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Saswat Joshi: Teaching was in my genes
- Tapati Chowdurie

April 25, 2019

Sambalpuri dance in front of Eiffel Tower, Paris

Saswat Joshi has carved a niche for himself as an Odissi performer and teacher. Young Saswat of Titilagarh in Bolangir district of Odisha started his Odissi training under Kumkum Mohanty, continuing later with Ileana Citaristi. He is the brand partner of Odisha Tourism and the Folk dances of Odisha globally. Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta awarded him the Sangeet Ratna title with a gold medal in Odissi dance. Saswat was featured in the film 'The Journey' by Hollywood director Sandrine Da Costa in 2012. His Sambalpuri dance performance of Rangabati in the film 'Koun Kitney Pani Mein' has been widely acclaimed. Currently associated with Tamilnadu Tourism for Incredible India Project, he has kickstarted Odissi institutions for the promotion of classical and folk dance in Italy, Hungary, Japan, France and United Kingdom. He is founder/director of Lasyakala, besides being a guest faculty at Rajasthan Central University. In the movie 'Month of May', he became famous for his Sambalpuri folk dance in front of Eiffel Tower, Paris.

His own festival Aekalavya had its previous editions in Malaysia, UAE, Dubai and Singapore. The following is an excerpt of a conversation I had with him after his performance at the 11th edition of Aekalavya at Victoria Theatre in Singapore - a joint effort by GDP Nrutyadhara, Singapore and Lasyakala, Bhubaneswar.

When did you think of taking to teaching?
To be frank, teaching was in my genes. I started teaching almost unknowingly when I accompanied my mother to her school. I was at that time in class 3 or 4. Some of the girls were eager to dance and I taught them to be my gopis and we danced together. Even at that early age I realized the importance of classical dance.

When did you think of taking up dance as a career?
In 2001, when I went to perform at Konark with Guru Kumkum Mohanty, I realized for the first time that dance was my profession. When I wore the ghungroo, costume, make up and stood before a live audience with the huge team of Orissa Dance Academy, that moment was a revelation. It dawned on me that this was where my identity lay. I had to be a dancer. Around 2006 or 2007, I danced solo in Pankaj Utsav Mahari Award Festival. In that festival I performed Mohana Pallavi and Karna. After this there was no looking back and I graduated as a full-fledged solo dancer.

When did you start your journey in choreography?
When I started my own Aekalavya festival in 2009, I took the bold step of choreographing items. I wanted very much to showcase my choreographic talent in this platform.

Ileana Citaristi & Saswat Joshi

What influenced you in your choice of Guru?
In Orissa Dance Academy, I was taught by so many gurus and mentors. I was in a bit of dilemma and did not know under whom I wanted to train. I made up my mind that my guru has to possess the qualities of dedication, devotion, discipline and divinity. I found Guru Ileana Citaristi a repository of all the qualities I was looking for. I am also indebted to Sarat Das, the son of Adi Guru Pankaj Charan Das, because I learnt from him Guru Pankaj Charan Das' style of Odissi. He has been my priceless mentor.

Saswat Joshi

What has been some of your memorable performances in all these years?
As far as I am concerned every performance has been memorable. I do specially remember my performance at Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuelle Opera House in Palermo, Sicily. After the program, people started to shower flowers on me as a mark of appreciation. The incident is indelibly etched in my memory. In Moscow when I was performing "Ek sum Odisha ke naam," we were greeted with a standing ovation for the art and culture of Odisha by the Hindustani Samaj and the Russian people. This was a proud moment for me.

How do you go about telling a story through the vocabulary of Odissi?
I am a spiritual person. When I tell a story in Odissi, my soul speaks. The language of dance is abhinaya, use of hand gestures/mudra, use of our body and all else. We need to be self-confident. With every advancing year I am learning more and more and I am able to express in a better way. Every stage in one's life is a learning experience. I am able to find myself and feel the link to god when I perform. Until I see the eyes of Jagannath through my mind's eye I never feel content. It is a deep kind of connection that I have with Jagannath. When I see him I feel confident.

What importance do you give to hand gestures in your productions?
When I was a student I just did whatever was taught. Now I know and understand the impact of every little thing, about hand gestures, about sanjukta and asanjukta hasta. Theoretical knowledge is helpful, because its use helps expressions to flow spontaneously. In my choreography, I use less mudras. I am particularly fond of using hansasya and mayura mudras. I also like anjali or pranam gestures. It keeps me grounded and has a humbling effect on me. I try not to use too many mudras for the pure dance sequences, because keeping track of too many mudras confuses students. They then understand less and less of the technique. Use of less mudra and more body movement gives beauty to the presentation.

What are your plus points as a male dancer?
Both brains and good looks is what makes a dancer. And god has blessed me with both. Added to that one has to be humble, dedicated, disciplined, which I have cultivated in equal measure. I also work hard towards maintaining a flexible body. I have seen the many acrobatic movements of the Gotipuas. I was not half as agile, but have worked single-mindedly to develop a physique capable of all kinds of movements. Tandava style is important for portraying masculinity. The audience feels attracted to energetic movements. I elaborate with my own body language.

Do female dancers get more space?
I don't think so… both male and female energies are equally important. Nayaka and Nayika make a complete whole.

What are your goals?
My greatest desire is to set up a dance village. Take Odissi dance and other classical and traditional dance forms to international platforms. I want to take them to different parts of the world within 15 to16 years.

Any struggles in your dance career?
Hurdles will always be there and one just has to face them. I was extremely focused, had faith in myself and believed in, "If there is a will there is a way." My journey I should say was hassle free. It may be because I love people. Your actions are reciprocated.

Krishna and the gopis

How would you define your dance journey?
I follow the Natya Shastra and other subsequent texts in my classical dance pieces and contemporary and folk wherever it is needed. My productions give equal importance to lokadharmi and natyadharmi. I use karanas wherever needed. I am a desi boy from a small town, so I make use of folk elements, mahari dance, sambalpuri, gotipua and Chhau to make it look good and use Odissi in mythological stories.

What are your dreams?
I want to work on mythology with the contemporary form. I want to do Mahabharata with a varied cast where Draupadi would be from France, Dussashana from Africa, Yudhistir from Singapore, Kunti from Malaysia etc. It would have an international cast. I am working on it and it will soon be in an international platform, a major production to be staged in a major festival. I don't work with typical mythological stories. I try to understand the characters of Ram, Krishna and Shiva, before I can use them.

What is the place of silence in music compositions in your choreographies?
Silence plays a very important role in my compositions. I keep surprises. After every bit I keep a moment of silence. In Rasar Keli folk dance also there is silence.

What influenced you in your choreography?
I went to the forest to enjoy the rain drops to get a feel of the rain before I choreographed dance on the rains. I watch different people and their body language.

How satisfying are your visits in foreign lands organizing Aekalavya?
When I take my dancers abroad, they get an international exposure. I see them grow as dancers and good human beings. I am very satisfied when my students do well.

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