Madhusmita on Odissi: Past, Present & Future

Photo of Dimple Apa

Photo Courtesy: TBA

We are delighted to have had the opportunity to sit down with Smt. Madhusmita Mohanty, recipient of the 2014 Mahari Award by the Guru Pankaj Charan Das Odissi Research Foundation. Nurtured in an artistic environment, Madhusmita was groomed as a soloist under Gurus Sri Gangadhar Pradhan, Smt. Aruna Mohanty, and Sri Bichitrananda Swain. She has performed widely in India and abroad as a soloist and as part of the Orissa Dance Academy Repertory group. For her commitment and excellence in dance, Madhusmita has also been awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar and the Padmashree Sanjukta Panigrahi Pratibha Samman. Having been involved in dance from an early age, Smt. Madhusmita Mohanty shares her thoughts on Odissi, drawing from her personal experience.

GR: How did you initially get involved in dance?
MM: I grew up in an artistic environment. My mother was a dancer before her marriage. My father was a flautist who accompanied many dancers, so from a very young age I was always watching dance programs. Incidentally, my bada bapa (father’s elder brother) was a music director, so we would have many music sittings in our house. So basically I was always surrounded by dance and music, which I really enjoyed. I would often dance in front of the mirror. My mother, noticing my interest, encouraged me to take classes and found my first teacher, Guru Srimati Tamala Patra with whom I studied with for about a year plus, until she moved. When Guru Gangadhar Pradhan shifted the Orissa Dance Academy to a new building in Unit III, he had asked his friends and colleagues, (including my father) to enroll their children in that batch. Hence I was enrolled in the Orissa Dance Academy and I have been there ever since.

GR: What made you choose dance as a profession?
MM: I was very passionate about dance when I was in college. When I considered other professions, I realized that I would not find that same satisfaction anywhere else, nor would I ever be prepared to leave dancing. The turning point for me was when Ganga Sir (Guru Gangadhar Pradhan) told me that, while there are a lot of people who learn dance there are few actually pursue it to preserve our culture and art forms to carry it forward. There were others in different fields, but very few in dance. He then asked me if I would be happy leaving dance and having a career with a lot of money, or could I be happy with dance but with limited money and comforts? He asked me to think about it. I knew that I would be very unhappy if I were to leave dance. I thought, why not be one of those artists to carry our tradition forward? And I made my decision.

GR: What advice would you give someone who is considering dance as a career?
MM: When deciding whether to take up dance as a profession, they should have a good understanding of what they have to go through. There are many factors to consider: It is a physically strenuous job, so good health is critical. Rigorous practice on a daily basis is required. Dance is also much more than just a physical activity, education is also necessary, and this includes literature, history, music, stage presentation, lighting, etc. If one can do this groundwork in the earlier years of their dance career, it will be very beneficial later. A dancer has to continually undertake new experiences and learn from them, one must remain a lifelong student. This is also a field that has little financial stability; so one must be mentally prepared for that.
 GR: How has the Odissi scenario changed since your days as a student (teaching, learning, and performing)?
MM: Learning – In general, students are more interested in learning and presenting new items. Few really have the patience to practice and review the same item continuously to understand its depth or the related aspects (tala, music, etc.). When I was a student, we never asked our Gurus to teach a particular item, rather they had the complete authority to determine what we would learn based on our maturity level, experience and capacity. As students, we were more interested in developing and perfecting our form, not just the item. We still follow that practice today. Unfortunately many students today want the item, but not the depth.
Teaching – Somewhat related to the other two points, I have found this generation more interested in learning new items and performing. There is little patience to practice a movement or dance item repeatedly. Students also have more school pressures, so that affects their class attendance and sometimes, their seriousness. There is also a certain level of discipline within the classroom that is decreasing.
Performing: More and more students interested in performing which is a good sign. However many students want to start giving stage performances with very little training. When I was a student, we only gave programs with the permission of our Gurus, who were integral to the process of preparation. Before there was the Mancha Prabesha concept – where the student presented their official solo stage debut with the guidance of their Guru. It was a good idea because while it showcased the student after his/her initial years of training; the performance was only the beginning of a long journey in dance. While many have an interest to perform onstage, few have the patience and willingness bring about the perfection needed for a stage presentation.

GR: How do you see the evolution/growth of Odissi in comparison to other classical dance forms?
MM: Odissi is progressing along nicely as we can see through the expansions in the vocabulary and movements. There are also been new methods of teaching, and body training/conditioning. There are a number of new choreographies and experiments in the form, which is good as long as it maintains the basic grammar and limitations of the form. But with these new developments, sometimes I feel that we are missing an element of involvement and emotiveness. It is a particular softness, in Odia we would call it lalitya (lyricism), which is the essence of Odissi, which seems to be lacking nowadays. Thus the body language of the form is becoming more mechanical. If we continue this way, our dance form will lose its essence, and with time it will not look like Odissi anymore.

GR: Do you agree with the statement that Odissi is becoming more diluted? Why or why not do you think so?
MM: I do not agree with this statement completely, I think this is a comment that is frequently expressed in other dance styles as well. Experiments are an important part of the form, that is the only way the art will grow. It is really the responsibility of the dancer to maintain the identity of the dance form. Our founding Gurus had continuously experimented based on what was considered contemporary during their time. And experimentation was also reflected in music, dance, body movements, etc. The traditional repertoire that we often practice now is a result of the years of experimentation that Gurus had taken then. Odissi had changed considerably as they continued to explore the various possibilities, which resulted in a number of beautiful compositions that we see today. The audience will ultimately determine the success of a composition.

