to become, and I hope that I’ll make you proud.

Tell us one story about Charlotte Didi that illustrates why she is so important to you and so many others.

IC Charlotte Didi over the past eight years has not only been my mentor and teacher, but has grown to become a close friend and mother figure in my life. In class, she pushes us to our limits to bring out the best in us and always encourage us to explore our strengths, yet always challenge ourselves. This philosophy is what has helped bring a discipline in my life over the past decade as I’ve had a figure to constantly stay motivated by. Following the years of Dadaji’s passing, I found myself naturally getting closer to Charlotte Didi and talking to her about general advice in life. Like a mother, she sees right through us and knows when we aren’t giving our 200 percent in our practice and looks out for us like any friend would. 7 years back in a humid studio filled with 50+ sweaty dancers, Charlotte Didi left the class with a saying I’d like to share: “Make your weaknesses your strengths by being open to learning and changing oneself.” Letting myself go and being able to explore my voice through dance has been the most liberating experience I’ve had and I cannot wait to continue my kathak journey past college. Thank you for being my inspiration and I’m really lucky to have had you as my teacher for the past decade.

Tickets for Ritu Ke Rang are sold out but Ishani can be seen on July 6 & 7 with the Chitresh Das Institute dancers performing Charlotte Moraga’s choreography ‘Aranya Devi’ at the opening weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival at Zellerbach Hall. For tickets click here.

 Photo of Ishani Chakraborty by Ravi Kohli

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member Ruchira Rao

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member Ruchira Rao


As part of our YOUTH VOICES SERIES, we share an interview with Ruchira Rao. Ruchira began learning kathak at Pandit Chitresh Das’ institution in 2006 at the age of five, and auditioned and was accepted in to the youth company in 2011 when she was ten. She has since performed at in the Ethnic Dance Festival at the San Francisco Opera House in 2018, the Ethnic Dance Festival at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2016, Zellerbach Hall, with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble in Toronto, and many other prestigious events.

CDI interviewed Ruchira in anticipation of her Youth Company Senior Graduating Showcase performance, Ritu Ke Rang on June 29th, along with her three fellow graduates and guru sisters, Gaura Bhatnagar, Ishani Chakraborty, and Atmika Sarukkai.

1) When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

Kathak cemented its role in my life when I joined the Youth Company in fifth grade. Going from dancing one hour per week to the intense Youth Company requirements solidified my dedication to this artform. My first performance as a YC member was in LA and I remember the thrill I got out of performing alongside my guru sisters. Eight years later, I still get that same thrill whenever I step on stage, which undoubtedly strengthens my commitment to this artform.

2) What is the thing you're most scared about?

Charlotte Didi always says that while your dance should have intention and purpose, it should also carry a sense of abandonment and joy. I’m a little afraid that I will get caught up in the small details of the performance and forget to enjoy being on stage. This is the first time I will ever step on stage my myself and without my guru sisters next to me. I hope that I get a similar thrill performing alone as I do performing with the Youth Company.

3)  What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

I’m most excited for my friends and family to see me dance. Our graduating performance is unique in that the audience is a close knit one. They are not strangers; most of them have known me for most of my life and have watched me develop as a person and as a dancer. I know that they are there to support and love me and I am excited to show them a small glimpse of the culmination of all the teachings I’ve received over the past (almost) 13 years.

4) What is next for you with your dance? How will you continue your dance past youth company?

Dance has been a constant presence in my life since I was five years old and I hope that it will have a presence throughout the rest of my life in some capacity. In college, I hope to use the skills that Kathak has given me to explore many different dance forms. I want to give myself the opportunity to learn new styles of dance that I have never encountered before. With that being said, I hope to keep in contact with my roots as a Kathak dancer, as it is the foundation of my dance experience.  

5) What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?

  1. I want people to appreciate the nuances and complexities of Indian classical dance.

  2. I hope that the audience will be able to experience the joy that dance has brought me.

  3. I want the audience to have fun and relish in the community that Kathak has created and brought us into.

6) What do you hope for future Youth Company members?

I hope that future Youth Company members appreciate the cultural value of what it means to be a part of the Youth Company. Not many people are lucky enough to be able to connect so deeply to the tradition. The four of us are some of the last YC members to have trained under Dadaji first-hand, but his teachings are so incredibly strong and apparent in the Youth Company’s training and in the wealth of knowledge that Charlotte Didi passes on to us.

When I auditioned for YC I had no idea that I was about to be a part of one of the greatest sisterhoods of my life. While going to class multiple times a week and rehearsing for countless hours was exhausting, dancing with the same people for over eight years creates a bond like no other. Though we spend an innumerable amount of hours together in the studio, performing together brings about a whole new sense of unity. Performing on stage requires an intimate knowledge of yourself and one another. Being able to dance alongside and share the stage with my guru sisters for the past eight years has forged an incredible friendship that I hope every Youth Company member will experience.

7) Tell us one story about Dadaji that illustrates why he was so important to you and to so many others.

Dadaji has impacted me in unparalleled ways. There is not one story that can do justice to the importance he has in my life and in the lives of so many others. My first Youth Company class was an exciting time for me. I had no idea what to expect from it and on arrival I was put into a studio jam packed with 40 other YC girls. We were standing in order of seniority, with the with the inexperienced, but bright-eyed and bushy-tailed YC members (including me) on the left and the most experienced and seemingly flawless older YC members on the right. After a relentless warm up, I remember Dadaji turning to the seniors and saying, “Watch out! These liliputs are like spiders. They’re coming for you!” I never left a YC class with anything left in the tank. Every ounce of energy was given to the dance and this one man pulled it out of every single one of the people he encountered.

Dadaji was also one of the first role models of female empowerment that I remember. He always used to tell us to not get a boyfriend until we had a 100,000 dollar job, our own car, and our own house. He continued by reminding us that we should be able to practice just as hard when we reached his age, or at least until we could effectively scare away our granddaughter’s boyfriend with our footwork. In class, when we thought we had given it our all, he would pause for a moment and say, “I know it’s hard, baba, but you ladies are tough. You can do it.” And then we would do it all over again.

8) Tell us one story about Charlotte Didi that illustrates why she is so important to you and so many others.

Much like with Dadaji, there is no one story that captures the impact Charlotte Didi has on me and so many others. Throughout my years in the company, no other person has had a greater hand in my development as a dancer as she has. Her passion and dedication to the Youth Company has resulted in the creation of dozens of confident and knowledgeable dancers. Charlotte Didi is the reason that the four of us are able to step on stage as individuals and as a group and I am so proud to have been a part of her creations.

Tickets for Ritu Ke Rang are sold out but Ruchira can be seen on July 6 & 7 with the Chitresh Das Institute dancers performing Charlotte Moraga’s choreography ‘Aranya Devi’ at the opening weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival at Zellerbach Hall. For tickets click here.

 Photo of Ruchira Rao by Ravi Kohli

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member Atmika Sarukkai

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member Atmika Sarukkai


As part of our YOUTH VOICES SERIES, we share an interview with Atmika Sarukkai. Atmika began learning kathak at Pandit Chitresh Das’ institution in 2006 at the age of five, and auditioned and was accepted in to the youth company in 2009 when she was eight, following her elder sister, Mayuka. She has since performed at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Opera House, Zellerbach Hall, in collaboration with the a Taiko drum group, Eden Taiko, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and many other prestigious events.

CDI interviewed Atmika in anticipation of her Youth Company Senior Graduating Showcase performance, Ritu Ke Rang on June 29th, along with her three fellow graduates and guru sisters, Gauri Bhatnagar, Ishani Chakraborty, and Ruchira Rao.

When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

Atmika Sarukkai (AS) I think the first time I really felt a deep connection to dance was the first year that I presented a kathak yoga piece where I played the bansuri while dancing for Dadaji's 68th birthday. The fact that I'm still trying to develop kathak yoga pieces where I play the bansuri while dancing almost a decade later is a testament to the fact that that experience was quite instrumental (no pun intended) in fostering a deep personal connection to the artform. As I watched the video of my performance recently, a wave of nostalgia hit me. I recalled the intense focus my 10 year old self tried to maintain throughout the piece as I attempted to sustain a melody on my flute while stomping out complex rhythms, and I recalled the relief that washed over me after every successful execution of a cycle of footwork. Although I would like to say that my love for playing flute while dancing was fostered completely internally– a product of my intense love for music and dance combined– I know that that is only partially true. When Dadaji voiced his recognition of the physical challenge of playing the flute while dancing and his appreciation for the mental gymnastics that was required to execute such a piece, I knew that I wanted to continue to challenge myself and to make him proud. But even after Dadaji left us four years ago, I felt more connected to kathak yoga than ever before. I think I now understand why he encouraged us to explore kathak yoga: there is no greater feeling than knowing that you can be completely self sufficient– you are your own musician, dancer, metronome, etc. I thank Dadaji for making me realize that it is when I am completely aware and in control of myself that I am able to exude a kind of liberation from reality that is the essence of dance itself.

What is the thing you're most scared about?

AS The four of us have put our all into building our stamina, and infusing our individuality into our choreographed pieces, and I think the scariest thing about going on stage will be having to perform individually in front of an audience of ~300 people. It isn't that I haven't performed in front of large audiences before, but this whole process has been a mostly introspective journey, and the fact that in a few weeks I will have to stand on stage by myself, vulnerable to the public gaze as I attempt to confidently and effectively communicate to individuals who may have little to no knowledge about the artform as well as perform for my own friends and family is daunting, to say the least.

What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

AS I am most excited to interact with the musicians and my three guru sisters on stage. When I watch Kathak performances, I am always excited by the raw energy that is organically created on stage, often times in the form of improvisation. For this performance specifically, I am excited that my dad will be playing the mridangam during my Thaat, in which we will perform a "trade off" where I will perform a series of footwork patterns, and my dad will follow, playing the same sequence of beats on his mridangam. I am beyond excited to share this experience with my dad, and I know seeing his face on stage will make me feel so much more relaxed during the performance.

What is next for you with your dance? How will you continue your dance past youth company?

AS I would love to take part in performances anywhere that I can, and I know I will find lots of opportunities to do so at Cal. I would love to drop in on Youth Company classes during college breaks (to make sure my stamina hasn't dramatically declined), and maybe even TA a class if I get the chance. I know that no matter where I go, the determination, precision, and groundedness I have developed through dance will follow, and I am sure that I will fall back to dance time and time again as an emotional outlet and as a way to feel in control of my own life during hectic times.

What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?

