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What is a story?
Importance of drama in dance
- Ratikant Mohapatra, Bhubaneswar

Scene from Bhaja Govindam Photo: Arvind Mahapatra
November 8, 2010

Ratikant Mohapatra presented this paper for the seminar and panel discussion in San Francisco for the Traditions Engaged festival in Oct 2010.

It is difficult to state which came first - drama or dance. The known history of dance effectively begins with Bharat Muni's venerable master work the Natyashastra. Literally translated as the 'scripture of dance,' interestingly, the book has also been referred to as the 'science of drama.' Humbly, I take my cue from Bharat Muni himself; in my understanding, drama and dance are inseparable and have been so from very early times. While in primitive human societies singing and dancing was a spontaneous expression of a community's joy and enthusiasm, various cave etchings depict the use of dramatic expression from prehistoric times hunting scenes, battles etc. In India, dramatic expression can be traced back to the Rig Veda and that was as early as the second millennium before Christ and possibly even earlier. For me, the question of which came first- the chicken or the egg - does not apply! Both dance and drama are equally important aspects of human life and both come forth as very natural outpouring of human emotion. Both are intertwined, have been thus intertwined down the ages, and the essential elements of one increases the effectiveness of the other.

In traditional Odissi dance, there is indeed the Pallavi item which has been designated as Nritta or pure dance. Personally speaking, I have perceived a small element of drama even in this pure dance item. For me, the hint of a small smile playing on the face of an inspired dancer speaks volumes of her enjoyment (and I am not excluding the male dancer in this statement) as she executes the precise and difficult passages of rhythm and movement with practiced ease. I see human emotion come through and for me this is a small and beautiful moment of drama.
Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Kewat Prasang
Photo: Abdul Khandwani
Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Oriya abhinaya - Ahe neela shaila
Photo: Avinash Pasricha

Until the arrival of political Independence in India, that is the 1950's, Indian drama has predominantly used mythological and historical themes as the dramatic plot lines. This has exactly been the content of the work of the old dance choreographers who were then known as dance composers. I am obviously referring to theatre, not film. Small dance passages were cleverly woven into the structure of a mythological play which would have its source in the Mahabharata, Ramayana and even the Puranic texts. As in other forms of Indian classical dance, this has also been true of Odissi dance, the context in which I live and work.

Let me quote the celebrated Dr. Kapila Vatsayan here. "Odissi may well claim to be the earliest classical Indian dance style on the basis of archaeological evidence, the most outstanding being the Rani Gumpha caves of the second century BC in Orissa. Scholars have dated these caves and their carvings to be earlier than the writing of the Natyashastra. While there may be some questions about the date of the caves, certainly the reliefs include the first finished example of a dance scene with full orchestration. Whatever may have been the dance style prevalent at that time, it is obvious that the traditions codified in the Natyashastra took cognizance of the particular regional style known in eastern India. The Natyashastra speaks of regional varieties, one amongst these in the eastern-southern style known as the Odhra Magadha style which can be identified as the earliest precursor of the present Odissi."
Ratikant Mohapatra as Arjuna &
Sujata Mohapatra as Krishna in Bhagavat Geeta
Photo: Srjan's Archives
Ratikant Mohapatra as Jatayu &
Rahul Acharya as Rama
Photo: Ananda Chanda

My father and teacher, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra belongs to the old tradition of the classical Odissi dance and drew vital inspiration from the professional theatre which sustained him in his youth. Very often and over three decades, he has held audiences spellbound with his simultaneous enactment of Krishna and Radha, quickly alternating between the seemingly opposite roles of the male and the female. As many of his senior disciples (who are in their sixties now) would tell you, he did this very convincingly. While the face expressed an amazing range of emotions, the feet continued to move to the exact beat of the Odissi Mardala. The line between drama and dance was blurred, if not non-existent. Seeing him dance was a magical experience to me as a boy, and this magic, this virtual 'unreality,' continued till his last performance a couple of months before his death. It is important to understand that in those days, professional theatre presented mostly mythological and historical themes, with an occasional foray into social themes on subjects or on prominent personalities of contemporary times. There was nothing called 'abstract' theatre.

