Thursday, July 3, 2008

Odissi at the Crossroads

by HARIHARAN BALAKRISHNAN

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.

Origins
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.

Renaissance
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’.

Controversies
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?

E-mail: fabalas02@yahoo.com

Source: The Hindu
Published: May 13, 2007

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