AS I want people to recognize that Kathak is still a very relevant artform and the central energy of this artform transcends time. The four of us have intentionally chosen to focus on themes of female empowerment and inner strength because this artform does represent those things for us, and we hope these messages will transfer to the audience as well.

I also want people to take away a piece of our personalities after the performance. Yes, the four of us have danced together in the same studios for the last decade, have been given the same choreographies, and have learnt from the same teachers, but we have all discovered our unique artistic identities in the process. I think the real beauty of dance comes from the fact that when we dance, we emote from our souls, and our movement reflects what we truly feel. I think the four of us have reached the point where we are able to connect more deeply with the dance and instead of just absorbing and learning movement, movement has become a form of communication.

What do you hope for future Youth Company members?

AS I hope future Youth Company members feel empowered by their femininity. Being a part of the Youth Company is probably the most rewarding and empowering experience I've had as a woman, and unfortunately today we are constantly surrounded by a narrative that somehow women are inferior to men. The narrative that Dadaji instilled in our minds from the moment we stepped foot on the dance floor was that we are female warriors capable of anything we put our mind to, and he emphasized the self-empowering nature of dance. For incoming YC members, I hope they will fully internalize the message that they are truly capable of anything they want to accomplish because that is a message that has given me strength both on and off the dance floor.

Tell us one story about Dadaji that illustrates why he was so important to you and to so many others.

AS There isn't one story that can capture all that I love and admire about Dadaji, from his simultaneously intense and caring nature, to his ability to command a room, to his ability to bring a community of students, teachers, and parents together in a way that only he could.

One experience I can recount is one of the many classes where he made us do the same chakkar composition multiple times in a row, and although we were all on the verge of passing out, we never stopped turning. Yes, our technique deteriorated over time as our arms flailed around, our vision blurred, and our balance faltered, but we persisted. Every class he would push us to our physical limits, but that day when he told us, "Today you'll, hate me, but tomorrow you'll love me," for maybe the 100th time, I remember actually believing him. Because at that moment of pure exhaustion, I realized that by pushing us to our very limits, he was challenging us to find the strength to persist, and when that drive to persist is obtained, we are prepared to take on any obstacle thrown our way. This story illustrates what I loved most about Dadaji— he made every class a lesson in life. I will treasure all the moments I had the honor of spending with him, and I will carry their messages in my heart always as I begin the next chapter of my life.

Tell us one story about Charlotte Didi that illustrates why she is so important to you and so many others.

AS One of the things I appreciate most about Charlotte Didi is the fact that she loves her students like her own children. She makes sure her students feel equally loved and equally capable, and she both values the qualities that separate us from one another as well as encourages us discover a unified spirit on the dance floor. Because the solo is what is currently on my mind, I will recount a very recent event, where at the end of one of my solo sessions, Charlotte Didi emotionally professed how much she would miss the four of us next year, and how she was so proud of us for carrying on Dadaji's legacy. Charlotte Didi has a way of connecting with us emotionally and making us feel like we can bear our souls to her, our struggles in our personal lives as well as the achievements we are proud of. I really believe she exemplifies everything a teacher should be– approachable, extremely dedicated, and most importantly, compassionate.

Tickets for Ritu Ke Rang are sold out but Atmika can be seen on July 6 & 7 with the Chitresh Das Institute dancers performing Charlotte Moraga’s choreography the opening weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival at Zellerbach Hall. For tickets click here.

 Photo of Atmika Sarukkai by Ravi Kohli

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member - Gauri Bhatnagar

Interview with Senior Youth Company Member - Gauri Bhatnagar


As part of our YOUTH VOICES SERIES, we share an interview with Gauri Bhatnagar. Gauri began learning kathak at Pandit Chitresh Das’ institution in 2006 at the age of six, and auditioned and was accepted in to the youth company in 2009 when she was nine. She has since performed at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Opera House, Zellerbach Hall, with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble in Toronto, in Los Angeles, and many other prestigious events.  Gauri will start teaching at the Chitresh Das Institute this fall.

CDI interviewed Gauri in anticipation of her Youth Company Senior Graduating Showcase performance, Ritu Ke Rang on June 29th, along with her three fellow graduates and guru sisters, Ishani Chakraborty, Ruchira Rao and Atmika Sarukkai.

 When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

Gauri Bhatnagar (GB) I knew from the beginning. I was, at the time, doing other sports and extracurriculars, but when asked to pick, I knew I'd pick Kathak. 

What is the thing you're most scared of?

GB I'm probably most scared about losing all the knowledge, and I hope I continue dancing somehow in my life.

What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

GB I'm excited to show people that even though we learn complex patterns and choreographies, we are still able to put simple steps together to create the complexness. 

 What is next for you with your dance? How will you continue your dance past youth company?

GB I will hopefully be teaching dance next fall, as well as helping with the summer camp program this summer! 

What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?

GB 1. Through injury, comes even more learning. When I couldn't dance, my recitation got so much more improved than it would have if I hadn't gotten injured.

2. Push through times where you don't want to do it, because in the end, it's going to be completely worth it.

3. Enjoy what you do. If you enjoy it, it will be easier to dance and learn. If you don't, then do not force yourself to continue. 

I also hope they enjoy the overall performance! 

What do you hope for future Youth Company members

GB To work hard, enjoy what they are doing, and to give it their all. I loved my years in Youth Company and will treasure them forever. 

Tell us one story about Dadaji that illustrates why he was so important to you and to so many others

GB From day one, he was important. I had always heard how he was scary, but I never understood why and this story strengthened that belief that he wasn't. I was maybe 9 years old, and I was in a room putting my bells on. My back was to a window behind me and the other girls. There was a moment of silence and then a loud "BOO!" I'm pretty sure all of us jumped in our spots. I remember laughing uncontrollably. I then walked out to find my mom, who was talking with Dadaji. I hid behind her legs and poked my head out from the side so that I could see him. He said something to make me smile and then pointed out, "Oh, she has a dimple!" I knew from then he was special to me. He has given a gift to each of the ladies he has taught and come in contact with. He has empowered us to be who we want to be, and to not let anyone tell us otherwise. Especially those “oily haired boys” he always mentioned. He was important in so many ways that I can say, but he was the one person that could put us in check and I always will remember and appreciate that. 

Tell us one story about Charlotte Didi that illustrates why she is so important to you and so many others.

GB  Charlotte Didi has always been important since day one as well. I wasn't as close to her at first, but over time she grew close to me and the other girls as well. I don't have a specific story, but one thing I love that she does is she will push us till we are sweaty, out of breath, in pain, and then will give us a small break. However, the thing that makes her important is how she cracks jokes and laughs with us during those breaks. She pushed me to my limits and yet can balance it out with her humor. She is an amazing choreographer and beyond beautiful dancer. Her abhinaya is outstanding and I will always aspire to try and get close to that level. I appreciate all the time and energy Charlotte Didi has dedicated to helping us improve as dancers and young women as well. 

Tickets for Ritu Ke Rang are sold out but Gauri can be seen on July 6 & 7 with the Chitresh Das Institute dancers performing Charlotte Moraga’s choreography the opening weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival at Zellerbach Hall. For tickets click here. Gauri will start as a teacher at the Chitresh Das Institute this fall.

 Photo of Gauri Bhatnagar by Ravi Kohli

Medha Lolayekar’s Thoughts on Recycling, Ecology and Dance

Medha Lolayekar’s Thoughts on Recycling, Ecology and Dance

Medha Lolayekar is 13 years old. She is a Junior member of the Chitresh Das Youth Company and an in the 8th grade at Miller Middle School in San Jose.

As part of our effort to green our production for Aranya Katha - The Maharaja’s Decree CDI staff, students and parents visited the recycling center at the Stanford Office of Sustainability at Stanford University and took a guided tour and learned a great deal about the process and cycle of our waste, whether it be composting, recycling or landfill. Medha attended this tour and wrote this essay about her experience.

My recent trip to Stanford University, to visit the Recycling Center and talk about Stanford Sustainability effort, got me thinking how important and urgent it is to promote recycling, educate people about eliminating waste, and how to make more sensible choices in our day to day life. Perhaps introducing a course of Ecology and Sustainability as a mandatory part of school curriculum can do the trick? There are so many important and difficult academics we learn in school. We work so hard to get good grades, and excel on exams and tests. However, the majority of students have very little knowledge of how to recycle and what throwing away trash does to earth.  If only everyone could internalize what a terrible crime is being committed by polluting and wasting natural resources. Did this field trip change my whole perspective on the problem? Was I oblivious to it before? No, it was not news to me, it was rather an eyeopener on how urgent it is to act, and how important it is for our generation to realize that it is time for us to be the change. 

Saving and helping the environment has always stuck with me. All my major projects, essays and assignments have been about ecology. In sixth grade, I wrote a letter to the President of the United States about how global warming is real. The results were disappointing as he didn’t reply, but other students before us got replies. 

Seventh grade was the year where we learned and first touched base on biology. We were given a coral reef preservation project, where we had to come up with ways to promote tourism, but also help the coral reefs. There were four teams that needed investments from the three judges to promote their take on the problem, and whoever the judges chose as the best solution of the problem got the funding to work on the project. 

I suggested to my team to base our solution on ecotourism, which would create expansive reef nurseries, where eco-friendly solar powered clear bottom boats could allow the tourist to see the reefs without touching them. In the end, we came out as the winners of the challenge.  

Now you might think how this could be at all related to Kathak. Dance and ecology seem to be very different and unrelated. To those unacquainted, Kathak may seem as rhythmic moves to music, typically following a set sequence of steps, but it is so much more than that. Kathak tells the audience a story and touches their hearts through the emotions and feelings of the dancer expressed through moves. I remember, when I started dancing in first grade, I was learning about rainforest preservation. Coincidence? Probably not! At the same time during my dance class, I was learning tatkar (the specific beat, created by feet hitting the ground in a particular sequence and speed). I could not see how dance and nature may be related. Despite tedious and tiring dance classes, I kept exceling, learning, chanting the bols (syllables used by Kathak dancers to name musical notes and beats they dance). I felt invigorated when I danced, but only later did I realize a deeper meaning behind the movements. In any form of dance, the dancer speaks through movements, but in Kathak, there is a spiritual element that involves the dancer to be constantly grounded to the earth. Kathak is danced barefoot, so we feel more connected to the earth. The energy that surrounds and engulfs the dancer is almost palpable by those in the audience. Here are a few bols - Ta = body (from Tanu), Thei = Earth (from Sthela), Ei = Lord (from Eishwara). This is my 7th year studying the art of Kathak dance. 

