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Contribution of male stage artistes to the evolution of Odissi dance
- Ileana Citaristi

December 9, 2019

(Paper presented at the "Purush-ang" seminar organized by Central Sangeet Natak Akademi at Bhubaneswar on September 19, 2000)

An important role in the formation of what we define today as Odissi dance was played in the first half of the 20th century by male artistes belonging to the performing art scene of those days. At the time when the devadasi tradition had come to an end and the gotipua tradition was looked upon as cheap and vulgar, a group of talented and versatile stage artistes infused new life into the dying dance scene.

The emergence of the present day Odissi cannot be totally understood unless we place it in the context of the fertile atmosphere which the theatre movement of the first half of the last century and the artistes behind it provided. Among the artistes were Mohan Sunder Dev Goswami, Ramachandra Mania, Laxminarayan Patra, Lingaraj Nanda, Kartik Kumar Ghose, Brindavan Das, Kashinath Sahu, Durlav Chandra Singh, Kalicharan Patnaik, and Dayal Sharan. They were totally dedicated and committed to the cause of reviving the performing arts of Orissa. Each one of them was an exponent of more than one discipline, like music, drama direction, dance or stage craft and each one was a self made artiste, having acquired whatever expertise he had, more by observation than by undergoing a systematic training.

When Kelucharan Mohapatra's father Chintamani discovered in the early thirties that his six year old son was clandestinely taking dance lessons from Balabhadra Sahu, a gotipua master settled in Ragurajpur, his reaction was: "You would like, would you, to dance around moving your hips, pulling faces with your tongue stretched out, winking at the zamindar to receive garlands of flowers or to get banknotes pinned on your chest? This will not do!" Such was the attitude towards the gotipua dance in those days!

Eventually Chintamani sent his son to the only performing arts school he could trust, the Ras Leela party founded by Mohan Sunder Dev Goswami, where his two elder sons had already learnt to act and play the dhol. The legendary Radha Krishna Bihari Ras Dal, founded by Mohan Sunder Dev Goswami in Puri in 1918, served as a training ground for a number of youngsters aged between eight and eighteen, who lived with the master and imbibed from him the art of abhinaya, percussion playing, singing and stagecraft. The training may not have included much of dance as such, but it was meant to mould the child into a performing artiste by offering him not only a technique but also the right atmosphere of discipline and devotion towards the arts. The children were made to learn by heart the different songs from the Geeta Govinda and the Vaishnava poems and were taught how to sing, act, move around and gesticulate according to the character assigned to them.

In a Ras Leela play, the musical score and the songs sung by the actors were given the most importance; a few lines of recitation were interspersed just to create links between the sequences. During those days, a Ras Leela performance by Mohan Goswami's troupe could easily draw three to four thousand spectators who would assemble not only from the village where the performance took place but also from miles away. With a simple and rustic stage, a set of gestures taken mostly from daily life and a minimum number of combinations of foot movements, the performance was able to create a strong emotional impact on the audience mostly due to the intense bhakti bhava expressed through the song.

In the Ras Leela style of recitation, the satwik aspect was given the most importance; guru Goswami himself would incite the children from the side of the stage so that they would not lose concentration. The variety of songs employed in Goswami's plays gave ample scope to the artistes to familiarise themselves with the myriads of episodes and nuances of the imaginative and rich literature which took shape in Orissa during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries around the mythical story of Radha and Krishna. This experience was of great importance for the future development of abhinaya in Odissi dance since, not only Kelucharan Mohapatra but quite a few of the other Odissi gurus as well had at one point or the other gone through this apprenticeship.

It is noteworthy that in Goswamy's troupe, the most memorable female roles were portrayed by two of its male members, although two girls had also been accepted as part of it. The two girls were Radharani, daughter of a mahari's sister, who specialised in the character of Brundadevi and Bidhyalata Mohanty, a prostitute's daughter, who used to portray the role of Chandrabali. The role of Radha was depicted by a boy named Basudeva and that of Lalita by Raghunath Nanda, who had been picked up by guru Goswami while he was singing along with his father on the bada danda (main road) in Puri. Both the roles were quite demanding; while the first one was more intense and introverted, the second was supposed to be full of humour and wit and it seems Raghunath was so good in portraying this naughty character that he used to get medals for 'the best role' every time he performed. This goes to show that it is talent and not gender which is more important in the evaluation of an artiste!

