Finding My Destiny in Dance

by Manishikha Baul

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

 

Life is the dancer and you are the dance” – Eckhart Tolle. I am Manishikha, an Odissi dancer and a global nomad.

Growing up: Born and brought up in India (Delhi and Kolkata) my journey as a dancer began at the age of eight under Shrimati Sutapa Talukdar. My mother, a lecturer in Russian language & member of Nichiren’s philosophy of Buddhism, walked me into Sutapa Di’s class on a pouring evening in Kolkata. Being associated with Gorky Sadan (Russian Institute), my childhood was flooded with opportunities to perform. My younger sister also started learning Bharatanatyam & Hindustani classical music. In the lantern-lit evenings we would recite bols and shlokas for the other while one practiced. My interest in arts, I would like to believe, is an inheritance from my father, an architect and an impressionist artist. He was also my worst critic. I lost him in my early twenties. As most stories of middle class families go, various circumstances and the need to earn a living took me far away from my path of dance when I was in high school. I went on to study English Literature before joining GE Healthcare services where I met my husband. An Urdu poet, animal lover, photographer and an engineer, he has been my biggest motivator.

Existential crisis: The sun was shining and the bottles of wine ever flowing. Friends, chatter, gourmet meals, lavish vacations and luxury encapsulated my life in the Caribbean six years ago. At work, I aspired to conquer and it manifested. I was racing through the corporate tracks without brakes. But I was sad. My heart was silently weeping. I could hear the cries but not the words. They only got louder with time. As destiny would have its way, I chanced upon “Nrityanjali,” an Odissi theater house run by Smt. Mandira Balkaransingh (student of Guru Mayadhar Raut). It was a life-altering moment. The silence of the bells was broken after 15 years. “Nrityanjali” became my playground. Dance became the rainbow while work started to look gray. Down came the thunders with the rain. In 2011 Sri Rahul Acharya was invited to conduct a workshop there and my journey as a dancer was reborn. As we joyfully concluded our workshop, Rahul left me with a haunting message; to confront my inner being screaming to be heard. That moment is frozen in my mind. I had to let go and walk away with this stranger, hiding and luring me for years – my dance. I can build many rationales around quitting my alternate life for dance. But in all honesty, I am still seeking that intangible truth

Tryst with Bhubaneswar: My husband and I relocated to Singapore 4 years ago. However, instead of working in the corporates I decided to quit. This was my chance to pursue dance fulltime (a desire long buried in my heart but rekindled by Rahul). I packed my bags and landed in Bhubaneswar on a hot day in May of 2011. I fell in love. The world around me was a kaleidoscope experienced through rose tinted glasses. It was a city I had never visited or known. The only familiar face was of Rahul’s and my dad’s words echoing in my heart; “Visit Orissa once to see the grandeur”. Rahul had arranged for me to live with a family who would form my integral support system in the years to come. The “Alam family” was warm, funny and artistically bountiful. They cushioned my life so I could pursue my dance relentlessly. In the subsequent years I met strangers who embraced me with open arms, extended their homes and fed me like each was my last meal.

Days of learning: Rahul Acharya is a relentless practitioner and ruthless teacher. A typical day in his life starts with a morning jog, hours of Yoga, dance practice and time in the gym. Most evenings are dedicated to teaching his students, self-study and choreographic work (interspersed with Bollywood flicks). He expects the same from his students. Above and beyond, he challenges his students to study, read and think, not just emulate. At 31, it was an almost impossible task for me to imbibe such discipline. In less than 4 months I had lost 20 kilos of weight training under him. Somehow I found my grip. Rahul takes me for study tours to the hidden stones and monuments soaked in the history, evolution and reconstruction of Odissi. He teaches through the process of “Shruti” (that which is heard-revelation) and “Smriti” (that which is remembered-recollection). We walk through streets, drive around, sit idly or eat while he talks at length about Odissi, Jagannath culture, Maharis, Shastras, tradition, mythology, rites, rituals and philosophies. We often engage in discussions and debates to further this process. Gradually, I was introduced to the Odissi fraternity. I found the opportunity to spend hours with the likes of Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, Guru Sujata Mohapatra, Pandit Nityananda Misra and opened myself to the myriad of dancers, students, musicians, photographers and connoisseurs from every corner of the world. All of this while I had to juggle practice, classes, cleaning, washing and acclimatizing to a life of needs than a life of luxury. I was realigning my life as a dancer and was intoxicated by it. But somewhere unknowingly my alternate life was gradually fading away. These two parallel lives would never intersect, eventually.

