From Russia With Love: Taking Odissi Abroad

by Taiisia Shpulnikova

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Modern Odissi, despite being a fairly young dance form, has experienced worldwide popularity in a relatively short period of time. Established dance schools in Bhubaneswar attract new students from around the world every year. The number of regular returning students is growing exponentially. A significant proportion of these regular students come from Russia. As an Odissi dancer based in Moscow, I feel there is much to be shared from our collective experiences as a community of Odissi dancers, teachers and ultimately, promoters of the style abroad.

To provide a short historical reference: There has been genuine interest in Indian dance and music in Soviet Union since Bollywood films made their way there in 1949 and soon gained widespread popularity. Odissi was first introduced to Russia in the late 1980s by Smt. Swarnalata Parida who founded a dance school in Moscow. She created the first generation of Odissi dancers in Russia and inspired them to explore the style further in India – in Delhi, more precisely. One of her students, Sofia Soboleva, was taught in Guru Mayadhar Rout gharana, while two others, Olga Fomina and Vitalina Lobach, received scholarships at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and learned under Guru Smt. Madhavi Mudgal for seven and five years respectively. These dancers returned to Russia in the early 1990s and founded schools that attracted students from Moscow and other cities in Russia. Odissi slowly began its expansion and gradually the second generation of dancers was formed.

My own initiation into Odissi was at the age of seven when I started learning from Sofia Soboleva in 1997. A unique individual who was a dancer and yoga instructor, she never took any payment for her lessons. For Sofia, teaching was a purely altruistic act of sharing her art. She stopped teaching dance in 2005. Around that time, the young students of the three pioneers, myself included, decided to approach the style more seriously in India. A number of us ended up in Bhubaneswar to learn and practice the Guru Sri Kelucharan Mohapatra gharana. As most of us had some studies in Odissi, we had to change our technique and start from scratch in many ways to fully absorb the finer details of this style.

Today we have a number of practitioners in various cities throughout Russia who represent the gharanas of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Guru Debaprasad Das. So there are options for those that want to learn, although it can only be found in big cities.

Unlike the pioneering teachers, it is difficult for second-generation Russian Odissi dancers to make the same commitment to this dance form by spending several years in India for continuous training and refinement. Instead, many of us visit our gurus in India once or twice a year, undergo intensive training for about a month or longer, and then return to our respective cities where we continue to teach, practice, and perform. Some of us organize workshops and bring our gurus to Russia. This system has been working for us for the last few years, as it allows us to follow our passion whilst maintaining the way of life that we are familiar with. That said however, we continue to face certain difficulties as long-distance learners and promoters of the style in a country like ours.

Here I would like to share some of my own thoughts and experiences as a long-term foreign-born practitioner of Odissi. Much of what I would like to share addresses the learning/teaching process, as it is a significant part of my own dancing reality and a way to stay true to the art.

Like many foreign-based dancers, the challenge of learning Indian classical dance begins at the Gurukul, with the Guru-shishya relationship. The concept of parampara, which determines every aspect of our life and learning process at the Gurukul, is quite alien to us. Apart from the social system associated with this relationship, there are very practical challenges to this mode of learning, as it requires a certain level of surrender. We are literally molded and shaped by our Gurus’ hands when we receive instruction. Mirrors are rarely, if ever available, so for a western dance student it can be very difficult to completely turn off his/her own aesthetic vision and idea of the movement and just blindly trust the molding hands. Even harder is remembering and preserving the experience and the knowledge imbibed upon returning to one’s home, away from the Guru. During the time away anything can happen: while we may think we are executing the movement correctly, often times the dance becomes distorted every time we practice it. This slows down the learning process because we can only get corrected once or twice a year when returning to India or when our Guru is in the country.

There are challenges at home that are quite familiar to those of any professional dancer: lack of affordable practice spaces, little available time, etc. In Russia, Indian classical dance is not in any way a career option, not even in some of the largest cities – so dancers here are required to have day jobs to support their craft. That places us in a very precarious position: some of us are not amateurs anymore, we take the dance seriously and want to devote our lives to it, however at the same time we cannot practice as much as, say, professional ballet dancers do. The infrastructure and facilities available to ballet dancers simply do not exist for the Indian classical dancer in Russia. So no matter how talented or dedicated a dancer is, they simply cannot afford to explore their full potential. This is no surprise considering how insufficiently the arts are funded in Russia, and how this is a very rare and sophisticated art that has been introduced only recently to Russian audiences. That said however, we remain hopeful and try to change the situation as best we can.

