Guru Sri Ratikant Mohapatra: Finding Your Path, and Finding the Pearl

Photo Credit: Arabinda Mahapatra

Photo Credit: Arabinda Mahapatra

Guru Sri Ratikant Mohapatra, the only son of Odissi legend Guru Sri Kelucharan Mohapatra and Smt. Laxmipriya Mohapatra, has carved a niche for himself as one of Odissi’s leading Gurus, choreographers, percussionists, and organizers. He is currently the director of Srjan [Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Nrityabasa] in Bhubaneswar, and continues to travel throughout the world to impart training in Odissi. He is the key advisor to San Francisco-based Guru Shradda, and has lent his knowledge and expertise to dance practitioners throughout the world. Some of his awards include: “Pride of India 2004,” “Sanjukta Panigrahi Samman 2005,” and “Nrutya Bhushan,” by the International Dance & Theatre Festival 2005. In 2006, he choreographed and directed an Odissi presentation at Kalinga Stadium featuring 550 Odissi dancers from around the world, which was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records. Today he shares with Global Rasika his life experiences with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, finding his own path as an artist, and the current trends in Odissi.

GR: You are considered to be one of Odissi’s leading Gurus, choreographers, and organizers. Did you imagine that your life would turn out this way?
RM: Though it has been a long struggle, I do believe that my life will be centered on dance until my last breath. And whatever I am, whatever education and knowledge I have gained in Odissi and whatever I have achieved, is because of a group of people considered to be the “who’s who” of Odissi dance: Guru Sri Kelucharan Mohapatra, Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra, Guru Sri Rakhal Mohanty, Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi, Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi and Smt. Kumkum Mohanty. From the day I started my career, I was fortunate to have been amongst these extraordinary individuals. I feel that I must have done something great in my last life to be blessed with this incredible opportunity.

GR: How did you get started in dance and music?
RM: Even though dance and music was a 24-hour activity in my house, I never thought I would be a dancer or choreographer. As a child, I would watch these practice sessions and somehow remember the items – Batu, Dashavatar, Dhire Samire – without being taught. Similarly, by observing Guruji, I could play Mardala. Some say that it is the gene that I had inherited– maybe. But I think it was also the intensity of the art form, and the way that it was practiced in our house. My parents were very keen that I learn music and dance.

GR: Are there some significant memories with your father that stand out to you?
RM: One day when I was very young my father asked me to play Mardala with him – he said to play together, father and son. I was able to play the first speed and somehow managed the second speed. But I was unable to play the third and fourth speeds. I fumbled. Baba said, “What is this, my son and he cannot play?” I told him that I wasn’t in the mood to play that time. The next day Guruji was leaving for Russia. He said, “I will bring you whatever you want. But you will need to do me a favor: the bol you played that day, ‘dheiterekititaka naterekititaka, teiterekititaka naterekititaka’ I want you to practice it every day: ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. Practice this everyday, just like you do your homework.” And so I obliged not because I liked to do it per se, but because I had promised him. After returning, when he asked to see me play, I was able play each of the speeds easily and he was very happy. Then he explained, “You were able to play because of the time and effort you put into it this month. Whether you are my son or not, unless you practice and prove yourself you will not be recognized.” I will never forget not only the valuable wisdom he gave me, but also the way in which he imparted this wisdom to me to make an impression on my young mind. That was when I realized how great he really was.

Another incident that I remember was when I was young, my mother would give me ten paisa everyday when I left for school. One day when she was busy – I went to my father to ask for the money. He said “I don’t have the change, but just manage for today and tomorrow I will give you 20 paisa,” Before leaving, I checked his money purse. The lowest note I could find was five rupees. I thought I would take the note, use ten paisa, and then return the remaining change. However when I got to school, my friends insisted that I treat them (five rupees was a lot in those days!) to ice cream, gupchup, etc. I spent the five rupees. When Guruji came to know about this, he called me after breakfast the next day and tied me to a flower tree. I said “Why are you doing this, I didn’t do anything wrong.” I was feeling very embarrassed because that was during the time of summer workshop and all of the students were there. He asked me if I had taken the five rupees. I said, “Yes, I took it, and I was planning to return the money, but I could not because I spent it all.” And then he said,“ I am very happy that you spent money. I have no issues in spending, but what concerns me is that you have taken this money without my consent, which is the same as stealing. That is why you are being punished.” After explaining he immediately untied me. But again, the way he taught me this important lesson demonstrates his genius as a father, not just as a Guru.