My most recent dance piece on the historical account of the beginning of the global environmental movement, resonated with me the most. If art can promote enlightenment and peace, there is no better vehicle to raise awareness for fragility and beauty of earth, awaken others, realize the urgency and start the change. 

Photo of Medha Lolayekar with her father, Santosh, taken February 2, 2019 backstage at a performance at Marin Center.

Fahmida Bangert, Director of Stanford’s Office of Sustainability

Fahmida Bangert, Director of Stanford’s Office of Sustainability

Fahmida Bangert is the founding director of Stanford University’s Office of Sustainability and Business Services ( During her service, the university has earned a Platinum rating through the national Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) with the highest score out of 800 reporting institutions in 2017. Directing one of the largest sustainability offices in higher education, Fahmida designs new programs for sustainability infrastructure and practices; assesses and evaluates campus programs; directs the outreach and education portfolio; oversees performance metrics automation and display initiatives; and steers academic integration to aid 'university as a living lab' initiatives. Fahmida is a regular guest presenter in classroom and an instructor with Earth Systems in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University.

Before joining Stanford, she was the founding sustainability program director at UC Berkeley, where she architected its climate program ( Photo of Fahmida Bangert by Kelly Patrick Dugan.

1) What does the Stanford Office of Sustainability do? 

The Office of Sustainability, started in 2008 in the Department of Sustainability and Energy Management and connects campus departments and entities and works collaboratively with them to steer sustainability-specific initiatives. We work to incorporate sustainability as a core value and decision criteria in everything we do – in research, and most tangibly in campus work.  

Our program name is Sustainable Stanford - a university-wide effort to reduce our environmental impact, preserve resources, and show sustainability in action. Day to day we lead initiatives on campus physical infrastructure and programs in energy and climate, water, transportation, building operations, and waste minimization. The office serves as the hub of Sustainable Stanford programming, with a focus across seven key areas: infrastructural planning support; assessments, evaluations, and reporting; business systems; conservation programs; communications, training, and education; collaborative governance; and organizational effectiveness.  

2) What drives you and/or inspires you to do your work at the Stanford Office of Sustainability?

Earlier in my career, I was working at for-profit companies doing what I was good at, but not aligned with the passion I had for helping to find solutions for environmental degradation.  I grew up in Dhaka Bangladesh and then spent my teen years in Manila, Philippines.  Both places had a profound impact on my understanding of humans’ inexplicable and deep relationship with nature, and what happens when the relationship is dysfunctional or all about taking, not giving back.  I wanted to help solve these problems, but I did not do anything about my passion until 2003, when perhaps I finally summoned enough courage to leave my career as I knew it and return to graduate school to study the environment more closely to understand the solutions.  It is the same motivation that drives me today – I keep looking for better and lasting solutions, and we develop and implement the programs at a university setting – which is a perfect and impactful living laboratory of learning, action, and hope.   

3) Can you share your experience as a dance student?  

I enrolled as a student after I saw this jaw dropping, heart pounding performance by the principle dancers at the 1999 North American Bengali Convention in Santa Clara and I knew I somehow needed to be part of this tribe.  I become a student at Pandit Chitresh Das’ Institute from 1999 – 2004 in many of the branches and learned directly from Seibi Lee, Charlotte Moraga, Farah Shaikh and then of course, on some frightening and auspicious occasions from Chitresh Das himself.  

Those five years of training several times a week had a profound impact on my psyche and my ability to connect to my passion.  For those of us who learned with Chitresh Das directly know that the learning experience with him was always raw and brutality honest – he had his own way of taking us to the place we fear the most so we may overcome it.  In my case, he not only coached me on connecting with the audience on stage because dance is a visual art, but asked provocative questions about my personal journey.  In the end it was a surprise between us that my passion would take me outside the sphere of direct practice of Kathak dance, but we both knew that environmentalism was a worthy pursuit. I left the school with his blessings to go to Santa Barbara for grad school, hoping to give back some day in some fashion.   

4) How do you see that performance, and in this case working with the Chitresh Das Institute and kathak dance, could play a role in the work you do (or play a role in having a greater impact?)

It is an interesting question – about performance.  Kathak dance is a stylized version of storytelling and the stories are about real life, real challenges, and how we may overcome them.  Not everything always fits neatly in a show, but in most compositions, there is a transformational point where the dance reaches a higher calling. I think any art form that conveys the reality of our society today and connects us to that so we may join together, so we may find solutions together – fulfills that higher purpose. This is a general answer, I understand, so particularly for CDI, there is such a rich history of storytelling and actual tools to convey emotions – our pain, our challenges, and our aspirations – through gesture, footwork, rhythmic interpretation and acting.  This avenue should be further explored to support key causes in our lifetime.  And environmental sustainability is certainly very high on that list if you ask me.

5) How do you see your work impacting that of the Chitresh Das Institute's efforts toward sustainability?

At a strategic level and personal contributions aside, if CDI adopts sustainability as a core value on what it does – teaching students, producing shows that embody environmental values, picking themes rich in social consciousness of our times – that would be tremendous.  This is because CDI also stands as a place of learning for model citizenship, not just taking dance lessons. 

As a friend of the institute, I say that organizations don’t all need to reinvent the wheel on this topic.  If there intent is there, there are enough examples, tools, and resources for the transformation to take place if there is a willingness to do that.   

6) Why do you think people should be interested in the work of the Stanford Office of Sustainability?

Stanford is a luminous brand of innovation and success.  There is an appeal there and it is legitimate because the collective intelligence and goodwill of the institution and its people are formidable. The university website can speak to that. 

In terms of sustainability, our office is one of the oldest and strongest in its composition and the comprehensive topics we cover.  We take an analytical approach to behavioral and social solutions and can plan to achieve results, so there is a method to the madness, you may say. 

We also have made many resources and tools available through our website Dedication to outreach and a culture of innovation have been central to Stanford’s mission since its founding in 1891, when Jane and Leland Stanford exhorted university leaders to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” That sense of purpose drives our commitment to incorporating sustainability practices and thinking into every aspect of campus life.   

7) What are five simple things one could do today that wouldn't be too hard but could have maximum impact?

  •   Do an assessment of whether you are living suitability – meaning are you in alignment with your values of living sustainability? 

  • Pay attention to what you buy, use, and waste.  Reduce what you can, reuse what you can, recycle well, compost more, and landfill the least. 

  • Take part in your organization to get connected to the sustainability efforts there. 

  • Teach your children, or the other way around, allow them to teach you.  I find that the younger generation have a higher Environmental IQ. 

Visit…see our resources and ‘how to guides’ to be tailored and applied to your organizations and or lifestyle. <>.

The Chitresh Das Institute presents Aranya Katha, Part II — The Maharaja’s Decree on May 12 at 6pm at Samuel Johnson, Jr. Performing Arts Center at Capuchino High School in San Bruno. Tickets & More Info

Interview - Charlotte Moraga on Receiving "Anugami" Award

Interview - Charlotte Moraga on Receiving "Anugami" Award

What are you excited about for the coming year?

Charlotte Moraga: I am excited to create more dance, I am excited to see more people discover what they can accomplish through the dance on their own, to have up-and-coming students. We have a new…

Interview w/ Lily Kharazzi

Interview w/ Lily Kharazzi

Lily Kharazzi is an ethnomusicologist, arts administrator and traditional arts advocate who has spent decades supporting artists and art makers. Lily will be moderating a discussion with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Houman Pourmehdi and Pirayeh Pourafar on Sunday, Sept 30th at 1:15pm, prior to the 2pm performance of Noor at Z Space.

CDI Communications Intern Shruti Pai interviewed Lily Kharazzi about her experience and her thoughts about art and collaborations.

Q: Why is ethnomusicology inspiring for you?

Lily Kharazzi (LK): The field of what we call “world music” is really interesting because when I think about people organizing sound or any kind of aesthetic pursuit according to their culture, we have before us this incredible treasure. And it’s a treasure of mankind because the music and the creation of music is such a window into human creativity and when we classify it and put it into cultural expression, you have a sense of a collective window into what makes for beauty, what makes for sadness, what makes for some of the most universal and deepest of human emotion. So the study of ethnomusicology, it’s not just that it’s also the ingenuity of sound, which can be very scientific and can be very mathematical.

Q: What did you learn from your work with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts?

LK: It has been a great privilege to work with ACTA through these years, to have a real window into this very diverse and large state of the union. So what I think I most treasure is really the values that ACTA gets into, to look and uphold and value cultural expressions of the diversity that’s here, and that can be from the original peoples of California, our Native Americans to more recent immigrants, and that there’s a place for everyone and hopefully we will continue to be a place for everyone in this really abundant state.

Q. What discussion are you opening for Noor?

LK: I’m really interested in the concept of “Noor” from the perspectives of both Iranian classical music and Indian classical music, and the concept of light, of clarity, and the manifestation of how that’s expressed. I’d like to hear from the musicians and from the audience who have a concept of how powerful this word is, just exactly what the concept of “Noor” means to them in their practice.

Q. What do you think the audience has to gain from Noor?

LK: It’s very hard to predict what anyone can get from encountering an art expression, and for people who do or do not have a context of classical music there’s something you could get just from letting something envelop you totally and that means to close your eyes and to know something that perhaps you’re not expecting to feel, that might be a very important outcome. I think the audience can traverse their own internal journey as well as being really satisfied with the interaction of the musicians that are both precise but also have an ability to improvise, and that’s kind of an electricity that happens, the potential to experience that is very high with this concert.

Q. Why do you think the collaboration of different arts and different cultures is important?

LK: I think this goes back to our supporting of diverse and distinct styles of music. What can reach across is the excellence of both traditions. They certainly can speak way beyond your own particular ethnicity or cultural community. And these collaborations, they speak to each other but they come from a place of mastery, it’s not a superficial conversation. I’m not going to say “music is the universal language,” because that’s not always the case. What I think it has the capacity to do is reach some place that we hope to touch the human heart.


Interview w/ Houman Pourmehdi, Musician and Composer

Interview w/ Houman Pourmehdi, Musician and Composer

Houman Pourmehdi is is a master percussionist, well known for his diverse abilities as a musician, composer, and multi-instrumentalist and is Co-Founder of the Lian Ensemble with Pirayeh Pourafar. He will be performing with the Lian Ensemble in collaboration with tabla Maestro Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, who will be joined by Raaginder Momi Singh on Indian classical violin and son and disciple, Nilan Chaudhuri, on tabla. Chitresh Das Institute Communications Intern, Shruti Pai, interviewed Houman Pourmehdi to get his insights on his work as an artist and his thoughts about the upcoming production of “Noor - Music Legends of India & Iran” at Z Space, Sept 29 & 30, TICKETS

Q. Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing and musical training?

