Odisha Odyssey! 
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore  
e-mail: khokar1960@gmail.com  
Photos: Arabinda Mahapatra 

February 12, 2010 

Returning to Orissa - now Odisha - after over ten years, meant re-linking with a lost past. A past, wherein I had learnt Orissi from one of its pillars (Guru Mayadhar Raut and  Aloka Panikar) and taken many travels for my father’s research work/book on Orissi and before that for INTACH, whose Chairman was our handsome PM, Rajiv Gandhi, and I, a mere cog-in-the-wheel pompously called a director, working with Martand Singh "Mapu" for 3 years in 1989-92, in charge of several projects in east and south India. One day I would be in Cochin and next in Cuttack. It was so fulfilling to see museums being built, old heritage homes being saved and eco systems being salvaged. We had many volunteers and over 150 chapters from Leh to Lakshadweep and I was "incharge" of 40 chapters in south and east India, so I loved every bit of it. India was young and we had hope and vision. Technology had not yet hit us like now and even STD phones were a luxury! Fax machines were unaffordable, costing lakhs!  I'm stating this for all youngsters who are very privileged today and have access to all gadgets and technology.  

During that period, among several projects in Orissa, was helping monitor the entire Lingaraja temple complex plan (under stalwart of the state Shri. Biju Patnaik, whose son Naveen Patnaik now ably rules the state) and later I went for dance. Before INTACH, I had worked as chief coordinator of Festival of India in Sweden and had built excellent rapport with many institutions and cultural people. The Stockholm Dance Museum, world’s first museum on dance, had a Friends of Dance club and its members were kings and queens of corporate Sweden and I took them many moons ago to show Orissa. Diva of Orissi, Sanjukta naani (as she is fondly called locally) performed for the group at Oberoi’s and I had the honour of conducting the proceedings and after the show, the same night, her husband Raghunath ji travelled with us to Kolkata by night train, where our group was going to meet Mother Theresa! -1993. 

2010: Orissa has stood in time. Nothing about the place is rushed, stressful or harsh. Except the summer and rural poverty, I’m told. The people are gentle, even if pulling each other down is a national, oops, their very regional sport (as locals joke)! and doing dance, their main pastime. 

Orissi and its outreach now parallels that of Bharatanatyam and to think that in less than 50 years this has come about, is truly amazing. I take pride that my father, late Mohan Khokar, with Charles Fabri, were the first to project and platform Orissi, as a classical form.  They wrote extensively and father’s Marg issue on Orissi, still remains the base literature.  I’m not saying it; history books record that. Ratna Roy’s recent work, Neo Classical Odissi Dance also highlights that.  
The credit for spreading Orissi nationwide and internationally, goes to the four pillars: Guru Pankaj Charan Das, the fountainhead; Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, the most prolific guru; Guru Deba Prasad Das, the most agile guru and Guru Mayadhar Raut, the most unsung hero of this foursome. 

Orissi had never left me. Born to Bharatanatyam and related to Kathak, Orissi remained my long lost cousin, a form that called for innate serenity and peace. For the last seven years, I have been busy making sense of my father’s last book - The Dance Orissi – which he left incomplete. I had to put captions to over 400 photos (chosen from over 5000 he took!); add new faces that came up on the dance scene in the last ten years; draft new productions and help give it final shape. It is now ready for press but this trip made me realize, I need to add still few more faces and names!  The elfin Aruna Mohantys and handsome Gajendra Pandas have grown up to become gurus and star-dancers of the form; the veteran gurus are mostly gone and many younger ones are now freely calling themselves gurus! To this list, add many new dancers. All males. 

