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Sanjukta Panigrahi - a phenomenon
- Jhelum Paranjpe, Mumbai
e-mail: jhelum@smitalay.com

October 19, 2004

Sanjukta Panigrahi - a name synonymous with modern day Odissi. A born dancer, a child prodigy, her genius evident at a very tender age. She died on 24th of June 1997. Had she been alive, she would have turned sixty this year.

Sanjukta was born on 24th Aug 1944 at Behrampur. She started dancing from the age of four. Her mother encouraged her because she loved dance. Abhiram Mishra, her father initially discouraged her. Yet Sanjukta never gave up. She persisted and blossomed in her dancing career. From the age of six she started performing. In her own words: “I loved dance too much and was totally involved in it and I was only six. While returning from school, friends and neighbours would say, ‘Sanju, will you dance for us?’ I would spontaneously put my books on the road and dance without any inhibitions”.

At the age of nine, she performed at the annual festival of the Children’s Little Theatre in Calcutta, and the very next day she was featured in most of the newspapers, with plenty of praiseworthy coverage - “…the surprise of the evening was little Sanjukta Mishra!” “…the entire show was stolen by a child prodigy from Orissa.” This catapulted Sanjukta into a series of performances. Though small, of 5 to 10 miniute duration, she would sometimes do two performances a day! That was when her parents felt that all this attention and applause might spoil her and distract her from her main objective – to become a disciplined dancer.

She was taken to Kalakshetra, to Rukmini Devi Arundale. At first Rukmini Devi was reluctant to accept this nine year old as a student. She will cry, also she doesn’t know any Tamil! But her parents insisted. Her mother was very keen. Finally Rukmini Devi said, “I will observe her for three months and then decide.” Those three months were crucial for Sanjukta. In those three months, Sanjukta picked up working knowledge of Tamil and never cried during the day. Being only nine, she felt homesick and wanted to cry, which she did only in the night into her pillow. She did not want to be sent back, she did not want to hurt her mother. Rukmini Devi admired the grit and courage in little Sanjukta. She was accepted. Her talent noticed. She stayed at Kalakshetra for six years. She also did her academics – senior Cambridge during that time. She got her Nrityapraveen diploma in Bharatnatyam with Kathakali as the second subject.

While she was at Kalakshetra, a musicologist, Nilamani Panigrahi (her future father-in-law) visited. He seemed to like Sanjukta for his son Raghunath, who was a popular singer in Madras (Chennai). Back in Orissa, the proposal was put forward to the Misras – Sanjukta’s parents. Mother was for it, father against. “Both are artistes, how can they earn a good living?” But her mother was adamant. “She loves dance. Only a musician will understand this passion. Nobody else.” Meanwhile in Madras, Sanjukta had heard Raghunath singing and fallen in love with his voice. She was willing to marry him. Raghu would visit them but Sanju’s father would not relent. After a year, Sanjukta’s father packed her off to Bombay to learn Kathak from Pt. Hazarilal and incidentally to forget Raghunath too. But that was impossible. Raghunath followed Sanjukta to Mumbai!

In 1960 Sanjukta got married at the age of sixteen. She had her first son when she was seventeen and second when she was nineteen. Circumstances made her lose her childhood and her youth. Even later, it was a struggle for establishing oneself. Raghunath had left his lucrative career in Madras for marriage to Sanjukta. They tried their luck in Mumbai, and did not succeed. They went back to Madras, but there too success evaded them. The two-year absence from the Madras music scene was not good for Raghunath. He had lost his foothold in the South Indian music industry. They came back to Bhubaneswar and Sanjukta took up the post of a dance lecturer in the recently formed Music College. Raghunath started conducting national music orchestras. Marriage in 1960 and the birth of two sons till 1964 – these years were very hard on Sanjukta and Raghunath – economically and otherwise. From 1966, they decided to work as a team and that’s really when Sanjukta’s career got a boost. He started adjusting his commitments in order to be able to sing more and more for her. In her own words: “I do believe that he could have done much better for himself if he didn’t sing for me, as he has such a rich voice and a typical style of singing. I cannot deny that he had to make compromises for me.”

Way back, a journalist in Calcutta had said about this child prodigy, “I had often heard of God gifted talent – little Sanjukta was that. She has cast a spell over us”. It was true. The audience, journalists, connoisseurs had all spotted this god gifted talent way back in 1953. They all fell in love with this sprightly girl of nine. Till her death, her charm did not end; their love spell did not break. Not only in India, but the world over, people adored Sanjukta and her dance. She was very popular in Europe and was an annual feature since 1980 at the invitation of Eugenio Barba, a very eminent director of the Odin Theatre of Denmark. She was dance in its purest form, superb, sublime, spiritual… ultimately showering the bliss of Moksha.

‘Sanjukta Panigrahi’ - that’s how the world knew her. But we called her ‘Sanjunani’ - we meaning most of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s disciples. It was 25 years ago that I started calling her ‘Sanjunani’. In the Odiya language ‘nani’ means older sister.

Our first meeting was at Cuttack, in guruji’s house. She and Raghubhaina (Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi) had come to guruji’s house. “This girl is from Mumbai, Shankar’s (my first guru, Shankar Behera) student, watch her dance.” I danced for a few minutes and guruji started yelling at my mistakes (the perfectionist that he was!). Sanjunani said, “Leave her alone, she is new to your style. She will learn.” It was just five years after this first meeting that I was travelling with her in a troupe led by guruji for the Festival of India in Russia. In the one month with her in Russia and the 15 days of rehearsals prior to that, I got to see Sanjunani from close quarters. I got to know her as a person and we grew close. We would meet rarely, only when I was in Orissa or she was in Mumbai. There was contact, of course, through the occasional letter or phone call.

