It’s a waning art being eclipsed by a flashy contemporary entertainment culture. It struggles to capture distracted young audiences who’ve grown up on hip hop. It will perish without vigilant ambassadors who dedicate their lives to sustaining its flame.
“It” is American tap dance. Alternately, “it” is the North Indian classical dance, kathak. Concerns about the future of these traditional art forms are a fog that hovers over the leading men in the new documentary Upaj: Improvise.
For kathak’s elder statesman Pandit Chitresh Das, the existential stakes seem considerably higher than for Jason Samuels Smith, who can look to a cohort of young contemporaries who are, like him, enlivening and refreshing traditional American art forms. Kathak, Das explains as the film opens, has been fighting for its life in its homeland since the mid 1950s, when the British Raj marginalized its courtesans, confiscating their land.
After a boyhood of diligent study, Das arrived in the U.S in the 1970s and taught classes filled with white “flower children.” Now, his many schools in America and on the subcontinent are filled mostly with brown kids who, along with their parents, prize the cultural milieu. However, these are not the kids that Das is worried about — it’s the masses of young Indians who are manifestly more interested in the glitz of Bollywood and Western pop than sitting through a live classical performance.
For Samuels Smith, it was Savion Glover, the hoofer behind the Tony Award-nominated Bring In ‘da Noise, Bring In ‘da Funk, who took him under tutelage. Samuels Smith continued to build his career even after Glover lost interest in him as a protege. But the film returns often to the wound of what resulted; a mentorless hoofer. (Samuels Smith turned, in the aftermath of Glover, to virtuoso Gregory Hines. However, Hines died before the two were able to build a meaningful guru-shishya — or, teacher-disciple — relationship).
The film’s lens on loss, then, shifts between the societal and the personal. When Das and Samuels Smith meet, they are 62 and 26, respectively, and both men are seeking. Samuels Smith says Das drew him into an Indian tour, saying “We have this job that can bring you out to India, and while we’re there, we can work on getting more work. Maybe we can create something new.”
That “something new” has evolved into India Jazz Suites, an interplay of tap and kathak that delights audiences as much because of the synergy of the two art forms as the arresting contrasts: the tall, deft-footed Samuels Smith and the compact vitality and elegance of Das.
Upaj Director Hoku Uchiyama and Producer Antara Bharadwaj began filming these performances in 2007 without a clear sense of their story’s arc. But as you watch the young audiences file into their shows, one of the story’s tensions is apparent: Samuels Smith’s hip hop background seems to be the hook.
One particularly poignant moment related to this tension comes after a young journalist interviewing Das mentions that for young urban Indians, American dance is more viable on the dance floor. He starts out chuckling, “When people say, ‘the classical system is boring,’ it’s very hard for me when I come to India…,” and then he trails off, appearing to reconsider. “But actually, I don’t have any problems with that. I don’t.” For a brief moment, the camera catches a pained expression that betrays him.
Bharadwaj says as a classical kathak artist (she’s also a dancer) promulgating the art on the subcontinent requires overcoming preconceived notions that aren’t as much of an issue as in the U.S.
“In America, nobody’s heard of kathak,” she said. “It’s about getting someone in the door — ‘Hey, this is what I do, you should come check it out.’ If it sounds interesting, they come in with a blank slate, and either they like it, or they don’t. In India, it’s almost a harder challenge. Their image of kathak is like an old dude doing a really slow, boring dance that has no relation to their life right now.”
With and without Samuels Smith, this image is a far cry from what a Chitresh Das show delivers. Das’s wife Celine Schein alludes to this early on in the film when she talks about the expansiveness of her husband’s career, which includes cross-cultural collaboration dating back to the 1970s, and his “kathak yoga” innovations. “Anyone going down a path that’s not pre-fabricated for you, and you don’t constantly get positive feedback for, is going to have serious moments of crisis of faith,” she says.
The film captures many such small moments, and delivers some pleasant surprises that emerge from Das and Samuels Smith’s partnership.
It’s to the film’s credit that it tempers sentimentality, which could have been laid on much thicker onto themes of cultural loss, father figures, nostalgia, and globalization’s grip on the now generation. Originally conceived as a half half hour documentary for PBS, the filmmakers felt there would be too much of import left on the cutting room floor, and turned it into an hour long feature. It premieres at California’s Mill Valley Film Festival this weekend, and will continue on to Santa Cruz, New Orleans, and then to PBS in January 2014.
You can follow Nishat Kurwa on Twitter @nishatjaan.