Another excellent interpreter of female roles was Ramachandra Mania from Gada Rengala in Puri district. A cowherd by caste, as a child he dressed as little Krishna, and used to take part in the laudi khela, a kind of shepherd's dance enacted during the dola purnima festivities in his village. He was spotted by one Somnath Mohapatra from Haripur and trained vigorously for six months in the gotipua style before he took part in his sangeeta dala. By the time the Radha Krishna Theatre, the first professional theatre of Orissa, was founded by Bonomali Pati in Bolonga in 1918, Ramachandra Mania was already known as 'Master Mania,' an epithet which stuck to him throughout his life. During his association with the Radha Krishna Theatre, later on renamed as Bonomali Art Theatre, he had occasion not only to learn classical music and perfect his abhinaya under guru Brundavana Bihari Das from Balasore, but also to teach akhada pilla dance and Odissi sangeet to a number of other male actors, among whom were Kashinath Sahu from Pipli and Kartik Kumar Ghose, younger brother of the dramatist Aswini Kumar Ghose, who was also connected with theatre.

Master Mania's portrayals of female roles were extremely accurate. He distinguished himself in the role of Bimali in the nataka titled 'Jayadeva', of the narthaki Bandi in 'Ali Baba' and in the role of a maharani in the play 'Harishchandra.' Among the dance items taught by him there was a Shiva Parvati piece which Kartik Kumar Ghose and Kashinath Sahu danced together at Stewart School in Cuttack in 1931 and the Sri Krishna nrutya, a solo piece which won Kashinath Sahu a gold medal when he performed it in a dance competition organised in 1936 by the Utkal Sahitya Samaj at Ramchandra Bhawan in Cuttack.

By the time the Bonomali Art Theatre closed down in 1936 due to financial difficulties, another professional group called Annapurna Natya Mandali had started functioning from the village of Khanduala Kota near Balugaon. Founded by Somnath Das, a landlord from the same village, assisted by Lingaraj Nanda from Lambhadarapur and Bauri Bandhu Mohanty of Jagatsingpur, this Mandal's troupe started quite soon to tour and be known all over Orissa.

In the first ten years of its existence, the group did not have a permanent stage to perform on and used to set up camps in various districts of the State for the duration of one full season and would perform in make-shift pandals. During the rainy seasons, the entire troupe would stay in a rented hall in Cuttack to rehearse new plays. Only when in 1945 a second group called the 'Annapurna B Group' came to occupy this space, the original group, from then on called the 'A Group', settled down permanently in Puri in a three-storied building with an adjacent land, situated on the bada danda, in front of the police station.

The dance masters in the A Group, who were functioning also as directors and actors as enjoined, were Master Mania, Kashinath Sahu and Kartik Kumar Ghose, who had all joined after the closing down of the Bonomali Art Theatre, and Laxminarayan Patra from Gudiali in Ganjam. The latter belonged to the folk theatre tradition of the Prahalad Natak, a performing art form of the Ganjam area, which involved music, vigorous dance and acting. He had joined the theatre along with his three brothers - Brindavan, Adhinarayan and Satyanarayan - all involved in dance, acting and directing.

Kartik Kumar Ghose, besides learning gotipua dance from Master Mania, in 1940 had also attended a summer course of six months' duration in Almora, where Uday Shankar, the doyen of a new stream in the Indian dance tradition, had just opened a centre for imparting training in various styles. It is interesting to note that all these different influences went into the formation of the first group and solo dances which the young girls, who started to be associated with the A Group in the early forties, used to perform on stage, mainly at the beginning of the enactment of a drama.

Among these was a group item danced by Laxmipriya, Sara and Haramani, composed by Kashinath Sahu in a style akin to Manipuri to the accompanying Oriya song "Manara kotha kohibi kahara sakhi re" (to whom shall I tell the secrets of my heart, oh friend?) and the solo number performed by Laxmipriya, "Nila Janmuna kule Kalia" (Krishna on the bank of the dark Jamuna) composed in folk style by Laxminarayan Patra.

