Dancer - choreographer Valmiki Bannerjee: 20th century genius
- Ashish Mohan Khokar
Based on materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection
March 16, 2012
Valmiki Bannerjee is one of the senior most dancer-choreographers in Delhi. Hailing from Purva Bangla, now in present Bangladesh, Valmiki had to cover quite a distance, not just spatially, to reach where he is today.
Born in 1926, he spent his early childhood in his village, Amgaon, Faridpur district, in undivided Bengal. Valmiki’s formative years were spent in a ‘musical atmosphere’ as his family members were culturally inclined. “My grandfather, Dhirendralal Bannerjee, was really interested in music.”
It was unthinkable for a man from a ‘good family background’ to learn dance and Valmiki’s potential in this art form would have probably remained unnoticed. But young Valmiki was fortunate enough to find a mentor in his maternal uncle Nirpati Mukherjee, who detected Valmiki’s talent in his fluid movements. Fortunately for Valmiki, his uncle had enough knowledge about dance to initiate him into that world and guide him to channelize his potential in the right direction.
After completing his schooling from Barishal, Valmiki went to Calcutta for further studies. This turned out to be a decisive phase in his life. Calcutta opened a new vista for him. At that time, 1945-56, Calcutta was thriving on all kinds of cultural activities including music and dance. Valmiki joined ‘The Oriental School of Music’ where he began learning from Joydev Chatterjee. “The realisation as to what is dance came from him. Whatever I have learnt, is mainly from him.” He also learned from various other teachers, including Prabhat Mishra, Tarachand, and Kathak from Guru Sohanlal.
Valmiki appeared in his first public performance in Jessore, Bangladesh, on their Independence Day. At this stage, he started helping his Guru in various choreographic ventures. He also danced for films like Meghdoot and Sri Tulsidas. He was the Assistant Director (Dance) in the film, Pandit Moshai. However, he never really liked working in films, preferring the stage.
Valmiki was not destined for a static life. One day he “suddenly felt this immense urge to go to Madras.” Madras was, at that time, the Mecca for dancers. It was a period of revivalism for Indian classical dance. People had started discovering the beauty of form and spirit in the Indian classical dances. Madras, with the opening of an institution like Kalakshetra, started becoming the dance capital of India. Valmiki too, like many of his contemporaries, could not resist the temptation to go to Madras and learn from gurus there. In Madras, he learned for some time in Kalakshetra. However, he was quite impressed by Kathakali for its balletic form, learning it under Guru Gopinath.
“I learned the techniques of ballet choreography from Guru Gopinath.” He emphasises, “Without a classical base, particularly without a strong foundation in Kathakali, it is not possible to choreograph a good ballet. The Kathakali style is so closer to reality and is important for establishing characters.” He finds Guru Gopinath’s style extremely appealing. “He broke away from tradition to a great extent without breaking the form and made a number of innovations so that it appeals to a greater number of people.” Valmiki used to learn from him as well as teach many students, the Manipuri and Kathak style which earned him enough to sustain himself.
He gave a number of public performances as well. He was always attracted by contemporary themes which would not merely portray the beauty of the dance form but which would also reflect the spirit of the time which is relevant to society’s present state of existence. At that time, the country was being torn apart by the post-partition communal riots. While in Madras, Valmiki presented a short ballet with Hindu-Muslim fraternity as the theme.
Initially, Valmiki had plans to settle in Madras. But fate had different designs for him. His restless spirit always compelled him to move forward. After three years in Madras, he decided to head for Delhi. En route, he spent a few months at the Gandhi Ashram in Wardha. “It was a different experience altogether. I would have loved to stay there longer but something pushed me towards Delhi.”
On reaching Delhi, he had many dreams, an ambition to do something really great and just Rs. 4 in his pocket. He did not have a place to stay, so he stayed in the ashram at Nigambodh Ghat. “Those were really the days of struggle,” he recounts.
However, his zest for life did not allow him to lose hope. With Purnendu Chatterjee, he opened a branch of IPTI in Delhi. Before forming his own troupe, he performed often under its banner. Slowly and gradually his name started becoming known among the art lovers in Delhi and he began getting an increasing number of students. He choreographed Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada, his first ballet in Delhi, entirely with his own students. “So far I have not taken any outsider in my productions.”