Singapore Sling:
Through the year I shuttle between the cities of Singapore, Delhi and Bhubaneswar. Singapore is a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic business hub. The city scape changes with every blink. In my experience, contemporary visual art, pop-art, alternate music and theatre, cutting edge technology and designer brands define this city. Classical Art has survived as a niche in this city. Ballet still attracts a huge patronage while Indian classical dance begs for attention. The Indian diaspora comprises of people mostly from the South of India. So, Bharatanatyam has found a home and flourished well ever since independence in 1966 from the British. Odissi, however, is dwindling till date. There are a handful of known Odissi dancers struggling to find a foothold. Financial aid and patronage for Odissi remains the key area of concern. This has caused dancers to deviate from the traditional course to other sustainable paths. Some have resigned from performing to pursue other livelihoods. Yet others have moved to develop new evolved forms of Odissi to create better avenues for partnership, resource-building and patronage. This aligns with popular arts to lure audience and financial aid. Hardcore traditional Odissi dancers struggle to break through. On the positive front, Singapore is an emerging and open market for creative endeavours. It is the melting pot of Asia-Pacific thriving with the best of resources, finances and a global standing to enable anyone. That said, however, Singapore has a long and mighty way to go to establish Odissi and create a faith about it.

Discovering the dancer within
: Two years ago I met co-dancer Soumee De at an Odissi seminar in Singapore. As co-dancers and friends, we gave birth to “Ethos: Exploring the Odissi Spirit” to explore and create a community of Odissi dancers, patrons and sundry artists. “Ethos” is open to upcoming artists (across genres of photography, music, dance, art, literature) to showcase their work, raise funds and collaborate. Most of our events are either self-funded or nominally ticketed. “Ethos”, has evolved from a tea-time idea to an organic community of people willing to include, embrace and create. Meanwhile, Rahul and I have been performing in Singapore to raise interest, awareness and curiosity amidst the patrons to revive classical Odissi. Creating “Ethos” helped me graduate from being a student to a dancer. The shift has primarily been a change in my perspective and re-defining my persona. As a dancer I owe immensely to my profession and my dance with higher responsibilities and duties. Dance becomes the primary relationship of my life. My commitment and loyalty therefore is tested to the extremes each day. Being a student allowed me ample room for error with a lackadaisical individualistic approach and no sense of ownership. I was assured that the mantle of carrying the dance form ahead lay with the Gurus and other performing artists. But as a dancer I now understand the need to embrace my responsibility towards Odissi to make a difference. My personal growth comes along with effortless work towards the collective growth of Odissi and other dancers. The journey has just begun.

Chaos and Calm: Odissi has opened many a closed door in my mind. It continues to question morality, values, social norms, structures and beliefs that I was raised with. The more I focus on my understanding of Odissi, the more I am alienated from my known identity of self. Fine lines and cracks start to appear eventually breaking the glass. In the last 3 years, I have fallen in love, moved multiple cities, parted ways, questioned relationships, become a pauper, danced in submission, danced to tears, been stigmatized, oppressed and humiliated, loved, encouraged, learnt to survive, met soul-mates, visited magnificent monuments, celebrated beautiful dancers, watched in awe, read new philosophies, found peace and clocked my life to zero – to start again. I negotiate every day to find my space within the rigidly defined boundary of a spellbinding traditional classical dance form deeply rooted in patriarchy and religious beliefs while I choose to be a non-conformist, atheist, feminist and humanist. My love affair with Odissi emancipates me through a maddening process of catharsis.

Comments

  1. Gullapudi Raman Kumari says:

    A very touching transformation!!!

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