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Odissi of two vintages

September 27, 2023

Odissi in the Guru Kelucharan style and in the Debaprasad style happened to be, coincidentally, presented in two performances during the fortnight at two different venues in Delhi - one in a solo representation by one of the most venerated dancers of the form, while the other in a group presentation, where space was shared, with other dance forms also being part of the evening. Neither evening, one at the Kamani and the other at the Habitat, sadly could boast of handsome turnouts.

Sujata Mohapatra
Sujata Mohapatra (Photo: Roopachitram)

At the Kamani, on a most aesthetically laid out stage, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra's music/dance festival of Varsha Mangal, on the first evening, presented Sujata Mohapatra, with, surprisingly, most of the audience leaving after the first half comprising a sarod recital by Biswajit Roychoudhury. A meticulous shishya of her late father-in-law Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, in style and repertoire, Sujata has never sought to work at any theme outside of what her Guru has left behind as his considerable oeuvre. Watching her perform after some distance of time, what with the Covid pandemic and all that followed as a consequence, one found the old magic missing - even while the technical exactitude could not be found fault with. In keeping with the seasonal connotation of the festival, Sujata's recital was built round compositions related with the Monsoons. The central part was the Pallavi in raga Megh, Rajesh Kumar's music composition, for which the choreography by Ratikant Mohapatra was done quite a few years back. In fact the dancer's depiction of movements of animals and birds enjoying the Monsoons, the time for romancing, with the deer, the snake, the peacock, the rabbit and what have you traipsing with joy in the rain, seemed somewhat repetitive.

And immediately following in continuation came the second half portraying how too much rain can cause irreparable harm - with an opposite state of affairs with floods and animals desperately trying to seek shelter. The destruction and even death all round, appeared too simplistic, without even a hinted reference to man whose callous treatment of Nature has led to this imbalance. One could sympathize with the music accompaniment in patches, not uniformly living up to the high standards associated with this dancer's programme accompanists, for reputed musicians today being so much in demand compels one has to settle for less experienced artistes at times.

With the Champeya gauranga shareera kaya, Ardhanareeswara Stotram, a much loved work of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra created for late Sanjukta Panigrahi in 1977, Sujata seemed to come into her own - and one experienced, finally, the dancer as one knows her. As her body created stances etching out the complementing contrasts of Parvati with the mandara mala on the left half and Shiva on the right with the Kapaala mala, Devi with the Dhammila hairdo on one side and Shiva with the matted locks on the other, and so on, the audience, sensing that they were witnessing what they had come to see and enjoy, began applauding.

At the Habitat Stein auditorium, Shraddhanjali Festival 2023 by Patitapawan Kala Niketan paid homage to late Guru Debaprasad Das and to the Gotipua and Odissi Guru Pravas Kumar Mohanty. The evening, after the lamp lighting ceremony, ushered in the performance part with what one could call an abridged Guru Vandana in which groups of Odissi and Chhau dancers participated in a brief obeisance to Jagannatha and the Gurus. This was followed by Navarasa based on Ramhari Das' music, with dance choreographed by Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. Presented by Sapnarani, the scenes based on the Ramayana episodes evoking each one of these rasas were overspun, apart from being exaggeratedly dramatized, with internalization missing. And the widely prevalent practice of trying to project epic hero Rama as being widely amused on seeing Shoorpanakha's ravaged face with the mutilated nose (as an example of hasya) was copied here too. How dancers do not have the sensitivity to reject the inappropriateness of an uttama Purusha responding in this fashion to what was an unchivalrous act (no matter under what provocation) is always surprising.

This item was followed by a group projection on the Devi Durga, again choreographed by Durga Charan Ranbir. While one has admiration for the work of this guru, a student of Guru Debaprasad Das, one fails to understand the logic of a work which only goes from one group frozen attitude to another. Whether it is Sarva mangala mangalye, or Bhagavati Devi or Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu, any adjective describing the Goddess saw the group changing its position to take up another stance - making for a tableau with hardly any movement covering space, which should be a feature of choreography.

This institution, aside from Odissi, is also presiding over Bharatanatyam classes and what was mentioned as Bharatanatyam Kala Kendra, presented an average group demonstrating Hanuman's sojourn over the forests and seas into Lanka with the Choodamani presentation, after locating Sita in the Ashokavan, in a choreography attributed to Saroja Vaidyanathan. The announcement of the lyric as being in raag Behag was wrong. It was the next item, a Tillana that was in Behag. And Bharatanatyam's central stance of araimandi was held like the chauka of Odissi. If the postural change, of a knee-bend with the lower half of the body forming a triangle as in Bharatanatyam or a square as in Odissi, is not known, it seems a little strange.

The Pallavi in Vasanta taught by Sangita Mahanti in the Debaprasad style, rendered by a group of dancers in tasteful costumes, met with a better rendition. The evening included Kathak too by Tribhanga Kathak group. Comprising the Krishna theme, one felt that among the styles presented, Kathak fared much better than the other dance forms. Instead of so many dance forms sharing the stage, a more quality conscious Odissi in the Debaprasad style is what Patitapawan Kalaniketan could aim for.

