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An African spell
- Priti Mastakar

April 16, 2015

I had stepped into the performance hall and my eyes fell on a tremendously tall, athletic figure. 6' 2" I thought, the hair was in dark long locks; the dance moves had the feeling of controlled, tightly coiled energy, smooth and effortless. "Shiva?" I thought and then mused about the potential of such a dance student. Twenty years of performing and choreographing had given me eyes acutely trained to see talent. I heard he was a Capoeira and Latin American dance teacher.

With Africans, you cannot fathom their age. In one of my earlier trips to Africa we had a security guard Damien whose age I would have put at forty. When he ran to open the gate, his muscles would ripple, not an inch of fat on his body. He was sixty three! I put 'Shiva' at the twenty one he jokingly claimed.

This was not my first trip to Lagos, Nigeria. During every visit I could not but help notice the natural spring in the step, young children moving in unfathomable steps to the music that can be heard pouring out of shops and houses. People walk like they are one with nature, one with the earth, with a sense of the music of the earth. We Indians performing classical dance are stylized, beaten into various forms for years, even decades, before eliciting a "Wah, kya baat hai," but the African spirit is unbeatable, so how was this man going to fare in Odissi training?

Anita & Slim in their first tribangi

Anita & Slim in their first chowka

First performance in Lagos in 2013

Nigerians training in Odissi
I have this 'var,' this blessing that whenever I want something very badly, I get it and so months later with much following up, Slim Ikonta arrived to learn Odissi and I was blessed further. Anita Obidi arrived with him…Anita, an exquisite, exotic African beauty, a nymph, an Apsara, tall and slim, a perfect match for Shiva. The first day we went through the chowka and tribhangi. It was just unbelievable. Without much effort there was the chowka and tribhangi, perfectly executed! We dancers have painstakingly trained for six months to get it right and here were dancers slipping into our form like slipping into a different pair of shoes.

The possibilities and the thought refrain, "What could I not achieve with them?" I had my answer soon enough. In the matter of six months I put them alongside myself on stage, to a full house audience. The result? A standing ovation! The crowd went crazy. This was the first Odissi performance by Africans ever, we were making history. This was back in September 2013. We were commissioned again and again to perform, including at the Egyptian Embassy, with ambassadors of many nations in attendance. Later, I was told how difficult it was to take one's eyes off this one man as soon as he walked on to the stage. It could be no other; it had to be Slim… or Shiva?

It's not the silken smooth finish, the trained stylized form, the rigid lines, but one just sees immense personalities on stage when Africans dance. What differentiates a highly trained classical dancer from an impressive impactful dancer on stage? The personality… a personality with fire in it. Whenever anybody sees my Guru Gajendra Panda dance, it is the fire in his dance that impresses. It is not his polish or accuracy, it is his personality. And so it is with African dancers.

Soon this duo was joined by Esther, and a few more. The grasp of all the African dancers was magical; each had a personality that shone through the common training. We have dancers of almost every race and origin, but the African spell once cast is irreversible.

Slim & Anita

Slim carrying on the Debaprasad legacy
Due to personal circumstances, I have been distanced from my students temporarily. In my absence, Slim carries on the Guru Debaprasad legacy by continuing to perform Odissi. I am eagerly waiting to join them soon. I am hoping to showcase them in India and to the world. A classical dancer always finds it difficult to get financial and other support and so I will have to plod through various dance proposals, refusals, government support and so on. The list is endless, but God willing it will be done. I have a 'var.'

Priti Mastakar is an Odissi dancer and teacher. She is the Artistic Director of Tridhara - Singapore, Lagos, Pune.

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