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Artistic pursuits and resilience in a pandemic - a virtual approach
- Prachi Trivedi
Photos courtesy: Yashaswini Raghuram

September 5, 2020

When the deadly Corona virus hit the world during early 2020 none of us were prepared to deal with the massive upheaval of our daily lives - especially the grim ramifications of the pandemic on lives of performing artistes were massive, whose entire profession depends on constant in-person interactions with live audience and with their students. As the world started to fight the virus and every profession started adapting to the "socially-distanced", virtual platforms - terms like Zoom, Google Meet, Hangouts, Skype became familiar household terms across the globe.

Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee, one of the leading disciples and a former repertory member of Srjan, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Nrityabasa, trained under the guidance of Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, had formed her reputation in imparting online education for past six years and was already ahead in this game. Aparupa had moved to the USA in 2007 and while completing her PhD at Texas A&M University, had initiated her teaching and performing career. She had by then already established herself as a brilliant soloist in India and continued the same standards in the USA. She regularly invited her gurus Ratikant Mohapatra and Sujata Mohapatra, to train herself and her students every year while they toured the USA or when she toured India.

Aparupa started teaching Odissi dance in Texas in 2007 and founded the International Institute for Culture and Performing Arts Development at A&M in 2010. After teaching and performing throughout the three Texan cities of Houston, Austin and College Station, Aparupa became the Artistic Director of the Odissi Dance Company (ODC) based in Austin, TX in 2015. As fate would have it, in February 2015, after her doctorate was complete, Aparupa had to move thousands of miles away to Fargo, North Dakota with her family. Unwilling to desert her students and devoted to her commitment towards them in Texas, Aparupa promised to continue teaching them Odissi from miles away - of course virtually - using the then popular and widely used Skype online platform.

Although skeptical of this approach, almost all of her students and their parents agreed to give the "virtual teaching" approach a try and after a few initial hiccups (technical and communicating dance through video) all students transitioned successfully to the online platform. Thus began Aparupa's and ODC's online dance teaching and learning journey, years before COVID forced thousands of performing art teachers and students to adapt to this platform.

Over the past 5 years (2015-2020), in the pre-Covid era, Aparupa conducted her weekly dance classes online successfully and continued building the ODC repertoire, developing new strategies to develop group choreography, coordination and group rehearsals online. In fact, shifting to an online platform allowed her to recruit students and dancers not just from Texas but from over the USA including Portland, Seattle, New York, Wisconsin, California etc. Her students and the ODC repertory dancers learn and practice their choreographies virtually - across states and across time zones - this means that sometimes dancers attend classes and practices at odd hours of the day or even at night. Resilience, flexibility and dedication towards the art form instilled by her in her students reflect during COVID times as well.

Participants of the workshop showcasing their art through online Guna Keertanam festival from their respective homes

Every year, Aparupa curates the popular 'Kelucharan Guna Keertanam' festival and a summer intensive, where she works in person with her students, ODC's dancers and esteemed performing artistes. The professionally trained ODC repertory has successfully performed at several shows nationally in cities across USA and at prestigious venues across India. Aparupa creates several interactive practice sessions with her assistant teachers who benefit from the experience as well. In 2020 when the pandemic jeopardized Dr. Chatterjee's plans to curate the 'Kelucharan Guna Keertanam' festival in person, she quickly transitioned to conduct the entire festival online.

To set the virtual stage, the repertory dancers of ODC, (most of whom are second generation Indian-Americans) without external professional help, themselves expanded ODC's virtual presence by designing and launching a new website (, creating social media pages, and online video platforms to promote dance education, propagation and continuation of their art.

Performances by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, Sujata Mohapatra and Rahul Acharya as a part of the Online Guest Performance series

Commissioned as part of Austin's Cultural Heritage Festival project, the 10th Kelucharan Guna Keertanam festival was conducted virtually from June 1st through July 12th, 2020. It commenced with a 10-day summer intensive followed by a 2-day festival. Day one featured performances by almost forty dancers of Aparupa's dance school (ages 3 to 45) and the Odissi Dance Company, presenting excerpts from the dance choreographies learnt online during the intensive, showing the talent and skill to grasp the art online.

On the 2nd day, Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, the director of Srjan, presented an abhinaya on 'Shabari', reflecting perfection and subtleness in beautifully expressing the longing of Shabari for Shri Rama. Sujata Mohapatra presented 'Mangalacharan,' an invocation to Lord Jagannath and Shri Ganesha and 'Durga Stuti', expressing vividly her complete devotion and expertise in imbibing bhakti. ODC's guest artiste Rahul Acharya, from Bhubaneshwar presented a splendid 'Aaravi Pallavi' choreographed by Guru Pankaj Charan Das, portraying perfect stances and movements. The project concluded with an interview conducted by Yashaswini Raghuram with Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee on her experiences with "Online Dance Education."

Interview of Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee

In the current pandemic, Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee and Odissi Dance Company have risen to the mighty challenge of preserving their artistic pursuits and adapting to the virtual platform with resilience. Their reputation of being an innovative, dedicated and a quality Odissi dance institution following the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra gharana, continues to grow not only in the USA but also worldwide.

Dr. Prachi P. Trivedi, Ph.D (Immunology) currently a research scientist at Texas A&M University and a former research fellow at Harvard University, Boston, is trained in Hindustani classical music and is an ardent follower and supporter of Indian classical music and dance in Texas.

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