Like the Hindu god Shiva, whom he revered, Chitresh Das was, in a sense, the lord of dance. Shiva is often referred to as Natraj, or the cosmic dancer. When Mr. Das took to the stage, he was similarly a sight to behold.
He was an exponent of Kathak, a type of Indian classical dance known for its rhythmic footwork accented by ankle bells, fast spins and storytelling. Onstage, his feet would beat out furious footwork with such speed that he seemed to levitate at times. His pirouettes were like whirlwinds, making the red tassels of his weighty ankle bells fly in the air. He was also a master of bhaav, or emotion, with the ability to arrest an audience by simply raising an eyebrow. Even in his later years, Mr. Das continued to be a powerhouse performer, captivating audiences with his presence and stamina.
Just as Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain brought sitar strains and tabla rhythms to a global audience, Mr. Das was an ambassador for Kathak. Besides establishing a Kathak school in California, with offshoots in Toronto, Boston and Los Angeles, among other cities, he was an innovator, having created a new form he called Kathak yoga.
Mr. Das 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.
“My last memory of him is running on the outdoor track near our house,” says Mr. Das’s younger brother, Ritesh Das, who lives in Toronto and is the founder and artistic director of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble. “It was -18 C outside. Dada [older brother, in Bengali] wanted to do 22 laps. A cop car drove by, and the cops told him to be careful. It could be dangerous. But he kept on going, with his hoodie on.”
Mr. Das was born on Nov. 9, 1944, in Calcutta, India. His parents, Prahlad Das and Nilima Das, were artists themselves, and opened one of India’s first government-funded dance schools called Nritya Bharati. His father was a famous dance scholar, who had started out in the Bengali folk tradition of jatra and sought out masters of other Indian art forms, while his mother ran the school. Luminaries from the world of Indian music and dance were regulars at their home, and often held intimate shows on the small stage in the backyard. Mr. Das’s formal training began with Ram Narayan Misra, and he began performing professionally at the age of 11.
“I remember I would hear the tabla player at 6 a.m., and he’d call out, ‘Bablu’ – that was Dada’s nickname. Within half hour, Dada was dancing on full blast,” his brother, Ritesh, says. “He was also an incredible sportsman. He was a great cricket and football player. There was an army barracks next to our house, so he tried boxing with the army guys. He got beaten up the first time. But he practised and beat them. He loved Muhammad Ali, his foot movement.
“One time he told Ma to come to school with a bucket. There was an [intramural]. He was sitting and talking one minute; then he started bringing trophies and putting them in the bucket. 100 metre, 200 metre, 800 metre. So dance and athletics were always part of his life.”
In 1970, Mr. Das received a Whitney Fellowship through the University of Maryland to teach Kathak. He moved to California to teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music, founded by Ali Akbar Khan, a renowned master of the sarod, an Indian stringed instrument. Surrounded by legends of Indian classical arts, and a prodigious talent himself, Mr. Das developed his signature Kathak swagger. In 1980, he formed his own Chhandam School of Kathak and the Chitresh Das Dance Company. He also developed Kathak yoga, a practice that involves singing and dancing while marking a time signature.
Toronto native Joanna De Souza happened to come across a performance by Mr. Das’s students in 1978, while she was in California. Mesmerized, she sought him out.
“I have always acknowledged that nothing short of life’s magic could have allowed me, a kid from Whitby, Ont., the chance to study a dance form from India, and to do so with such a master, such an artist, such a guide and such a man,” says Ms. De Souza, who now runs M-DO/Kathak Toronto dance school. “I was only 21 … and I saw a performance of two of his students on a Sunday afternoon, and went to watch a class on Monday morning.
“He had other plans … and [told me] ‘No, no, go in the back and try it.’ Then with his signature sense of humour and twinkle in his eye he added, ‘Way in the back.’”
Known not to suffer fools, Mr. Das demanded commitment from his students. Monica Dalidowicz had heard many tales about his rigorous training before she met him. Originally from Regina, she started learning Kathak from Rosa Mirijello-Haynes, a student of Ms. De Souza. Ms. Dalidowicz then moved to Toronto to study with Ms. De Souza, before moving to India to study Kathak as part of her master’s research in cultural anthropology. She later trained with Mr. Das, and completed a PhD on learning Kathak, focusing on Mr. Das’s teaching.
“His students had such an immense amount of love, devotion and respect for him,” Ms. Dalidowicz says. “But there were also stories of his strictness. The students would talk about how hard [he] made them dance, and how much he pushed them. But he was also a lot of fun to be around, and was always performing, so they would also tell funny stories. He was great at imitating his students, poking fun at some of their idiosyncrasies.
“I have never met anybody that had such a profound impact on the people around him.… Yes, he was an amazing artist, but for me, it was his gift as a teacher that really inspired me.”
Mr. Das leaves his wife, Celine Schein; his daughters, Shivaranjani and Saadhvi Das; and his brother, Ritesh. There will be a memorial service at the Centre for Indian Arts studio in Toronto on Feb. 7, featuring a screening of Upaj: Improvise, a documentary on Mr. Das’s collaboration with American virtuoso tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith.
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