Houman Pourmehdi (HM) I grew up in Tehran, Iran and my father was a musician. I learned a lot of the culture through him and his very close friend, later on he becomes a grand master and I was his student and was introduced to Persian classical music in that way. Later on I started to go to school where I studied in the Center for Preservation of Traditional and Classical Persian Music, and I was introduced to Sufis in the west of Iran, and that’s how I learned drums and instruments through the Sufi tradition. So for many years I played with them, traveled with them, and then coming to the U.S. in 1988 opened up a new life for me. So I studied a little bit of stuff in college here and doing concerts and working as a musician, and touring around the world since that time and working with many grand master musicians around the world, including Persians and non-Persians and all kinds of music and musicians. And then in 2005 I was hired by California Institute of Arts as a Persian percussionist and then later on I started a different program for Persian music and Persian ensemble and a percussion ensemble. Since 2005 I have been teaching in California with CalArts.

Q. What connections between Persian and Hindustani music most interest you?

HM: As we know, Persian and Indian music have the same roots. In many ways I see a common denominator between us, especially when I work with great masters such as Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, because it is so amazing how we can bring you rich subjects through our cultures and find out the real sound of our roots. So many, many instruments that are played in most Indian and Persian music have a lot of similarities. Plus, the form of music has so many similarities between us. You just have to know your own music, so once you sit together with no ego, so definitely you will reach the point that you see we are all the same. You’re going to believe we are in a different place, a different language, but basically we are talking the same language.

Q. Have you found it difficult to preserve Persian arts in America?

HM: Not really, I never felt that. Just like your mother tongue language, you never forget. So I’ve grown up since I was three years old with this music, so how can I forget? And there is interest in this country and especially in California there is a big interest, and that’s why I’m teaching at CalArts, I am teaching my own traditions and I’m not teaching western music. So I think they found me and then they asked me to “just be yourself and teach whatever you know through your culture.”

Q. Where do you draw inspiration from when composing music and what is that process like for you?

HM: When I compose music, I personally always am looking at poems, poetry. My favorite poet is Rumi, and Attar, and many other Sufi poets. So these people inspire me because I am not composing, I am just unfolding, that’s how I see it. The music is sitting in the poetry, I am just looking at it and then I see it. I’m just making it more, kind of easier to understand the poetry. So I personally think the music is already embedded in the poetry, so I am just opening it up.

Q. What does the word “Noor” mean to you personally?

HM: So it’s a long story actually. I’m going to refer to Rumi, in the Masnavi there is a story that explains that. There’s a story in Masnavi which says there are three men that have been sent into this room individually and someone asks them what they observed in that room. One of them says “I was in this very short ceilinged room. I touched the ceiling and I think I was in a small room.” And the second person’s observation was that “I was in a really big room with really big posts. I felt the posts, I touched the posts, so I assume it was a big room where I was.” And the third person says, “I think there was some palm trees in there.” Then Rumi says they light up a candle and they went back, the three of them, to that room and they find they saw an elephant. So the first person touched the belly of the elephant and thought it was a small room, the second person touched the feet of the elepehant and thought it was a big room with posts, and the third person touched the ears of the elephant and thought it was a palm tree. So where the light comes in, it shows the truth. So when we are in the dark, we don’t see anything, or the truth. Once the light is coming, the truth, we can see it. Noor means light in our language.

Q. What do you hope the audience takes away from this performance?

HM: I do not hope anything, we are sharing. We are sharing a zone, a momento, which is kind of difficult to find musicians to move that zone. We are trying to reenter that zone again. And I really don’t see music as a goal, it’s not an aim for us. Music is a truth for us, it is not an aim. Personally I don’t think music is an aim for me, or a goal. Because every moment and second changes, especially when we are improvising, so no one can plan what to play and what to do. So as long as we know our job and what we know and are sharing our love together, usually what happens is that love creates a bigger circle, a circle of love and kindness. So whoever is in that circle probably gets a taste of it, so I don’t know what audience is going to sit and watch us, we are just trying to be who we are and play music. That’s basically sharing our love with people.



HOUMAN POURMEHDI is a master percussionist, well known for his diverse abilities as a musician, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. Performing and recording in numerous ensembles and at a variety of venues. He was introduced to Persian music by his father, and received his first Tonbak at the age of three from his grandfather. He was privileged to study Tonbak under guidance of the late Grand Master Amir Nasser Eftetah. At sixteen he continued his studies at the Center for Preservation and Propagation of National Music, where he completed the techniques of playing Tonbak under supervision of Master Morteza Ayan. His interest in the spiritual path of Sufis introduced him to the Ghaderi Sufi order's virtuoso Daf players, such as Haj Agha Sadeghi, Mirza Agha Ghosi, and Darvish Karim, with whom he studied the heart-to-heart traditional techniques of playing Daf. Pourmehdi moved to Chicago in 1988, where he founded the society for the Advancement and Preservation of Traditional Persian Music and he study Persian Music Under supervision of Dr. Mehdi Forough, it was here that he first fathomed the exciting possibilities of introducing the unique sounds of Persian instruments to American audiences. He also preserved the ancient Persian Percussive instrument called Kurekeh. The Society also facilitated his meeting the eminent Mohammad Ali Kianey-Nejad, who taught him the Ney (Persian Reed Pipe). Pourmehdi designed the tuneable Dayereh which is part of the Cooperman's Artist Innovation Series of instruments. Houman is both a recording artist and concert musician. He has appeared at many radio and TV interviews with live performance. He has performed widely throughout Europe, North America, Asia, and North Africa . Pourmehdi composed music for a short educational film in 1999. His knowledge of traditional repertoire and intimacy with Sufi world are made to serve a very personal style of interpretation in his compositions. He is the recipient of the Individual Artist Fellowship Award C.O.L.A. 2008, L.A. Treasures Awards 2004 & 2008, ACTA the Folk & Traditional Arts Mentorship Initiative 2004 & 2006, and ACTA Apprenticeship Program 2003. Houman has composed music for two plays "Philoktetes" Directed by Michael Hackett and Olivier Award-winning British actor, Henry Goodman; as well as, "Medea" starring Annette Bening directed by Lenka Udovicki. In 1996 Houman has co-founded The Lian Ensemble. He currently lives in Los Angeles , and teaches Persian Percussion at the CalArts (California Institute of the Arts).

More info on the Lian Ensemble & Houman Pourmehdi

Interview w/ Pirayeh Pourafar - Persian Musician and Composer

Interview w/ Pirayeh Pourafar - Persian Musician and Composer

To be very frank and honest, I just want them to come with open hearts, and then whatever they achieve is fine with me. The only things I request, and hope, actually I’m not in the position to request anything, I hope that they come with open hearts, and let us pour love in their hearts. Because everybody in the ensemble…

Youth Voices - Kritika Sharma

Youth Voices - Kritika Sharma

Kritika Sharma is a senior in high school and will soon be embarking her college journey in the fall. She started dancing perhaps as soon as she began walking, and from a young age has been very artistic taking interest in choir and piano as well. She formally began studying Kathak at the age of five and joined the Youth Company at nine making this her ninth year in the company, and 13 years dancing overall.  She studied directly with Pandit Chitresh Das and his disciples and students and now continues to study under his senior disciple, Charlotte Moraga

Although there have been countless performances that left an impact on her, some of the most memorable are SF Ethnic Dance Festival 2012 and 2016, Deck the Halls at Davies Symphony Hall, collaborating with Japanese Taiko, and performing with Ritesh Dasji's Toronto Tabla Ensemble in 2015 and 2017.  

Q: When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

KRITIKA:  After I entered the Youth Company, I began performing far more frequently and from a young age I was able to perform at prestigious events and locations without even knowing fully what an honor it was. My first time performing at the Ethnic Dance Festival was in 2012, and although I’d been dancing for many years before that, EDF was a performance that truly showed me how beautiful the world of dance was and how exhilarating it is to be on stage performing what you love. 

Q: What is the thing you're most scared about?

KRITIKA:  I’m scared about the stress or nerves I may feel on the day of the show, and how that may keep me from fully letting go and simply enjoying my time on stage. Performing and being on stage is by far the most liberating and amazing feeling, and even though performing solo is quite difficult, I want to be ready to the level where my dance just flows effortlessly. 

Q:  What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

KRITIKA:  I’m most excited about performing with an audience of close family and friends because there’s a certain warmth a known crowd brings in which contributes to the energy of the performance. I’m also excited to showcase this art for the dozens of people that have known that I dance for many years or perhaps just seen a video, but have yet to experience the power and beauty in person. 

Q: What do you think people should know about what it's like to prepare for this performance?

KRITIKA: There’s so much more that’s going into the performance than what is seen on stage, and every single little movement, no matter how easy it looks, actually involves double or triple the energy and presence. The biggest challenge is creating the energy that an entire company of dancers creates just with your own body and dance. This means pushing yourself to present complex compositions while making them seem effortless, knowing entire backstories of characters so that they are portrayed exactly right, and always being aware and present yet also completely free while dancing. 

Q: What is next for you with your dance? How will you continue your dance past youth company?

KRITIKA:  What many of us don’t realize is how much Kathak has actually taught us about rhythm, music, and dance as a whole, and what an advantage we as Kathakas have moving forward. I would love to try out different dance forms in college and incorporate what I’ve learned in Kathak to develop myself as a stronger overall dancer, and even take formal college dance classes to deepen my knowledge further. 

Q: What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?


  1. I want them to simply feel appreciation for Kathak and Indian Classical music and art.
  2. I want them to understand the depth of Kathak dance and experience every element of it from the power to the delicacy, understanding of rhythm and beat, abhinaya, and creativity. 
  3. I want them to be able to feel the same joy I feel from dancing and performing on stage. 

Q: What has it meant to be a part of the Youth Company?

KRITIKA:  Being part of the Youth Company has meant needing to be a strong independent dancer, a team member, and a leader all at the same time. It has also shown me the importance of being an ambassador of culture and heritage, and preserving classical art form in an unparalleled way. 

Q: What do you hope for future Youth Company members?

