A friend asked me to attend a Kathak performance, and I told them: ‘please don’t bore me’, as I had a preconceived notion that classical shows are ‘boring.’ She pleaded me to go and see his (Pandit Chitresh Das) performance, so I did. It was truly a life altering evening for not just me but for many others who would get affected by my transformation,
says Seema Mehta who shortly after that evening in California decided to learn Kathak.
It has been ten years since her association with Kathak started. From this association was born the Chhandam School of Kathak in Mumbai. A journey with Kathak that started in California and over the years moved to India.
The dance school is just one aspect of Seema’s career. The other side is that she is the fourth generation of a family steeped into the jewellery business. The granddaughter of Kirtilal Kalidas Mehta, the founder of Kirtilals, she is the Creative Director of the company. HerStory spoke with Seema about the two loves of her life.
Seema was born in Mumbai and in 1980 when she was about four she moved to Antwerp in Belgium and she was there till about the age of 20. She then moved to San Francisco and stayed there for almost seven years till she moved back to India in 2004. She currently resides in Mumbai.
Seema completed her graduation in Fine Arts, specializing in painting and sculpture, from the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, California.
After watching Chitresh Das’s performance, Seema decided to learn Kathak. While she was studying in California she joined classes. She did her debut performance at NCPA, Mumbai in January 2009. In 2010 she moved to Mumbai to open her dance school. She has started the Chhandam School of Kathak in Mumbai and is actively involved in the preservation and promotion of Kathak, locally and globally. She continues to perform in India and abroad.
The Chhandam School of Kathak
Seems says, “Guruji’s style is extremely unique and though traditional it is still very dynamic. Since all his students are mostly abroad I decided to spread his style of Kathak in India.”
She started with two students and currently has 60. She plans to hire a few more teachers who can take care of the junior classes so she can spend more time and energy on those at a higher level. Reminiscing about her own training days, she says, “My learning style was different from this one hour co-curricular activity style of learning. I was taught in the gurukul style. I took two months off from work to go and learn from guruji in Kolkata. I used to learn from morning till evening, and not just dance but other things too, like how to take care of one’s health and body after rigorous practice.”
Seems believes that teachers play an integral role in a student’s life. According to her it is not just about the art form but also about the teacher. “For me it was the same, it was because of guruji’s style and his teaching that I looked deeper into the dance form.”
While growing up most conversations at the dinner table were around diamonds and jewellery. “It was just something that I wanted to initially stay away from.”
In 2004 Chitresh Das visited India. He visited Seema and her family in Coimbatore and saw the Kirtilas factory and manufacturing unit. He suggested that Seema look at the creative side of her family business. It was at his insistence that she joined the company for three months as trial and then the months turned to five years.
In the initial five years, she was working full time in Coimbatore along with practicing dance. In 2010, Seema moved to Mumbai to open her Kathak school.
As a Creative Director, she gives vision for creativity and design while working with a team of 23 designers. Her job doesn’t end with just designing as she looks into manufacturing of the piece, the technical side and how the final product is communicated to the audience. In fact Seema has spent two years in Coimbatore learning from an Italian the intricacies of manufacturing a piece with great detail to attention, style, design and looks.
Once the final piece is ready, Seema is also responsible for how the piece is communicated to the audience.
It is always very challenging because it is a business in which a lot has already been done and still the question is how do you stay unique. We have been around for 75 years and people have certain exceptions when it comes to our pieces,
she says. Though the business is spread in South India, they have an office in Mumbai too for private clients. Talking about how the jewellery sector has changed she says, “It has undergone a transition. There
is a huge shift in the way people are buying jewellery. Earlier it was about necklaces, pendants etc. but now as more and more women are working they are looking for daily wear like studs, cocktail rings etc. This has created a digital space for jewellery through e-commerce. I had not thought that online jewellery sales in India would take off, but it has.”Inspiration
“The desire to reach a higher standard in everything I do as an individual and with my different teams,” keeps her motivated.
She draws inspiration from her mother, her father and guruji. “I have seen people like my father, my guruji at their age work like a 22 year old. That definitely keeps me going because for a second when you think you are tired of doing something or things are exhausting, then you just have to think of what they have gone through in their lives and the that journey pushes me to plough ahead.”
Seema believes that every challenge presents a new opportunity. Recently, losing her guruji has given a different perspective on life and death.
Once a mother always a mother
Seema admires women like Maya Angelou, Mallika Sarabhai and Maneka Gandhi but most importantly she admires mothers.
I am amazed by the way mothers bring up their children everyday. It is a role you cannot switch off from even if you are away from your child. It is different kinds of emotional space that you can’t get out of.
Seema does not have kids but she has seen her mother worry about her.
Currently, juggling between her role as a teacher and a creative director, Seema plans to get back to her hobbies such as painting and tennis when she gets time.
When asked if she sees classical arts as part of the mainstream in India, sharing the example of Yoga she says, “What the west adopts gets to be a major international movement. Everything that is beautiful and Indian sadly needs to go abroad for it to become mainstream in India.”