Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his Odissi

Yesterday, as part of India International Centre's annual festival, we watched Madhavi Mudgal in a beautiful Odissi (a classical dance originating in the eastern state of Orissa) performance. We sat outdoors, watched over by a benign sky and even the trees and bamboo clumps stood silent and alert - in admiration perhaps of this beautiful dance form that remains now eternally linked to the memory of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

Kelucharan Mohapatra was fascinated by rhythm and movement from an early age despite the family disapproval that followed. As a child he was drawn to and subsequently immersed in folk theatre, this included various aspects that were to help him later in his choreography and composition - back stage work, percussion, dance, drama and more. Working with different companies (one of these led to a meeting with a highly talented dancer whom he married), learning expression skills from a range of teachers of music and dance and researching traditional dance forms, he finally came up with his own way of expressing this classical dance, in the early fifties. At that time, Odissi was unknown outside Orissa and even within the state, it lay very much alive but somewhat somnolent, awaiting people such as Kelucharan to arouse it and renew it so it could move forward and spread outward.

And Kelucharan Mohapatra obliged, with all the love and devotion that is so much a part of his dance form. Almost every well known Odissi dancer today has a link of some sort to his style or compositions. His compositions were exquisite - several being designed with a specific student in mind. A master of rhythm and expression, his pieces (composed to abstract rhythm, medieval songs or classic mythological poems) looked as though dancers had stepped off the walls of the beauteous Orissa temples or had been recreated from images and descriptions found in old texts.

Madhavi is one of his many gifted students and she spoke briefly on his style and teaching - how he emphasized continuity in movement and expression to lead the viewer into a particular state of mind or experience. She showed us a range of compositions, some solos and several adapted by her to include one or more dancers. It was a wonderful experience though I always feel that none of the students is quite like the master himself (and understandably so). I feel irresistibly drawn to Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's performances (though I could never watch him live, he died in 2004 at the age of seventy eight). For his own dances he is simply attired, there is a bare stage and the music is minimal but very striking. And then, he brings to life characters and emotions in a joyous, free flowing manner that remains with one long after the dance is over. I also feel that his ability to express both masculine and feminine forms was amazing, something I have not seen in any of his students, who are often more skilled in the feminine aspects.

I attach below a link to one of his performances - an excerpt from Gita Govinda (a 12th century poem that was written in Orissa). This is an unusual piece of work, describing Krishna's overwhelming love for Radha. The poem reminds us from time to time of Krishna's divinity but the lyrics are highly sensuous. In the excerpt shown here, Krishna is anxiously awaiting Radha, who has been avoiding him. He is temporarily in disgrace for having neglected her in favour of other frolicking village maidens! We know that this is no ordinary love, a divine element is at work here and Kelucharan Mohapatra is able to convey a human anguish keeping in mind what lurks beneath. It is also interesting to watch this because often classical dance scenes portray distressed maidens awaiting their lovers; here the situation is reversed. The words are addressed to Radha by her friend (Krishna's messenger), describing Krishna's desperate wait for her and advising her to remove her anklets and adornments and to silently rush to him.

I also add a link to a performance by Madhavi and her students, just to show the difference in style and the range of forms created in this dance.

Why does Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's dancing haunt me so? I think it is because it emanates from his very being. He had said once, "The real dance must convey the feeling of undivided existence, that a spectator can feel that he is not different from the thing observed."

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