GR: How did you eventually choose to follow the path of dance and music?
RM: The two incidents I described really shaped my life and values. I was not so keen on being a dancer; rather I was really interested to become a police officer as I used to love reading detective books. In 1975, there was an International Science Conference at Bani Bihar, Indira Gandhi was the chief guest. Guruji was requested to present a dance drama on Konark. Guruji was playing the main role and he had asked me to play the role of his son. I was quite shy initially, but I did it. The show was a huge success. When I thanked him for the opportunity, he said, “You decide what you want to do. I will not tell you to become a dancer because I dance. If you really want to be a police officer, go in that direction and prepare yourself. But if you want to be a dancer, go in that direction and stay focused to pursue that.” My uncle, the writer and lyricist, Srinibas Mohanty advised me to pursue the art line. Eventually I decided to try it and see. If it didn’t work out, I would do something else. My father agreed. Once I started learning dance and Mardala from him, I gradually forgot everything and became completely immersed in this line. My father told me “You have to create your own individual identity, then you will better be known as Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s son.” These instances collectively made an impression on me and opened my vision completely. Never in my life was I given any sort of special treatment for being his son – he was great as a father and as a Guru, but he kept those roles separate.

GR: How did you start choreographing?
RM: When Baba was alive, he often encouraged me to choreograph, saying that he would offer his feedback. But I would always tell him that he was the choreographer and that I was here to learn only. I turned down many opportunities so that I could stay with him and learn everything I could. In the time I spent with him, I amassed a dictionary of knowledge that I would draw upon. I never tried to copy him.

GR: Tell us about your first choreography
RM: Sujata [Odissi danseuse Smt. Sujata Mohapatra] was asked to present a piece about rain for a Monsoon festival. She was thinking to present an excerpt of Guruji’s Ritu Samhara, which she had asked me to edit and arrange. However after Baba’s demise, I had decided that moving forward, I would not take any of his references. So I told her that I would do it only if the music and choreography would be completely original. She thought it over and agreed. I took the piece from Kalidas’s Ritu Samhara, Raghubhaina [Pt. Ragunath Panigrahi] did the music, and we did the composition. It was working well and it came out beautifully.

GR: Did you feel any pressure for that first choreography?
RM: There was pressure in the sense that with each step I was trying to put in my best effort so that it would be a brilliant piece of choreography. So while there was some level of pressure, I was thoroughly enjoying the process. After Guruji passed away, I never tried to copy him but rather, add to his legacy so that it would be an asset to our Odissi discipline.

GR: You have earned a reputation for your tendency to push the boundaries in Odissi – can you comment on this?
RM: For me personally, when I choreograph, I have always followed these three principles: 1. The accompanying instruments will be authentic to Odissi. 2. The costume should remain in the Odissi style 3. The movements should retain the Odissi grammar and discipline: While I may incorporate some new contemporary looking movements, I am careful that the movement is mentioned in the Shastras and that it is molded into the Odissi style to retain the aesthetic.

GR: Can you tell us about your choreographic process?
RM: When choreographing pure dance there are two ways to approach it: The first, to compose the rhythm/music and then create the dance, or vice-versa. – So basically it is music vs. movement driven. Theme-based dances require more of a layered approach. First, the research – find a subject, take references from different sources, and then create the script, which will piece together the sequence of the slokas or poetry. Then a screenplay is prepared– entries, exits; each scene is mapped out. Once the screenplay is ready, it serves as the blueprint for the story. I then sit with a composer to work on the music, which is developed scene-by-scene [it is almost impossible to do a theme-based production in one particular raga or tala] and which is based on the mood and situation of the character. Once completed, I have a complete framework to compose the dance. I assign the roles according to the capacity and capabilities of the dancer. When we do the run -through, I begin the editing process – taking out what I don’t find aesthetically appealing. I should also mention here that the light design is happening parallel to the script development. The entire process takes at least six months. It is a vast undertaking that involves a lot of groundwork. It is also a very expensive undertaking, each composition will cost about 3-4 lakhs (which includes the costumes, music, etc.).

