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Kelucharan Mohapatra: the undisputed master
by Sharon Lowen, New Delhi

April 14, 2004

Kelubabu, as the great Padma Vibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra was respectfully called by audiences and students around the world, was one of the most distinguished figures of the past century in the revival of classical Indian performing arts. He passed away at the age of 78 on April 7th in Bhubaneswar as the undisputed master performing artist, choreographer, teacher, and percussionist (pakhawaj) of Odissi Dance. All of us who knew him or saw his performance were enriched by magical interpretations of an inner world of spiritual beauty and truth. He was the embodiment of the transformative power of Indian classical performing arts.

The humble, slight man offstage, balding and even missing teeth, transformed into an enchanting maiden as Radha in the Geeta Govinda or the powerfully moving devotional Boatman of the Ramayana. The stage became a sacred space when he set foot upon it.

In the charged atmosphere of the Sri Sankat Mochan festival in Varanasi, Kelubabu became lost in the bhakti of Hanuman’s character. He told me, “I was so immersed in the character, I didn’t feel that I was Kelucharan Mohapatra at all. I felt that I was truly Hanuman and on stage, I actually chewed each bead from Vibhishan’s mala searching for Ram in each precious gem.”

I asked for anecdotes for my small book for Roli, ‘Kelucharan Mohapatra: The Dancing Phenomenon’ and guruji related this:

“To create a role on stage is a total involvement. Before coming to the stage, I put on my makeup and begin to focus on the role or character, salute my god and guru, and only think of what that character, whether Nayika or Hanuman or Kevat will do. I am already transformed before I enter the stage. You have to forget yourself, your own identity totally. If anything unexpected happens on stage, like the lights going off, I improvise in character.”

“In 1995, I was performing at O P Jain’s open air theatre at Sanskriti at a farewell for the French Ambassador. While I was performing Pasyati Dishi Dishi, the electricity went off. I indicated to my son Shibu to continue playing pakhawaj and I moved into the audience searching for Krishna by the light of the moon. As the Nayika Radha, or her Sakhi, I asked audience members through my dance actions if they had seen him. Still without stage lights, just like the old days without electricity, I returned to the stage and continued my search for Krishna. Through the arches at the back of the performance space, I showed the many aspects of the heroine who waits and pines for her beloved. By the time the lights came back on and I completed the performance, I had danced 1-½ hours of this single ashtapadi. Amjad Ali Khan and wife Subbhalaxmi genuinely asked if I’d composed the performance this way, but I danced from my inner feeling and continued without caring about lights or time.”

“At my performance for the Padatik, Calcutta Classical Dance and Theatre Seminar, I was performing to recorded music. I started my performance of Kevat, the Boatman from the Ramayana, but the music started wobbling. The sound system was overheated from all day use. Without stopping the dance, I explained in Abhinaya to the audience that I had to go backstage and fix the tape. I quickly changed to another cassette player and continued the dance without breaking the mood with a single word. The audience loved the classical dance explanation with mudras of technical difficulties as much as the dance.”

As a child, he snuck out of the house while his father napped to learn Gotipua dance, one of the foundations of classical Odissi still performed by pre-pubescent boys dressed as girls. He apprenticed in a theatre group, gained invaluable hands-on experience in backstage tech work, learned tabla, and performed as a child actor. He spent a frustrating year as a betel leaf cultivator, working for 5 annas a day till he got a job as a drummer with Orissa Theaters in Cuttack and eventually his previously frustrated desire to dance was discovered by Guru Pankaj Charan Das who included some dance in every theatre production. After this, there was no looking back as he embarked on a life long process exploring the “Mahari” temple dance and “Gotipua” public art traditions of Orissa, folk forms, Shastric texts, temple sculpture, and paintings with an open-minded genius for examining new material and understanding its aesthetic possibilities and dimensions.

The result was that he is both the architect of the neo-classical revival of Odissi and the guru of most of the leading exponents of this art. For years he traveled untiringly with his greatest disciple, Sanjukta Panigrahi, crossing the length and breath of India, sleeping on trains at night and performing days, to introduce the art of Odissi to the whole country, and later, to the whole world.

He had a unique ability to teach relatively large numbers of students systematically and precisely with his own creative methods that were constantly evolving. As soon as the students understood the movement, he moved on to give as much as a student could handle, sometimes even more! I recall that after his summer courses at home in Cuttack in the 70’s he would joke that the Bombay girls would run home for bhelpuri, swinging their dance music cassettes over their shoulders and forget everything! At the same time, he knew that his generosity would enable the serious ones to spread his art.

