Jumbled thoughts on Odissi International
- Ranjana Dave
e-mail: ranjanadave1988@gmail.com
Photos: Odissi International

January 27, 2011

It is a weekend; the dusty corridors of Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya are desolate and uninviting. But the drab make-up room, almost a block of concrete, buzzes with life and energy. A steady stream of people, bejewelled and shorn, make their way in and out. Bengapatias jingle and ghunghroos tinkle. Odissi International seems prolific in the profusion of dancers it brings together. They are everywhere - getting ready in the room behind the stage, waiting in the wings, sharing a cup of tea with friends outside the auditorium and watching others perform even as they await their turn on stage.

Spread over five days, with over a hundred performances by dancers from India and overseas, the festival has brought together young dancers who are taking baby steps towards turning professional and the ones at the top, who have established themselves through their consistent performances. In the winter months, Orissa comes alive with music and dance. Festivals are organised at many heritage venues and prominent city auditoria are booked to capacity, hosting multiple festivals in the same month. The state-sponsored National Festival of Odissi might also offer a panoramic view of the Odissi spectrum, but people felt the need for a festival that brings together dancers at varying stages of their career in more egalitarian ways.

It is heartening to see that the biggest crowd pullers were promising young dancers. The afternoon slots are reserved for rank amateurs, followed by emerging dancers in the evening and senior performers after 8 or 9pm. In the words of Shyamhari Chakra, a key festival organiser, "We are eager to watch performances by the likes of Sujata Mohapatra and Sonal Mansingh, but we are also very curious about the generation that is going to dominate world stages in years to come."

And he has been proved right. The crowds spilled over into the foyer when Lingaraj Pradhan, Rajashri Praharaj, Kaustavi Sarkar, Pravat Kumar Swain and others delivered skilled performances on Sunday, December 19, 2010, the second day of the festival. Almost everyone I ran into was very happy with the way the festival was shaping up; everyone had one grouse though - the 200-seater mini-auditorium at Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya was not large enough for all the rasikas who turned up.

The first day's proceedings began with the inauguration of the festival by many people who have contributed to Odissi in different ways. Among them were Laxmipriya Mohapatra, Sunil Kothari, Minati Mishra and Ramahari Das. This was then followed by the release of the Odissi Annual, a yearly publication that aims to document the developments in Odissi dance. Preetisha Mohapatra, granddaughter of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, opened the festival with a mangalacharan, Namami, and her father Ratikant Mohapatra's composition Megh Pallavi. Tall for her age, Preetisha resembles her mother Sujata Mohapatra in many ways. She was a confident dancer and shows great promise.

Writing a festival report is an exhilarating yet challenging task. At a festival of this magnitude, it is hard to keep track of everyone and reflect sensibly on all the performances one has watched. Listing out the names of those who danced merely amounts to a second, very pointless schedule. At the same time, I found that what one has noted of individual technique seems trivial and petty while trying to describe the distinct effects of a hundred dancers who may have flitted past in a five-day festival.

But what an open festival of this scale does facilitate is a bird's eye view of the directions a dance has taken and the trends that inspire these routes. Odissi is constantly spreading its wings. The largest number of participants came from Bhubaneswar and surrounding areas; among them were several accomplished foreign students who are in the city for dance lessons. There were dancers from other cities in India, including a sizeable number from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. Also, there were dancers from South-East Asia, Europe and USA.

For many dancers who visited Orissa for the first time, the variety of artistic styles within the same form was a revelation. The dancers from Bangladesh, who otherwise specialise in the folk dances of their region, were used to learning pieces of dance as performance-oriented segments, perhaps travelling between different body vocabularies within the same performance. Coming to the festival exposed them to the idea of focusing on a single dance form and undertaking years of dedicated study in one style.

The second day began early with a yoga therapy workshop facilitated by Cain and Revital Carroll. They led around twenty to twenty-five dancers through a series of postures and techniques designed to loosen the joints and prepare all the body parts that are used in Odissi dance. The workshop was useful because many dancers undermine the importance of a good warm-up before rehearsals or performances - it was heartening to see a great number of dancers warming up backstage during the festival, a sign that things are changing.

From the second day, the organisers also set up a small stall selling the annual magazine released at the festival and a few other books. Shyamhari Chakra displayed books on Odissi from his personal collection, which he loans out through a library service set up at the Orissa Modern Art Gallery in Bhubaneswar. The festival had aimed to have stalls selling Odissi paraphernalia, books and CDs, but this was definitely a good start.

With the festival set to shift to Rabindra Mandap next year, one hopes this could mean a greater range of activities - perhaps screenings of dance films and other archival material might be made a reality. While the ridiculous strictures on photography and video recording during Chennai's December Music Season leave me bewildered, Orissa is another extreme, where people with cameras seem to think they are in possession of a third eye (and a transparent body) that gives them the right to conduct parallel dance performances in front of the stage. Sometimes, in a moment of sheer schadenfreude, I wish that some famously temperamental dance and theatre performers might deign to grace unruly stages and tame noisy and undisciplined audiences with tantrums, wit, threats or whatever it takes.

Veteran dancer Minati Mishra, who is based in Switzerland, performed on the last day of the festival. She chose the ashtapadi yahi madhava, transporting the spellbound audience to an Odissi set in another age. Her second piece, inspired by yoga, in which she executed deep chowka bends not expected of her at that advanced age, completed the spell, moving the audience to tears even as they watched a visibly moved dancer express her love for the form. She received a standing ovation, the audience applauding wildly as she struggled to keep her voice even.

For more photos view the slide show

Ranjana Dave is a writer, dancer and researcher based in Mumbai. She has completed an MA in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.