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Kelu Babu - The last journey
by Ileana Citaristi, Bhubaneswar

April 14, 2004

The images of the last few days are still too fresh in the mind for being able to go beyond them. While we were dressing up his body with a fresh dhoti, putting vermillion on his forehead and decorating him with flowers, I was remembering how many times and how many students he had dressed up and ornamented during his lifetime. His hands, which were lying down inert along his sides, had maintained that peculiar elegant alertness which fascinated me from the very beginning. How may type of works I had seen them doing; mending, repairing, tying, mixing cement and sand, plastering walls, cleaning the house drainage, decorating, playing, drawing, dancing and they never ceased to transmit a particular kind of assurance. They seemed to be able to solve any kind of problem. I could not take away my eyes from them; I kept holding one of them in my hands as if he was just sleeping waiting to wake up any moment.

Quite soon the news of Kelu Babu 's death spread around and people started to pour in. Flowers kept on being added on his body; the pink short kurta he was wearing got totally hidden by them. The coat under him had to be removed for giving space to two huge blocks of ice and sand had to be spread around on the floor to contain the melting water. The number of people kept increasing; I had to leave the hold of his hand. I looked around; some known faces of old students among a lot of faces whom I did not know. Everybody knew Guruji; any man of the street here in Orissa could tell you who Kelucharan Mohapatra was. And he had always time and patience to entertain anybody; in fact he could convert even a rikshawalla or a mason into a listener of the peculiarities of the Odissi dance form!

Seventy-eight is usually not considered a premature age for dying, but in his case none of us was remembering his actual age. Fourteen years ago he had recovered from a triple by-pass in the course of just six months; only the scar visible on his bare chest while dancing on stage was reminding one of the operation he had undertaken. Few days from now he would have left for Varanasi for giving a performance during the Shankat Mochana festival; one week later he was to leave for Paris for a month long tour and on his return he would have conducted the usual summer course in his house; the two month intensive course which all of us have attended for several years during our training period. One of the young students whom he had taught up to few hours before his death, kept on asking loudly while sobbing incessantly, 'who will correct now whatever I just learnt?' I suddenly realised how lucky we have been in having him teaching us directly all these years and how privileged we have been in being able to share so much time with him! Will we be able to inspire at least one disciple the way he has inspired so many of us?

The disciples from Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta would be able to arrive only the next day so to allow them to have a last darshan of him, the cremation of the body has to be postponed by a day. When I return the next day, the scene has changed considerably; his body is now flanked by two thick walls of flowers and spontaneous songs and bajans are rendered by the musicians community, some of them composed specifically for him. Many of us embrace each other or hold each other's hands; we don't need to speak much. The same sense of bewilderment is in each of us.

At about two in the afternoon, a stretcher is brought and laid down in the courtyard; a simple stretcher of bamboo and rope to carry the body towards the final destination. There is again rush and commotion when the body is brought out and laid down on it; the soles of Guruji's feet have been painted with alta and impressed on a white sheet of paper. While the body is kept there on the ground for a final darshan, I keep on looking at it unable to move or think. I look in the eyes of the people who are standing on the other side; I find the same emptiness. The students from Mumbai and Delhi reach almost at the same time; again tears, sobs, scenes of desperation. I know what they are going through and I feel I have been privileged to have been able to hold his hand for more than an hour the previous day!

Then everything happens fast; a formal gun salute is performed by the State guards standing on both sides of the main gate and among shouts of 'Ram, Ram, sathya he' and flashes of coloured powders thrown in the air, the body is placed in a black car and moved towards Puri. On the way, a brief halt at Ragurajpur, Guruji's native village, where his house is no more but where the temple built by him for his dear goddess Bhuasuni stands at the very entrance under a large banyan tree. He had been offered to her once when as a small child he felt ill with chickenpox and she had cured him that time. This time she had wanted him all for herself. Ragurajpur is only ten kilometres away from Puri, the abode of Lord Jagannath. When I arrive at the 'swarga dwara' a small piece of land on the side of the sea, the fire has already started to envelop the body and is cracking loudly towards the sky. I have been told that in a spontaneous gesture all the dancers performed a group dance on the side of the pyre before it was lighted up. The flames are carried by the wind towards the water of the sea; all the five elements are assembled in this place to receive back what is slowly transforming into ashes. The transformation and evolution of the five elements from one to another was one of the favourite topics, which Guruji would take up so often each time giving a slightly different version to his very personal theory of the evolution of the universe. I am sure this time also he would have talked about that!

The half burned trunk is still visible in the flames; they tell me that the backbone is the last one to be consumed. Slowly the crowd is thinning down; it is like after a performance, I think, when the crowd has gone, the lights of the stage are turned off and the artist comes out from the green room and finds himself alone in the night. I decide to stay up to the end; we are few to watch the last few small bones taken out from the flames and then kept in a small clay pot sealed with mud. Guruji's younger brother, Bhansidhar, who so much resembles him, receives the pot in his hands and walks away without looking back. What is there in any case to look back for? Only dust has remained which soon will be carried away by the wind.

Ileana Citaristi is based in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. She is an exponent of Odissi and Mayurbhanj Chhau and is the artistic director of Art Vision. She organises the annual Kalinga Mahotsav exclusively dedicated to martial dances. She has written a book 'The making of a guru' on Kelucharan Mohapatra. She is a regular contributor to

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