Orissa odyssey
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
e-mail: lalvenkat@yahoo.com
Festival photos: Arbind Mahapatra

September 15, 2010

It has been more than 10 years since I last visited Orissa and that was as manager of the Arangham Dance Troupe when we performed at the Konark Dance Festival. It was all work, fighting for more rooms for our large troupe, trying to book a return ticket for a musician who in Konark, insisted on travelling back one day earlier and expected me to perform miracles (which I eventually managed to!) and a little bit of sightseeing thrown in. This time, as the guest of Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Srjan for the 16th Annual Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Award Festival, I could bask in comfort, do some sightseeing despite the scorching mid day sun and just enjoy the wonderful programs of the last 3 days of the fest.

Parasurameswar temple
Mukteswar temple
Bhubaneswar is a city of beautiful temples and no sooner had we reached our hotel than we set off to take in the beauty of the deserted, well maintained Parasurameswar temple (7th century) and the exquisite Mukteswar temple (9th c), set in sylvan green surroundings. In the latter, one should just be firm with the priests who insist on your doing special pooja inside the sanctum! On the evening of Sept 3, Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas presented 2 pieces 'Through Meera Bai' and 'Through Hazrat Amir Khusrau' that were hailed as innovative, yet traditional! This was followed by a flute recital by GS Rajan. The haunting strains of Rajan's flute had the audience asking for more!
Aditi Mangaldas
GS Rajan
Early in the morning of Sept 4, we left for Konark to see the majestic 13th century Sun Temple, about 90 minutes away. It is built in the shape of a chariot, but each time I visit this temple, it is sadly more dilapidated and the carvings more eroded (Supposed to have had around 4000 erotic carvings but quite a lot of them have been eroded!). The first hour was pleasant enough and then the sun blazed with such a vengeance, but we were lost in the beauty of the sumptuous sculptures, despite being scorched and almost having sunstroke! We cooled down a bit after having some coconut water and taking in the pleasant breeze at the Chandrabagha beach a few minutes away, watching the fishermen coming in with their catch.
Konark Sun temple
Konark Sun temple
Konark Natya Mandap
Munna and the boys doing Surya puja
Bandha Nritya
Bandha Nritya
Our next stop was the Konark Natya Mandap of Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. The Guru's wife and nephew Munna welcomed us warmly and after we had some fruits, showed us around the Gurukul. There were 8 young boys, freshers who are learning Bandha Nritya there as part of the Gurukul project, the rest having gone to Kerala for performances. It was heartening to note that the Bandha Nritya troupe of boys aged 6 to 16, have a full calendar up to February 2011. A couple of the boys did a little demonstration for us after doing Surya Puja, that they all have to do thrice a day, at 5.30am, 12 noon and 5.30pm. The Gurukul has dance halls, staying quarters for the children, rooms for guests, a library, and its own kitchen garden and cows too. The Gurukul complex gate opens out into an open air seating space, the stage is inspired by the Sun temple pagoda and this is where the annual Konark Dance and Music Festival (different from the Govt run fest) has been taking place for the past 7 to 8 years. This festival has been running for 25 years and Guruji's son Shibashish Pradhan, whom I met later in Bhubaneswar, spoke fondly of supporting his father's vision through ("My father's life has been one of constant struggle.") and to continue with his work of giving life to the dying art forms of Orissa. This means more work with the rural people and regular workshops are conducted with gurus of these dance and music forms. After a wonderful lunch, we took leave and stopped at Dhauli with its Buddhist links, to see the Shanti stupa, and Asoka's edict that dates back to 270BC. Above the edict emerges the forepart of a little elephant that is one of the oldest carvings in India.

It was a lovely evening of dance and music at the Rabindra Mandap. Astad Deboo performing for the first time in Bhubaneswar, chose 3 items titled 'Aahavan,' 'Stepping Out' and 'Every fragment of dust is awakened' that is an extract from a longer version based on Rabindranath Tagore's poetry. In the last item, Astad actually performed a mind boggling 321 chakkars! The lady sitting next to me was transfixed. She snapped out of her trance when I asked her if she liked it. "It's extraordinary! We in Bhubaneswar are lucky to see such a performance! It's like dance meditation. So magnetic, especially the whirling dervish technique. It is wonderful that he started in tradition and developed his own expressions of dance vocabulary." She was artist Doreen Schnürr, who grew up in Orissa but has returned after 42 years in Germany, and loving it! "Europe is boring, it's a lateral society. Here it is a vertical society. I'm now in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time and couldn't be happier!"

