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In the News > When the Kathak maestro & tap dancer met

29 Jan 2012




As the door to a posh apartment atMalabar Hill in south Mumbai opens slowly, a young woman joins her palms for a greeting you don’t hear that often in a city: Namaste.

Minutes later, Kathak dancer and maestro Pandit Chitresh Das, 67, and Emmy award winning tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, 31, enter the room. The ensuing discussion covers a range of topics: Indian history, America in the 1970sand ‘80s, hippie culture, Warren Buffet, and the importance of preserving tradition and culture. The last bit is also why his students greet guests the traditional Indian way. “’Hi’ is easy to say, Namaste takes time,” says Das. “But why is it that when we go to Bangkok or Cambodia, they take time to greet us (in their language)?”

In 1974, Das grew out of a phase when all he wished for was to “marry a Jazz musician’s daughter and live in Harlem”. He left Kolkata for Dallas in the US with eight dollars and a tabla. When he opened his own kathakdance school in the US in 1979, Das found himself teaching concepts like the guru-shishya relationship and parampara to a class of blondes and brunettes — or the flower children and hippies, as Das put it. “They would come all doped out for the class. Make love not war — that was the theme of that time,” laughs Das. “I wanted to teach tradition and they were trying to break everything.” match point

Das and Smith (who then had “long matted hair”, says Das) met each other during the American Dance Festival in 2005, in North Carolina. “I was itching to just jam with someone,” says Smith. One night, while working on a rhythm backstage, Smith heard someone repeat the rhythm. “It was like he was answering to what I was doing.” That someone turned out to be Das.

Later, Das and his wife approached Smith with the idea of a dance collaboration of some sort. Thus, India Jazz Suites was born. The show first premiered in San Francisco in 2005 and went on to tour the US and India.

Das learnt about tap dance, jazz and Afro American culture by attending black festivals and tap jamming in New York to the tunes of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Smith visited the biggest Shiva temple in Coimbatore and stayed till the evening aarti. For the two artistes, it was more than just the dance.

Show stoppers
Their comfort with each other’s art shows on stage. At their performance at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai this week, Smith took to the stage a good forty minutes into the show, after students of Kathak had exhibited their skills in batches. By the time Smith strutted his way to the front of the stage, with a jazz trio for company, the audience had been well warmed up.

As the bass began to hum, the machine gun staccato of Smith’s incredible feet held the audience in rapt attention. He tapped on his toes, his heels and sometimes even on the sides of his feet. He feigned imbalance only to pull himself from the brink of a nasty spill with expert control. And just to prove that he wasn’t a one-trick pony he also served up some rap in between solos.

After Smith was done with his solo performance, Das made his entry to raucous applause. Accompanied, by the tabla, the sitar and vocals, Dasbegan his performance. Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha or story. Essentially, it uses dance as a medium for storytelling. Das illustrated this beautifully with his rendition of Shakuntala and Dushyant’s first encounter. 
final crescendo

The much younger Smith looked visibly strained by his performance, spraying sweat all over the stage but Das hardly seemed to be bothered by his exertions. He even managed to sing while his feet stamped away furiously, raising motes of dust that sparkled in the spotlight around his swirling form. And just to show-off his amazing stamina and skill, he performed a sequence of Kathak-yoga, where he sang and danced all the while supplying his own beats on the tabla.

Smith joined him on stage and the two master dancers put together an exchange of such rhythm and fury that the audience was compelled on to their feet. In the final crescendo, the Western and Eastern instruments came together in a seamless symphony to send off the two dazzling dervishes on stage.

Das has been described as having the “fastest feet in rhythm”.Smith has been described as a “lightning fast tapper’. How seriously do the two take these labels? “That’s just a relative term,” says Das. “There might be faster dancers, but what are you doing with your speed? That is important.”

“Well, you could also say ‘slowest feet in rhythm’. But who is going to come for that show?” laughs Smith.

Anu Prabhakar & Rito Paul