Interview with Chitresh Das Institute Teacher Anita Pai

Anita Pai started learning kathak under the great kathak master artist and guru, Pandit Chitresh Das, in 2004 and began teaching in 2007.  She teaches at CDI's Cupertino and San Mateo branches.  Anita has performed in many of Pandit Das' school show productions and Bay Area dance and community events.  Anita's elder daughter, Ritika, is a Chitresh Das Youth Company alumni and her younger daughter, Shruti, is currently a senior member of the Chitresh Das Youth Company.  

Q: Tell us what you love about teaching Kathak?

Anita Pai: Kathak, more so than any of the other classical dances of India, has been greatly shaped by many diverse cultures, religions, political influences and invasions over the centuries in India. This reflects in the richness, the uniqueness and also the improvisational nature of the dance form. What I enjoy in teaching Kathak especially to kids, is imparting some of this multi-cultural ethos of their heritage and history, through the elements of Kathak dance. The layakari (playing with rhythm) aspect of Kathak is for me, one of its most exciting elements, which is showcased beautifully by Guruji’s innovation of Kathak Yoga. Teaching this to students and seeing their excitement when something clicks within them and they finally get it, is very gratifying as a teacher!

Q: What did you learn from Pt. Chitresh Das that most impacts your teaching?

Anita Pai: I learned a lot by watching Guruji teach classes, and seeing how students responded to him. What stood out about him as a teacher was how much he gave of himself in training his students. His focus was always complete and he never overlooked a single misstep by any student. I believe this quality of being 100% focused and available and giving all your energy to your students is one of the most important qualities of a good teacher. Guruji’s doors were always wide open for any student, irrespective of background, age or ability. He always said that you can make the dance your own, depending upon your practice. He refused to let any student give up and encouraged them to modify their dance to fit in with any physical limitations they might have. This philosophy always resonated with me and I use it all the time to encourage students, especially adults, who are very apprehensive about their ability to learn something physical and new at this stage in their lives. 

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

Anita Pai: Kathak dance has a grace, fluidity and delicacy that belies the physical readiness, or tayyari, that is required to execute the intricate, rhythmical and powerful footwork and the spins, or chakkars, that are typical of the dance. Unlike many other Kathak schools, Guruji’s teachings emphasized all the elements of Kathak, but tayyari and speed were always very important. That makes his style of dance so exciting to watch; the combination of strength & power with softness & subtlety. And of course, Kathak Yoga which challenges the dancer to entirely focus body, mind and spirit into the dance and rhythm and which is a complete high!

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

Anita Pai: Kathak, like many Indian classical dance forms, is historical, philosophical and spiritual. What may not be common knowledge is how mathematical it is. Layakai requires a rhythmical virtuosity in which the dancer is basically performing organic math with the body. It sometimes means making an almost on the fly mathematical calculation in order for the composition to fit in the rhythmic cycle. If someone walked into my class, they might hear me talk math, ¼ beat, ½ beat or ¾ beat and doing fraction addition and wonder if this is a math class!! There definitely is a complexity to it but also much beauty to that complexity. It is therefore not at all surprising that students study for years to learn this dance form. It is much more than just learning a few choreographed ‘pieces’.

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

Anita Pai: I have been teaching now for about 10 years, to students of all ages: kids, teens & adults. It has been very interesting with many small anecdotes that still bring a smile to my face. A couple years back I had my students write a weekly practice log which they would give me during class. I was looking through the logs of one of my children’s classes and amongst them found a letter from a 7-year-old student. It was a long letter embellished with heart and balloon drawings about how much she loved Kathak, my class, and me as a teacher. And at the very end, almost as an afterthought, she said that she was not able to fill out the log but promised me that she had practiced! I loved her cleverness and resourcefulness! On a more serious note, I had an adult student who was a cancer survivor and was going through some worrisome health issues, who said to me that being in Kathak class was good for her soul. Unfortunately, she had to stop classes for unrelated reasons but it is very touching to be even a small part of someone’s healing process. What always continues to inspire me as a teacher is the relationship you develop with students and their families. This really does mean a lot to me. 

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

Anita Pai: The Chitresh Das Institute was started to forward Pt. Das’ legacy and philosophy, in a school that is student-centric and committed to the education of the student in Kathak and related areas within a positive environment. Our teachers are kind, committed and willing to go many an extra mile to help every student achieve his/her potential. My hope as a teacher is to see CDI students develop into dancers who appreciate the heritage and history of the dance form and the country from which it originates. In order to achieve this, I look forward to CDI offering classes in instrumental and vocal music and maybe even Indian history in the near future, developing a curriculum that offers exposure to the vast and rich tapestry of the Indian classical arts. 

© Anita Pai & Chitresh Das Institute 2017