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