GR: Can you elaborate more the idea of maintaining the identity of the dance form? Are you referring to the Oriya identity?
MM: I am not necessarily referring to “Oriya-ness” of Odissi as much as I am just the essence of the dance form, which gives it a unique flavor. I believe this dance form is something that goes beyond the body technique. It is difficult to articulate, it is an emotive involvement, an ability to carry the classicism and dignity of the style whilst also capturing the colloquial mannerisms. I don’t think it is about being Oriya or not, as much as it is being able to understand and internalize these stylistic qualities. For example, if you were to present several classical dancers of different forms, in plain clothes dancing the same passage with the same music, each of them will have a unique way of expressing their movements. This is the real value and understanding as a student, to really imbibe and emote that distinct flavor. Even without movement, the ability to carry a mood or moment using the eyes only can convey the essence of the dance form. Lately, with more of a focus on performance and how the dance is to be presented on the stage, technique has overshadowed the emotive quality of the dance form.

GR: Odissi dance is considered to be very low on the scholarship in terms of archiving, libraries, and number of research papers and journals. What is your opinion?
MM: I think we need more work in scholarly level. While there has been an increasing interest in the research aspects of dance, what is currently there is not enough. The field needs more scholars and researchers, and we should have more archives available to the public.

GR: If you were to suggest action items to improve the intellectual aspect of Odissi– what would they be?
MM: All round dance education – When a child begins his/her dance training, they should also learn related aspects of the dance form as appropriate per their level of understanding. Music and literature should definitely be integrated into the learning process. We should also include the study of Odishan history and dance traditions (folk, gotipua, mahari, etc.). As children get older, we should also focus on developing their analytical abilities across these various fields. By doing so, we will also help them to think creatively. If we focus on including these different areas as part of their training, they will learn much more than just dance items. To be a true artist requires all round development
Research work is also very important in the field. We should provide the necessary support for students interested in this area. Considering how much research was involved in Odissi’s initial development, and we have benefitted from their years of study, we should also focus on doing more of this work to carry this dance form forward.

GR: You recently did an interview with Times of India where the headline read ‘Dancers have become Money Minded”– Would you like to resolve the confusion that erupted by explaining your position?
MM: If someone is considering dance as a career, he/she will have obvious concerns regarding finances. These days, the cost of living is so high, it is extremely difficult for dancers to earn enough money to survive. For upcoming dancers, it is especially challenging as the need to support oneself often results in having to take up teaching, which limits time for his/her own learning and practice. And ultimately the focus is diverted from individual sadhana. It is not that they are money-minded; they have to be very practical and think about how to survive. This was what I was referring to my TOI interview. Dancers need a regular income to survive and carry this art forward.

GR: What are ways that government & private sector can do to make dance a financially more stable profession?
MM: I think if the state could organize a system of support for exceptional artists, similar to what the Central Government is doing (junior/senior scholarships), that would be a big help. Presently, the state supports the art through festivals but not individual artists. For many dancers, whatever they may earn from programs is used to cover related expenses such as travel, fees for compositions, etc. Even funding streams or sponsorship for related costs: travel and or room/board, musician expenses, etc. would alleviate some of the individual artists. Dance institutes can provide support their students by providing teaching stipends, or organize merit-based scholarships. Funds to cover related learning expenses – support to provide books, dvds, cd, or even attending conferences outside the state would also help limit the financial burden on the student.

Do you think the Guru Sishya parampara system can survive in today’s world?
MM: I think the Guru-Shishya parampara system of learning that was previously there was more sincere. At one time, the relationship between teacher and student was lifelong – students would remain with their Gurus from their beginning stages throughout their professional careers. These days many students are learning dance through workshops; they are less likely to stay with one teacher throughout their life.

GR: You have had the opportunity to study under several renowned Gurus. What was the most important thing you learned from each?
MM: From Guru Sri Bichitrananda Swain, I learned the rigor of body training, how to hold my body, and execute the dance movements. I also learned about different ways to approach movement, which will be an asset if I ever consider choreography.
From Guru Smt. Aruna Mohanty, I learned how to balance spontaneity of the dance with technique. Sometimes when we become so technique focused, we become too restricted. From her I learned to let myself go and really understand the character. I also learned how to present oneself onstage, how to use space and stage design effectively.
From Guru Sri Gangadhar Pradhan, I learned a sense of perfection. He had a very good understanding of proportion and balance. He also helped me understanding of music and rhythm. He used to always discuss margin – where to begin and where to end, establishing and maintaining one’s steadiness of the dance. He also taught us discipline and most importantly, patience.

GR: What can we do as a society to create such a space for dancers? 
MM: As a society I think it is important to develop an awareness and understanding of Odissi. Seminars and workshops are a good way to reach the general public. It is also important that society understands the life of a dancer. While dance as a profession is definitely more acceptable now than it was years ago, I think there is still an assumption that people take up professionally because they did not study well and did not have any other options (whereas it is actually quite the opposite). It is important for the public to realize the value of dance in the society – to preserve the culture and tradition of our state, and sometimes raise awareness on important social issues. It is also important for the general public to understand the type of dedication and commitment involved in pursuing dance professionally, and the types of sacrifices and struggles dancers need to undertake on a day-to-day level. As the general public starts to understand the dancer’s life, and the value they add to society, I believe the respect for dancers and artists in general will grow, and hopefully as a result there will be more mechanisms to support this profession.

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