Thursday, July 3, 2008

Away, but at home

The Chilika Lake in Orissa is home to thousands of migratory birds from November to February every year. Bhubaneswar, the capital city, is the centre of another kind of migration, around the same time. Dancers from the East and the West flock to this temple city to learn Odissi from the masters, finds H. BALAKRISHNAN.

MASAKO ONO started dancing when she was five. Her teacher was Masako Yokoi, the only product of Martha Graham in Japan. She went on to learn western classical ballet, jazz and hip-hop. Today she lives in Bhubaneswar gives dance performances and lectures, cooks Japanese and local food, and practises dance and yoga for up to six hours every day.

One day at elementary school, Masako saw a picture of Taj Mahal and was enraptured by its beauty. She decided to become an architect. "I wanted to build something as beautiful as the Taj," she says! She failed to get into the "best University" for a course in architecture, and gave up that dream. "But the real dream was India," she says. "So, I decided to study about India. I majored in Indo-Pakistan studies."

Back home after a brief visit to India, she saw a video of an Odissi performance by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. That chance encounter changed her life. "This is what I want to do in my life," she decided. The Indian Embassy gave her a brochure of Nrityagram.

Masako Ono

Masako took the first opportunity to visit Nrityagram, only to find it "closed". Dejected, she went back to Japan and wrote to Protima Gauri Bedi. There was no reply. Just as she was about to give up and take up a job ("only the health check was due"), she got an invitation from Protima, asking her to "come immediately. You don't have to pay much, just Rs. 3,000 a month including all the classes and boarding. Just pack up and come."

Masako was torn by a dilemma. On one side, she passionately wanted to go to Nrityagram. On the other, "since my father was no more, and I was the eldest, I should take up a job and make mom happy." She told her mother. To her surprise, her mother encouraged her to follow her dream. Masako lost no time in packing. She withdrew all her savings and took the first flight to Bangalore. Thus began her story in India.

The rigorous regimen at Nrityagram honed and burnished the raw talent in the Japanese girl. Today Nrityagram is a sweet memory. But soon, she felt restless. She visited Orissa for further training. Guru Kelucharan and four other veterans taught her the finer nuances. Her dancing reached a passionate intensity, "and my friends thought I was going mad!" This phase passed, and Masako started learning Chhau. Having come to India in 1996, she has been visiting her home country once a year or so, "but it is becoming less and less (frequent)".

Masako Ono has choreographed and danced for Louis Banks involving luminaries like Talat Aziz, Rashid Khan and Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt. She has performed in India, Japan and Sri Lanka. She is now ready to take wings and spread the message of Odissi and India ("closer to me now") around the world.

WHAT do you say to someone born in Italy but says firmly, "don't bracket me with foreign dancers"? Nothing. Ileana Citaristi, who came to India in 1979, has now made Bhubaneswar her home. She has taken up Indian citizenship and is one of the most visible faces of Odissi and Chhau in the world. Ileana, when she is not working or choreographing, performing or writing for the media, spends time teaching dance to children. One of the most vigorous exponents of Mayurbhanj Chhau, she also choreographs for films.

Ileana Citaristi

Ileana was involved with theatre in her teens. That was in Italy way back in the 1970s. She saw a Kathakali performance and found the "body language" different from what she had been exposed to earlier. She came to India to study Kathakali, found herself drawn to Odissi, and was soon dividing learning both forms each for six months.

She learnt from Guru Kelucharan and soon "Kathakali was no more in the picture". "Lyrical beauty, grace, femininity and melodious music" is how she describes the "defining aspects" of Odissi. Though she teaches many students, the number of "dropouts" saddens Ileana. "This was one of the reasons why Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra decided to teach outside Orissa. Though there are so many dance schools teaching Odissi, the percentage of people continuing has decreased".

What distresses Ileana is the low priority given to dance and heritage in schools and colleges and the vanishing Guru-Sishya Parampara.

WHILE Masako is "Japanese" with a passion for Indian dance and Ileana feels that she is a "16-anna Indian", there are many who come and go. Sachiko Murakami of Osaka comes every year for five months, learns more, performs some and goes back to run a dance school for Odissi. She started learning the Mahari style from the U.S.-based Dr. Ratna Ray. That was in 1996. From 1999, she would go to the U.S. for six months and return to Osaka. Since 2000, Sachiko comes to India, and to learn in the Orissa Dance Academy under Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. She has performed abroad in Japan, the U.S. and Canada. She wants to stay longer in Orissa and improve her technique but cannot, due to teaching commitments back home. Yumiko Masui is another dancer from Japan who first learnt Odissi from Saeko Hamada of Osaka in 1995. Since 1999, she spends six months in Orissa to learn more. Her favourites are pure dance forms like Batu and Mokshya.