KRITIKA:  I hope that they realize how important Kathak is in their lives and in how it is so much more than just dance. It’s no secret that class can get long and exhausting, but the more you grow as a dancer, the more ways you see dance creating a positive impact on your life. Kathak develops character, a sense of confidence and presence, knowledge of one’s heritage, and the benefits of having this foundation of discipline, passion, and creativity will continuously appear in every aspect of your life. I hope that YC members will push through any moment that seems difficult and love every moment they spend on the dance floor because this journey is so fulfilling and irreplaceable.

Message to Dadaji (Pandit Chitresh Das)

Dear Dadaji,

I only wish I was able to pick up the phone like we did before every performance and tell you this in person, but you impacted my life in more ways than one and I think of you every time I step on the dance floor. I think we all went through a phase of being intimidated as “liliputs” when we were first introduced to your roaring personality and electric feet, but your humor and sock slides across the floor are what excited us to come to class every time. I soon realized, that your energy and passion would win us all over even more, as you showed us how Kathak was not just a dance form but a way of life. You drew out energy from within us that we did not know we had, and pushed us to limits we did not know even existed. It is because of you that I am able to stand on a stage alone and dance because I know you have given us the knowledge to be “American born confident desis,” not confused. 

We of course learned a lot from what you were telling us in between Natavari Tihais or 108 chakkars, but what resonated with me the most was what you told us when we were sitting on the floor trying to catch our breaths. To dance or do anything for that matter because it made us happy, to keep our culture and heritage close, and to be strong and independent because we do indeed come alone and go alone. For this and so much more I am so thankful for all that you have given us, and I hope that I’ll make you proud. 

Dedication to Charlotte Didi

The message I would like to leave Charlotte Didi is that I am so eternally grateful for her for not only teaching me to be a strong dancer, but a confident and knowledgeable individual as well. The fact that the three of us are able to take our first step in becoming a solo performer, is so largely due to her tireless effort and endless belief in us, and her energy and character never fails to inspire us in a new way. I feel so proud to have learned from her and Dadaji, and she truly embodies what it means to be an ambassador of heritage and the arts. 

Kritika will be performing along with her guru sisters Shreya Khandewale & Shruti Pai at their graduating senior showcase, TRIVENI, on June 16 at 5 pm at Evergreen High School Auditorium in San Jose. Purchase Tickets

Youth Voices - Shreya Khandewale

Youth Voices - Shreya Khandewale

Shreya Khandewale - Senior Youth Company Member

Shreya Khandewale first began studying Kathak when she was 5 years and joined the youth company in 2011, studying directly with Pandit Chitresh Das and his disciples and students. She currently studies under Charlotte Moraga. Since joining the Youth Company, Shreya has performed at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and at the International Association of Blacks in Dance National Conference in Los Angeles and in collaboration with Eden Aoba Taiko.

Q: When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

SHREYA: I had always loved to sing and dance, and I remember one class very early on, where we were dancing the Kavita and Kaliya Daman. We were dancing, and I was enjoying myself so much, not thinking about perfecting the movements, or avoiding messing up — I was blissfully dancing, in the moment. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I now know that was the moment where I realized how special Kathak was to me. 

Q: What is the thing you're most scared about?

SHREYA: This solo is my most personal performance to date. Being vulnerable on such a large level, and attempting to convey myself through a medium like dance is daunting, and I hope to deliver the best and most authentic performance possible. 

Q:  What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

SHREYA: After performing tarana at several venues, it feels pretty weird to say that I’m most excited to perform tarana at the performance. But all jokes aside, I truly am most excited about tarana — not only because it’s the grand finale, but also because we have the most experience with it, and we’re excited to make it uniquely our own.

Q: What do you think people should know about what it's like to prepare for this performance?

SHREYA: Preparing for this performance has taught me so much about myself and Kathak as an art form. Working with Charlotte Didi to conceive and choreograph all my pieces has given me a deeper understanding of the roots and tradition of Kathak. However, going through this process has shown me that reading and research are just as important as the riyaaz itself. 

Q: What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?

SHREYA: I hope to leave the audience with a piece of myself. Through my vandana, I want to convey my singing background, singing Indian classical music while dancing. Through my thaat, I hope to convey my love for math and rhythm, with intricate compositions. And finally, through my special Natwari Tihais piece, I hope to convey tradition, juxtaposing different styles of Kathak. 

Q: What has it meant to be a part of the Youth Company?

SHREYA: Dancing with the Youth Company has been such an incredible experience. First and foremost, training directly under Dadaji for several years fueled my passion for dance, and inspired me to spread that passion to each and every part of my life. Learning from Dadaji and all my teachers over the past seven years in the Youth Company has made me not only more aware of myself, my body, my voice, and my internal rhythm, but also given me a new family and a unique sisterhood. 

Q: What do you hope for future Youth Company members?

SHREYA: Although taking the plunge into the solo process was slightly daunting, I hope that all Youth Company members decide to pursue a solo! Despite all the difficulties and stumbling points, the solo has been one of the most rewarding experiences ever, and it has given me two of my best friends and tons of unforgettable memories. 

Message to Dadaji (Pandit Chitresh Das)

Dear Dadaji,

“Three questions asked.” I remember sitting in the back of my very first Youth Company class, taking in the awkward silence that followed those words. In the weeks that followed, I would continue to be afraid, to hide in the back and feel guilty for not asking a question. But those silences encouraged me to think and reflect. 

Over the past seven years, I’ve finally realized why you were so insistent on questions. I’ve realized that those last ten or fifteen minutes were often the most important of the entire class, that you wanted us to leave your classes not just with a greater understanding of dance, but a greater understanding of life. I’ve realized that you wanted us to cast aside complacency to learn on our own terms — to seek and question, rather than to accept.  

So thank you, Dadaji, for encouraging me to be curious and inquisitive. Thank you for helping me feel confident and strong in my own body. Thank you for your endless pursuit of excellence, not just from yourself but from everyone around you. But most of all, thank you for teaching me to never settle. Your passion, dedication, and joy for dance and everything around you have always inspired me, and will continue to inspire me everywhere I go.

Love always, Shreya 

Dedication to Charlotte Didi

Charlotte Didi, thank you for everything. Without your guidance throughout my Youth Company Journey, I would not be here, performing. Thank you for putting your heart and soul into the Youth Company — for not only coming up with the most incredible choreographies, but also teaching us the significance of everything we were dancing and learning in the process. Thank you for always having such a strong vision, and always encouraging us no matter how difficult the process. But most importantly, thank you for always believing in me and teaching me to believe in myself.

Shreya will be performing along with her guru sisters Kritika Sharma & Shruti Pai at their graduating senior showcase, TRIVENI, on June 16 at 5 pm at Evergreen High School Auditorium in San Jose. Purchase Tickets


Youth Voices - Shruti Pai

Youth Voices - Shruti Pai

YOUTH VOICES is a series in which the Chitresh Das Institute highlights the voice of youth and next generation artists.


Shruti Pai is a senior member of the Chitresh Das Youth Company. She started learning Kathak at the age of seven and joined Pandit Chitresh Das’ Youth Company at nine. She studied directly with Pandit Chitresh Das in the Youth Company and had studied with his disciples and students. She continues to study under his senior disciple Charlotte Moraga. Shruti has performed in various prestigious venues all over the world. Notable performances include the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival at the Palace of Fine Arts, Deck the Hall at Davies Symphony Hall, with the Ali Akbar College of Music at Cowell Theater, with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco City Hall, and the International Association of Blacks in Dance Annual Conference in Los Angeles, amongst others.

Q: When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

SHRUTI: I first got into dance because my mom and sister were both studying together. It had become such a big part of their lives, it was inevitable that I wanted to try it as well. I first realized how much I truly loved dance after my first show at the Ethnic Dance Festival in my second or third year in the Youth Company. I remember leaving the Palace of Fine Arts that evening and feeling so much pure joy for what I had just done. The experience of performing on such a beautiful stage with incredible choreography made me unbelievably happy, and I knew dance was what I love and what I was meant to do.

Q: What is the thing you're most scared about?

SHRUTI: Pertaining to performance:

I’m afraid of being so caught up in all the technicalities of the show that I forget to enjoy it. Being on stage performing is one of my favorite places to be, and I want to remember such a big day in every detail... I’m also afraid that my flute will smear red lipstick all over my chin.

Pertaining to dance in general:

I’m scared of losing touch with all my YC friends after I graduate. I have been dancing with some of them since I was 9 years old, and I would hate to lose that relationship when we part ways next year.

Q:What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

SHRUTI: I’m excited for all my friends and family to see me dance. Despite being in the Youth Company for so long, I rarely get the chance to perform for close friends and family. I’m really excited to share with them such an important part of my life, and the reason I’ve been busy every Sunday for the past 9 years.

Q: What do you think people should know about what it's like to prepare for this performance?

SHRUTI:  People should know that so much work was put into this performance. I underestimated how much work was required, not including the dance itself. I also underestimated how difficult it is to develop my own pieces instead of learning a choreography that was made for me. It was a very challenging experience and was very stressful at times, but I think I’ve grown a lot as a dancer because of it and discovered new things about my dance along the way.

Q: What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?

SHRUTI:  I’d like people to come away with a sense of celebration and joy for the arts and dance, and an inspiration to invest more in the arts. I also hope people come away with a greater appreciation for Kathak and Indian dance, whether they’ve grown up with it or this is their first exposure.

Q: What has it meant to be a part of the Youth Company?

SHRUTI:  Being in the Youth Company was probably the best experience I had growing up. It was such a constant in my life for the past 9 years, that regardless of how much my life was changing during the time I knew YC would always be there. I am incredibly blessed to have been able to study under my Dadaji, Pandit Das. His never ending power and strength inspired me every time he entered the room, and he will always be one of my greatest role models and inspirations. He taught me intense discipline and showed me how to be an empowered dancer and woman.

Dancing and growing with the same people over the years has formed such a strong trust and friendship that I know I can never match in the future. We all know each other so well that I can make brief eye contact with a fellow dancer on stage mid-performance and we know exactly what the other is thinking. I have such a strong sense of belonging in YC that my confidence has grown tremendously and dancing on stage makes me feel nothing but free.

Q: What do you hope for future Youth Company members?

SHRUTI:  I hope that future Youth Company members really recognize how lucky they are to be a part of this institution and this company. I didn’t realize it at the time, but having the opportunity to perform at places such as Davies Symphony Hall and at the Ethnic Dance Festival are incredible, once in a lifetime opportunities that I am so grateful I got to have.

