Upaj: Improvise

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The Unlikeliest Buddy Movie You'll Ever See

Chitresh Das, 68, grew up in a well-to-do family in Calcutta, India. They revered classical dance and their son was apprenticed to a great guru as a young child and became a master perfumer of North Indian Kathak dance, doing his first public performance with Ravi Shankar. Hip-hop, tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, grew up in the hood – food stamps, sometimes homeless. Surrounded by supportive mother and sisters, he became the protégé of Savion Glover and Gregory Hines and a great tapper in his own right.

Smith never ever thought about India, it was on the opposite side of the world. Das, on the other hand, had seen Around the World in Eighty Days when he was a kid and always wanted to try dancing in boots, unlike Indians who always perform barefoot. Then, this unlikely duo met through their feet. At the American Dance Festival, Samuels was practicing hard and Das, on the other side of the curtain began following his footwork, bare-footed. “Who’s doing that?” shouted Smith. “How do you make that sound with bare feet?”

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It was, says Das’s wife, like two lovers finding each other. Oddly the 68-year old aristocrat and the 32-year-old rapping tapper with dreads were, in many ways, on similar paths. They’d both been born at the end of one era and the beginning of another. For Das, it was the British Raj, and for Samuels, it was Civil Rights Movement. They’d both lost their teachers at an early age, and they were both trying to save complex classical dance styles in their own countries that were on the verge of being swallowed up by the hipper styles brought in by new times.

Upaj: Improvise which means improvisation in Hindi, is based on the duo's show, Classical Jazz Suites. It is also a story of how Das’s philosophy of meditation helped Smith become a better dancer. The two talked to Cynthia Kling before the PBS premier on Monday January 20th. To see it on tv, click here.

Cynthia Kling: You have very different styles. Are you competitive?

Chitresh Das: We challenge each other. He is younger and so I try to go faster.

CK: What do you share?

CD: Intensity. Intensity is the secret of it all and it breaks down as focus, practice, practice, practice.

Jason Smith: Neither of our styles is commercial in our countries, so another interesting dynamic we share is holding onto these precious jewels others might not find valuable.

CK: Jason, Has any of Chandra’s philosophy rubbed off on you?

JS: Our work is freestyle and that means you that you have to absolutely be in that moment, live in the now. That philosophy, embrace what you have now, the moment will never happen again. I’ve really had to master it.

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CK: Chitresh, what has Jason taught you?

CD: He is the younger me. But we both have the willingness to explore. I’ve taken him to the red light district of Calcutta and he danced for the children and he’s taken me to Harlem and introduced me to people. We learn more about the world from each other.

CK: Jason, what is the toughest part of Chitresh's style?

JS: Kathak yoga. Chitresh has a school he’s created where he has brought all the things together that he practices – dancing with 10 pound bells on his feet, playing the various parts, singing, harmonizing, playing the tabla, at 5/16thbeat and then you keep dividing it. He takes it as a challenge – mentally, physically, and spiritually. By doing all of these things together, you get to that place of oneness with yourself, find the divine connection. No, I am not at that level yet.

CK: Are your dances always different?

JS: Absolutely, you put us in a room together before the show and the conversation that develops is what you will see when we are on stage. Right now, he’s a new dad at 70 [he laughs] and I’m a single dude at 33. We’re at different ends of the life experience.

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