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Moksha through Odissi

From the epics to modern times, the world of women faces the same turmoil, as Odissi exponent Ranjana Gauhar explored in Tejasa. The story of four women from Ramayana—Sita, Kaikeyi, Surapnakha, Mandodari—Tejasa blended a woman’s many moods and expressions. The dance drama incorporated four styles—Ranjana Gauhar moved through Sita’s emotions in Odissi, Uma Dogra as Kaikeyi performed Kathak, Gopika Varma dancing Mohiniyattam as Surpankha was enchanting and Deepika Reddy as Mandodari expressed herself through Kuchipudi. Tejasa focussed on the inner light of every woman and the light could be seen through her varied emotions, the conflict, the simple pleasures, the compulsions. The magical flavour was the contemporary script which was a blend of Sanskrit, English and Hindi.

Gauhar recounts, “My love affair with Odissi started in my teens and has been getting stronger over the years.” Odissi in her soul, she is also a choreographer, writer, filmmaker and guru. She was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2003 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2007.

Excerpts from her conversation with Ambica Gulati:

What is Tejasa and why Tejasa?
I cannot express my madness about dance and Odissi. In the ocean called Odissi, there is so much depth; I don’t know what treasure to take out every time I take a dip in it. Fusions are powerful and show different dance forms. Tejasa is a woman’s journey, her inner journey. Emotions are varied, so different dance forms have brought about different journeys. Women face so much trauma and their needs have not been looked into. Tejasa is an attempt to showcase the woman’s inner being which she hides.

What is the most exciting aspect of fusions?
Everything. The script, choosing the characters, deciding the dance styles, background, music. And the overall energy fusions bring, the electric ambience.

Fusion or solo?
Solo performances show the talent, fusions are a blend. There has to be a balance.

You started dancing in your teens. But is there any ideal age to begin dancing?
My students begin from the age of five! And by the age of 16 they are proficient dancers. They have performed on stage and travelled abroad for festivals. It takes at least five to seven years to learn a dance form, but to be proficient you need 10-12 years. Like any vidya it takes time to assimilate.

Please tell us about your students.
I have been teaching for the last 27 years. My society, Utsav Educational & Cultural Society, aims to enrich the cultural heritage of India. We have 35 students and the youngest is five years old. We hold regular festivals–Unbound Beats of India, Sare Jahan Se Accha, Kalingotsav. We invite artistes from abroad to perform along with my students. We have worked on different aspects such as training, workshops, lecture-demonstrations, participation in performances and festivals in India and abroad.

How is Odissi different from other dance forms? Is it as well known as Kathak and Bharata Natyam?
All dance forms originate from the same classical text—Natya Shastra. The difference lies in the technique, grammar, use of the body and there is a special quality of each form. Kathak and Bharata Natyam in their present forms reached the people before Odissi. These were beautifully preserved by the tawaifs and gained popularity through movies and stage performances during the 19th century.

I would say that Odissi in its current avatar is just a little over 50 years old. The seeds for this were sown by legendary gurus such as late Kelucharana Mohapatra, my guru Padma Shri Mayadhar Raut.

Odissi is one of the complete art forms. It follows the tradition of the Mahari dance coming from the devdasi tradition. Then Gotipua came into being in which little boys, from 5-15 years were trained when Mahari started declining. The form would have been lost if some gurus had not worked hard to create a community of dancers. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu played a major role in this. The strong foundation for Odissi comes from Raas, Mahari, Gotipua. Geet Govind, the love theme of Radha-Krishna, is an important part of Odissi.

Would you say Odissi is a young dance form?
Yes. It has picked up all over the world. I have travelled a lot and I see foreigners learning it. My first performance abroad was to Tunisia and it was like Jangpura to Chandni chowk (she laughs). But over the years I have performed in festivals and done stage performances in many countries such as Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, UK, Germany, France, and Poland.

And what about your extensions—filmmaking, script writing…
It’s all in the soul. Odissi is my path to moksha. It is like a flood and the water just keep pouring out.

How did your journey begin?
From childhood, I had an inclination to dance. My feet would tap when the music began. There was no television. But my father used to play the harmonium and sing. Every Sunday, in our ancestral home in Jangpura Extension, Delhi, the family would hold a mehfil. He used to play the harmonium like the piano, with both hands.

Was your father a trained musician?
Harmonium was his hobby. He was a trader. My grandparents came from Pakistan. My father belonged to Multan and mother to Peshawar. My father was very fond of writing and was an expert in Persian, Arabic, Urdu. Besides the harmonium, he would play the banjo, a rare instrument and I don’t even see it anywhere nowadays.

Seeing my interest in dance, my father organised a kathak teacher for me. He was an elderly panditji, a simple man who would put a tilak and wear a Gandhi topi. I learned with him till the age of 15-16.

Then how did you get to know about Odissi?
After that I started learning under Dr Maya Rao who has trained under the legendary Shambhu Maharaj. But I had not seen Odissi till then. I used to go with Maya didi for performances. And during one of these, I saw Odissi and I was just awed by it. It haunted me. I was 16 or 17 years old and I knew that Odissi was what I was looking for. I left Kathak and didn’t dance for three years as I couldn’t find a teacher.

I was also pursuing my graduation. I was also good in painting. But my father wanted me to do a degree course and not diploma. In those days, for fine arts you were given a diploma and not a degree.

So no Kathak, no dance, how did you finally bring Odissi into your life?
On my 18th birthday, I became an independent person as my father gifted me a car. So I joined Triveni Kala Sangam and started learning Odissi there. But I always felt that the Odissi I had seen and the Odissi I was learning was not the same. So one fine day, I stopped learning it there. Then a friend’s mother advised that I learn it in Orissa under the renowned late Kelucharan Mohapatra. But my father did not allow this. I cried, pleaded but my father would not let me leave Delhi. He wanted to get me married. But I was a woman possessed with Odissi, I did not agree to marriage and started working. A year passed in this tussle.

One day, an Argentinian friend of mine, Martha, said that she had found someone who could teach me Odissi. We went to see a performance at the India International Centre by Aloka Panikar and I knew I wanted to be taught by the same guru.

There is a Jagannath temple in Hauz Khas where Guru Mayadhar Raut would teach. It was a small temple then and he would come for a few hours in the evening. It was a completely divine experience dancing in front of Lord Jagannath’s idol. Odissi has come out of the temples. And my soul was reliving that awesome experience.

Then I came to know that guruji was teaching at Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. My hunger for Odissi was just growing stronger and I would practice for eight hours. I started going to Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra also. I even trained under his senior student, Aloka Panikar.

Where did the stage performance begin?
In those days Bharatiya Kala Kendra used run an auditorium behind Kamani, known as Jhankar. And Sita Travels would get foreigners there. We used would get a small stipend. But I had a good job at the American Institute of Indian Cultural Studies. So I could devote myself to the dance as I was financially comfortable. From there we performed in Ashoka theatre and then tours with ICCR and other organisations began.

How are classical dance performances faring now that commercial forms such as jazz, salsa are more popular?
There is no comparison. Classical dance forms are the art of a chosen few.




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