A Journey of an Odissi Dancer (Part 1)

My guru moulded the various physical and mental aspects of my personality. She continually pushed me to become not just a dancer but a thinking artist and a sensitive human being as well…

Think of dance, and what comes to my mind is a powerful, non-verbal medium of communication for all liberating ideas — social, emotional, spiritual, abstract…everything. A poetically visual language that weaves thoughts through movements in space.

When I first saw my guru dance, I was struck by the beautiful world she’d transcend to. A world so personal yet performed before an audience. A world of complete surrender, joy and divine bliss. A very young me realized that the journey to this heightened dimension of consciousness would be long. My interest led me to it anyway. Today, 19 years thence, I continue with my voyage. It has been an unpredictable and ever-surprising ocean of knowledge, with no idea as yet about the destination. All I’m sure is that just like life, this process makes being a dancer truly fulfilling.

I started training at the age of seven. In Delhi. My teacher was Ranjana Gauhar, who gave me a gentle yet challenging guidance early on. She skilfully harnessed a natural love and passion I had towards dance. Like a patient sculptor, my guru moulded the various physical and mental aspects of my personality. She continually pushed me to become not just a dancer but a thinking artist and a sensitive human being as well.

With her Guru

Looking back, I see this as a highly porous phase. One where I was driven to absorb just about all the teachings I possibly could. I consider myself fortunate to find a guru who knew when to hold my hand and when to let me go. And, thus, igniting a fire of purpose and responsibility towards the magnificent art-form called Odissi.

Formative years

Growing up learning this rich and thorough dance style soon turned it into my identity, the blood in my veins and everything I viewed in the world was through the lens of a dancer. Perhaps allowing me to feel deeply and freely. Dance was a celebration of life, being aware and alive in every moment. I’d often feel that every dance style had its own personality and people would drift towards those they’d find themselves relating with.

To me, Odissi was this style. Which is why despite having experienced other forms, I was most enamored by its lyrical, graceful, sensual yet spiritual dispositions. This subtle, strong and understated form left a deep impact on me. How was it that something that seemed so smooth and simple to watch was actually pact with rigour, advanced technique and infinite layers of interpretations?

My guru introduced me from a young age of 13 to the experience of being on stage and performing at professional or formal platforms. She strongly believed in experiential learning for receptive disciples. Soon, I was fortunate enough to become a repertory member, touring and accompanying her for several prestigious festivals. Stepping into a world of the arts and its practitioners from all kinds of backgrounds and places was most enriching. They gifted me with new ideas, worldviews and opinions.

These essentially meant finding my own voice and grounding within the field. With every passing year, the rate of growth accelerated. So did the pace with which I perceived, loved and understood my dance. I’d grown up multitasking education with dance. I learned a variety of skillsets in addition to dance. For instance, Hindustani classical vocal. It enabled me to build a sound background of rhythm and melody, articulation, research, presentation, administration and even marketing. All part and parcel to being a dancer.

Ernest explorations

Soon, I began exploring the origins of Odissi. And the great contributions of the four gurus who are the pillars of this beautiful dance. Ones who enriched it with their individualistic flavours, making it the form it is today. Their disciples continue to contribute to the beauty over the years.

It pushed me to think about my own role and goals ahead as a young dancer in taking forward the vision, while also personalizing this vison; retaining the essence of the form. After all, nothing expands or grows without creativity. From finding shade and refuge under the enormous tree of Odissi, I was beginning to dream to be a branch with the motivation and love from my guru.

My training began to progress with passing years. From starting out with the basics to learning beginner’s pieces from the traditional repertoire, to soon advancing to rigorous pallavis. Perhaps during my teens, I was most challenged when my guru thought it right to start teaching me my first ashtapadi from saint-poet Jayadevas’s GeetaGovindam.

Astapadi is an integral part of the repertoire. My guru’s master, legendary Mayadhar Raut’s school of thought within Odissi is especially celebrated for its sensitive and natural rendering of abhinaya. It suits well the aesthetics of Odissi with the sanchari bhaavas (transient emotions) and rich application of hasta-mudras (hand gestures). Therefore, learning a bhaav-pradhan (abhinaya-centric) piece he choreographed and passed further down by my guru held a lot of value.

Reflecting back, I find my perception of the same piece taught then has changed over the years. Learning and unlearning with every passing year and experiencing the many infinities of pieces taught by my guru. Some of the most special moments were actually getting a chance to dance them with her in festivals honouring the guru-shishya parampara. A lot transformed over time. However, the constants were consistency and love for dance which always yielded positive results. I was shedding layers and breaking out of the cocoon just as a butterfly readies to take a flight.

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