Dedication to Dadaji (Pandit Chitresh Das, 1944-2015)

You are the first person that comes to my mind when I think "role model." And this isn't because you had me dance the Natawari Tihais until my feet were numb or recite the Nine Principals every week. It's because you taught me so much not just about dance, but about life in general. To you, it was just as important that we grew up to be empowered and confident women as it was that we were strong dancers. You taught me independence and strength, and how to carry myself with dignity and respect. Having the blessing of being able to study with you from such a young age has irrefutably played a monumental role in me becoming the person I am today. Your power and wisdom inspired me every time you entered the studio, and your passion and energy from your dance left me in awe countless times. I owe you everything for who I became as a dancer, and am forever grateful for the confidence and joy you instilled in me, which I bring every time I dance and will carry every day for the rest of my life. 

Thank you!

Dedication to Charlotte Didi

Thank you Charlotte Didi, for always dedicating all your energy and heart into making the Youth Company the best we can be. You have invested so much into our growth and if it wasn't for your invaluable support and guidance I would not be half the dancer I am today. You are always there at every performance cheering us on, and tearfully telling us how proud you are, despite any mistakes and fumbles. You make the Youth Company the strong family that it is, and make me love dance the way I do. I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to study with you since the early years of my dance career, and am blessed to have you continuing Dadaji's legacy. Thank you for being the passionate and strong role model you've been for me these past nine years. 

Shruti will be performing along with her guru sisters Shreya Khandewale & Kritika Sharma at their graduating senior showcase, TRIVENI, on June 16 at 5 pm at Evergreen High School Auditorium in San Jose. Purchase Tickets

Photo of Shruti Pai by the Picture People

Interview with Anshu Manchanda

Interview with Anshu Manchanda

"Ultimately, dance is a form of expression. It is an expression of hopes and dreams, ideas and emotions, culture and traditions. Of life itself. So everything you learn in life informs your dance. And in life, the learning never ends. That is what I understood when Dadaji..."

Interview with Preeti Zalavadia


Interview with Preeti Zalavadia

"There is not one story that I have to share. People that I have crossed paths with have inspired to keep me going and walk alongside with them to teach and share. Starting from Dada Ji’s genius, passion and perseverance..."


Interview w/ CDI Artistic Director, Charlotte Moraga

Interview w/ CDI Artistic Director, Charlotte Moraga

Interview of Chitresh Das Institute Artistic Director, Charlotte Moraga, July 11, 2017 by Celine Schein Das

On July 21, 22, & 23 at Z Space in San Francisco, Charlotte Moraga will perform in the inaugural home season of the Chitresh Das Institute and her first as Artistic Director.  She will perform the tour-de-force kathak solo with the legendary tabla maestro Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, as well as with Ben Kunin on sarode and Raaginder Momi Singh on violin.  In her first interview as Artistic Director, Charlotte talks about her inspiration and experience and some insight into what audiences will see. 

What does this performance mean to you?

Charlotte Moraga (CM): I performed my first full-length solo concert 15 years ago.  The last full-length solo concert I performed was in 2011 in Mumbai, India presented at esteemed kathak dancer, Uma Dogra's, Raindrops Festival. After that I took time to focus on teaching, on developing the youth company-- the next generation of dance artists. When Guruji passed away in early 2015, I was focused on completing the choreography for his last work, Shiva, which premiered at Cal Performances in February 2016. At the beginning of this year, I started a new organization, the Chitresh Das Institute, as Artistic Director, with Celine Schein Das as Executive Director and Preeti Zalavadia as School Director.  This is our first home season, so we want to highlight this incredible tradition, but also show something unexpected.  Plus, I am now a grandmother of four!.  Now more than ever, it’s important to put myself on the stage in the solo context. It is always said that kathak artists are like fine wines.  As they age, they mature and the deeper their experience, the deeper the art.  But it is also a test.  As a kathak artist and disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das, I must keep pushing myself and evolving.  "Freedom comes from refined disciple with responsibility," he always said.  So I am seeking to continually evolve what freedom means and what my responsibility is now as I move forward.

What is important about the kathak solo? 

CM: The solo is a tour-de-force.  A single dancer must dance, sing, recite, and tell stories on stage for at least an hour. There is a structure, starting with an invocation, moving into a fine tuning of the body, mind, then progressing to bandishes, rhythmic compositions, some I have created, some are my Guruji’s, some will be completely improvised on the spot. Then there is the gat bhao, a story told since ancient times, which is made relevant by the interpretation of the artist in the here and now.  Calling it a solo is somewhat of a misnomer; it is actually more like a triangular dialogue between dancer, musicians, and audience/environment—each shapes the performance, making it very dynamic and each night will be different.  In spite of over a quarter of a century of experience, I still don’t know exactly what will happen because so much will take place in the moment.  But that’s the fun, that’s the challenge and that’s the excitement. You plan and then you put your best foot forward, pun intended, and you let go and experience to the fullest.  If you don’t do that you will miss so much.  If you are only looking at what it is you think you should see or do, you miss all the serendipitous opportunities to discover something profound.  It is very much in upaj (improvisation), especially when I am working with a master such as Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri.  You have to be ready for anything, just like my Guruji was!

What do you not like about the solo? 

CM: It's a big deal and it’s a lot of pressure.  To step on the stage with the legendary tabla master, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and then also to always feel that I need to represent my Guruji and kathak well. As Guruji would always say “this is no joke”!  Upaj is the tradition and it brings tremendous spontaneity, but it is a double edge sword, you also don't know what will exactly happen, so you have to prepare to do your best, then really let go and have faith.   It's not really about me. I’m trying to channel and connect with some energy to share joy and the vast depths of my experience, which is really just a drop in the ocean of this art form which was handed down through an unbroken line of tradition from the subcontinent of India.

What does it mean to be performing with tabla Maestro Swapan Chaudhuri? 

CM: Truly it is a great honor. With my Guruji gone, I have felt very alone.  But that is the human condition. That is what we struggle with as human beings, feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves.  There are very few left of Swapan-da’s kind.  Guruji used to call himself one of the last dinosaurs—these masters who were trained in a time before everything became uber-globalized and flashy.  They are source gurus.  Swapan-da is such a wellspring— a supremely generous artist and human being.  But, I also have to be on my toes.  I am a junior artist to him, so I know he will be there to support me.  So in that way, I feel very comforted.  But I cannot take anything for granted.  In kathak, the feet must match the tabla.  I am going to need to bring more than footwork, I’ll have to bring movement, feeling and expression.   He will not come down, so I must rise.  This is a huge challenge.  With that said, Swapan-da is really a lot of fun.  He has a wonderful sense of humor and such a warm heart.

What do you think people should know about the solo that they might not already know?

CM: It is mostly improvised.  Of course there is a structure, but within that there is so much spontaneity.  Swapan-da may improvise some bandish on the spot and I have to be able to respond in the moment, and hopefully make it look good too!

You're also premiering a work-in-progress--tell us about that.

CM: Mantram is a work-in-progress which I am just beginning to explore.  The kathak solo concert has certain sub-genres a dancer travels through.  Starting with the vandana or stuti and then thaat, amaad, peshkar, bol paran, gat bhao, songs such as thumri or a tarana. You can add or subtract a bit, but mostly it has a trajectory that creates an over-arching energy of bhakti or spiritual devotion.   I am not doing a traditional vandana, which is generally dedicated to a particular god or goddess. I am using a shloka (poetic phrase) that I have not performed before.  This particular shloka is known as the mother of the vedas, the ancient texts of wisdom out of India and the oldest living oral tradition. While it does not invoke a particular god or goddess, it does invoke divine transformation, the words convey meaning, but also create “specific power of righteous wisdom” through utterance.  For best effect, one should really recite the mantra 108 eight times, but it is also powerful if chanted 3, 9, or 18 times.

So, in this new work, I really wanted to focus on vibration. What is it? Sound?  Is it something that radiates out, endlessly? We all feel it. Do we feel it in the same way? We experience it differently.  Does it end with our experience of it?   We are vibration. We are energy.  When you die, what happens to that energy that was you?  I wonder is it a vibration that never dissolves, just gets quieter and quieter until you cannot hear it anymore, or feel it?  Where does it go?   

When we dance, we have a unique opportunity to create worlds.  We manipulate time and space and energy.  We define reality by what we feed it. I am supremely interested in exploring these questions through my dance.  I will show a small piece of this new work that I’m developing.  I am excited to share this exploration with the audience. 

The Chitresh Das Youth Company will be opening the evening with your choreography.  Can you tell us more about that? 

CM: They are performing a piece I edited and choreographed for San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 2016.  Guruji mostly choreographed the original piece for a school showcase in 2012.  It was twice as long.  I changed the choreography significantly, but still left in some elements he created.  He always supported and nurtured me as a choreographer.  I feel inspired to work with and change his choreography, because he always wanted us to evolve and move forward, not just copy or rearrange.  Working with the youth company is something of exceptional importance to me. They are really accomplished young dancers. They inspire me.

Finally, if there were one important message you'd like to put out about this performance, what would it be?

CM: As a 55-year-old woman and dancer, I believe I still have a powerful artistic body and voice with something to say.  My performing, as long as I can meet a certain standard, sends a message.  A message that powerful, women dancers don’t need to retire at 35 and, also, of the universality of this great tradition that was handed down from mother India and so lovingly and with great intensity and depth by my Guruji.  Finally, I believe it will demonstrate that if you go deeply into one thing, anything, anything you love, deeply and without compromise, you will shine and rise, like the moon and the stars.

Get tickets here to Art of Kathak at Z Space with Charlotte Moraga in duet with Maestro Swapan Chaudhuri.

Photo by #MargoMoritz

Youth Voices: Interview with Vanita Mundhra


Youth Voices: Interview with Vanita Mundhra

Youth Voices Interview: At CDI we believe in the power of the youth.  They are the future and there is much they can teach us.  Keep on the look out for more from Youth Voices--amplifying the voice of youth.

Vanita will be performing her graduating Chitresh Das Youth Company solo after eight years of study, most intensively under Pandit Chitresh Das and Charlotte Moraga.  In this interview she talks about her beloved Dadaji (Pandit Chitresh Das) and gives some insight on her journey of learning the North Indian classical kathak tradition and the philosophy and teachings of Pandit Chitresh Das. 

Question: When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

Vanita: I remember when I was taking classes at the Sacramento branch, there was a really cool step I learned with Dadaji. Unfortunately I don’t remember the exact step but I remember Dadaji giving us pep talks and telling us to be stronger.

What is the thing you're most scared about?

Vanita: Losing my culture and heritage if I do not practice it.

What is the thing you're most excited about with your solo?