He put each of us to shame teaching the sensuous walk of Radha that no female among us could match. We looked like a row of awkward ducklings following a swan around the dance studio. Kelubabu has always taught Abhinaya by saying, “Observe and feel, don’t mimic or look in a mirror”. He stopped class in Cuttack 20 years ago to instruct students to observe my infant daughter crawling so that they could learn how to show Bal Krishna from nature. After rehearsing an expressive dance passage, he would have us falling apart with laughter as he imitated each student’s interpretation of what he had taught.

In the 70’s, I saw Kelubabu patiently paint the alta and do the makeup mixed from dry pigment for an entire dance drama. His generosity went beyond teaching technique and tradition. At my first recording session of the five items I’d learned, he included an additional seven to spare me the expense of recording when I needed them in future, trusting that I wouldn’t use them without his training. At times, he took no payment for accompanying performances when he knew I wasn’t getting expenses covered.

Kelubabu was amazing at putting things together, taking them apart, reassembling and recreating, whether cameras and tape-recorders or elements of making a dance. From the 70’s, he could do perfect music editing cuts with simple cassette recorders that now require digital studios.

Guruji’s attention to detail in the myriad aspects of his life and art is nowhere more evident than in the way he prepared pan. Since he gave up smoking over forty years ago, pan and tea became the major support system fueling his untiring stretches of creative output. From the carefully pruned leaves to the elegantly cut slivers of betel nut, the cloves and the final result, perfectly shaped cones; the entire process is an especially fine art in Guruji’s hands. This was one of so many real life elements used to convey abhinaya that Guruji modeled for all the legions of disciples who sat at his feet. His ritual of preparing pan leaves for travel abroad was amazing. Years of experimentation in the finer points of carefully layering the pan leaves between cloth and plastic ensured that his supply could last up to three weeks, without refrigeration! In 1985, I guaranteed Guruji that I would find fresh pan leaves whenever his ran out during our six week Festival of India-U.S.A tour. It finally happened in Los Angeles where I discovered a grocery store with imported pan patta grown in Hawaii. Guruji, Bhubaneswar Misra (violin) and Rakhal Mohanty (vocal) were delighted to get a substantial bag full of fresh pan leaves. However, when they learned how expensive it was, they were adamant that they could manage till the end of the tour on supari alone!

Much of the standard repertoire of modern day Odissi was created by Kelubabu with gifted music composers Balakrishna Das and Bhubaneswar Misra to assist him.

Starting from a gotipua repertoire that was stretched to last 30 minutes, Kelubabu drew on his vast knowledge of dance, traditional Oriya painting and temple sculpture, mastery of the pakhawaj, and years of theater work to create a repertoire of hundreds of solo and group choreographies for the stage.

Kelubabu has received many honors, starting from Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1966 to the M. P. Kalidas award, the Legion of Honour from France and the Padma Vibhushan.

The turning point in Guruji’s life happened while he was with the Annapurna Theater group. Sanjukta Panigrahi’ s mother saw his performance at Annapurna and approached him to teach the little Sanjukta, aged 7 or 8. The Binapani Club in Cuttack, which still exists today, held a hotly contested annual dance competition and Sanjukta won the coveted cup. The guru of a losing contestant was Banobihari Maiti, trained by Uday Shankar, who had composed a dance for Kelucharan and Laxmipriya at the Annapurna Theater. He was terribly jealous, especially after being insulted by his student’s father who demanded to know what kind of teacher he was, to teach his daughter so long and lose out to this upstart! Banobihari abused Kelucharan’ s composition calling it rubbish, not Odissi and declared that Oriyas don’t know how to dance. This was the turning point in Kelubabu’ s career.

“It got into my heart that I will do more for the dance of Orissa, learn, study, and if I’m born in Orissa and have Oriya blood, I will definitely show what Odissi is. I have always considered Banobihari Maiti to be my guru because he inspired me to dedicate myself to Odissi dance, even though he taught me in a negative way!”

Kelubabu’s enormous achievements were the result of a combination of ceaseless hard work, openness to challenges to experiment and respond to changing times, and his personal genius as an artist. His performances moved audiences to tears of wonder and joy in villages, temples and capital cities around the globe. The memory of his creativity and affection will continue to inspire and nourish. We are all fortunate that such a man touched our lives with his artistic darshan.

Sharon Lowen is a renowned Odissi dancer, trained since 1975 by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. She has performed and choreographed for film and television and presented hundreds of concerts throughout India, North America, Asia, Africa, U.K. and the Middle East. Sharon came to India in 1973 after degrees in Humanities, Fine Arts, Asian Studies and Dance from the University of Michgan as a Fulbright scholar to study Manipuri and later Chhau and Odissi. Publications include KELUCHARAN MOHAPATRA The Dancing Phenomenon, Roli Books, and Odissi by Wisdom Tree.

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