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The Other Devdas
Tribute to Odissi’s Genius Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra
by Shani, New Delhi

April 8, 2004

On 7 April 2004 Odissi’s lodestar Kelucharan Mahapatra passed away. The stalwart had risen from extremely humble origins to become the king of aesthetics. Born in Raghurajpur village in 1924, Kelucharan became a gotipua dancer, learning from his very early years the two skills that would mark his dance throughout his later life - the magic of suppleness of body and the mysteries of donning a woman’s persona. He later went on to join the then well-known regional theatre company – Annapurna Theatre, acting in plays and acquiring the technique of entering the skin of the characters he was called to play. It was at Annapurna that he also learnt stagecraft and how to be sensitive to audience reactions.

But history beckoned him, and he soon became a full-time dancer learning from many traditional teachers the nascent dance movements that he -- in collaboration with Guru Debaprasad Das and Guru Pankaj Charan Das -- would put together as the magnificent Odissi edifice. Kelubabu realized that Odissi was his true calling and that his spiritual mooring lay at the feet of his ishtadevatha Jagannath. And in his imagination he was only the “das” or “sewak” of his Lord.

Decades of hard work lay ahead. Kelubabu crafted a new visual aesthetic for Odissi defining movements, imagining choreographies, creating staple Pallavis, abhinaya and saabhinaya numbers that were to become the accepted “traditional” margam of Odissi. Never before had an entire tradition been recreated by the magic and diligence of one man’s hard work.

His humility and his deep feeling for his art as service to God marked his art and he remained a dancer to the very end. Few can ever forget the outstanding magic of his ashtapadi dance presentations.

His legacy as Odissi’s prime Guru cannot be contested. And what a fine stable of dancers emerged from his gurukula – the divine Sanjukta Panigrahi (his one and only muse), Minati Mishra, Priyamvada Mohanty, and later several others like Sonal Mansingh, Madhavi Mudgal, Sharon Lowen, Ileana Citaristi and Protima Bedi. These were only those who were in the spotlight. But Kelubabu trained hundreds of others who learnt the dance as a new bridge to their own heritage and aesthetics.

Kelubabu was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan and the Kalidas Samman, amongst innumerable other awards. But to lovers of dance and rasikas of his art he was always a “Vishwa Bhushan”.

***

It is a sad sign of our times that appropriation of histories begins even before pyres have been lit. Already, in Kelubabu’s context this seems to have begun. In the Indian Express, New Delhi, of 8 April, writer Renuka Narayan labels Sonal Mansingh’s relationship with Kelucharan as “one of the most outstanding guru-disciple relationships in contemporary Indian dance”. Such blatant misrepresentation of facts must be seen as aberrations in the documenting of cultural history. Even cursory research will reveal the severely rocky relationship between Sonal Mansingh and Kelucharan Mahapatra! Writers must at least be certain of their basic facts! Tsk! Tsk!