In late February, Cal Performances presented a tribute to classical Indian dancer Pandit Chitresh Das, which featured his last work, Shiva. As part of the introductory eulogy a short video presented the life of the renowned kathak dancer and choreographer as seen through the eyes of his students. One of them describes Das shouting out to his dancers in the middle of class, “Do or die!” Dance masters, it appears, are the same the world over. Justly so, for all dance requires mastery over the body, that complex, recalcitrant being that is the soul of our existence.

© Chitresh Das Dance Company
© Chitresh Das Dance Company

Chitresh Das was born in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1944, into a family of dancers, and grew up in the heady world of performance arts. He began dancing at the age of 9 and performing professionally at 11. In 1970 he came to the United States on a Whitney Fellowship to teach kathak at the University of Maryland. The following year he joined the Ali Akbar College in San Rafael, California, to establish a kathak dance program at the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan’s request. In 1979 he formed his own school and dance company in Marin. Although he performed internationally and established other schools in the US and India, Das remained based in northern California until his death last year.

The core of the evening’s performance was the long narrative company dance telling the story of Shiva, The Auspicious One, who is both Creator and Destroyer. Seated next to the musicians, who sat onstage right, the narrator began the story. Mists swirled clouding the upstage screen where, revealed in snowy detail, appeared the magnificent slopes of the Himalayas.

It is here, she tells us, that Shiva sits in ascetic meditation, the long matted tresses of his hair flow down the mountainside, tumbling at last into the sacred river Ganges that wends its way some 2,500 miles through India.

The drone of the harmonium begins the dance, later accompanied by the clear vocals of Debashis Sarkar, and is joined by the haunting twang of the sitar, played by Jayanta Banerjee. Center stage stands a figure of a sadhu, or holy ascetic, in red robes, the guru of the Tantric Sadhus, danced by Seibi Lee.

The guru holds Shiva’s trident, which symbolises the unity of the three “worlds” that each human faces – the inside world, the immediate world, anthe wider surroundings. Behind the guru sit his disciples, robed in black. They begin a rhythmic prayer, which like kathak dancing, increases in speed and intensity, insistent in its percussive and staccato sounds.

Like many traditional dances, flamenco and tap spring to mind, kathak depends on percussive footwork. They are the dancer’s mirror to the flying fingers of the tabla player. Speed and accuracy are essential. But kathak is danced barefoot, the hard tap of shoes is replaced by the jangle of bells that are wound in heavy stacks around the dancer’s ankles and shins. The movement of the feet is kept close to the ground, though occasionally a leg is raised, bent at the knee, in a frozen exaggeration of a human step. In Shiva yoga poses also form part of the dance’s vocabulary.

© Chitresh Das Dance Company
© Chitresh Das Dance Company
Back and forth, between dancers, narrator and musicians, the story unwinds. Arms wave and eyebrows lift, enhancing the words with emotions. Although the dancing and chanting disciples are clearly human, solid in their foot and arm work, Shiva appears as a shadow.

Behind the dancers onstage a half-circle of light is projected on a screen, with faint aspects of the Himalayas lurking. On this canvas the shadow of Shiva, danced by Charlotte Moraga, appears. In the backlight that throws the shadow, Shiva appears enormous. Fitting for a god who appears to the humans below as dominating and mysterious, his lineaments clear but lacking in recognizable human features.

Moraga, who is the co-artistic director of the company, was one of the company’s principal dancers, and completed the choreography for Shiva, which was unfinished when Das died.

The most gripping musical performance came from the percussionists. Led by tabla player Satyaprakash Mishra, percussionists Jim Sanit Owen (thavil) and Sekhar Sarukkai (mridangam) flashed through a long thrilling set of drum solos, begun by Mishra’s strong fingers flooding the stage with the open, ringing sound of the dayan, or treble drum. At one point he sang with the drums, translating their sound into a pure-toned vocalese.

What seemed miraculous about the performance was the way the simple story so easily took on a mythic and existential quality. Shiva draws in the audience, presenting the anguish and struggle of both the human and the divine as they are captured in existence, reeling in the universe in the midst of great pain and great joy. A fitting tribute to a dedicated artist and dancer.

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