This year’s toured marked the sixth time that I have accompanied GuruJI on his winter trips to India. Below are some of the highlights of this season’s trip, with the hope that I’ll be able to convey an once of the excitement and emotion that was felt in each moment.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 18, 2008 INDIA JAZZ SUITES performed at the GATEWAY OF INDIA as part of the MUMBAI FESTIVAL
Two performances of India Jazz Suites (IJS) were presented as part of the 2008 Mumbai Festival. The first performance took place at the beautiful monument – the Gateway of India.
An incredible setting, this performance was open to the public, drawing a diverse audience that seemed to increase every time I looked at the seats. Many people were standing on the sides so they could be closer to the stage, and even the police officers and security personnel had left their posts to come see what was happening on stage.
The India Jazz Suites tour included stellar musicians from the Hindustani classical traditions and Jazz.
Though a beautiful back-drop, outdoor venues can provide challenges as all of the technical elements need to be set up. In spite of problems with the sound, GuruJi and Jason gave an unparalleled performance! Audience members rose to their feet at what they thought was the final tihai in the last section and quickly sat down when they realized they had the chance to get a little more from GuruJi and Jason.
The dressing rooms were bombarded after the show with people wanting pictures and autographs with GuruJi and Jason and many asking when Pandit Chitresh Das will start teaching in Mumbai.
SUNDAY, JANUARY, 20, 2008
INDIA JAZZ SUITES performed at NCPA – TATA THEATRE as part of the MUMBAI FESTIVAL
India Jazz Suites was the only performance in tonight’s line up at this venue of the Mumbai Festival. Finally, no need for GuruJi or Jason to feel rushed. It was their night and they could do as they pleased. They did exactly that.
The theater was set up in such a way that it had a thrust stage which means that it jets out and the seating is quite steep, giving just about everyone at the sold out show, a great view. The acoustics in this theater were top of the line so the sound quality was great.
GuruJi and Jason began with the “how we met” section, reenacting the scenario of how they heard the sounds that each person was making with their feet before they even met face to face while backstage at the prestigious American Dance Festival in 2004. It still gives me goose bumps to think about how particular moments in our lives can take place in such an unexpected way but have a long lasting impact – such as the relationship that GuruJi and Jason have developed.
Jason, accompanied by Theo Hill (pianist) and Sameer Gupta (drummer), started off the show with a dynamic representation of the true tap and jazz tradition. Though it is quite possible that many in the audience had seen tap dance before, it was clear that they had not seen it performed by an artist as young and talented as Jason.
Upon the completion of Jason’s solo, Pandit Chitresh Das entered for his traditional Kathak solo, accompanied by Pandit Ramesh Mishra (sarangi), Abhijit Banerjee (tabla) and Jayanta Banerjee (sitar).
GuruJi’s solo was breathtaking, simply breathtaking. After completing his vandana and before he began his thaat, he mentioned the fact that he was 63-years old. The audience started applauding uncontrollably. One man was so excited by this that he started coming towards the stage asking if he could dance with GuruJi. GuruJi’s thaat was superb. It was a beautiful example of all four elements of Kathak (Tayari, Laykari, Khoobsurti and Nazakat) coming together so seamlessly.
My view from back stage was not very good, so I decided to peek out into the audience and watch their faces and responses. People of all ages were beaming. I was watching one young woman as she followed GuruJi intently with her eyes as he moved across the stage. I saw one man on his phone, and just as I became annoyed at this sight, I see him hold his phone up in the air allowing the person he was speaking with to hear the sounds of the performance.
GuruJi and Jason decided not to do an intermission which meant that after doing a 40 minute intense solo, GuruJi went right into the Kathak Yoga section where he was singing, playing the tabla and dancing all at the same time. The audience was blown away at this technique. The audience loved the section when Jason joined GuruJi, rapping to GuruJi’s singing and playing tabla.
To say the least, the audience loved all the segments that followed. Come the finale section, people literally jumped to their feet after having clapped along for most of the last section. Once standing, they just wouldn’t sit down.
I came out and acknowledged the artists and someone from the festival staff gave each artist a token of appreciation. Still, the audience was standing. One man was jumping up and down in the front row yelling, “Encore!” He was quickly joined by other audience members chanting, “Encore! Encore!” GuruJi and Jason gave them one more taste of what they’re about in a short footwork segment. The audience still didn’t sit down. Taking the act of a standing ovation to a whole other level, this audience must have been standing and applauding for at least five minutes!!
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 23, 2008
INDIA JAZZ SUITES performed at the 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION OF THE US CONSULATE IN MUMBAI
This was the third and final performance in Mumbai of this year’s tour of India Jazz Suites. This performance was presented as part of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the US Consulate in Mumbai. As you can imagine, it was a high profile event with political officials, business tycoons and celebrities including Vidya Balan, Satish Shah, Mona Singh, Talat Aziz and many others.
Though this evening’s performance was shorter than the others, it was VERY sweet! Jason performed a 10-minute solo to an audience that still needed a bit of a warming up. GuruJi came out and started with Shiva Vandana, singing “Hara hara maha deva,” as he usually does. Assuming that he had been lip-syncing, the audience realized GuruJi was his own vocalist only when he began to speak after his vandana, and were shocked at the fact that he was not breathless after singing and dancing simultaneously. This audience really loved GuruJi’s section of the “train” where he creates the sounds of a train using the variations of jati footwork patterns. Towards the end of it, he had to politely ask them to be quiet so they could appreciate the subtleties of the sounds he was making, but all they wanted to do was clap.