For long, the great guru Kelubabu’s son, Ratikant Mohapatra, has been inviting me to Orissa for his various festivals. Ten years ago, he also wished to honour me with some award but I declined. My father had just died and I was too depressed to accept any award. For some reason, I never made it to Orissa. Either the disconnect, or the distance made it difficult. Many fine memories remained etched in my dance memory: the legendary Kelubabu dancing with my mother, Guru MK Saroja in Bangalore (Dec 30, 1998) for Pratibha Prahlad’s festival, in which Vedantam Satyanarayana joined the two and all three did Kasturi Tilakam. The impromptu item was so successful that not only it received a standing ovation (unheard of in India, especially south, ten years ago) but next day, made others assembled-in-town copy the feat, so left out they felt! Earlier, in 1995, at Delhi’s IIC, Kelubabu, MK Saroja and Birju Maharaj had been invited by Madhavi Mudgal, Leela Samson and Alarmel Valli, under the aegis of SNA, to mount a 3-day dance show-cum-seminar on how these Masters had furthered tradition. Thus, our regard for Kelubabu and his family go a long way back. This bit of history is to show how traditions have to be maintained and honour and importance be given to gurus and their families. 

It is said, one cannot visit Orissa unless Lord Jagannath calls! Finally, the Lord of Orissi called me! Kelubabu’s energetic and artistic son, Ratikant, has been organizing many special events and festivals in Orissa. Thus, his Marga Darshana festival became a special event to dovetail with this visit. The occasion for me to now revisit Orissa was also to visit a special shrine – guru Kelubabu’s home. Wanting to help augment it with materials and photos from my father’s huge collection, I wanted to see the place and feel his spirit. The Purush Festival celebrates the guru's own work and worth in supporting young talents and male dancers, forever in minority now, have got a boost at this festival. 

The next three days at the spiffy Jaydev Bhawan were fulsome; 9 male dancers of which 6 doing Orissi, one Kathak from Kolkata and two Bangalore talents doing southern forms. Orissi male dancers are few. Or are they? Looking at several gurus and their classes like Guru Gangadhar, Guru Durga Charan, Aruna Mohanty and my interactions with Guru Gajendra Panda, Guru Banamali, Guru Minati  - all made me realize that Orissi is the only form in which male dancers are trying, thriving and successfully continuing tradition.  

In a survey we did recently for attendance, we found less than 3 male soloists under 50 in Madras. About 10 in Bangalore. 3 in Delhi. Please don’t jump and say why so few? Male, soloist, under 50, who have minimum ten years dancing experience and who are not part of group or husband-wife team. Please re-read this brief. (If you have any more names, with proof of performance, age and style, please send my way so next issue can feature them). And in Mumbai the loss of Biru, who did a Purush festival ever year, can be felt. Ratikant babu dedicated his festival to the memory of Biru. A fine gesture, From Bombay to Bhubaneswar, dance connected. 

Seeing these male proponents, few core issues came through. Nearly ninety percent showcase only nritta or technique. Either abhinaya ability is minimal or gurus are not experienced or grown up enough to teach abhinaya. Even Sanjukta Panigrahi and Mayadhar Raut went to south to learn abhinaya and sancharis in Orissi was their direct gift after that stay in Madras, history tells us. Gurus, teachers, institutions need to think on this aspect of Orissi teaching and training: why is abhinaya not being taught? Why are most performances nritta heavy? 

On the opening day, Manoranjan Pradhan did exactly that and with much huffing and puffing. When a dancer, male or female, does that on stage it shows lack of stamina, lack of practice and lack of form. Besides, what’s the point to impress with two long items, both partaking mostly of technique or nritta? A great opportunity lost as the world was there. Minati Mishra, the seniormost Orissi diva from Switzerland; Guru Banamali Maharana and  Mohini Mohan Pattnaik had inaugurated the festival and many dancers - Aruna Mohanty, Sujata Mohapatra, Ratna Roy from USA - and many gurus like Gangadhar ji, Gajendra Panda and gunijans were there, in the hall. 