With the introduction of female dancers on stage, the profits of the theatre increased considerably, and this naturally brought the various theatres, the two Annapurna on one side and the Orissa Theatre founded by Kalicharan Patnaik in 1939 on the other, to compete among each other for having the most attractive dancers and dance numbers. It so happened that in the year 1946, within a period of few months, all the three theatres introduced in their respective play, a short dance number by a lady artiste in Odissi style (even if the appellative of Odissi until then was used more to refer to the music than to the dance).

In July of the same year Kalicharan Patnaik staged his own play 'Abhijan' (directed by Adhwita Charan Mohanty and Durlav Charan Singh) where a female dancer Sara performed, within the context of the drama, a mahari song at the court of king Purushottam Dev. Almost at the same time, the A Group presented the play 'Kavisurya' based on the life and work of the Oriya poet Kavisurya Baladev Rath, in which a female dancer Haramani performed a short sequence of Odissi bols at the court of the Raja of Athaghara. This play was written by Ramachandra Mishra and directed by Kartik Kumar Ghose, whereas the dance sequence was taught to Haramani Devi by master Harihara Panda.

In the same year, the B Group opened its new play 'Abhisek' written by Aswini Kumar Ghose, with star dancer Laxmipriya dancing to the Oriya song "Janare mo rana parama mita" (my dear friend, this is my promise), one of the two songs taught to her by gotipua master Krishna Chandra Mohapatra, the other one being "Nahi ki karidela" (the one who denied). The lyrics of both were by Kishor Kavi Shyam Sundar Das and put to music respectively by Balakrishna Das and Singhari Shyam Sundar Kar. Laxmipriya had been brought to the B Group from the A Group by Lingaraj Nanda at the time when one female dancer was required for the part of Mohini in the drama 'Devi Bhasmasura.'

The B Group had the advantage of not only having in its rank the two future doyens of Odissi dance, Pankaj Charan Das and Kelucharan Mohapatra, but also of having access to the teachings of another male dancer, who, although from a completely different school, happened to play a determinant role in the emergence of the dance scene in Orissa. A Telugu by birth, Dayal Sharan had undertaken training in Kathak and Bharatanatyam before joining the India Cultural Centre in Almora founded in the early forties by Uday Shankar. Here Dayal was exposed not only to Manipuri and Kathakali, but also to the eclectic and creative approach in dance training which was characteristic of Uday Shankar's method of teaching. He had to leave the Centre even before its closing down in 1944, due to an attack of tuberculosis, and after recovery he founded his own group of dancers with whom he used to give performances by hiring theatre halls in different towns and selling tickets for the shows.

He had come to Cuttack in 1947 along with 6 or 7 of his dancers to show his dance numbers and had rented the Annapurna Theatre hall for three evenings. The ticket sale of the first two evenings had not been encouraging at all and he feared that he would be unable to meet even the cost of the hall. By this time, the B Group had already staged the drama 'Sadhava jhia' (The merchant's daughter) in which Laxmipriya and Kelucharan paired in the 'Das Avatar' number composed by Pankaj Charan Das. Kelucharan Mohapatra's aptitude to dance had been a revelation for the troupe. Fearing adverse comments, he had in fact never disclosed to anybody that he had learnt gotipua dance in his childhood. Up to the time of the 'Devi Bhasmasura' drama, he was only known as a good mridanga player.

When the chance to stage a short dance sequence to be presented at the beginning of this drama arose, Pankaj Charan Das who was at that time the dance master in the B Group, assigned the role of Mahadev to Kelucharan and kept for himself that of Bhasmasura, which at first was supposed to be danced in Chhau style by Radha Krishna Bhanja from Baripada. After the success of his maiden appearance, Kelucharan was entrusted with the main role in the duet dance 'Das Avatar' next to Laxmipriya whose assignment was mainly to stand with the anjali mudra in the bhakta attitude.

Dayal Sharan had the chance to watch the dance rehearsals of Kelucharan and Laxmipriya and was so impressed by what he saw that he proposed to Lingaraj Nanda to have a mixed program on the third evening, by combining the dance items of the two troupes. The Annapurna troupe opened the performance with 'Das Avatar' followed by "nahi ki koridela" danced by Laxmipriya and the 'Devi Bhasmasura' dance drama; after the interval there were the numbers by the Dayal troupe including among others two solo items by him, the 'Hunter' and the 'Surya' dances. The Oriya public, this time more numerous than in the first two evenings, expressed its appreciation of the indigenous items by clapping more vigorously during the first half than in the second. But in spite of the good turnout of people, Dayal failed to raise enough money for paying the rent of the hall.

