Winter 2023 In Dance

shows a year, our spring school show and our fall home season. The spring shows lay the groundwork for our fall home season productions). My next work Mantram was to focus on the Maha Pancha Bhuta (the five elements) and how the elements are affected by climate change. The year was 2020 and we got shut down, shut up, and shut in. The fires that raged politically, socially, emotionally and quite liter- ally throughout California consumed me and Mantram became very fire for- ward. The work was performed for the first time in our fall home season 2021. Now it was time for the antidote: water. We started with trees that hold Earth, unleashed Wind and Fire, and now it was time for Water to soothe, to cleanse, to rebirth us. RIVERS On one of our tours, back in the late ‘90s, we performed in the Indian city of Agra. The day after, our hosts took us to see the iconic Taj Mahal, which is situated on the banks of the Jamuna river. I had been danc- ing along the banks of the Jamuna since my first Kathak class, in my

imagination. We were taught to dance a poem, a kavita , “ Jamuna ke tat par nacheta Kanhaiya ….” which trans- lates to “Lord Krishna playing his flute by the banks of the Jamuna.” What I saw wasn’t my Jamuna. It was dried up. Didn’t flow. You could walk across it without getting your ankles wet but you wouldn’t want to. It looked muddy and lifeless. Plastic bags littered the shore rather than the lotus flowers we show with a flurry of wrist movements and fingers unfurl- ing. In our dance, or in my imagina- tion, these banks were always green and lush with flowers and fragrance, animals and teeming with life. Seeds were planted for the work I wanted to create in the future. I started researching. I found lots of pictures online of Jamuna, travel shots with gorgeous sunsets, and then poison: shots of monumental pol- lution; diaphanous clouds of white foam from toxic chemicals; untreated sewage; agricultural and industrial runoff. It was not difficult to accept the dissonance between the real- ity of the polluted Jamuna and the dances of Radha and Krishna along

save ourselves from ourselves. This was the theme of our most recent school show Jamuna ke Tata Par in May 2022. It is this idea of river as source, of rivers as the veins of our Mother, and this idea of a river of knowl- edge passed generation to genera- tion, that started me thinking about the many layers of my new Kathak work, Invoking the River , which premiered Fall 2022. THE GANDA BANDHAN ceremony is a ritual in which the guru (teacher) officially accepts the Shishya (stu- dent) as a disciple, someone who will carry on the legacy. When I tied strings with my Guruji on the banks of the sacred river Ganga at Dakish- wara temple in Kolkata in 2002, I didn’t take it lightly. I made a pact: to learn, to teach, to dance, to go deep, and then share it with the world. To pass it on. I see the next generation looking for a way forward but also leading the way forward. They have their own questions and they have their own answers! This work had to be stepping stones on that path for them and with them. So, they became my collaborators. We talked about the sacred rivers of India. The rivers of our imagination. The rivers of our dance. What is happening to water? Who is responsible? What to do? In India, and indeed many places around the world, rivers are god- desses. The personification of the river is something we are very famil- iar with and that resonates deeply within us in Kathak dance. I asked my dancers to imagine they are the river. How would they move? Why would they move? How would they carve through space as the river? Where would they move to and from? And why? Is a river ever still? Starting with these, and many more questions, they carved out a narrative for themselves that was very personal. One of the dancers had two grandparents pass away in 2020

the pastoral banks of the Jamuna of our mythology because of the story of Kaliya, an evil demon who pol- lutes the river. This is an ancient story from the puranas , but the meta- phor is pertinent and powerful today. Krishna, our hero, of course defeats the demon. So all ends well. It made me wonder. Was there ever a time of pristine pastoral bliss? One of the things I learned from my Guruji is that there are so many layers to everything. It is one of the things, I believe, that is so misunder- stood about Kathak dance specifically, and traditional art forms in general. He was such a special artist in part because he was able to honor and cel- ebrate the tradition while simultane- ously questioning it and pushing the boundaries of the artform. He was an unabashed Kathak and Indian classi- cal art advocate, but questioned sex- ism, casteism, ageism, and many other isms within the art and within the culture. This questioning approach to the stories is something that is funda- mental to making them meaningful and relevant to our lives in this day and age. I don’t know if many gurus encourage questioning like this, but he never ended a class without say- ing “Three questions asked” (mean- ing, “Ask me three questions”). I think this was essential to his teachings. INVOKING THE RIVER The seeds had taken root. With climate change becoming palpa- ble in the most striking and some- times horrific ways – floods and drought, fires and storms, devastat- ing weather patterns that displace peoples and cultures – I feel com- pelled to bring urgency to our need to find balance and harmony with our Mother, and each other. We are all Krishna. And we are all Kaliya. We have to face our own inner demons, and outer ones as well. We have to examine our lives and how our culture of conve- nience might be the environment in which Kaliya thrives. We have to

in India from Covid, so she wanted to put herself in Ganga’s shores as it lapped at the Manikarnika ghats (sacred crematory grounds). She says of the process, “When I took a step back, I realized Invoking the River was about everything washing through me, and everything from the past being within me, as well. It’s super cool to think, ‘This water may have been in me previ- ously.’ So, Invoking the River for me was more about the water than the river itself.” (Visit the CDI blog to read more about their personal expe- riences.) Utsav Lal’s evocative piano melodies and rhythms became the framework for their respective solos. Alka Raghuram’s immersive poem- films became the Sutradhar (trans- lates literally to “thread-holder,” but roughly as leader of the play), the narrator that tied the stories together. Our creative juices flowed together, like a river. Their solos were bookended by two group choreographies. The first being a quintessential origin story of how the river goddess Ganga came to Earth. Ganga’s life force was so

powerful it would have destroyed the people and land, so, she asked Shiva to catch her in his locks, and thus she flowed down from the heavens. The last section, Sangam , revolved around the meeting and melding of the rivers who invoke their sister Saraswati. Saraswati – the mytho- logical river and goddess of learning and the arts – is a ripe metaphor for the transmission of knowledge and a path forward. Sangam left us feeling immersed in her waters. Drenched in her beauty, her care, and her wisdom, we may just stay here. CHARLOTTE MORAGA is currently the artistic director of the Chitresh Das Institute. She has been dancing, teaching dance, performing, and making dances most of her life. But it wasn’t until her serendipitous meeting of Pandit Chitresh Das 30 years ago that she found her calling. A principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 20 years, she still performs occasionally, but finds joy and meaning in teaching and creating dances. Charlotte also teaches dance and art for the San Francisco Uni- fied School District. When not teaching or dancing or making dances you can find her hiking the hills of San Francisco. You can email Charlotte at


in dance WINTER 2023 58

WINTER 2023 in dance 59

In Dance | May 2014 |

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