The highlight of the performance was in the last section when GuruJi and Jason decided to get extra fancy in their sawaal jawaab. Let’s just say that there was some fancy “knee” work going on this time around with both GuruJi and Jason not only using the sounds of their feet to have their rhythmic conversation, but also dropped to their knees on more than one occasion.
(Right: Pandit Das and Jason Samuels Smith are congratulated by U.S. Counsel General, Michael S. Owen and his wife, Annerieke Owen)
The uniqueness and caliber of the artists and their artistry became evident in observing the many people who made a point of speaking with them after the performance. It was touching to see the celebrities and dignitaries coming to GuruJi and Jason after the show and with such humility and respect, thanking them for their performance.
Though the NCPA performance had the excitement like none of the others, the performance at the US Consulate was nonetheless a huge success and one that will be imprinted in the minds of those in attendance for years to come. And yes, it was a powerful statement to have India Jazz Suites be the symbol of two countries and traditions coming together to collaborate with a result that is undoubtedly powerful.
Each artist’s individual performance, and their collaboration, as the Consul General himself said to them after their performance was “the epitome of what these two countries are trying to do”.
CHHANDAM NRITYA BHARATI in KOLKATA
Upon completion of the performances in Mumbai we returned to Kolkata where GuruJi could devote the remainder of his trip to the students of Chhandam Nritya Bharati. As I had accompanied GuruJi one year ago, it was wonderful to see that all of the students are still committed to their study and how the school population is growing.
(Right: Panditji with the girls in the red light district the first time after they performed for their community)
Last year, I was present when many of the students received their bells in an auspicious Ghungroo ceremony, much like the ceremonies we have at the Chhandam School in the US. It was inspiring to see how the students have progressed since receiving their bells, not only in the dance itself, but in the increased awareness of the history, philosophy and etiquette that surrounds the art. Strangely enough, during my numerous visits to India with GuruJi I have noticed on more than one occasion that the etiquette taught to students learning in the US at Chhandam is not a requisite amongst many other Kathak students and schools in India. I made the assumption that it would indeed exist without question in India, but what I have come to learn is it is GuruJi who enforces the learning and acknowledgment of this aspect of the tradition.
The students of Chhandam Nritya Bharati are not the average Kathak students. Many of them are from the “society” though some live quite far from Kolkata itself. One student for example, Debalina, travels 3-hours one way by train with her parents to attend class with GuruJi.
A group of them, approximately 15, became his students just two short years ago when GuruJi expressed the strong desire to get more involved with helping young girls who are subject to abuse and trafficking. Some may call it divine intervention, as it was at this time that GuruJi was introduced to an organization by the name of New Light. It is based in Khaligat, a notorious quarter situated in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kolkata and one of the busiest red light districts in India. Many of the women make their living as sex workers and live in unimaginably crowded slum conditions and ply their trade with their children often watching. As a rule, their daughters follow in their footsteps once they reach age 14 or 15. New Light works to insulate some of the children from their mothers’ work environment.
(Left: Girls are receving their ghungroo for the first time.)
In 2005, Pandit Chitresh Das began teaching a group of young teenage girls who were a part of New Light, most of whose mothers were and still are sex workers in the red light district. The thrust behind his teachings was to introduce them to Kathak as a way to connect with the traditional aspects of their culture, offer them an opportunity for physical health and well being through his style of Kathak with a specific emphasis on his innovation of Kathak Yoga, and most importantly, empower them through the inner strength that one develops under his training and approach to the art.
Now, after 2 ½ years of study, the girls are growing into young adults, with some of them having experienced such intense scenarios that even adults should never have to face. Their commitment to the ongoing study with GuruJi is unquestionable and is strengthened with each visit by their beloved DadaJi.
With all of the students of Chhandam Nritya Bharati, there is an over powering joy that exudes when watching them in a class with GuruJi. Looks of determination in executing class material, shy giggles with mouths covered when he says something funny, ear to ear grins when he sits and talks with them after class…tears of joy and extreme sadness when he very openly asks the girls from New Light how they and their mothers are doing. Overall, it is an unexplainable interaction that takes place between GuruJi and his students in India. It is as though even at their young age, they’ve all been waiting for someone like him to come into their lives.
One day after class, GuruJi asked the students which in that evening only consisted of the girls from the red light district, what they considered him (and you must keep in mind that most if not all of these girls lack a father in their lives) – a Guru, an uncle, a father, a grandfather, a friend, what? Seema, one of the older girls in the group said very sweetly, and so sincerely, “You’re all of those things to us DadaJi.”
(Right: Panditji blesses one of the girls upon receiving her ghungroo.)
Though each trip I’ve accompanied GuruJi on has its unique qualities and experiences, one aspect remains consistent. This is Pandit Chitresh Das’s unwavering commitment to reach people of all ages, races, socio economic classes, belief systems and the many other factors that can divide us as human beings. He has a strong desire to bring them joy, excitement and a sense of empowerment to their own lives, using his dynamic style of performance and teaching of Kathak.
As GuruJi and Jason were leaving the stage at their performance at the US Consulate, he made a statement that resonates in my mind every time I think of him on and off the stage. “It is through dance, music and culture that we can bring peace and harmony to the world”.