He then proposed to Lingaraj Nanda to be allowed to pay back his debt by directing a dance production for the Annapurna Theatre. He had already set his eyes on Kelucharan and he was quietly looking forward to an opportunity to teach this promising lad everything he knew. Lingaraj Nanda as well as Durlav Chandra Singh and the other directors of the troupe welcomed the idea immediately; with the success of the first dance items staged and the opening up of the dance scenario, everybody had started feeling the limitations of a training which lacked a firm and systematic foundation. They admired the variety of styles known by Dayal and were particularly impressed by the neat presentation of the group choreographies which revealed a much more sophisticated approach in comparison with whatever had been presented up to now by the Annapurna group.

Dayal Sharan was entrusted with the composition of a new dance sequence to be performed at the beginning of the next drama 'Radhika' to be directed by Durlav Chandra Singh. For Kelucharan started one of the most intense and exciting experience of his apprenticeship. The one that left him ready to take off, confident and aware that he possessed the power and the creativity to compose dance on any subject. Guru Kelucharan was born out of this encounter; and it is significant that it should be the Uday Shankar touch, although transmitted through one of his students, which lit one more spark of creativity in the world of dance. And not an ordinary one for that matter!

In Kelucharan's words: "Dayal Sharan showed me the way. He made me conscious of what my body was doing and what more could be achieved through exercises. He made me aware of the use of the different mudras of the hands and of the possibilities of utilising the same hand gestures for expressing different actions (viniyoga). Not that I was not using mudras before, but I was not aware of it. He explained to me the derivation of the various hand gestures starting from the actions of everyday life: he would ask me to observe my hands while I was drinking water or eating food or holding an object and from there he would go to the shastric name of the mudras. He made me understand that although there are classified mudras in the written texts, many more could be created deriving them from the observation of everyday life. He taught me how to compose small sequences of dance by putting together different steps; he opened in front of me the door of 'creativity' and once I went beyond its threshold I never had to look back."

After completing the group dance item on Radha and Krishna for the Annapurna group, for the next two years Dayal Sharan kept in touch with them by returning to Cuttack at regular intervals. During each visit he taught something to the actors and dancers of the troupe, among whom were Mayadhar Raut and Raghu Dutta. Kelucharan on his part continued practising the different body exercises even during Sharan's absence, improving and refining his dance movements more and more. Soon after this, Pankaj Charan Das left the B Group and Lingaraj Nanda did not hesitate to entrust Kelucharan with the direction of the dance sequence to be included in the next play 'Aloka' produced by Priyanath Mishra. The piece danced by Laxmipriya in three different styles - Manipuri, Odissi and Kathak - was the first dance item to be fully composed by Kelucharan; the style was derived from the mixed one taught by Dayal Sharan with Kelucharan accompanying the dance on the tabla and the pakhawaj.

With the increasing number of girls coming forward to learn dance, from 1950 onwards, the male dancers got more and more busy in giving private tuitions and they separated themselves from the theatre scene, although for the first few years they occasionally collaborated whenever any dance composition needed to be included in some play. If, on the one side, the popularity of Odissi dance grew due to the increasing number of female dancers who took to the stage, on the other it may have lost the opportunity to produce any more great male actors specialising in female roles. This is what has happened also in other styles of dance such as Kuchipudi and Chhau, where the introduction of female dancers has prevented the new generation of males from concentrating and refining the feminine aspects of the respective dance forms.

As far as modern Odissi is concerned, the male performer of today, perhaps intimidated by the large majority of female artistes around him, finds it hard to locate a space as performing artiste and tends to confine himself to the role of teacher or at the most of partner to a female dancer. The example of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra who, even in his late seventies, used to perform with equal ease the vigorous character of Ravana as well as the delicate role of Radha, goes once again to prove that is not age or gender which counts but dedication and commitment to the chosen art form. This should encourage more male artistes to find their space in this highly refined and aesthetic dance style.

Dr. Ileana Citaristi is an Italian born dancer, who trained under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Odissi and under Guru Hari Nayak in Mayurbhanj Chhau. She founded Art Vision in 1995 in Bhubaneswar.

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