Dr. Navina Jafa's performance Samavesh me praddheenatha, or Freedom in Amalgamation, at IIC's Deshmukh auditorium was a performance rebuttal to the one set stream view of Kathak, being parodied in certain quarters today, which, for Jafa, is tantamount to a complete denial of the history of this art form. An expert on cultural tourism, and a Fulbright fellow, Navina's preoccupation with dance scholarship has accommodated, to the extent possible, her passion for performing the dance. The primary aim of the performance at Deshmukh was not so much for promoting Kathak virtuosity, as for illustrating the truth of an art form shaped by amalgamation and absorption, through cultural contacts with migrating populations. Thus, what was purely Indian mingled with what came from the Middle East bringing in Persian influence. What the varied gathering in the audience carried home finally, were memories, not of the odd technical or taal lapse, but of the vasana and conviction emerging from deep passion for the dance.

Navina Jafa
Navina Jafa (Photo: Jaison photography)

In her introduction, Navina mentioned how Sadhana for some Kathak practitioners was Riyaz for some others. The music also was an amalgamation - like Durbari of Hindustani classical music, and Kanada of Carnatic music blending to give birth to Darbari Kanada, a raga with its own special identity. Pushpanjali or Vandana as a start by some could for some others be Salami. Salami (salutation) has the dancer, after coming on to the stage, absorbing the music and freezing softly and this in an extended form is referred to as Thaata. Amad which is rendered at the entrance by the dancer is certainly not an Indian word. Kathak's Dha Ta Ka Thunga phrase being inspired by the rhythm and sounds of the washerman in the ghat beating the clothes on the stone, shows how the dance form freely absorbed from a number of sources - including daily actions of life round us. For the dancer's opening based on the multi layered depth of teental of 16 beats, the musical refrain which is called lehra and also nagma, was in Darbari Kanada. One has seen how dancers freely use Hindi and Urdu technical terms and both Hindi and Urdu couplets (Persian too) act as literary base for exposition in Kathak.

Referring to her Gurus under whom she trained, Navina in the first half of the programme devoted to nritta, mentioned Reba Vidyarthi (Reba Didi), who was the person from whom she got her understanding of how the body responds to rhythmic syllables and music and this anga or way of moulding and holding the body, is what she has incorporated in her dance. The dancer mentioned Parmelu which rhythmically fuses different types of bols and sounds, and the Gopuch paran (where a rhythmic composition keeps shedding syllables till it assumes its most minimalist form with one syllable). While she trained under Guru Munna Shukla too, her final years of learning under Pandit Birju Maharaj gave her an inside understanding of the dance. During all the years of training and even later, the study under Dr.Kapila Vatsyayan is what gave her to understanding the intellectual rigor for research. Referring to the contribution of the Court of Rampur and how manuscripts of the princes left behind a rich list of compositions for the Kathak dancer, Navina ended the first half of the recital with a ladhi. Going on to the second half devoted to abhinaya, which in Kathak, she mentioned, did not develop the way it should have after the downplaying of the tawaif, followed by some Baitakhi Bhav by gurus.

Settling for the swadheenapatika the fulfilled woman who is confident and assured of her place in the heart of the male partner, instead of the downgraded, battered womanhood contemporary society is constantly harping on, Navina Jafa who has been working on the swadheenapatika, one of the archetypal Nayikas, for a while now, received cooperation from Mrityunjaya Tripathi who worked with her on the literature based on poetry of Keshav Das and Bihari. For an indepth understanding of the range of the Nayika, so to enable her to interpret her through the language of Kathak, she sought the help of Kathakali Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan. Swarnesh Misra composed the score for the piece.

Radha is the embodiment of Prakriti, while the eternal Purusha is Krishna. Radha as swadheenapatika has been portrayed by Jayadeva himself in the Gita Govind in the ashtapadi Kuru Yadunandana and which other heroine in ancient literature has prompted Krishna himself, to humbly admit his guilt, asking that Radha drive away the poison in him by placing her foot on his head (Dehi pada pallava mudaram). Keshav Das himself, in his writings which are incomplete with missing bits, seems to see the swadheenapatika in a purely husband-wife relationship. Bihari's Satasai couplets in Brij Bhasha on the other hand, speaks of the fully liberated woman in a more extended reference, in non-marital relationships too. The poetry selected, sees Radha (she could be any woman) as fully liberated Shakti, capable of protecting not just herself but the world. The sheer power of her open tresses, like the Ganga coming down to protect the world, wakes up the slumbering world - making the sun shine, the flowers bloom and the birds fly - energizing the inactive world, "Teri Manurath Bhagirath". Radha's mental energy and imagination activating cosmic energy is compared to the flowing Ganga, the rippling sound of its waters like Ved ki Vani (music of the Vedas) - for Radha is a fully realized woman. With such potent mental power, woman can never allow herself to feel thwarted by man.

This powerful message for women in general, is a cry to never give up hope in their ability and strength. So carried away by emotion was the dancer, that she had tears in her eyes while performing. While the totality of power of the swadheenapatika as visualized by Navina, communicated itself to the audience, (enthusiastic audience response at the end), post performance exchange with dancers revealed that some brief notes circulated would have helped in understanding the details of the why's and how's of the poetry chosen. Even this writer's clarity increased with a talk with the dancer. Navina calls this a 'work in progress'. Why not a full-fledged discussion on the swadheenapatika? Should be interesting! And more muscle to work in Kathak abhinaya!

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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