Chitresh Das, Influential Performer and Educator of Indian Dance, Dies at 70
Chitresh Das, a teacher and performer who widely disseminated the north Indian classical dance form kathak in the United States, died on Jan. 4 in San Rafael, Calif. He was 70.
The cause was acute aortic dissection, a tear in the inner wall of the aorta, said Rachna Nivas, the director of the Chhandam School of Kathak, which Mr. Das founded in San Rafael in 1980.
Through his schools and his Chitresh Das Dance Company, Mr. Das played an important role in popularizing kathak, one of the most prominent forms of classical Indian dance and the only one that has roots in both Muslim and Hindu traditions.
Kathak deploys powerful percussive footwork (emphasized by the ankle bells dancers usually wear), fast turns and a constant virtuosic interplay and rhythmic exchange between the dancer and musicians. It is also a storytelling form that emphasizes abhinaya, the repertoire of nuanced facial expressions and gestures that allows a performer to incarnate characters and creatures in mythological tales from Indian epics like the Mahabharata.
Mr. Das, acclaimed for his mastery of these aspects of kathak when still a child, began his career in the West just as musicians like the sitarist Ravi Shankar and the tabla player Zakir Hussain were gaining popularity. Although he continued to give traditional concerts in which he performed the long solo improvisations that are at the heart of kathak, he also tried to update the form by creating group dances and developing a style called Kathak Yoga, in which the performers sing, and sometimes play an instrument, while dancing.
“I will make sure that kathak lasts because I’ve already done the work of Kathak Yoga,” Mr. Das said in an interview with The New York Times in 2005. “And that will last. That will last forever.”
Chitresh Das was born on Nov. 9, 1944, in Calcutta, now Kolkata. His parents founded one of India’s first government-funded dance schools, and he grew up surrounded by artists, dancers and musicians. He began to study kathak at age 9 with the master teacher Pandit Ram Narayan Misra and by 11 was an established performer. After graduating from Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, he obtained a master’s degree in dance from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, an Indian classical music institute in Allahabad.
In 1970, Mr. Das was awarded a Whitney Fellowship through the University of Maryland to teach kathak. The next year he was invited by the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan to create a kathak dance program at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. In 1979, he left to form his own school and dance company, which performed regularly in the Bay Area.
He later opened branches of the school in San Francisco, Berkeley and other cities in the area. His pupils started schools in Toronto in 1990, Boston in 1992 and Los Angeles in 2012.
“As a solo performer, Mr. Das proved an uncommonly entertaining exponent of kathak,” the critic Allan Ullrich wrote in an obituary in The San Francisco Chronicle. “His slashing rhythmic attack, electrifying footwork, dazzling turns and verbalizations, all accompanied by the ringing of the weighty bells he wore around his ankles, won him lifelong fans. He was also an extraordinary movement storyteller, with his expressive fingers evoking animal life and traditional deities.”
While teaching at his schools and at Stanford University, Mr. Das created the first university-accredited kathak course in the United States, at San Francisco State University. He returned frequently to India, and in 2002 reopened his parents’ dance school in Kolkata. In 2003 he began working with New Light, a nonprofit community organization based in Kolkata’s red-light district, teaching kathak to children of prostitutes. He established a dance school in Mumbai in 2010.
He is survived by his wife, Celine; his daughters, Shivaranjani and Saadhvi Das; and his brother, Ritesh.
Mr. Das was consistent in his belief that kathak could evolve while retaining its essential characteristics. In 2005 he collaborated with the virtuoso tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith on the show “India Jazz Suites,” which toured the United States, Australia and India, and was captured on film in the documentary “Upaj: Improvise,” shown last year on PBS. Mr. Das also collaborated with the flamenco dancer Antonio Hidalgo Paz on the show “Yatra: Journey From India to Spain,” which explored the shared roots of the two dance forms. It had its premiere this past September in San Francisco.