(India Jazz Suites, From Left: Pandit Chitresh Das, Jason Samuels Smit; Courtesy of IUP.edu)
This particular Ideas and Issues series commenced with an opening speech from Lively Arts director Hank Knerr, who briefly explained the origins of the India Jazz Suites before announcing a Question and Answer (Q&A) session and reception after the film. Since "Upaj: Improvise" was still in its editing stages, the audience was notified that they would be viewing a copy of the film that had not been finalized.
The documentary showcased the India Jazz Suites, a dance team who combines Eastern and Western dance. The two-man team is comprised of Indian kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das, 68, and Emmy Award-winning tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, 32. Kathak is a classical Indian dance which tends to tell a story through dance.
India Jazz Suites was conceived at a 2004 American Dance Festival in North Carolina, an annual festival which features over a dozen dance companies. The two men met by chance and decided to collaborate; luckily, Smith and Das were able to collaborate so easily given that Smith resided in Los Angeles and Das in San Francisco. Their union and fame grew as the pair began performing across the nation; this past year, they even managed to take a month-long trip to India. This trip was featured heavily in "Upaj: Improvise."
The film showed the dancers traveling throughout India, showing Smith's culture shock as he witnessed the extremely different culture in India. As Smith would later explain, his biggest shock in the film seemed to come within minutes of its start, when he experienced the traffic situation in India.
The film also showed India Jazz Suites visiting different locations, such as a Mumbai television show and a college in India. Mumbai is the center of Bollywood, India's version of Hollywood, and the show featured a variety of subjects in Indian pop culture.
Also discussed was Das' inspiration for dancing, his guru- to put it in simpler terms, a spiritual teacher. In India, gurus are revered for their knowledge; for Das, however, his inspiration came after the tragic death of his guru. In the film, Das shared with the audience the tale of how his guru was thrown onto iron spikes and killed. Losing someone of such importance to him inspired Das to begin dancing and led him on a lifelong path full of dance.
(Photo Courtesy of Kristen Gilmartin; From Left: Pandit Chitresh Das, Jason Samuels Smith)
During the Q&A, Smith elaborated upon his experience with traffic, describing it as hectic and seemingly dangerous. He explained how a person may make a U-turn in the middle of the street and traffic is expected to simply go along with it. There is no signalling, yet Indians merely adjust. Despite the likelihood of these traffic methods resulting in an accident in America, Smith said, he had witnessed no accidents during his month-long stay.
The Q&A session also featured an anecdote from Das about an experience that shocked Smith during his stay. The two had experiences with both the wealthy and the less-fortunate of India. First, India Jazz Suites had performed during a wedding before rich diamond merchants; later, they had been around prostitutes, who would sometimes service their customers before children. It was the latter group that Das and Smith had taught to dance.
The "Upaj: Improvise" documentary and follow-up Q&A managed to show a side of India not typically witnessed in contemporary cinema. The interaction between the audience, Das and Smith further enhanced the experience by sharing personal stories about themselves and their trip to India. India Jazz Suites later performed in IUP's Fisher Auditorium on March 23rd at 8 PM.