As a teenager in Kolkata, tabla maestro Ritesh Das dreamt of playing Bollywood film scores.
By 22, Das was in L.A. and touring with AMAN — a world music group so big they filled half a Boeing 747, bags packed with everything from Balkan balalaikas to Appalachian ‘hee-haw’ banjos.
But it was here in Toronto that Das found his calling.
For nearly 25 years, his Toronto Tabla Ensemble has continued performing with a musical mentorship at its core — all the players are Das’ students, and they in turn are teachers.
“You could say a rock ‘n’ roll band pops up, has a five-year or a 10-year span, and they’re gone,” said Das, speaking at the ensemble’s brand-new studio in the Gerrard India Bazaar.
“This goes on.”
Last Saturday, the studio’s official opening happened to fall on Saraswati Puja, holiday for the Hindu goddess of music and learning.
It was a promising day, one that fit Das’ musical roots.
He and his elder brother, the renowned Khattak dancer Chitresh Das, grew up in their parents’ folk and dance academy. Called Nritya Bharati, the Kolkata school was the first of its kind in post-colonial Bengal.
“If you go inside, there’s a huge open-air auditorium,” said Das.
His parents filled it with classes on dance, tabla, pottery, and batik painting. Once a month, they converted it to a hall for serving food to the poor.
Before India’s independence, Das’ father acted the part of a British sergeant in Abhu Day, a revolutionary play staged against British wishes in villages around Bengal.
“He was so good at it, and everyone hated the British sergeants, so they threw shoes at him,” said Das, laughing. For a time, his father left Bengal for Japan-controlled Myanmar and then Singapore, studying traditional dance that he would later bring back to his own, mainly classical Indian folk school.
While Chitresh followed his father’s footsteps in dance, Ritesh took up music. Beginning with vocals and sitar, by 15 he had settled on tabla.
“I was so attracted to the sound,” he said. “I don’t look at tabla as a drum. It’s a percussion instrument, but more than that, it’s a melody – it’s like you’re singing a song with no words, no lyrics.”
In 1970, Chitresh took up a teaching fellowship in the US, and a year later joined the great sarode player Ali Akbar Khan by starting a dance program for Akbar’s music college in San Rafael, California.
Ritesh would later study at the college, apprenticing with Zakir Hussain, co-founder of Tabla Beat Science. From the height of the sixties, the school was an American Mecca for Indian music.
“George Harrison was there, because of Ravi Shankar,” Ritesh said. “They were guru brothers with Ali Akbar Khan – I saw them there quite a bit.”
While Ritesh went north to Toronto, Chitresh went on to found his own dance school, now the largest school of Indian dance in the US.
He was still performing and teaching Khatak – a highly athletic form of dance storytelling where performers wear hundreds of ankle bells – right up to his death at age 70 earlier this month.
“Nobody knew he was going to die,” said Das, adding that his brother had a sudden tear in his aorta.
“The funny part is, he was healthier than anyone else.”
Das said his brother ran 10 km a day, rain or shine.
“When he came to Toronto, oh my God, it was -18 C or something. We went for a jog, 17 laps on the track. I tried to keep up with him.”
His brother’s sudden passing has hit Das hard. The two had just been talking about performing together.
“You don’t know whether you’re going to step out of this building,” he said. It made him wonder, what’s the point?
With Toronto Tabla Ensemble, Das has recorded six albums, several music videos, and performed with musicians as diverse as taiko drummer Gary Kiyoshi Nagata and Tea Party rocker Jeff Martin.
But there was a time, about five years ago, when Das said, “I got to where I was collecting dust.”
Some of the collaborations went awry, and he felt burned out.
Encouraged by his brother, his then fiancé Melissa and her sister, Das and Melissa took more than a year off to see friends and family in India, Europe, and San Francisco.
“When I went into my brother’s dance class, and I saw the energy – that started it,” Das said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
Back in Toronto, Das reopened the ensemble, and began a new youth ensemble as well, with classes in Mississauga and Scarborough.
In its own way, Das said the new Gerrard Street studio will carry the essence of his parents’ school, Nritya Bharati – passing on classical Indian traditions, but with eyes and ears open to other folk traditions from around the world.
“It’s what I know best,” he said.