GR: There are many young dancers who are interested taking up dance professionally. What is your advice to them?
RM: For classical dance and music in whatever form, there are no shortcuts – passion is not enough. When you first learn to swim, you continue to remain at the surface with someone there assist you – but the more you learn, you can go deep into the water and touch the ground, and only there you can find the pearl.
When looking at one’s professional career, to be group dancer, the ideal age is 18-25, when the body has that sharpness and speed. Dancing solo is not easy. One has to have a good teacher, proper nutrition and good health to be able to sustain a long program. My humble request to those who want to pursue Odissi professionally is to really take the time to understand and learn about Oriya culture. As this dance formed evolved from the local cultural elements of Odisha, it is important to understand these to really bring out the essence of this dance form.

GR: What is your opinion on the current climate of the performing arts for upcoming dancers?
RM: Nowadays the kinds of programs and festivals dancers are getting are like consuming poison. In a given evening, 15 + dancers will be presented, and each will be allotted ten minutes to perform. How do upcoming dancers find the pearl? Earlier, solo dancers were given two-hour slots to perform. With time, it became 1.5 hours, then one hour, then 30 minutes, then ten minutes, and now five minutes. Solo dance is deteriorating in this process. Nowadays group dance is more in demand, and even then, the demand for Gotipua is becoming more popular than Odissi because it has that acrobatic quality which catches the audience’s attention.

GR: Is this current trend the fault of the festival organizers?
RM: The entire system that has been created is to blame. In another five years, another 50 festivals will crop up. There are so many dancers these days that it is very difficult for organizers to provide opportunities. Parents and students lack an understanding of sadhana and hard work and patience. It is an entire system that has contributed to this current trend.

GR: How do you think we can improve the current system?
RM: Firstly I think that it is important to develop an understanding of Odiya cultural identity. Not just in terms of the performing arts but in terms of dress, language, food, and customs. In Odisha, there are many who lack even a basic understanding of Odiya culture. They chase Bollywood, contemporary dance, etc. To transform the system, it is important to develop that understanding and cultural pride in order to inspire the patronage of local arts and culture. Parents who do decide to enroll their children in classical dance and music should also understand the type of work, dedication, and patience required. Many times parents enroll their children in so many activities that they neither have the time nor the physical stamina to dance.

GR: Considering the current trend, and as the head of a dance organization [where the organization’s success will largely depend on the success the dancers] – Is there any sort of career planning process?
RM: Each of the individuals in my current group is very talented, and very intelligent. Some are more inclined to be soloists, while others are very good at teaching, and others more research-oriented. I try to encourage each of them accordingly and provide the appropriate support and guidance where I can. I want that in those 7-10 years my dancers have spent with me, they would have gained enough skills to sustain themselves.

GR: Do you feel the organization has an obligation to its dancers/students?
RM: As the head of the organization it is of course important that they remain professional and perform well. But if and when they leave the group, I want them to have the skills and expertise to support themselves. I emphasize education a lot. The situation during my time was very different. These days, education is critical for a dancer, as it will allow them to stand on their own in any situation. They should read, study and do their practice. I am also socially attached to them, so that if they need anything or are in any sort of dilemma, I am always there for them and vice-versa. I think it is my responsibility to care for them like a family member – in this way there will be a good rapport between the student and Guru.

GR: As a practitioner of a traditional art form in the increasingly changing modern context of India, how do you reconcile the two, especially with regards to your daughter, Preetisha who is also an upcoming dancer?
RM: Times have changed of course, and I try to do my best to be a good father to Preetisha the way my father was to me. Like many children of today, she is very modern. I welcome and encourage this, and I give her the space to do so. However that said, I do request that she exhibit the appropriate dress and behavior when she is at a family function or at a concert.

GR: How do you keep your daughter grounded in this current age of celebrity culture, especially in the Odissi field?
RM: While there is a big legacy in our family, I always consider myself an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances and I try to raise Preetisha with that in mind. Luckily I don’t have to do much, she understands her situation well. I also continue to emphasize the importance of education. If for whatever reason Preetisha’s (or any of my other students’) dance career takes a different direction, she will need to be in a position to sustain herself financially. She is also in a transitional phase in her life, where she will have to decide whether to pursue arts or sciences. Instead of imposing on her and making that decision for her, I told her she would need to make that decision for herself.

GR: What do you think is the future of Odissi?
RM: Despite the challenges, I believe there is a bright future for Odissi – There are a number of dance Gurus and choreographers doing great work. The upcoming generations of dancers are very intelligent and hardworking. Right now, Odissi is being practiced in over 200 countries and is continuing to grow popular. Keeping all of these things in mind, I think Odissi will have a very strong future.

Comments

  1. meernanda barthakur says:

    Its very educative for us dancers to know such things .

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