Manoranjan Pradhan
Panchanan Bhuyan

The Marga Darshana festival - Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Purush Dance Festival – started off with a benign talent named Panchanan Bhuyan. In his depiction, there was the quintessence innocence of the form. P Praveen Kumar next (from Bangalore), did Bharatanatyam as perfect as only he can. Neat positions, excellent deliveries and meaningful abhinaya made his presentations memorable. Why does he wear such over-sized earrings? It dominates his face. 

Some gurus are lucky to have off-springs who do justice to their name and work. Unfortunately, Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena is not so blessed with his son Rashmi, who, for years has tried to make a mark but has not made an impact on the dance scene. While he has all aspects of a form like Orissi, there is no inner grace, involvement or joy. Santosh Kumar Chatterjee’s Kathak was not fit for this festival. Neither the sub-standard soundtrack nor his limited stage appeal and tayari did any justice to be included in this festival. Ordinary layakari, tatkars and chaals made no lasting impact. A good opportunity, the lone Kathak representative in the entire festival, wasted. 

Santosh Kumar Chatterjee
Praveen Kumar
Debashish Pattnaik
Gajendra Panda
It was left to Guru Gajendra Panda to show what beauty of form, grace of Orissi and masculinity of Guru Deba Prasad style is about. One often sees either Ramli Ibrahim on world stage as representative of Guru Deba Prasad style or Durga Charan Ranbir and his students who do him proud. But to see Gajendra Panda was to see a perfect symbiosis of nritta and nritya (technique and abhinaya); lasya and tandava; aspects of gotipua’s dexterity and traits of mahari style movements, mesh meaningfully. Clearly, if there was a first prize in the festival, it would go to him.  

Debashish Pattnaik on the concluding day had the most winsome personality with a sweet, feminine smile. That is the only chink in his otherwise fine male form. The smile is too effeminate and he cannot help it, it is natural! His foundation is impeccable but then if one sees Guru Durga Charan Ranbir’s fine training, (which I had chance to see next day when I called on him to offer salutations), it comes as no surprise. Debashish is clearly a dark horse amongst male Orissi dancers and will go far if he continues to learn sincerely and perform ably.  

Guru Raj from Vyjayanti Kashi's school was an able dancer, though Kuchipudi as a form needs stamina and strength. Evidently, it was his first solo performance. His commanding stage presence and overall fine training made him a worthy talent to watch. However, academically speaking, one wonders what style of Kuchipudi and which guru Kashi is following.  

Guru Raj
Bichitrananda Swain
Guru Bichitrananda Swain is as his name says, Bichitra! The androgynous quality of dance, dominating for most part, tires after an item, as the same sthayi bhava is maintained and after a point, a lamenting sakhi becomes a torment to watch on a male body.  The face is mobile but the body is not nubile. While masters like Kelubabu or Birju bhai could do wonders with such material, lesser talents can find it difficult to go beyond the obvious inferences. Maybe here is a talent to learn abhinaya from, locally?  

The festival showed how Ratikant is secure in his art for he did not present himself! He only accompanied Bichitrananda Swain on the concluding day and the sounds of his mardala playing were heavenly. He is gifted and blessed by all gurus but mostly by his parents, whose memory he continues to serve, happily and ably. The Purush Festival is a specimen in first-rate artistically organized event, with eye on aesthetics, quality and impeccable arrangements.  Compereing by Shrinibas "Millu" was soothing and sensible. The entire festival was meticulously and selflessly managed by Ratikant babu and joining him in this task were  Debiprasad Mishra "Tikki," the ever smiling but very efficient Man Friday and Jaydev Das, the expert lightsman whose artistry enhanced all evenings. 

The Purush Festival is going to become an important platform for male dancers, in times to come. There are very few such forums.  It would be good that strict quality check is maintained so reputations are made, not lost. Orissa and Orissi are lucky to have talents like Ratikant residing there and helping promote dance. 

I came back truly fulfilled and that happens rarely!  

Reputed critic-historian-editor of attendance, Ashish Mohan Khokar takes time off from several dance-related projects ongoing in many cities, to travel and take note of  special events and festivals in India.