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 (www.odissipooja.com) — 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 vibasum@yahoo.com

Source: The Hindu
Published: Jun 27, 2004

39 comments:

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