Preeti Zalavadia began studying with Pandit Chitresh Das in 2003. She began teaching in 2006 and went on to become branch director of one of Panditji's largest branches. She has performed in many of Pandit Das' school shows, community performances and has participated in Arts Education programs, teaching in schools. Preeti is a dancer, instructor, School Director and Co-Founder of the Chitresh Das Institute.
Tell us what you love about teaching kathak?
Preeti - Throughout my life, dance has brought me joy. I enjoyed folk dancing during my school and college years but always craved for classical dance training. I consider myself fortunate to learn traditional kathak directly from Pandit Chitresh Das (Dada Ji) here in the Bay Area.
Watching Dada Ji share his knowledge to not only little kids and young adults but some of us that walked in his classroom after becoming mothers, is something that I will always treasure. With his blessings, I have been teaching for the past 10+ years. Teaching students the basic footwork of kathak – their very first tatkar, introducing them to taal and theka, their first katha (story), to portray various characters of the story, or their first chakkar, is thoroughly rewarding. The most heartwarming moment of teaching kathak is when students grasp the nuances and are able to demonstrate class material on their own with confidence and pride. Sharing the joy of dancing, passing down the rich Indian heritage through Dada Ji’s teachings to the students in the Bay Area is an added bliss!
I am thrilled and grateful to be a small fraction of a kathak student’s life in the Bay Area.
What did you learn from Pandit Chitresh Das that most impacts your teaching?
Preeti - Dada Ji poured his heart and soul to promote and preserve kathak. He shared his knowledge with everyone that stepped into his dance room to learn. He taught selflessly to hopeful children of sex workers of the red light district in Kolkata, to the children of Silicon Valley and their parents - engineers, scientists, doctors, and entrepreneurs. He sharpened their minds through complex mathematical pattern and footwork. He challenged the young and the adults to learn sincerely by researching and going deep in their learning. He encouraged them to question the norm and be leaders in their lives.
Giving back to the community and how you impact the eager minds inspired me to continue teaching Kathak. To engage with families in the Bay Area and to build a community where students can connect and thrive inspires me to teach. The positive approach and discipline we have at Chitresh Das Institute is appreciated by parents and grandparents that sit and observe our classes.
What is the most challenging thing about dancing kathak?
Preeti - Dada Ji’s innovation within tradition, Kathak Yoga, is mentally and physically challenging as one progresses in their study. This challenge surely keeps me on my toes! As students or teachers, we are constantly reciting either bols or theka of the taal we are dancing in and that surely requires a lot of stamina and focus. Adding a musical instrument makes it even more challenging. The very first time I picked up manjiras while dancing was difficult as it was adding yet another layer in the training. Push and practice helped! I thoroughly enjoy this physical and mental challenge and appreciate this dynamism of focused awareness in Kathak.
What is the most surprising thing you think people may not know about teaching kathak?
Preeti - The mathematical aspect of Kathak. Students come in thinking it is just another dance but they find us teaching them how to divide beats into equal parts or how many sets of tatkar can they fit in a given taal. Kids give me the strangest look when I ask them to multiply or divide but once they grasp the concept, they have fun shouting out the answers to my mathematical questions.
Can you tell us a story about something that continues to inspire you to teach?
Preeti - 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, Charlotte Moraga’s dedication and grace with how she dances and shares her knowledge, Celine Schein Das’s commitment to preserve this art form and build a community, beautiful souls that I met throughout my study who have become my dear friends and practice buddies, the parents that come back to me after many years thanking me for being their child’s first Kathak teacher, students that drop by even after they have moved up to another class just to wave and say hi or give a big bear hug, students that have gone through life’s adversities coming back to dance to find peace and serenity, to adult students that bring their children to learn Kathak at Chitresh Das Institute.
What do you look forward to in the near future with the Chitresh Das Institute?
Preeti - I look forward to establishing a cultural institution for children and adults living in the Bay Area and continue to teach and share the historical, mathematical, and philosophical aspects of Kathak to many more students that are eager to learn.
I am thankful for the support of the dedicated staff, students and parents of Chitresh Das Institute. Together, we are instilling a life-long passion for Kathak and through our strengths, we are building an extended family to create a performance arts sanctuary for our children and the next generation.
Photo by Celine Schein Das