She died in June 1997, and was intermittently ill prior to that, but I came to know about her cancer very late, only in March. She was in Mumbai in 1996, during Diwali – she had asked me to make an appointment with Dr. Anant Joshi for her knees - they hurt very badly. But it never occurred to me that cancer would be the culprit. It was her wish that her relationship with dance should continue till her last breath, but this illness wouldn’t allow that. She had realised this and she didn’t want the world to know.

I desperately wanted to talk to her. Guruji said, “Try, but she will not come to the phone.” I called. I was told she is at the doctor’s. I called again. Babu (her older son) picked up the phone…she refused…Babu told her its Jhelum from Mumbai. She took the phone. I said, “I only want to hear your voice, Sanjunani.” She burst into tears. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t. She cried and cried and cried a lot. She could see death approaching, she could sense the speed at which it was approaching. She didn’t want to accept it, but she was helpless, she knew it. But then, how long can one control one’s emotions? The feeling of having lost everything too soon?

Sanjunani was an introvert. She always kept her distance, but once her wavelength clicked with someone, she would talk a lot. She would care for the person. Just before we left for our Russia tour, Smita (the late actress Smita Patil, who was a very close friend of mine since childhood.) had died. I suppose Sanjunani knew my frame of mind. Have you had breakfast… are you tired… is your back hurting…do you think of Smita a lot … talk to me about her…It was not difficult for her to understand people. Yet she was never part of the group as such. No jokes, no chitchatting, no whiling away time. We had tremendous respect for her, maybe her nature made it more so. Her detractors called her self-centred. But I never felt that, while performing or rehearsing.

She had once said, “I don’t know how people will remember me. All my life I have known only dance, and people know me as a dancer. Still, I wish people would remember me as a good human being, a sincere person. Many people misunderstand me. They think I am not sociable because I do not go to parties or clubs. But I do not like to discuss saris and jewellery. I may not be sociable to them, but I take care of the needs of my immediate family as also the larger family of musicians and technicians who are with me.”

She always felt that she had lost out on her childhood and youth due to her early performances and early marriage. Maybe that is why she was always very encouraging to young dancers in the group. She would not mind rehearsing a particular piece ten times if a junior dancer in the group went wrong. This happened with me. In the ballet ‘Geet Govind’, she was Krishna and I was Radha’s sakhi. I had to box her ears in one sequence. I just couldn’t get myself to do it. Guruji was going purple with rage, precious time was being wasted. Before guruji could get up and slap me, Sanjunani took my fist and boxed herself, telling guruji, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll happen, she’ll do it.’

She was very understanding about mistakes made by junior dancers. She had a phenomenal memory and was extremely cautious about her own mistakes. In Russia, after an item, she quickly came to the wings and held guruji’s feet - please forgive me for the mistake today. In the darkness of the backstage, I witnessed this. I was overwhelmed and drawn to tears.

Raghubhaina – her life partner and stage partner! If he ever made a mistake, she would not spare him. Once in Mumbai, I was in the audience, sitting in the front row. Bhaina went wrong, and didn’t realise it. He continued singing and Nani kept on adjusting! After the show, they were arguing and he wouldn’t accept his mistake. I was witness, and I had to say he was wrong. He accepted his mistake and Sanjunani was pleased as a punch - like a little child. Whenever they argued over a point like this, they would lapse into Tamil, so people didn’t realise they were flinging words at each other!!

Raghunath Panigrahi - lifelong vocal accompaniment to Sanjukta Panigrahi. Enhancing her already spiritual dance with his soulful singing. Sanjukta Panigrahi - the perfectionist, the moralist, the memory wizard. Kelucharan Mohapatra - the bundle of energy, the Pandora’s box, the phenomena in Odissi. All three deeply religious. Jaggannath their inspiration. Dance for the Lord, is Odissi’s tradition. Keeping that intact, these three stalwarts took Odissi ahead. A woman presenting ‘Tulsi Ramayan’ in the Odissi dance style at the Sankat Mochan Temple in Varanasi was indeed a major step! (Women were not allowed into the temple of Hanuman).

Sanjunani wanted to discipline Odissi, systematize Odissi - it was her strong wish to do this. But performance was her forte…her life…her soul! She would have done this after she was sixty. She would have done this meticulously - being a daughter of the soil, a Kalinga Kanya.

In her own words, “I have a dream, to start a school like Kalakshetra. I want to share every experience that a dancer goes through to evolve and I also want to teach students to be good human beings, not only good artistes. If I had to live life again, I would still want to dance.”

Sanjunani was religious and spiritual, and with tremendous regard for tradition. Once at a performance in Mumbai she had forgotten her ‘alta’. She asked me to get mine. My modernity had made me switch to a red marker pen and I took that to her. She was shocked and pained. But this was not orthodoxy; this was her respect for tradition. She did everything traditionally – the alta, her hair, her make up, her pooja before a performance. Make up - she was firm about one thing. Never wipe your make up immediately after a program. People should see you the way they saw you on stage. That image, that impression should remain. Though I have never followed it personally, for myself, I think I followed it in her death. When I spoke to her over the phone after learning about her illness, I had this strong wish to go meet her in Bhubaneswar. But I didn’t. I remembered this principle of hers. I did not see her sickly form; the image, the impression, the visual of her strong spiritual form dancing with abandon remained with me. Sanjunani has always remained and still remains with me. Often, watching her moksha, I felt she was really one with God. But I think God took her moksha too seriously…

We at Smitalay, organised a very successful Odissi dance youth festival in her memory, on the 20th of August, at Dinanath Natyagriha.


Jhelum Paranjpe is an Odissi dancer and artistic director of Smitalay school of Odissi dance in Mumbai.