Sachiko Murakami

When I went to talk to Kumkum Mahanti, the doyenne of Odissi today at the newly inaugurated Odissi Research Centre (ORC), she pointed a girl playing the pakhwaj, the percussion accompaniment of Odissi. "Listen to how she is playing pakhwaj." I met Isabelle a couple of days later.

Isabelle Dubrana is from the South of France. She first heard about Odissi from a student ORC and found the dance "gracious, earthy and very energetic" — enough to make her decide to learn it herself. Today at 30, she is a determined learner and despite swollen knees caused by the rigour of practice, she does not waste time but spends it usefully, learning to play the accompanying instruments and learning the music. People in Bhubaneswar often see a slim, smiling face pedalling on the roads. That is Barbara Curda, the "smiling cyclist", has been living here since 1993. She learns Odissi from Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. Unlike Ileana, Barbara finds questions about "belonging" rather irksome. As a dual citizen (Franco-Austrian) who had her schooling in Vienna, she has faced this question earlier. She believes in constant progression and does not think that yesterday was worse than today or tomorrow any better, simply because one has learnt to dance differently. Barbara gives the impression of someone in eternal quest- and progression.

Karen Lai is French but lives in Germany. She learnt Odissi from Aruna Mohanty, at the Odissi Dance Academy. Ulrika Petterssen, like Masako, began at Nrityagram. From 1999- 2002, she got an ICCR Scholarship and learnt from Guru R.R. Jena at New Delhi. This year, she found her way to Orissa to fine-tune her knowledge — this time from Aruna Mohanty of the ODA.

Anette Claesson — today an ambassador of Odissi in Sweden ( — started with Kuchipudi in 1994. Her Swedish teacher introduced her to Odissi and Anette decided this form suited her. She learnt initially at Delhi as an ICCR scholar, and later found her Guru in Kelucharan Mahapatra, from whom she learnt the finer points in 2003.

Valentina Leo first learnt Odissi in Italy, almost "by accident". She lives in South Africa but went to Italy to be with her sister. She chanced to see the dance there and took to it like fish to water. She was in Bhubaneswar for two months last year to learn from her guru, Rashmi. About the most memorable moment in Orissa, she says, "To have seen Guru Kelucharan performing live last October, probably one of his last public appearances."

Today, after the death of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra in April, his students are still under his spell. Each one tries to pay her debt of gratitude in her own way. But not one is pessimistic about the future of Odissi.

E-mail the writer at

Source: The Hindu
Published: Jun 27, 2004

Odissi at the Crossroads


Fifty-five years after the world woke up to the beauty of Odissi, a furious debate rages between purists and the innovators.

Meanwhile Orissa is witnessing a renaissance of cultural events. from october, a veritable feast of festivals is laid out for the connoisseur and the common man. many towns have sprouted festivals during the October-February season.

Keeping a tradition alive: Sujata and Ratikant Mohapatra.

FIFTY years ago, nobody had heard about Odissi. Today, more people across the world, both from the West and the East, are aware of this classical dance form. Odissi literally means “of Orissa”.

Odissi evolved from two ancient dance forms — Mahari and Gotipua. Maharis were courtesans who danced in temples, mainly that of Lord Jagannath in Puri.

Gotipua was popular in the villages and was mostly performed by boys. Maharis, or Devadasis, danced before the idol to the accompaniment of mantras. They evolved to dancing to vocal music when Jayadeva composed his famous Geeta Govinda celebrating the life and times of Lord Krishna. This dance form, accompanied by the music in the Geeta Govinda, gave rise to emotive expression or abhinaya, an integral part of present-day Odissi.

It came out of the confines of temples during the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the seventh century savant. Ray Ramananda, a contemporary dramatist, taught Gotipua to boys and convinced Chaitanya that dance and music in praise of the Lord were also forms of worship that can be practised outside the temples.

Residents of Puri in the 1940s and 1950s knew of Odissi as Dakhini (Southern), since it was popular in Southern Orissa (Ganjam district).

Mahendra Misra, an observer and critic of the dance-music scene in Orissa for 50 years, says “The first person to bring Odissi to the international stage was Indrani Rehman. She went to the U.K., parts of Europe and the U.S. with Guru Debaprasad Das in 1952. From all accounts, the reception was excellent and the world woke up to a new form of dance from India.”

Veteran contributions
Gurus Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das and Kelucharan Mahapatra are the three veterans revered for their dedication and life-long contribution to Odissi.

Guru Kelucharan was possibly the one man who is identified with Odissi all over the world, since he took this classical dance far and wide. He passed on a couple of years ago, dancing till the last day.

If you ask anyone in Orissa to name one person who made Odissi popular in the world, the reply would be Sanjukta Panigrahi. Sanjukta was a born danseuse.

