Guru Pankaj Charan Das: Fountainhead of Orissi 
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore 
Based on archival materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

June 29, 2010

Guru Pankaj Charan Das is the unsung hero of Orissi. He was born on March 17, 1921 (or 1925 as per family accounts) into a large joint family that had no sons and therefore accounted itself accursed. His mother Kshetramani was carrying him when she came to an extended visit to Puri, to offer prayers to Lord Jagannath. She stayed with a mahari, a family friend, and the child was born prematurely. Fearing that the curse might harm the boy if he were brought into the family, she decided to leave him with the mahari, who willingly agreed to be his foster-mother. She was Chintamani.

Pankaj Charan Das thus grew up in a setting of song and dance. Chintamani was an accomplished dancer and singer; her home was the meeting place of many who shared these interests. Also, there was an akhada in front of the house, which resounded all day long with akadha pillas and Pankaj as a boy was naturally exposed to this. He went to school but minimally. He loved attending performances of the touring dance drama companies that offered the Jatra, Ras Leela and Krishna Leela and from seven years of age, Pankaj himself started appearing in song and dance amateur presentations. In the Ras Leela, he even received a sort of training from the dance teachers appointed for this purpose.

Pankaj was six when his father Dharmacharana Das died. From then on, his mother came to live with him and Chintamani. As he grew up, he began to feel his responsibility towards them. His casual excursions into the world of drama brought him a little money occasionally, but was hardly enough to keep three of them. At 12, he got his first steady job as supplier and seller of paan and tobacco. He was to serve inside a cinema hall, and received a commission of an anna (25 paise) in a rupee. What fascinated him was the regular song and dance on the screen, which he loved to imitate, to amuse his friends.

When he was 16, his mother died. The Second World War had begun and life was difficult, with shortages, a blackout and restricted entertainment. Pankaj worked in an office, on a salary of Rs.8 per month, and here he continued for 2 years. While here, he saw an announcement in a paper that a new theatre company had started in Cuttack, and required artistes. That night, he left for Cuttack and was appointed upon arrival. This was in New Theatres, a pioneering theatre group in Orissa that surfaced in the forties. He was paid no salary. However, food and clothing were provided. He had to do small song and dance acts in the plays, mostly duets, in which his principal partner was a young girl named Yashoda.

New Theatres did not last long, and after it broke up in 1944, Pankaj Charan returned to Puri. He now got a part in a leading Ras Leela Party, where he had not merely to sing and dance but also to act in comic roles. In fact, he, with two others, Tima and Pande, were the most popular comic turn on the Orissa stage. In this Raas Party, Pankaj Charan Das met Kelucharan, an actor. About the same time, another pioneering theatre group , Orissa Theatres, founded by one of Orissa's leading poet-dramatists Kali Charan Patnaik, broke up and some of the artistes got together to form another group, that they called Annapurna “B”. Like Orissa Theatre Group, this too was in Cuttack. It was labeled “B” to distinguish from Annapurna “A” group in Puri. Pankaj Charan Das joined Annapurna B group almost as soon as it was formed. He was appointed as an actor, on Rs. 8 per month, and food. When it was realised that he could dance as well and compose dances, he was given the status of Dance Director, and his salary raised to an impressive Rs.10, with pocket allowance of 4 annas on day of performance, which were practically around the month. On one of the company's tours, in Puri, Pankaj Charan met Kelucharan again and invited him to join Annapurna B group, which he did promptly. 
Many years later, two others were to join this group and they were Deba Prasad Das and Mayadhar Raut. All four together- Pankaj Charan Das, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Deba Prasad Das and Mayadhar Raut –made what Orissi is today. They were supported by historical forces and people but they alone can be counted as pillars, with Pankaj Charan Das being the fountainhead.

Around the middle of the 1940s, the embryonic name Oriya Nacho was replaced with Orissi. Actually, Orissi had been first used, in 1945, for music of Orissa that was broadcast over All India Radio, Calcutta. In Orissa, the term conveniently got extended to dance. Whilst music was labeled Orissi Sangeet, for dance just Orissi was considered good enough! In the early sixties, the spelling quite unimaginatively got altered to Orissi with a “d” and it is in this manner that the dance has since been known. Erroneously so, because all previous writings and references was with an “r”, not “d”, Orissi from Orissa not Odissi from Odissa! Of course, in last year, the spelling has got further mauled to Odishi as Odisha is the current currency by which the state is being referred to. While Mohan Khokar (and his school of writing has) stuck to original spelling and Kapila Vatsyayan too maintained that spelling (see enclosed page from her publication and chapter on Orissi done for Govt's Publications Dept), later writers used Odissi.
Click on images to read the text

In 1948, Pankaj left Annapurna and Dayal Sharan, professing Uday Shankar style appeared on scene. He did not join Annapurna as a regular. A year later, in 1949, Kelucharan too left Annapurna B. Deba Prasad left in 1951 and Mayadhar Raut in 1953.

