Indo-Afro Dance

At a recent private Lincoln Center screening of dance film UPAJ, viewers witnessed the creation of India Jazz Suites, an amazing Indo-Afro collaboration starring a 68-year-old Indian Kathak icon and a 32-year-old African American tap dance star. Subtitled “the story of a friendship unlikely,” the Issie Award winning documentary, rolled out like a modern father-son love story. Upaj means ‘improvise’ in Hindi. The unlikely pair’s journey was full of magic and rhythm as these two divergent and humorous souls invented and performed unscripted lives ‘on the road’ in India and America.

The film featured my paternal cousin Jason Samuels Smith, 32, tap dance star of “Bring in Da’ Noise” fame, who comes from a family full of dancers. Pandit Chitresh Das, 68, India’s foremost Kathak dance master, is a descendant of one of India’s most prominent dance families.  

The documentary is a behind the scenes look at friendship,  family history and life as artists. We saw Jason as a child dance star on TV’s Sesame Street with dance superstar Savion Glover.  Memorable film clips and black and white family photos of Das’ parents costumed in Kathak performances during colonial India were also featured. The story inside the story portrays the struggle of all artists: sacrifice, demons, dedication, devotion to craft and most of all— the quest to engage with an audience!

Finally, they are booked to perform at a prominent Indian wedding. Thousands attended the traditional weeklong wedding event at a huge stadium. After their successful performances, Das and Jason and their accompanying musicians received several bookings throughout India—at universities, on television shows, and at a variety of venues. The camera follows them over six years, as they engage, perform and travel from place to place.

There was humor and pathos throughout the film as both men—Das colorfully costumed, barefoot with bells on his ankles and Jason in tap shoes sporting a variety of hairstyles—entertain with joy and wonder. Jason and his crew’s exhaustion from a weeklong wedding was comical.  Jason’s reactions to India’s monkeys that ran wild contrasted with his astonishment at the incredible poverty in India: “Man, I thought I came from the ‘hood until I went to India,” he said.

Archival film excerpts of tap dance giants Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines provided nostalgic moments. Jason lamented the loss of his mentor, Gregory Hines. Das recalled memories of his guru’s murder and eventual cremation.  There was a bit of dance history from both Indian and American cultures.  But most of all, we saw two lovable characters develop a friendship and evolve—Jason matured to manhood and Das mellowed. There were many standing ovations after the screening of this magnificent film. Kudos to the award-winning filmmakers: director Hoku Uchiyama and producer Antara Bhardwa. Jason and Das both have won numerous awards individually, and together they won the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for the Best Ensemble Performance of the Year.

Mark you calendar for this must-see film that crosses age, race and cultural boundaries. It is set for Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 20, 2014, 8pm on PBS’s AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. Do you know about other Indo-Afro collaborations? Eg. Culture, cuisine, the arts? Please describe in comments.