Among his early students, many are celebrated dancers today, Madhavi Mudgal and Aloka Pannikar to name two. In Delhi, he started teaching in schools like Vidya Bhavan. He also joined Gandharva Mahavidyalaya as a director-teacher. When Valmiki started teaching in Delhi, ballets were not much in vogue. With infrastructural support from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, he produced and directed a number of ballets. He was the first dance director in Delhi to bring together boys and girls in a stage performance. “It was quite a revolutionary idea,” he recounts. “Initially everybody resisted, saying students’ parents would object. They felt that public too would not appreciate such a daring act.” Even Gandharva Mahavidyalaya was not enthusiastic, thinking it might antagonise the parents of the students. However, no adversity was strong enough to deter this man once he had made up his mind.
By then, he had started giving many private tuitions. With his students, he produced a ballet called Sri Durga, the first in Delhi to have a male and female cast. It was a grand success and after that, there was no looking back for him. He directed several ballets like Janardan and Mirabai.
He formed his own group comprising of his students. The group was named ‘The Delhi Ballet Troupe.’ It did its first production Mirabai at AIFACS Auditorium. “The production cost was Rs. 900 whereas now a new production would cost nothing less than Rs.70,000 to Rs. 80,000,” laments Valmiki.
His inclination towards producing ballets with contemporary themes grounded in today’s socio-cultural realities led him to direct Sonar Bangla. It was based on the plight of Muktijoddhas – the freedom fighters and ordinary citizens of Bangladesh - during their struggle for independence. He considers it to be his finest production till date.
Another of his unique productions, dear to him, is Bal Pratibha in which he portrays the child of today as the citizen of tomorrow. In each child, there is a potential artiste, leader, scientist; one has to recognise this and channelize their energies in the right direction, being the theme of this unique ballet which had as the Chief Guest of the programme, main speaker and of course the artists themselves, all children.
Valmiki’s greatest ambition is yet to be fulfilled. He wants to create a platform where artistes from all over the world can come, meet each other and exchange ideas, not only through performances but through seminars and workshops as well. “This will lead to true cultural exchange and create an environment of international integration.” However, this needs considerable funds. His only regret is that he never received any support or help from government, either in terms of finance or recognition. Many junior artistes have been given awards but despite all the years of hard work, he is yet to receive one. However, he only blames his luck for this. On the brighter side, he has earned a great amount of respect, not only from the dance community but also from critics and general public. It is their love and affection, says he, which carries him through difficult situations.
He possesses a quality which is rare in people today – humility. A silent worker, he quietly continues his work in dance and for the welfare of the community. For example, he teaches many children from slum areas and even uses them in his shows. He teaches the local chowkidar of his area - a young boy of sixteen years, who suddenly discovered in himself, an inclination towards dance. All these, he does without any monetary returns, taking pains to visit these children’s parents and persuade them to send their children to him.
His lifetime mission has been to install and make Rabindra Natyam an accepted, established classical dance form of Bengal, since Bengal has so much "culture" but no classical style of its own to boast of. He has spent some 40 years in trying to promote this cause. Eighty-six years old, he is still agile, mentally and physically. Without any bitterness as to what he did not get from life, he looks towards the future with hopes and aspirations, directing all his energies towards fulfilling his greatest ambition in life – to create harmony through art, to spread the message of peace, fraternity and brotherhood through the medium of dance and thus create a truly humane society.
Ashish Mohan Khokar learnt Kathak, Bharatanatyam, western ballet and Orissi before taking to arts administration. He served the govt., in many cultural capacities, including the Delhi State Academy for Arts (1984-85); chief coordinator Festivals of India in Sweden (1986-87); Festival of India in France, Germany and China (1985-90). He was Director of INTACH, under PM Rajiv Gandhi’s Chairmanship. He served the Times of India as Dance Critic in Delhi from 1990-2000 and Bangalore 2000-3. Since then, he edits and publishes India’s only yearbook on dance – attendance - and is Curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He has served dance for over 25 years as a reputed critic-historian. He has written over 35 books on Indian arts and culture; is on many boards and committees serving dance (DD, INTACH, IIC, BSM, ICCR, UNESCO-DC). He Chairs the Dance History Society of India and holds special dance DISCourses. Details: www.attendance-india.com
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