The theatre movement in Orissa was then gaining strength and drama companies mushroomed, particularly in Cuttack. In dance, all of them followed the pattern set earlier, which means they either wove dance into the theme of the play, of improvising a situation where none existed or prefaced the play, with a composition. All 4 had gained considerable experience by now and were much in demand by these companies. Some of them continued to work together, as in the Rupasree and Janta drama companies, but largely handled casual assignments. And it is during this period that, for the first and only time in their long careers, all four had the opportunity to appear together in dance. This was in 1953, on the occasion of Bhanja Jayanti, an annual celebration in Cuttack, in honour of Upendra Bhanja, that continues to date. On the occasion, Seeta Harana, a ballet of sorts, on Seeta's abduction by Ravana was presented with Kelucharan appearing as Rama, Laxmipriya as Seeta, Mayadhar Raut as Lakshmana, Deva Prasad as Ravana and Pankaj Charan as the mythical bird, Jatayu.

Till now, 1953, there was in Orissa no such thing as an independent dance performance on stage. Dance as theatre art had no independent status or identity. It existed as supplement to drama. The dance was individualistic with vision and imprint of each choreographer whether Pankaj Charan or Deba Das danced. Interestingly, what emerged was a harmonious entity, meaning no matter who composed the dance, it carried a common form, an identifiable character. There was no stamp of the individual. The work did reveal their early influences – the Mahari tradition Pankaj Charan Das was exposed to; the Raas Leela tradition of Kelucharan and the akhada tradition of Deba Prasad and emerging theatre trends to which Mayadhar was but the influence appeared as one whole, collectively. Theatre connected them all. Props, so common in theatre and not in classical dance, were used freely, so a river or cloud cutout would appear or a bee on flower!

In the year 1952, there was another development. To all appearances it was a small step but one that proved to be of great consequence. This was the founding of the institution Kala Vikash Kendra at Cuttack. Strangely, KVK owes its genesis wholly to the initiative of a Gujarati settled in Orissa; Babulal Doshi. His colleague and support was dancer and scholar Dhirendranath Patnaik.

By 1954, dance had become accepted in polite society which had shunned gotipuas, maharis and akhada traditions. When Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya was established in Bhubaneswar in early 60s, Guru Pankaj Charan Das joined as Senior Faculty Guru. He choreographed many pallavis, including the intricate Gativilas, set to music by doyenne Harihar Panda and Balakrushna Das. He created for male dancers a special piece Om Namaha Shivaya and for representing women his everlasting work is the Panchkanyas. The lasya, the thani of Orissi and its essence comes through in this great Guru's work. The self-consciousness that shows in some other proponents of Orissi, is completely missing in this stalwart's work. For him dance was devotion, bhakti. To Pankaj Charan Das goes the credit of shaping the coming years, hence we salute him!
Yamini Krishnamurthy
Indrani Rehman
As June 11 was his death anniversary, we recall his services to making Orissi what it is. His star students, Yamini Krishnamurthy (yes, she took him to Bombay as she was based there then before shifting to Delhi and it is seeing Yamini's example and persona in Orissi, that diva Ritha Devi first saw him and learnt from him later and also told Indrani about this new style! Indrani quickly left all and went to Orissa to learn the style of Deba Prasad and rest is history!) Ritha Devi, among others, including his own daughter and later students like Ratna Roy, did much to propagate the form. However, while Yamini was the pioneer outside of Orissa to have taken to Orissi, it was Indrani who danced at a momentous occasion, in Delhi and made Orissi her own. Although two others had danced before that in Delhi in 1954 at an Inter-University Youth Festival (Dhiren da and debutante Priyambada), it was Indrani's becoming Miss India and her dance in 1958, that made national news and it was she, who strode the stage nationally and was most identified with the style when it first got established, got all the credit and attention and soon Orissi was born nationally, thanks also to efforts of nationally known writers and scholars outside Orissa, like Charles Fabri and Mohan Khokar, whose early writings gave the form much boost. 
Ritha Devi
Guru Pankaj Charan Das's most devoted student remains Ritha Devi who visited him from New York every year and continued to be devoted to him till his end. Her scholarly approach to Orissi and its history also made her a reputed dance critic for The Times of India, Mumbai in the 60s. For many years she taught his style to students in USA. Today, she lives in Pune. The Pankaj Charan Das legacy lives on in different ways. A great guru, he shall always live so long as Orissi is danced.

PS: The above piece is based on a forthcoming book 'The Dance Orissi' by Mohan and Ashish Khokar, 338 pages; nearly 400 photographs, published by Abhinav, Delhi.


Ashish Mohan Khokar has made writing and recording dance history his mission. As a merit-lister in M.A. History from the Delhi University, he loves the process and technique of writing history and its reconstruction. He is the most sought-after biographer because of this and his 30 years of direct dance writing, with 35 published titles to credit, makes him India's reputed dance historian. With practical background in dance and theory, his opinions are much sought after and respected. He wrote as dance columnist for many magazines like India Today, First City and Life Positive. He was the dance critic of the Times of India in Delhi, then Bangalore, before starting his own dance journal - attendance - now in its 12th year of publication. As India's pioneering arts administrator way back in mid-eighties, he served the Delhi State Akademi and the Festivals of India in France, Sweden, Germany and China and worked as one of the Directors at INTACH, under PM, Rajiv Gandhi's chairmanship. He is currently on many committees and boards, nationally and internationally.;