Teaching is one of the most obvious ways to help build a dance career. Besides helping to create a rasika base in what would otherwise be a very uninitiated audience, it provides ample opportunity for self-improvement. Once you start teaching, Odissi dancers are required to a) learn how to break down any movement into basic elements and communicate that to a newcomer who may or may not be familiar with Odissi rhetoric; b) identify your own technical flaws immediately reflected in the students; c) completely reconsider everything your Guru has told you throughout the duration of training because you understand his/her [Guru’s] teachings on a very new level. In the process of pursuing dance careers, we try to take on opportunities to teach, though we make it clear to our students that we are just temporary guides as we are in the middle of the same learning process.

As Odissi, like other Indian classical dance forms, is rooted in spirituality, it is natural that many newcomers are attracted by this spiritual component. I personally feel that in Russia, spirituality is one the vaguest and most challenging things to introduce students to. This is due in part because of the religious/spiritual differences and also because of our own limited experience in Odissi, which largely remains in the more technical stages. I personally try to understand the spiritual journey of Odissi and explain it to my students through the concept of sadhana, of discipline and hard work in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection. The process of approaching abhinaya for my students and myself, begins with the physical movement and mimicking what is taught. I take this approach to abhinaya partly because the gharana we practice is very stylized and asks for a certain degree of specificity and partly because there is a good chance that foreign-born Odissi dancers would interpret the story and express it differently with their faces and bodies. For many foreign-born dancers, using facial muscles in a dance is a very new concept. So many students will initially need to be told where to smile, or raise their eyebrows, or widen their eyes (one must also take into account the linguistic barriers as well). But even that is a good start as they learn to connect those sensations in their bodies and faces with certain emotions. Then, similar to how we were advised by our own teachers, we try to personalize the stories somehow and find the feeling within. In doing so however, we make it a point to take into account the cultural context that we are imbibing and portraying. In the process, most of us will still have to learn in patterns and through copying in order to capture the appropriate cultural nuances. As a result, there is a tendency for our abhinaya to lack spontaneity and look over-rehearsed. What really helped me personally was watching the same piece performed by dancers of different gharanas. It is extremely helpful for a foreign dancer because you see the personal and the universal in dance, you see the possible range within one character, or different versions of the same story and you see how you could completely misinterpret a character or a line. I have discovered that this process is less about learning the various ways of showing something on stage and more about discovering the human emotion behind them. So I truly believe that Abhinaya is an art that must be learned from numerous teachers to reveal a universal, human experience.

One hard truth that we face when we start teaching is that most of our students learn Odissi for nothing other than leisure. Our students come from various backgrounds and interests, from Krishna devotees and Yoga enthusiasts to Bollywood lovers, to dancers of different styles who just happen to love Odissi. The reality is that only one out of seven students stays for longer than a few months. It is important to find a compromise, to put less pressure on students who are not intending to become professionals but still want to enjoy Odissi in their own way. That compromise feels wrong initially, as we are more or less trained as professionals, and that is the only method of teaching we know. But I do believe that the ultimate reason to dance, professionally or not, is the joy of movement, and it is certainly not up to me to decide who deserves that joy and who doesn’t. All I can do as a teacher is tell the students what outcome they can expect if they practice one way or another and try to maximize the efficiency of the lessons. As for the one-out-of-seven students – those that prove themselves as extremely hard-working and sincere fellow dancers to us, they help to form the Odissi community in our country and we pass them on to our gurus proudly.

As teachers and performers, we face some difficulties, most of which are common for foreigners at this stage of the learning process. Despite these challenges however, I see great potential for Odissi in Russia, both in terms of the volume of devoted students of all levels and also the audience’s appreciation and understanding of this art form. It never ceases to amaze me how Odissi appeals to such a diversity of audiences here – this is testament to the true beauty and magic of this exquisite art form, to cross all barriers of nationality and religion.

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