Sujata Mohapatra dazzles at Vancouver
- Anil Raj

November 16, 2013

While the temple sculptures of Konark are known all over the world, Odissi, the dance form depicted in them, almost died out by the 20th century.  This classical dance form of India started out as court entertainment and then evolved into a devotional dance performed in the temples of Lord Jagannath in the Indian state of Orissa or present-day Odisha.  The Maharis (Sanskrit for Maha - great and Nari - woman) or temple dancers, who kept the dance form alive for centuries, associating themselves with Jain and Buddhist temples as well, gradually returned to being Nartakis or court dancers.  Vaishnavite (worshippers of Vishnu) social tradition changed: female dancers were frowned upon, and were replaced by young boys called Gotipua, who danced not only in temples, but were permitted to dance in public.  The Maharis - long revered as wives of Lord Jagannath - found patronage in palace courts and danced to entertain royalty.  The cultural oppression of the British nearly succeeded in eradicating all Indian classical dance forms and it was only in the 1940s and 50s that Odissi was reconstructed and revived.

Jai Govinda, the Montreal native who made Vancouver his home almost twenty-five years ago, has done a great service to the local arts and culture scene, first as a Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher, choreographer, and then by founding the Gait to the Spirit Festival of Dance through his Mandala Arts.  The fourth edition of the Gait to the Spirit recently concluded, and Jai Govinda gave Vancouverites the rare treat of a full performance by Sujata Mohapatra, who since a very young age has been associated with Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, who must be credited with helping revive Odissi after the British almost accomplished the erasing of centuries of the dance form. 

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra came from the Gotipua tradition, so knew the dance from his boyhood.  He trained as an artist, too, and brought a strong visual component into the dance.  Thanks to his efforts, and those of gurus Pankaj Charan Das, Deba Prasad Das and Mayadhar Raut, Odissi was re-established as a pure and respected classical dance form. Sujata Mohapatra was accepted into Kelucharan Mohapatra’s tutelage as a young girl, and became one of his foremost disciples, married her guru’s son Ratikant Mohapatra, and along with her husband and daughter, continues to nurture and promote Mohapatra’s artistic legacy.
Vancouverites nearly missed seeing this amazing dancer because her hometown was devastated by a cyclone and most domestic flights to Mumbai were cancelled.  By rebooking her flights, she managed to keep her appointment with us via a circuitous route.  Unfazed by the additional hopping on and off airplanes and jetlag, she rehearsed for hours, did a detailed tech rehearsal, then danced some more in prep for her two-hour plus recital that evening.“She personifies dedication – a trait that dancers of the new generation don’t seem to possess as much,” an awed Jai Govinda told this writer during the intermission of her outstanding performance.

Sujata Mohapatra performed a traditional Odissi program, beginning with the Mangalacharan, invoking the blessing of Lord Jagannath, seeking forgiveness of Mother Earth for stamping upon her, and concluding with the Trikhandi Pranam, obeisance with hands stretched above the head to the gods, in front of the face to the teachers, and in front of the chest to the audience. She then danced a pallavi or pure dance piece in raag Hamsadhwani.  As the program notes told us, the pallavi is a “blossoming”, so it begins slowly and then increases in tempo, its choreography elaborating steps of exquisite symmetry and intricacy complementing the music of the particular raag it embellishes, working up to a crescendo that took our breath away.
She followed up the pallavi with two narrative pieces, one from the 12th century devotional epic poem Geet Govind, wherein she embodied the lovelorn Radha, imploring her friend to go seek Radha’s lord Krishna and entreat the divine lover to come to her.  In this piece, and the next one in her program, Sujata demonstrated her magical command of abhinaya or the emotive component of Odissi, for right before our eyes she transformed into a woman in the anguished throes of love, begging her confidante to go fetch her lover.

Even more impressive was when she recounted a segment of the Ramayana, where she enacted all the characters in the story.  Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana, are living in exile in a forest, when Sita espies a golden deer that is actually the shape-shifting demon Maricha sent as a decoy by the evil Ravana, who lusts after Sita.  Sita insists her husband go capture the deer for her – when Rama’s arrow pierces him, the demon Maricha, in a final act of treachery cries out for help in Rama’s voice.  Lakshmana, who knows the deer is actually Maricha, cannot persuade Sita that her husband has come to no harm.  As he sets out in search of Rama and the deer, he draws three lines across the threshold of their hut – nobody and nothing will be able to penetrate them to harm Sita.  Ravana - lying in wait - assumes the form of a beggar and asks for alms from Sita.  He pretends to take offense that Sita will not come out to give him alms, so disobeying her brother-in-law’s orders, she crosses the threshold and is no longer protected.  Resuming his original demonic form, Ravana whisks Sita away into the skies.  The king of the vultures Jatayu hears Sita’s cries for help and attacks Ravana.  Ravana slices off the noble Jatayu’s wings with two strokes of his sword, and the bird plummets to the ground.  Rama and Lakshmana find the dying Jatayu who tells them what has befallen Sita and entreats them to rescue her.  Rama touches the dying bird and his sacred touch grants Jatayu moksha - freedom from the cycle of rebirth. 

While Sujata played all the human parts with utter conviction, what I was most enchanted by was how superbly she depicted the playful golden deer, skittering through the forest in a manner guaranteed to captivate a young woman.  And when she became the noble Jatayu, she took majestic possession of the skies.  Poised on one leg, with the other outstretched behind her, her arms undulating luxuriantly, suggesting the unfurling of giant powerful wings (I could swear I heard the wind go through her wing feathers as it propelled her through the skies), she did a slow, full 360-degree turn.  This was a demonstration of not just grace, but immense strength, for she did this all balanced on one leg and the other immobile and outstretched, suggesting the body and tail of the magnificent bird.  Her face was watchful and alert, as she spots Ravana in his flying chariot abducting the virtuous Sita and then she swooped down to do battle with him.

This was the perfect example of an artist holding an audience in thrall as she proved that a five thousand year-old story still has the ability to transfix listeners. I loved that the choreography of the piece used moves from the Jatra or folk-theatre tradition.  Jatra dancers illustrate their stories with simple evocative choreography to communicate with their largely illiterate audiences, and the Jatra songs are in Oriya - the language of the people, and not in Vedic Sanskrit, the sophisticated language of the scriptures.

A short abstract Moksha concluded her performance – this signifies the dancer’s quest for spiritual liberation. It was educational and profoundly inspiring to watch an artiste of international stature at work.  While Vancouver audiences have seen Odissi before (our own talented Scheherazaad Cooper and Gait to the Spirit 2012’s guest Shalini Patnaik come to mind), this marks the first time in several years that we got to watch an entire Odissi recital, start-to-finish: beginning with the invocation to the deities and concluding with the Moksha. One of the audience members recounted how he was privileged to watch Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra dance many years ago – indeed Guruji had performed the same Geet Govind piece from Sujata’s program. Although Guruji was already of advanced years, the audience, he recalled, did not see an aged man – he completely convinced them they were watching a nubile young woman pining for her lover. Sujata’s humility as she thanked the audience was another lesson – she gave all credit to her teacher, and said whatever she does is for perpetuating the glory of his legacy.

All I can say is that we are blessed that such great artistes exist and through their dedication and devotion to their art, the dance form of Odissi continues to enrapture audiences the world over.  To Jai Govinda, the board and many volunteers of Mandala Arts, rousing, heartfelt thanks and applause for continuing to expose us to artistes of international renown.
Anil Raj is a Vancouver-based writer, producer, performer, film critic, and self-confessed dance junkie.