Astad Deboo
Mahesh Vinayakram & Pt Vikku Vinayakram
The dance program was followed by Pt Vikku Vinayakram on the ghatam, his son Mahesh on vocal and the rest of his troupe. They presented songs on Shiva and Chandrashekara swamigal. The atmosphere permeated with the devotion in the music. Towards the end of the recital, Pt. Vinayakram involved the audience in keeping the beat and the audience rose to the occasion with great enthusiasm. It was the first time the group was performing in Bhubaneswar and Mahesh was very thrilled with the experience. "I have worked with so many different musicians and performed in so many places all over the world, but this one is very special for me as I performed my father's compositions with my father. The audience participation was amazing and it was great to see them all stay till the end of the show though it is already 10pm! This is my first trip to Orissa and I am so amazed to see the people here retain their culture, especially the way they greet with a namasthe."
Lingaraja temple
Raja Rani temple
Udayagiri Hill
Wall art in Bhubaneswar
Sept 5 saw us visit the Lingaraja temple first thing in the morning. Cell phones and cameras (as well as non-Hindus) are not allowed inside the temple. It was nice to hear MS Subbulakshmi's suprabatham playing softly on the speakers! There is a platform outside the temple from where we get a good view of the temple complex. One can take photographs from here. After that, it was a climb up the well maintained caves at Udayagiri, weaving in and out of the cells used long ago by Jain ascetics. There were a lot of langurs here amidst the wooded area and it was interesting to watch their almost human behavior! Across the road, Khandagiri was not very clean and the caves there were all messed up with graffiti and trash. What a contrast! The 11th century Raja Rani temple is set in lush green lawns and we also managed to see the Brahmeswara temple. All these temples have a wealth of exquisite, delicate carvings, especially sculptures of dancers and musicians, and are a photographer's delight.
Preetisha, Naveen Patnaik (Chief Minister of Orissa) and Guru Ratikant Mohapatra
The program that evening started with a formal function that had an introduction by Ratikant's poised and confident 11 year old daughter Preetisha, clad in a sari, her choice of garment for the evening! Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik honored musician Prof. Mohini Mohan Patnaik and costume designer Bhagirathi Das with the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Award for 2010. It was noteworthy that everybody kept their speeches short. The dance program Tantra was presented to recorded music by artistes of Srjan with choreography by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra. It was rather interesting because the costumes had borders that glowed in the dark and the graceful movements of Odissi made for some interesting visuals. Instead of the guest appearance, it would have been nice to see Sujata Mohapatra perform more in this production. The grand finale was a violin concert by Dr. L Subramaniam, who was accompanied that evening by his son Ambi. The maestro recalled that he had been honored to have once shared the platform with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.
'Tantra' presented by Srjan troupe
Dr. L Subramaniam & Ambi Subramaniam
Lighting was very good for the dance programs, but if the hall lights had been dimmed for the music concerts, it would have added to the atmosphere. It must be mentioned that the highly appreciative audience stayed on every evening till the end of the program at nearly 10pm, much to the surprise of us folks from Chennai who see a stream of steady walkouts from 8pm onwards! Also, all the artistes were given a standing ovation. Srinivas Gatwari was a good compere with his brief introductions and smiling countenance. I actually started understanding a bit of Oriya!

The chief guests of each evening spoke a few words about the festival. To sum up their words, with his pioneering work, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra put Bhubaneswar on the world map. The Oriya people are used to watching music and dance only on television but with a landmark festival such as this, the people of Bhubaneswar are now able to enjoy performances by great artistes in person. Headed by Ratikant babu's right hand man Deviprasad Misra, a team of dedicated volunteers including a student of Jhelum Paranjape, who had come all the way from Mumbai, helped ensure smooth running of the festival.

Finally, about the man behind the festival, Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, an incredibly gracious host, who did not perform but stuck to playing host and director of the festival. We are generally used to seeing the volunteers do the major work, but Ratikant babu was everywhere, personally meeting guests at the airport, calling them up morning and evening to ensure that all was well, greeting guests at the venue entrance, coordinating with the lights and sound technicians, up on the stage honoring the artistes... Not once did one see him ruffled, or impatient. I mentioned this to Sujata Mohapatra, who travelled back with us on the way to Kerala for a performance. "These are the values taught to us by Guruji. We must honor our guests. Guruji himself never hesitated to sweep and clean up a room if a guest was expected. He was such a humble person."

As she was sniffing with a cold, I asked her how she would manage the performance in Kerala. "If ever I feel tired with jet lag or am feeling unwell before a performance, I remember Guruji. I know he's up there watching and immediately I feel fresh energy surge in me that carries me through the performance. I cannot let him down with a shoddy performance. Guruji's choreography is in my body. It gels with me. It is my duty to present his choreographies to the world, in its pristine purity." In whatever she said, devotion to her guru was paramount.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of www.narthaki.com