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Being traditional does not mean being orthodox: Rahul Acharya


October 9, 2005

Bhubaneswar based dancer Rahul Acharya was the guest artiste from India, in the 'Spellbound' tour featuring Ramli Ibrahim and the Sutra dancers. The performance was first aired at Amphi-Sutra, Kuala Lumpur on 24th and 25th of August before the group left for its India sojourn. The performance was extremely successful in Pondicherry, Auroville, Chennai and Delhi. However, the Bhubaneswar performance gave rise to something unexpected, creating a stir in the dance community as a whole.

Rahul Acharya shares his views with narthaki.com

Did you expect that 'Spellbound' would create such a controversy?
I had expected that people would comment on the dance techniques. To my surprise this was not so. The main grouses are from so-called 'traditionalists' in dance. But there were equally if not more, who applauded us. Those in literature, painting and others who were also rasikas did not find anything amiss.

Let us start with the issue of choreographic authenticity.
It has been accused that Ramliji has distorted the original pieces of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. I have learnt all the original choreographies of my Guru and I did not notice any distortion. If I were to make a claim, I would say that my Guruji re-choreographed his works for the Sutra dancers because Ramliji does not like 'Family Portraits.' If my Guruji is making a choreography, he and only he has the right to change his original pieces. The pieces were recreated for Ramliji and his dancers. Guruji has 2-3 different variations of the same choreography and he changes it according to the body of the dancer. I have a Shivashtakam quite different from what Jyoti Shrivastava or Leena Mohanty have learnt, all the three of us having learnt from the same Guru.

What about the famous Shankarabaranam Pallavi?
The present one is quite different from the original choreography by Adi Guru Pankaj Charan Das. It is far more complete. Pankaj Sir had a shorter version that was shown to me by Dr. Ratna Roy, a senior disciple of Pankaj Sir. She showed me something quite different from what I had learnt from my Guru. My techniques are quite different from what my Guruji has taught to Sangeeta Dash.

Your comments on the issue of vulgarity.
Ramli Ibrahim is a dancer in the truly international sense. He is not bounded by any precincts of Odissi or Bharatanatyam. He is quite learned in both these schools as well as other western forms. I have had the privilege of working with him. I have had a taste of his intellect. I was permitted by my Guru to work with him after he approached Guruji to give me an international exposure. If there was anything vulgar or obscene in Ramliji's work, I am sure my Guruji, who is extremely possessive of his disciples like any other traditional guru, would never have permitted me to do so.

Whether people were spellbound by 'Spellbound' or conservative in their opinions, what are your views on the costume controversy?
The costumes used by the Sutra dancers were far more traditional than the ones used by present day Odissi dancers. Their costume comprised of a very traditional unstitched Pata Saree and a blouse made up of Sambalpuri material (I don't think anything could be more traditional than this). The only issue was the lack of an Odhani and the 'tight blouses in which the dancers' midriffs were visible.' We, disciples of the Deba Prasad gharana have a separate code of conduct as far as our dances are concerned. Everyone is quite aware that late Deba Prasad Das was a rebel right from the beginning and he did not adhere to the rules of the Jayantika and so opted out of it. He had his own Vani of Odissi dance. He never supported stitched costumes (most of the dancers also from this gharana use it due to convenience). Convenience? It all varies from person to person.

Can you elaborate on that point?
Bijaylakshmi Mohanty used to perform Bandha Nritya wearing an unstitched saree. She found it convenient. Why can't the other dancers do the same, even when they do not perform such demanding dances? But as I said, convenience varies from person to person. It's their choice anyway. Quite appropriately Ramliji should also have his own choice. I have seen dancers wear a transparent Odhani that is as good as wearing nothing. So, what was the need for all this 'hulla'? It's not as if there was nudity on stage!

If you do not accept Indrani Rehman's style, let's look at Yamini Krishnamurty when she was a student of Odissi. Even legendary dancers like Sitara Devi, Menaka and Shanta Rao did not have an Odhani over their blouses. The photograph of Ritha Devi in Dr Sunil Kothari's book is far more revealing than the Sutra costumes, and she does not belong to the Deba Prasad Gharana. These things never created any controversy back then, why so now? When nude Nayikas are featured on the temple walls, they appear divine. Like beauty, vulgarity/ obscenity also lies in the eyes of the beholder. I come from a very orthodox Brahmin family and I have seen that my grandmother never knew how to use a blouse. She used to cover her breasts just with the end of her saree. She never appeared revealing to me in any way. But if the same thing is done by Bollywood actresses like Meghna Naidu and Neha Dhupia, they become 'sex' symbols!

You are very strong in your views, for one so young.
I am a disciple of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir for the last 18-19 years. I may be very young, but I have traveled around the globe propagating the style my revered Guru has been teaching me. I am indeed very fortunate to be a student of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, to be blessed by him to carry on his style (the style taught to my Guru by Deba Sir).

Now that the issue has received public attention, what is the next step?
Deba Prasad never abided by the rules and regulations of the Jayantika, so it is up to the dancers and gurus of the Deba Prasad gharana to discuss and decide what costumes their disciples are going to wear. Please allow Deba Prasad's progenies to decide on this.

India is a democracy and in this country no one has the right to suppress others, forget about imposing a ban. Each individual has his/her own freedom of expression and we have no moral right to impose ourselves on others. So respecting the Indian ethos, let us feel grateful to this 'foreigner' who has done so much for Odissi dance, instead of deriding him.


Rahul can be contacted at: rahul_acharya@rediffmail.com