Her husband, Raghunath Panigrahi, who sacrificed a promising career in film music in Madras to give voice to her dance, reminisces, “Sanju’s sadhana was amazing. She believed that Odissi, or any dance form for that matte r, should be studied in totality and not in bits and pieces. Her energy was superhuman.”

Sanjukta’s impact was felt most in Japan and France. The audience in these countries was discerning and interested in things classical. Sanjukta died six years ago.

Kumkum Mahanty, another doyenne of Odissi in Orissa, started the Odissi Research Centre in 1986. After a long lonely innings, towards the end of her tenure there, she got the institute a building of its own.

Of her beginnings as an Odissi dancer, she says: “One day, my father asked me to press his legs. While doing that, it seems I sang 48 songs without knowing what I was doing. So he admitted me in the Kala Vikas Kendra. That was in 1956. I started learning under Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. To continue dancing, I had to get a first class, the condition set by my professor-father! After my schooling and the KVK course in dance, I practised at home; Gurudev would sing.

“I was doing my MA when the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi scheduled a Geeta Govinda seminar. Guruji told my father that this was the best occasion for me to display my talent. I remember that this time I said ‘no’ since I had my MA exams. But, for the first time, my father insisted that I go. Night after night, Jayadeva was studied in my house. My father would explain, the house pundit would explain, my mother would write down the notations for music by Sri Bhubaneswar Misra, and I would dance. I went to Delhi in March 1967, and the performance came out so well that one reviewer wrote ‘Kumkum is Padmavati’.”

What does she feel about the ‘today and tomorrow’ of the dance form? “I am quite optimistic. The three great gurus were pioneers who gave their lives for Odissi. Their students are carrying on the tradition. As for innovations, I have nothing against them, so long as the basic techniques and the grammar are respected. The future of Odissi is not dim.”

Daring departure
Kumkum’s own innovation was a daring departure from tradition. She choreographed “Othello” in Odissi and drew flak from purists towards the end of her tenure at the ORC.

Among the gurus of today, Guru Gangadhar Pradhan who runs the Orissa Dance Academy and Guru Durgacharan Ranbir of Nrityayan are considered the foremost exponents.

Pradhan has borrowed liberally from the purist Guru Pankaj and Guru Kelucharan while Ranbir is credited with keeping alive the distinctive tradition of the Guru Debaprasad Das.

Besides Ranbir, his disciple, Sujata Misra, runs a dance school, Mokshya. She has performed to acclaim in India, Bangladesh, Russia and a few other countries. Her objective is to revive some of the neglected, but exciting, prospects like the male-female duet.

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra was undoubtedly the chief propagator of Odissi across the world. His lasting contribution is Srjan, a dance school that is yet to realise its full potential.

Sujata Mohapatra, his daughter-in-law, and her husband Ratikant now run this gurukul. Sujata received the coveted Mahari Award for 2003-04.

Other dance schools in different parts of Orissa and in places as far-flung as the U.S., Canada, England, Sweden and Malaysia also keep the tradition alive.

Meanwhile Orissa, the cradle of Odissi, is witnessing a renaissance of cultural events. From October, a veritable feast of festivals is laid out for the connoisseur and the common man.

Besides the Konark and Puri Festivals, many towns have sprouted festivals of dance and music during the October-February season.

Despite the spurt of interest in Odissi in its home state and elsewhere, the scene is botched by controversy, accusations and ego clashes. Last year when Malaysian Odissi exponent, Ramli Ibrahim, visited Bhubaneswar, howls of protests and a procession followed since the teenage and pre-teen girls in his troupe did not wear a sash across their torsos.

Scholars like Sitakant Mahapatra pointed out that traditional dancers too never wore the sash but this did not impress the defenders of the ‘faith’.

Last December-January, an International Odissi Festival, organised by the U.S.-based Indian Performing Arts Promotion Inc (IPAP), was held with about 400 dancers, musicians and delegates from 17 countries. In spite of the massive turnout and active government support, this too was mired in controversy.

Guru Mayadhar Rout refused the award sought to be bestowed on him saying, “My name was deleted from the list of four original dance gurus and I was ignored ever since I arrived in Bhubaneswar on the invitation of the organisers.”

Maybe organisers from the US have lost their moorings in Orissa or have become too westernised in their conduct towards gurus. Perhaps some gurus have not moved with the times and consider them upstarts claiming a part of their traditional turf.

The purists frown at innovations, while some liberals ask, “Odissi should evolve without sacrificing the essentials and aesthetics. There is no harm in experimentation.”

At a time when the parochial, regional and even national is giving way to the international outlook in the global village, how long will Odissi stand at the crossroads?


Source: The Hindu
Published: May 13, 2007