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Rajashri Praharaj: Story of an upcoming Odissi dancer
- Tapati Chowdurie

July 12, 2016

Rajashri Praharaj is the recipient of Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar this year. She is an upcoming Odissi dancer of Guru Kelucharan style of Odissi. Trained extensively by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra at Srjan, this young dancer was taken by surprise, on hearing the news of her being selected for the Bismillah Khan award.

Recently she was in Kolkata, and regaled the audience with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's famous choreographic work 'Sita Haran' with inputs from Guru Ratikant Mohapatra. She presented a jaw-dropping performance and fitted easily into the many roles in the piece involving high drama, which she performed solo. She was at her best. This lead dancer of Srjan's team, was again in Kolkata soon after her performance at Rabindranath Tagore centre of ICCR, to help Ratikant Mohapatra to conduct an intensive Odissi workshop with senior dancers. I took this opportunity to get her to answer a few questions at the venue of the workshop. I was curious to know what inspired and interested her to take to dancing. This is Rajashri's story.

When I was a little girl, unschooled in any form of dancing, I would start dancing to any and every music that I heard. When I saw dance scenes in T.V. shows I tried imitating. During those days of innocence, I could not differentiate between genres and danced for the love of dance.
My parents and elders did take note of my love for dance, though they themselves were not in any kind of arts, be it music or dance. My father was in Police Service, while my brother was an Engineer. I was therefore taken to Kakatpur - a village in Odisha - where my paternal aunt lived. My cousin there insisted that I learn music. My father opined that music is more prestigious and so I should pursue music rather than dance. One year I was into music though I loved dance more. But fortune smiled on me soon. There was to be a dance-drama in school. The choreographer asked us if we wanted to be in it as deer. I put my hand up and so did my friend. Though my friend was chosen for the role, the teacher saw the spark in my eyes and could fathom my innermost wish. She convinced my father that I should learn dance. There was no looking back after that. From the time I was in the 7th class I was learning dance and that too Odissi. After my graduation from the 10th standard, my cousin and my father wanted me to go for general study and not dance.

Though a meek youngster I stuck to my decision to pursue further studies in Sangeet Maha Vidyalaya in Bhubaneswar or not study at all. So be it, said my guardians. It was here that I did my graduation and post-graduation in Odissi dance and Odissi music as well as other genres of music. Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra was in the faculty and this gave me goose pimples. I was answering the call of my heart and doing what was close to it. In the year 2001, on September 11th - when the twin tower in the USA collapsed - I went to Guruji's house, which was like a temple to me.

I had been fed with a lot of stories and myths, that to be able to dance in Guruji's troupe, you had to be tall and beautiful and what not. After completing my Intermediate at Sangeet Maha Vidyalaya, I accompanied two of my friends to Guruji's house. He spoke to us warmly and asked us to show Batu Nritya. After doing bhumi pranam, I had barely started when he said, "Enough" with the gesture of his hand. I thought to myself, on what basis would he judge me. He had gauged our interest in the wink of an eye and my bhumi pranam was providential. He asked my companions why they had not done so and took me in his fold. I got to learn under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra for a very short period. He passed away in 2004.

I danced for the love of dance and did not for a moment think it would become my profession. Guruji had the touch of Midas and I was overwhelmed. My height necessitated that I be in the first row. During the ten minutes break, I used to go to the restroom and shed tears to my heart's content; I was not going to make it for sure, was my feeling. I worked hard to please Guruji, and he reciprocated. If he did not see me, he would ask where I was. "Rosy ko dako"- call Rosy - and then he would order me with "eti kar seti kar"- do this, do that. I hated missing any class.

My family back home had their own reservations and asked me if I was going to dance all my life. But when my father and uncle came to my first show held under the aegis of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, my dance pleased them. However, that dancing on stage was not very respectable lurked in their mind and they advised me to be a dance teacher and a choreographer rather than being a performer. Teaching is close to my heart, because imparting lessons perfects one's knowledge. But my first priority is to be a performer. So more or less, their advice fell into deaf ears. There has come a stage when they have given up and even for important occasions, when my presence at home is essential, they tell me to come if it doesn't clash with my work.

She reminded me that learning theory of dance was a part of the curriculum of her college and she still has to keep herself updated as she is also a teacher. In Srjan, Odissi is taught systematically and scientifically and a teacher there can least afford to be complacent.

Rajashri is specially fond of playing the mardala. Her interest in the instrument made her enroll under Banamali Moharana, but she could not continue for long on account of her busy schedule in dance which takes up the entire day and besides, there are dance tours ever so often, but she will do so sometime in the future.

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