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