The last time I was on the Zellerbach stage, I was a student at UC Berkeley, emceeing the Indus cultural show. I always did have a passion for Indian culture and my Indian heritage – or at least what I thought back then was the extent of being Indian. I wore Indian clothes, ate Indian food, performed and choreographed Indian folk dances (there was no such thing as Bollywood dance back then – it was called “filmy dance” and it certainly was never performed at cultural shows). I even decided to double major in Environmental Biology and South Asian Studies. I also got involved with leadership and community organizing – in fact I was one of the organizers of the first ever South Asian graduation at Cal, where I gave a speech on being Indian American and the importance of community, family, and pride. I had a desire to do something meaningful with my life, something that gave back, something against the grain – but what?
It wasnt until I stumbled upon a Kathak class of Pandit Chitresh Das in 1998 that my eyes were opened to just how spiritually and intellectually profound Indian dance and tradition can be. The classroom was filled with electricity from the dancers’ movement and sweat, the sound of their ankle bells, and continuous singing and recitation. I sat in awe of this relentless task master, his “old school” teaching style, his intense passion for his students to excel by any means necessary, and his unwavering focus on a mission to preserve and carry forth a legacy. The students were all women and they were pushing their physical and mental boundaries through the art of Kathak. It was India like I had never seen it before and it was life like I had never experienced it. I knew that my life had changed, that perhaps I had found what I was searching for. But I had no idea that the future would hold for me an incredible journey.
14 years later, I am a professional Kathak soloist, a member of the renowned and internationally touring Chitresh Das Dance Company, a senior teacher, and co-director of the Chhandam School of Kathak, one of the largest classical Indian dance institutions in the world. I have had the opportunity to perform across the United States and in India at prestigious venues such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater (LA), National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, India, National Institute of Kathak Dance in Delhi, and many many others. It is ironic that, once a confused Indian American, I am now going back to perform for and teach Indians in India.
The journey to reach this point has been deeply rooted in tradition. My training has entailed tens of thousands of hours training directly with a living legend and master, Pandit Das, both in the SF Bay Area and for an extended period every year in India in a gurukul setting (disciples and Guru living together to train, cook and carry out chores together). His teachings have always been, not to blindly follow a Guru or imbibe his/her vision, but rather to take the Guru’s teachings as tools to find one’s own path, vision, and eventually empower the Guru within oneself.
Today, Kathak has become not only my livelihood, but a way of life – my spiritual path of self-discovery and self-actualization. Our holistic approach to Kathak encapsulates so much of what the Indian subcontinent has to offer – history, philosophy, math, music, poetry, drama, and spirituality.As an Indian American who has been handed a priceless jewel of legacy, I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to be a leader in preserving this tradition to both the Indian diaspora and the many diverse communities we live in. Every time I teach children, I feel honored to be a role model to the next generation and I feel blessed to be doing what I love.
Today, I come full circle – coming back to my alma mater and stepping onto a stage after 15 years. But this time, not as a young and confused college girl, searching for answers. This time, as a woman who has come into my own. I represent today, the roots and values my parents have given me, the training and knowledge my Guru has given me, the intellectual stimulus that UC Berkeley provided me, and the freedom, expression, and empowerment that the arts have taught me.