For the love of Odissi

Dance dynamic

It was while watching a performance by doyen Sanjukta Panigrahi that Rajib Bhattacharya knew that Odissi was what he was meant for.

“I loved dancing from my young age and had trained in classical dancing, but was yet to decide which path to follow. After watching Panigrahiji perform, I decided my calling. Until then I didn’t know much about Odissi.”

Based in Kolkata, today Rajib is a well-known Odissi dance exponent and has his own dance troupe Srijan Chhanda. His family is ‘musical’, as he says, and he was exposed to vocal music from a young age at home. But he loved dancing and after his school final exam he started learning dance earnestly in 1989. Tutelage under Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Art and Guru Thankamani Kutty honed his skill. Rajib then joined a workshop under the well-known Padatik Dance Centre. “There I came across danseuse Sharmila Biswas. She was my first teacher in Odissi. She encouraged me tremendously,” he says. The hard work paid off and he received a Government of India scholarship under the ministry of culture. Rajib did post-graduation in Odissi at the Rabindra Bharati University. He is also an ‘A’ Grade artiste with Doordarshan. 

Many inspirations

Coming across Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, who had revived Odissi dance and singularly established its place in Indian classical dance repertoire, was fortuitous for Bhattacharya. “He readily accepted me as a disciple. My training at his academy in Bhubaneswar has shaped my career as an Odissi dancer,” he says. 

Bhattacharya now trains with Ratikant Mohapatra, who is carrying on the baton after the demise of his father, and assists him at Srjan, the Kolkata chapter of the Kelucharan Mohapatra Nrityabasa centre. Additionally, he teaches at Devi Pratidhwani, classical singer Guru Girija Devi’s institution in Kolkata.

Rajib has many fond memories of training under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. “I learnt that in the Indian tradition of guru-sishya parampara, you have to do everything. We lived in guruji’s teaching centre and led a simple life. We did everything ourselves, did our own washing, etc. This instilled a certain kind of discipline which is important in any kind of serious learning,” he says.

Talking about his guru, Bhattacharya reminisces, “In his own way, he was modern. He questioned all the time and put new ideas in our head to introspect. For example, he wondered aloud to us, ‘Is the earthen lamp’s light brighter because there is darkness underneath? Could the light be so prominent if there were no darkness?’ etc.

 He was always observing things around him — movement of human beings, animals, etc so his depiction of the characters were perfect. In the gotipua tradition of Odissi dance, where male dancers play the female characters too, it is difficult but necessary to bring in the abhinaya as a sakhi, woman. But when Guruji danced, despite his age, he never looked out of place you could feel his understanding of the womanly expression; it was amazing,” Rajib recalls.

His guru’s footsteps

In Odissi the torso movement with the supple footwork and the tribhanga pose are signature postures. “With due respect to exponents of this dance form,” Rajib says, “I’ve never seen such perfection as in guruji’s depiction. His depiction of Geet-Govindam, ably accompanied by musicians Bhubaneswar Misra and Raghunath Panigrahi, was peerless, to say the least.” 

He also feels that though the training helps, a dancer who excels has a ‘God-gifted’ quality. 

As a student  of Odissi, Rajib found that it was necessary to learn the Oriya language to fathom the nuances of expression, and also authentically put across the characters. So he learnt the language. “The understanding of literature, knowledge of mythology from which most Indian classical dance forms draw from, are necessary if a dancer strives to attain perfection,” Rajib says. 

Perhaps such teaching and close association with teachers like Mohapatra has made students like Bhattacharya strive for more. He rues the fact that students nowadays do not have the patience to learn and wait. Performing on the stage becomes the principal aim. “Unfortunately, many parents think the same way too,” he says.

There is also a trend these days of combining different forms of dance in a jugalbandhi for stage performances. What is his opinion about it? “I don’t have any problem with that, but I am cautious too. The dancers must understand the nuances and rhythm of both forms to combine harmoniously. I am sorry to say, but sometimes even the dancer doesn’t understand the core a dance form he or she is performing. So, how can he or she bring out the best in both?” he explains. 

Another aspect that pains Rajib is that some art critics write without bothering to probe a performance a little more, the thoughts behind it, and even the innovation tried. “These critics don’t realise that with a stroke of a pen they can destroy a dancer’s reputation or negate all the hardwork. Criticism is good, but destructive criticism hurts. It’s not my own opinion alone; lots of my fellow artistes also feel the same.”

Meanwhile, Rajib has performed extensively at home and abroad. He is also an examiner at Rabindra Bharati University. But he still feels like a student. “There’s no end to learning. With my current guru Ratikantji too I’m learning something new all the time. If you feel that you know enough, your growth stops,” he believes. 

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