What I have learnt at the feet of this great master is to tell a story clearly, to convey to the audience the important elements of his choreography and my choreography. Guruji was blessed in many ways. He combined in himself the skills of a dancer, choreographer and a percussionist a range of skills each with its own degree of difficulty in the oral tradition that we have come from. I consider myself blessed since I have also been trained in these skills. It has not been necessary to make any radical departures from the Odissi tradition of my Guruji's time. What I have tried to do is to convey the essence of my composition lucidly to my audience. Whatever be the theme of choreograph, my presentation begins with a synopsis the story is narrated in English or the relevant language and where the composition is not story based but it is actually based on an idea or a philosophical subject, such as in my choreographs titled 'Allah', 'Bhaja Govindam', 'Om', 'Mrutyu', 'Tantra' etc., there is no need for the audience to grope in the dark! I have found that the narration also creates an atmosphere, a tone a sense of expectation in the audience. Time and again, my reward has been that both the critics and the audience have been found to pay undivided attention right from the start of the show. This obvious dramatic device has been very useful in retaining the attention of the audience throughout. And I am quite happy to use it time and again. Even some prominent critics, who by nature are difficult people to please, have welcomed the idea of a synopsis or narration.
Ratikant Mohapatra as Ravana &
Bijaylaxmi Satapathy as Sita in Jatayu Mokshya
Photo: Arvind Mahapatra
Ratikant Mohapatra as Hanuman &
Rajashri Praharaj as Sita in Chudamani Pradan
Photo: Avinash Pasricha

It is always tricky to address the question of a dance critic's function, his/her competence and most importantly, the critic's exact role vis a vis classical dance and other traditional art forms. The critic has to have a solid understanding of the art form that he chooses to comment upon. I use the word art form to include the classicism of its music and its percussion, the typical traditional costume and jewellery, and a necessary familiarity with the various styles or gharanas existing concurrently within a single classical art form. Even more important is the critic's love for and empathy with the subject of his choice. It is always a tough and demanding role for a single individual to play. This is as true of classical Odissi as of Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kathak and all other forms of classical or neo classical dance. This is essentially what distinguishes a critic from a newspaper reporter of cultural events. Reporters may come and go but a knowledgeable critic's lifetime labour has the power to influence an entire generation's understanding and appreciation of the classical legacy of a community. A good example of this is the venerated Subbudu who, for decades, wrote on classical dance and music for the Hindu newspaper.
Scene from Mrutyu
Photo: Arvind Mahapatra
Scene from Geeta Govinda
Photo: Arvind Mahapatra

The critic's output becomes enriched if he tries to get into the mind of a choreographer. This is especially true of classical dance. For example, if I use a dramatic device to enhance the story telling ability of a classical composition, the critic must not see it merely as a radical departure from classicism. The critic must assess the utility of this particular device and also determine whether it supported the theme or disrupted it! In my own limited experience as reviewer of Odissi dance and in my work as a teacher and composer, I have learnt that while abhinaya can be taught, and taught effectively, such a skill which is obviously dramatic in nature, just cannot be injected into a dancer. Wonderful abhinaya pieces spring from the dancer's own emotion, from the dancer's own life experiences. At best, the Guru can only polish and refine the dancer's expressiveness. Here I would like to share with you a very important part of my own learning and experience. Dramatic stylisation used by classical Odissi Gurus has successfully employed to great advantage, the good solo dancers' facial mobility and the use of the face to portray any number of expressions. An example of this is Guruji's startling ability to show an unbelievable range of expressions.

As members of the discussion panel, we have been presented with a large and interesting canvas to explore ideas, subjects and questions relevant to classical presentation in contemporary times. I have restricted myself to my own experience as a teacher and performer.

Guru Ratikant Mohapatra is the Director of Srjan (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Odissi Nrityabasa) in Bhubaneswar.