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Rushdie does an Odissi
Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi, Bhubaneswar

April 10, 2010

Odissi, the classical dance of Orissa, has taken roots internationally and often pops up unexpectedly in celebrity performances. Michael Jackson in his video "The World Tour" in the 90's, used a few movements from invocation of Odissi. Then came Madonna - in MTV show in 1998, with the collaboration of Patnaik sisters in California, she did an invocation to Lord Shiva in Odissi style.

Only recently, I read 'Shalimar's Garden' by Salman Rushdie and was first surprised and then shocked to see that he has been smitten by one of the oldest and most sculpturesque classical dance forms of India - Odissi. Of course, the theme being based on nostalgic Kashmir for Rushdie as his ancestors were from there, he weaves his views based on the contemporary scene - much destruction, human misery and loss of culture and ambience. For most of us who grew up in India, born pre-independence and raised post-independence, much of the theme rings a bell, one way or another. The heroine Boonyi Kaul Noman, a Kashmiri lass, runs away with the visiting US ambassador! OK and good so far since it is "fiction" but a surprise comes as he systematically plays permutation and combination with the names of well known Odissi dancers and a legendary Guru! What a surprise for me who lived through the emergence and establishment of Odissi in the field of Indian classical cance! (I have chronicled the details in my latest book 'ODISSI-the classical dance of India').

In pp199, he talks about the ambassador arranging lessons in Odissi dance for heroine Boonyi. He says, "the Odissi master Pandit Mudgal has been scornful of her from the first. He was the guru of Sonal Karnaa and Kumkum Segal! He had taught Alarmel Mansingh! He was the master of Kiran Qunango. No man had done more than he to popularize the Odissi dance form! Where would they all be without him - Aloka Panigrahi, Sanjukta Sarukkai, Protima Mahapatra, Madhavi Mohanty? And now in his mottled old age came this raw, lazy village girl, this kept woman, this nothing." At length, Pandit Mudgal refused to give her lessons. In his only compliment when the Guru persisted inspite of the offer of doubling his salary, he says the ambassador "tried to buy what could not be bought, and failed, Jayababu, once long, lean and beautiful and now a dark brinjal of a man, an ill-tempered eggplant, refused the cash."

If one unscrambles, the names used by him are of the famous Odissi dancers Sonal Mansingh, Kumkum Mohanty, Kiran Sehgal (Segal), Aloka Kanungo and Sanjukta Panigrahi. Some names appear in part like Madhavi (perhaps surname transplanted to the Guru as Pandit Mudgal), Karnaa, Alarmel, Sarukkai are names of famous Kathak and Bharatanatyam dancers. Protima is no more and Mahapatra is a legendary Guru! It does not take much imagination to guess who the legendary guru Jayababu is!

In literally picking on Odissi by "mix and match" of names of Odissi dancers and making uncalled for remarks about a legendary guru, Mr. Rushdie has definitely hurt the feelings of people like me associated with Odissi. In choosing an Odissi guru for his heroine Boonyi, Rushdie has shown that he is smitten with Odissi and it is in the fitness of things that he takes up Odissi seriously and gets training in its nuances to appreciate it better. Odissi is being taught all over the world and he can choose an appropriate institution/guru of his choice.

(Reference: Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown, Random House Publishing Group, NY, 2005)

Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi is the pioneer Odissi dancer whose performance in the First Inter-University Youth Festival in 1954 in New Delhi, led to the discovery of Odissi dance and drew national attention to this art form. Trained by all the leading Gurus, she has received many national recognitions including the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Her primer (Netic, New Delhi) and book (Aryan Books International, New Delhi) on Odissi dance are widely used by dancers and scholars alike. At present she is a member of the National Board of Film Certification. A zoologist by profession she has received Padma Shri from the President of India for her contributions to Science and Technology. She is the former Vice-Chancellor of Sambalpur University.

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