Vanita: To show how hard I have been working for the past 8 years and how I integrated all of what what I have learned. My inspiration came when I saw Dadaji perform “India Jazz Suites” and I thought, "Can someone really do so many chhakars (pirouettes) at once, on stage, in front of hundreds of people and not get nervous?"  Then I saw Sonali Didi's performance where I talked to Dadaji backstage.  He told me, "If you lillyputs want to do this kind of solo, then you have to keep practicing, and I know you can do it." 

What do you think people should know about what it's like to prepare for this solo performance?

Vanita: It is a lot of work but if you have had a constant reyaz or practice, then you just have to make it unique.  You have to constantly practice everyday, you have to research, you have to know what you are doing and be able to explain anything if anyone asks.

What is next for you with your dance?

Vanita: I would like to take classes other art forms and possibly perform with them. Additionally, I will take any opportunity to perform in the community. And lastly I would like to eventually start my own classes for kathak.

What are a few things you want people to come away from your solo performance with?

Vanita: (a) To appreciate the arts and to keep them alive by going to see more performances like these;  (b) To understand Dadaji’s tradition, innovations, and hard work he did with all his students.

What message would you want to send to Dadaji and to Charlotte Di?

Vanita: To Dadaji: I do wish he was here, but I am mostly grateful for all the memories he shared with me. The best part was being from Sacramento and coming all the way to the Bay Area for classes because I gained stories that many others did not. But I do remember getting his blessings and I have always remembered his teachings.

To Charlotte Didi: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to do a solo and taking your time out of the day to correct all my mistakes no matter how many times I made them. Thank you for believing in me and teaching me for the past 5 years.

You can witness this next generation kathaka, Vanita Mundhra, perform this Friday, June 23rd at 8pm at the Oshman Family JCC, Cultural Arts Hall in Palo Alto.  She will be accompanied by accomplished musicians: Ben Kunin on sarode, Samrat Kakkeri on tabla and her guru sisters, Kritika Sharma on manjira, Atmika Sarukkai on bansuri and Ishani Chakrabarti on harmonium.  Tickets are available here


Interview with Asavari Ukidve

Interview with Asavari Ukidve

Interview with Chitresh Das Institute Teacher Asavari Ukidve

June 6, 2017

Asavari Ukidve started her training in 1999 in Union City branch and has been studying now for over 17 years under the guidance of Pandit Chitresh Das.  Asavari started teaching at Pandit Das’ institution in 2012, at the same time her daughter started learning kathak.  She has primarily taught at the Cupertino location, though she has assisted at other locations.  Asavari’s focus has in teaching kathak has been on imparting kathak knowledge to children and adults alike.  Asavari has participated in multiple school show productions and in community performances.

Question: Tell us what you love about teaching kathak?

Asavari: I have learnt Kathak from the age of 7 years myself, first in India for about 10 years and then with Dadaji for about 15 years till his passing. I can truly say that it has been one single thing that given me immense joy and exhilaration whether dancing or teaching. Seeing that “Aha” expression on little girls faces, when they understand a concept or a composition that I am trying to explain to them or the joy they feel on getting something right  after trying a few times is a feeling of happiness & accomplishment for me. The thing I love the most about teaching Kathak however is helping moms (like me) understand and realize their hidden potential/passion and helping them make the best of that during the 1 hour they take out of their busy life with kids/work/husbands. Every single one of my adult students who is a mom is there because they want to be there(unlike some kids :-) ) they are all self motivated, eager to learn and put in whatever it takes for them to keep improving or mastering something they have learnt. Helping them channel in their potential and passion is truly rewarding.

Question: What did you learn from Pandit Chitresh Das that most impacts your teaching?

Asavari: Greatest learning from Dadaji? Wow ! There are so many, kinda hard to pick one. But here is the one that made a lasting impact.  Dadaji always said Mother is the first Guru, and what stays with me after listening to him speak about his philosophies and view many, many times, is the fact, that as a Mother, it is a huge responsibility for me to keep up my training (in dance and every other aspect of life).  If you can’t take care of yourselves, you can’t take care of your family. If you can’t stand up for yourselves no one else will. Those are his teachings that are deep rooted in my heart.  Quite often I find myself repeating Dadaji’s teachings certainly to all the moms in my class, but also to the little girls to help them grow up to be self-reliant, responsible, empowered women.

Question: What is the most challenging thing about dancing kathak?  

Asavari: I think the most challenging aspect of kathak is to continue to develop and refine your skill over all elements of tayyari, laykari, khoobsurati, nazaakat, and Abhinaya. While demonstrating abhinaya requires you to channel in your inner ability to portray various feelings, a solid 16-gun or chakkars require immense riyaaz and mehnat. And of course Kathak Yoga. I will be forever thankful to Dadaji for introducing this beautiful concept that challenges you to truly focus and bring your mind and body together.

Question: What is the most surprising thing you think people may not know about teaching kathak?

Asavari: I think one thing I did not realize before I started teaching and others may not know as well is that I find my own dance improved immensely after I started teaching. As you teach others, it forces you to solidify and refine your own skills. I now realize why Dadaji always referred to himself as modern guru in training. Every question asked by a student forces you to delve deeper into your own understanding of the dance.

Question: Can you tell us a story about something that continues to inspire you to teach?

Asavari: What continues to inspire me to teach (and why I started in the first place) is not necessarily a particular incident or a story as such. The inspiration comes more from observing Dadaji teach our class over the years. His ability to connect with every single student on personal level, understand their strengths and shortcomings & inspire them to push themselves beyond their potential was baffling. Even in a class of 20+ students there was no place you could hide from him. It was eerie that he could spot your mistakes sometimes even without looking at you. However this is what inspired all of us to push ourselves to the next level. This is what continues to inspire me to teach students and If I can help them push their boundaries and realize their potential, I will feel I have played a small part in helping continue Dadaji’s legacy and teachings.

Question: What do you look forward to in the near future with the Chitresh Das Institute?

Asavari: As a teacher at CDI, my goal is to impart to little girls and adults alike the knowledge I have gained over the years on various aspects of not only kathak but also how it ties in with Indian heritage, culture and history. Personally I believe that the Indian Diaspora in South Bay has been hugely deprived of having access to a viable and authentic Kathak School. I look forward to and am glad to be spreading Dadaji’s teaching to this huge pool of Indians who are eager to have themselves/their children learn this art form.  I look forward to expanding my own performance repertoire through community events and other opportunities. I also hope I can help my students share their own learning with others.

Interview with Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri

Interview with Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri

Interview of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interviewed by Doli Bambhania

Esteemed the world over for his purity of sound, depth of knowledge, rhythmic creativity, and dedication to teaching, Maestro Swapan Chaudhuri is considered one of the greatest living musicians and tabla virtuosos of our time. He continues to accompany all the eminent classical instrumental and vocal musicians of India in addition to collaborating with artists of every world music tradition and genre. His dedication to teaching tabla worldwide has brought him global recognition and defined him as a true master. He has made tabla more accessible, enabling this North Indian classical drum to take its rightful place as one of the most versatile and sought after instruments on the planet.

What was your relationship with your guruji like as a young student? How did that relationship evolve, as you became a successful preforming artist?

My guru, Acharya Santosh Krishna Biswas, was a father figure to me. You see, my mother was a very good singer, but she stopped singing outside of the house after getting married due to being in a conservative household. But her love for music was such that she would practice regularly at home, and my guru accompanied her on tabla. When I was a baby, he would put me on his lap and I would quietly listen to the music. Since I knew him from my childhood, I never thought of him as my guru; rather, I thought he was like my father.

When I grew up a bit, my guru started teaching me tabla. He taught me vigorously, training me for four hours every evening, almost seven days a week, for nineteen years. I didn’t have any breaks, unless I got sick. But even then, the household was full of doctors – my father and uncle were both doctors – so they would give me medication and I would be fine. After my guru suffered a heart attack, he couldn’t move around much, so I would go to his house for practice at least four days a week. As I grew older, my life became quite busy. He wanted me to continue to spend time with him, and even though it was difficult, I did what I could.

He was a great man and I am grateful to have had a guru like him, who showed the right path. Whatever I am now, it’s because of him! Maybe I had talent, but there are many talented people. Having the right guru makes a big difference! I will never forget his love, his discipline and his teachings.

The funny thing is, my guru never appreciated me. He never complimented me, and often criticized me. He watched me very carefully to keep my ego in check. Whenever he detected any ego entering my mind, he always squashed it. Right there, in front of everybody! It was kind of frustrating for me since everybody was praising me except for my guru. He just told me to keep working harder.

Years later, in 1994, I played in a concert in Kolkata with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib. My guru went to this concert. Without telling anybody, he bought a ticket and sat in the back of the concert hall. When I went to see him later – not knowing that he had come to the concert – I found him pacing and restless. I asked him if he was okay; he simply asked me to sit down. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour passed, and he didn’t say anything! Then he murmured, “Yeah, I went there and I saw you there…” I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I asked him to clarify. When he said, “I went to the concert,” I froze! But then I thought that maybe he attended a different concert. Finally he said, “I went to your concert,” to which I reacted, “Why did you go? Why did you not tell me? The doctor said you’re not supposed to go out!” But he said, “I went there to see how you are doing.” I became silent. He also became quiet for a few moments. And then he said words I will never forget: “Look forward and walk forward. Do not look back. You will get to your destination. You are on the right track.” It was such a beautiful moment, a moment I will always cherish.

So that was my guru! Shortly after that conversation, he passed away in 1996 at the age of 93.

Chitresh knew him. Chitresh’s father and my guruji were contemporaries and friends.

You are among the artists who helped establish Indian classical performing arts outside of India. What did it take to do that? Can you describe what those initial years in the US were like?

Well, it was tough! Before coming to the U.S., I traveled a lot, but did not stay permanently outside of India. I went on some tours with Nikhil Banerjee, staying at hotels, for a month or two at a time. But when I moved to the U.S. in 1981 after Ali Akbar Khan Sahib invited me to teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music, it was different. It was hard!

First of all, the teaching style in the U.S. was not like the way I was taught and the way I used to teach in India. It was very different, so I had to adjust. Here, everything was written on the board and the students first took notes on what they were playing in class. But my style was not that. After a month, I finally said to the students, “I am not going to follow this system. If you want to study with me, you will have to follow what I am saying, which means no writing! You have to memorize and play. You can record it, and write it down after class.” This didn’t sit well with a lot of students. They complained to the director of the college at the time, George Ruckert, and then to Khan Sahib. When Khan Sahib asked me to explain, I was very truthful. I told him how I was taught, and that that was the way I wanted to teach! Khan Sahib understood, and encouraged me to follow my style.

That is how it started for me at the college. Eventually, over time, everyone got used to the new style of teaching. Later, students even appreciated the idea of not taking notes in class and reciting instead. To this day, I teach this way and it’s working out just fine.

Second difficulty after moving to the U.S. was related to food. Those days, I used to like only Indian food or Chinese food. At that time, one of my best friends – like a brother – was Chitresh! He used to come every day to spend time with me – every single day!

When I came in 1981, people in California had some exposure Indian classical music. Khan Sahib had already established himself. He had also brought many artists from India, who were teaching – Chitresh among them – so the atmosphere was very different here in California. But outside of California, people didn’t always understand. For example, when I was playing with Khan Sahib and he would begin with an alaap, to show the angles of the raaga, some audience members wondered why one person was playing but the other person was just sitting! And then in one concert – I think it was in Minneapolis – afterwards, everyone came to congratulate the tanpura (drone) player. They thought he was the most important person because he played continuously throughout the concert!

There are so many such stories! Another time Khan Sahib and I were playing in London. We had two tanpura players – one next to Khan Sahib and the one next to me. Now, in the middle of the concert, just before the intermission, the tanpura player next to me was kind of dozing. I noticed that and was prepared in case he fell over. And that is exactly what happened! I caught the tanpura, but he fell. I held the tanpura in my left hand, playing tabla only with my right hand. Khan Sahib’s eyes were closed at the time. All of a sudden, he opened his eyes because he could not hear my baaya (left drum). So he looked at me with, “What happened?” Seeing tanpura in my hand, he asked, “What happened to the guy?” I showed him what had happened to the tanpura player. The audience erupted into laughter! We had to immediately bring down the curtain, so the poor guy could get up.

Back then, outside of California, it was tough to establish the subject matter of Indian music – what is it, how to develop it and other aspects. To address this, we implemented regular lecture demonstrations before the concert to educate the audience. In those days, very few artists from India performed outside of India. In fact, those of us living outside of India were often criticized! But now that the road is built, many more artists are venturing outside of India. But it was very hard work for us! 

You have performed with a vast variety of Indian classical artists, from instrumentalists to vocalists to dancers, with vastly differing personalities. Can you give an example of how tabla accompaniment varies based on the artist you are accompanying?

Well, to be a good accompanist, one must be a good listener. If you don’t listen, and think only about what you will do, then you will have a hard time accompanying properly. The second thing is that the accompanist’s focus must be one hundred percent! Different artists, including dancers, have different approaches to their art. That creates a challenge for the tabla accompanist. You have to be fully focused and adjust yourself to their approach. The tabla player’s knowledge and taalim (study with guru) become very important here. After all, the performance is an unrehearsed experiment – an improvisation.

Particularly with instrumental and vocal music, I have seen that some tabla players don’t listen to the alaap section, and start calculating what they will do. But actually, music is not a calculation! It is spontaneous. If you don’t listen to what the artist is playing, then you will not get the subject matter. And if you don’t get the subject matter, when you finally start playing, it will clash with the music. So, listening to the alaap is very important!

With dance, again, you have to be very focused. I’ve played with so many dancers without any rehearsals. During the concert, the tabla accompanist must have that focus. Just listen as intently as possible and execute right at that moment!

Accompanying itself is also a part of one’s practice. As you keep playing, you improve. It’s hard to accompany so many different artists, but if you are focused from the very first note, or the very first ‘dha’, you will understand the way of the artist and can follow them accordingly. That’s what I have always done and continue to do!

Teaching has been a very integral part of your life. How do you balance teaching and performance? Given your life experience, what advice would you give aspiring artists regarding balancing priorities?

To tell you frankly, most performers don’t like teaching, because teaching is a very hard job! Teaching requires a lot of patience. And, if you are a very good performer, it’s even more difficult to teach because you have to bring yourself to the student’s level to understand their challenges. And if you think about the subject matter only from your perspective, teaching will be a tough experience. When my guru asked me to start teaching around 1969-1970, I found the experience frustrating. I told him I couldn’t do it; it was impossible. He said, “You have to do it! This is the way to learn, and to become more patient. If you want to be a good musician, you must have a lot of patience. You have to understand how to communicate with your students.”

Over the years I have learned that teaching is a great art. It requires knowing how to communicate with your students. How to make them feel good, and not get tense or scared. But, at the same time, you can be a strict disciplinarian. It was very difficult for me in the beginning, but then, slowly, I learned how to communicate with the students. Now when I teach, I see that not everyone’s standard is the same, not everyone’s talent is the same. So, I have to be very patient in dealing with each student, and personally address his or her problem in a timely way. The key to successful teaching is being patient and communicating well.

What has been the most difficult or challenging aspect of your long career? And, what is the most rewarding aspect?

It was most challenging to establish myself in the field of music. I didn’t know that I would become a musician because nobody in my family was a musician. After I finished my Masters in Economics, I somehow or other got into music and got carried away with it. At some point, when I thought that it was too late to return to do my research or a take up a job, I took on the challenge of being a tabla artist.

I’m happy that I made it! But, it took a lot of will power and my guru’s blessing. Also important was the blessing of my parents, who supported me throughout. My main reward has been that I got through and established myself, and the last words from guru that I am on the right track!

After having devoted your entire life to the tabla, what is your relationship with your tabla like today?

Oh boy! Tabla is part of my body; tabla is my soul. Without tabla, I am dead. If I don’t touch my tabla, I feel like my tabla is upset with me. If I don’t practice for a couple of days, when I first put my hand on the tabla, I feel like my tabla is rejecting me. It’s my everything! Without tabla, I am nil.

When you think about the future of tabla, what comes to your mind? Given how the transmission of knowledge from guru to disciple has changed in the recent decades, what concerns, if any, do you have with the new generation’s ability to carry the tradition forward?

In the older generations, or even in our time in India, there was no television, no computer, no smartphone, no iPad, no i-i-i things! We didn’t have any other access to our art aside from focusing, studying and practicing. Nowadays, people in the younger generation are brilliant. They have so much talent, probably more than us. They are very smart and learn fast. Everything is there, but what they are lacking is that focus, that concentration. They don’t want to accept that, so they don’t end up studying deeply. They just get stuck in one place, because they don’t want to go beyond a bend. They imitate something from here, something from there, something from the other side, and then combine it.  But with that approach, after some time, they get stuck. I see a lot of people in the younger generation coming and going, coming and going, and that’s very sad to see! Rather than focusing on their practice or their studying, many are focusing more on their smartphone, so they can connect here and there, and text this and that. You can do that, and maybe you will get a concert, but you have to prove yourself in the concert to get the next concert. This is what I am concerned about.

But I’m not saying that all are like that. There are so many upcoming musicians now, and they are so brilliant, so good! There are some very talented artists, but they are rare. Those guys are very serious, hard working and studying a lot. They want to study more, and I am very happy for them. These people will probably carry the flag one day to the next generation.

You share a long history with Pandit Chitresh Das. Can you share a favorite memory with him?

Chitresh and I grew up together in Kolkata. We were the same age – Chitresh was three months older than me. We were good friends, and spent a lot of time together when we were young. But then Chitresh vanished! I learned that he had come to the U.S. when I asked around.

When he visited India in the early 1970s, his concert was organized in Kolkata, and I was to accompany him. This was my first time playing with him. Ramnath Mishra, Ramesh Mishra’s father, was on sarangi. One of Khan Sahib’s students was on sitar, and there was a singer also. Chitresh had just returned from the U.S., so he had a little ego. And, I also had that ego! Both of us were very short-tempered. There was no rehearsal. As we were getting ready to go on stage, I said to him, “Listen man! You will be fine, but I have no idea what you’re going to do.” He replied, “Just follow my footsteps.” And that’s how the concert started. The theater was jam-packed, with high caliber artists like Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayat Khan Sahib, and Gyan Prakash Ghosh among the audience!

Chitresh and I didn’t even discuss what taal (rhythmic cycle) we are going to start with. When the curtain opened, I started with a big uthaan in teentaal (16-beat cycle). After I started, Chitresh came on stage and said, “I will start with taal dhamaar (14-beat cycle)!” Then, he switched to jhaptaal (10-beat cycle), then to rupak (7-beat cycle), then to teentaal. In between, we had a lot of arguments on stage. For example, when we were in jhaptaal, after he danced for a bit, I said, “Now I will play; you follow me! Let’s do upaj!”

It went on like this for almost four hours. And then, at the end, he said, “12 and 1/2!” Countering him, I said to the audience, “We will do 12-1/2 later. We will do a 12-beat cycle first!” At that point, Gyan Prakash Ghosh and Nikhil Banerjee came on the stage and stopped the concert, because they saw that it was going to be a fight on the stage! It was kind of a rivalry among peers. We had a nice time!

After that first concert, we performed together many, many more times. Chitresh and I were already friends, but over the years, we became really good friends, and remained so until his last days. I miss him a lot!

He was a great teacher! He taught many people during his time. He was a great composer, and his visualization was fantastic. He was a great thinker, and a great person! He was a tough teacher, but in his heart, he was a different person; he was kind!

The last time we spoke, I was in India because my father had just passed away. After hearing the news, Chitresh had called me. My father and his father were very close friends, and he knew my parents very well. In those early days, whenever Chitresh was performing, my mother would go to his concerts. Here, I was playing, but she never would go! In that last conversation, he said he needed to get in touch with me again about what was going on, be like we were in the old days, and that he needed to discuss a lot of things with me. I don’t know exactly what he had on his mind at that time, but he said a few things that I still remember. I cannot discuss that with anybody. But, I miss him – he was a great guy!

Can you tell us about your relationship with the Chitresh Das Institute? Do you have any message for CDI students?

One thing that Chitresh told me is that I should help his students. If any of Chitresh’s students – anyone who is a good student, serious and clear-minded– comes to me, I will help them. With the new institution, I will definitely help them. I pray to God to give Chitresh Das Institute a boost, and I am here with them. My best wishes are for them. Seeing those little kids that Chitresh has, it melts my heart. As long as I am here, I will try to help them and be next to them. I don’t want to see them neglected.

To be a good musician, your heart must be clean. If you are fake, your dance will be, or your music will be, fake. I say to everybody, even to my students and the younger generation, that to be a good musician, you have to be a good human being first.

The Chitresh Das Institute is thrilled that Panditji will be accompanying Artistic Director, Charlotte Moraga in the Chitresh Das Institute's inaugural performance, July 21-23 at Z Space in San Francisco.  Tickets