Portrait of the Artist: Guru Smt. Aruna Mohanty

Photo Courtesy: Shantanu Das

Photo Courtesy: Shantanu Das

Guru Smt. Aruna Mohanty has the unique distinction in the Odissi fraternity to operate par excellence on multiple levels – performer, teacher, choreographer, administrator, and organizer. A master strategist, she continues to keep a pulse on the broader trends of the dance world, as reflected in her work. Guru Smt. Aruna Mohanty’s global outlook, combined with her sensitivity to local issues, has made her a thought leader in the field, and was the most obvious choice for this issue’s featured artist. She has earned numerous accolades for her contribution to Odissi to include: the Mahari Award (1997), Sanjukta Panigrahi Memorial National Award (2001), Fellowship by Ministry of HRD, Government of India, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar Award in 2010. She also served as vice-president of the Odisha Sangeet Natak Academy. Currently Director of Orissa Dance Academy, Guru Smt. Aruna Mohanty shares her views on the changing landscape of Odissi dance over the years:

GR: Where do you think are the current trends in Odissi with regards to teaching, learning and dissemination?
AM: This is a very complex question. When we talk about the art form, we often say it dates back to the 2nd Century BC, it flows from one generation to the other, etc. From what I have observed, students are actually learning this art form very mechanically, almost like robots. Students learn the technique, getting it into their systems and then execute what they have learned. But the more I teach, perform and observe dancers onstage, I feel that as teachers, we are not helping our dancers really understand the dance form – the movement, its origins, the musical accompaniment, etc. This art form is an imitation of the life we see around us – how much of this life are we actually observing? Are we in fact observing it at all? How much of it are we internalizing? And are the movements coming from our own observations and understanding or simply by imitating the teachers? How are teachers (And here I consciously the word ‘teacher’ and not ‘Guru,’ Guru is a very big word with a very big connotation), guiding the student to help them understand dance theory? As it is, Odissi has a limited theory base. There is a lot of information that is not backed by a lot of evidence. So there is always confusion – which is good, because it brings about discussion and analysis.

A number of teachers are aware of these issues and are making attempts to fill this knowledge gap by trying to understand the dance from various points of view – literature, socio-cultural norms, values, etc. It is important to build and share this knowledge base. If we do not create a holistic learning for our students, they will become robots who can execute a movement perfectly but who cannot think independently or critically about the art form. If this continues, there will always be a gap between understanding the dance and executing the movement, which will ultimately hinder the growth and development of our living tradition.

GR: Can you discuss your own foray into choreography?
AM: I actually came from a theater background. My father was a writer, director, and producer, and I used to act in plays as a child. The theater atmosphere made a lasting impression on my young mind. I always observed people, how dialogue was used to express emotions. I was attracted to that Vachika Abhinaya, and the body language that went with it. I was also exposed to various aspects of stagecraft: stage placements, lighting, etc. When I came to the dance field, I was training and performing. But my Guru (Late Padmashree Guru Gangadhar Pradhan) would always involve me in his productions. Gangasir would ask me to sit and listen to the music composer. Once he had an idea, he would translate it into music – and from the music, the characters emerged: their entries and exits, and the different rhythmic patterns for each. It was an amazing experience. Gangasir was dependent on me for the literary dimension of his productions. Though I was not a Sanskrit or Odiya scholar, I would go and talk to the writers and scholars to discuss the interpretations and meaning of the piece.

After some time, I attempted my first choreographic work, “Shrishti O Pralaya,” which was considered at the time to be a ‘contemporary’ theme. In the process, I had requested my Guru give me his feedback. After attending a rehearsal, He commented rather sarcastically that it looked more like an Uday Shankar creative ballet, rather than Odissi. This comment left me feeling very unsettled. I asked him to identify where the choreography did not look like Odissi and I would change it –but to do so, I would need a logical explanation. His first objection was to the theme – he remarked that as the theme was not mythology-based, it was not classical to him. But then I asked myself – what is classicism all about? If we restrict classicism to mythology only, then the art form, which is so rich in its content and vocabulary will shrink within a very small boundary. The art form has the potential to communicate stories and themes and concepts that are close to human life – whether 500 years ago, 100 years ago or today, – above all it should be relevant to the human experience. I then asked my Guru about the technique. He could not find fault there as I had used Chauka, Tribhangi, bhramari, etc. His next objection was to the lyrics – modern writing by a modern poet. But then I asked him, wouldn’t the Gita Govinda have been considered ‘modern’ at some point and did we reject those texts? We used Odissi music using the elements like banis, ukutas, taalas, etc. Ultimately, when we presented this production onstage, Gangasir was very happy and very proud of me. And that really boosted my confidence and encouraged me on this path. And I believe in continued growth and evolution. We are always learning and maturing, increasing our knowledge and widening our perspective. Ultimately this continued growth will shape our vision as creative artists. This has been my journey.

GR: In a recent interview, you said “I believe it is the collective responsibility of all dancers to pass on the creative baton to the next generation. If they shirk the responsibility of providing to the next generation a gradual transition in dance by responding to new ideas, it will be the end of the road. We would then be left with a dead tradition, not a living one” [1]– In your opinion how do you think your generation is faring as far as passing this baton to the others?
AM: Unfortunately many teachers do not impart the knowledge of the craft to their students. Teachers often feel insecure and at times, disrespected when students do not humbly acknowledge their contribution to their careers. As a result, teachers do not share their gift of the art form to their students, and do not involve them in the creative process. And because of this, students are not learning these important elements of the craft. Until this issue is solved, it will continue to go round and round and we will never be able to break out of this cycle.

GR: Do you believe creativity and choreography is something inherent or something that can be cultivated? And if so, how do you personally cultivate this sense in your students?
AM: I do not believe in focusing all of my time and attention on those individuals that may indicate a degree of “natural talent.” How will we know what capacity the student has unless we work with them to nurture it? I believe it is the teacher’s job to cultivate this skill. I don’t believe that only the naturally gifted will succeed. Nor do believe in dismissing students who are not what we feel are ‘gifted’ Who are we to decide? When I am working with clay, I am trying to mold it. If it doesn’t take the shape I want, I try will try another shape. If I am waiting for the right type of clay to come to me, I will never create. If ten dancers are standing with me, I will work with all of them in their own capacities.

When I am ‘passing the baton,’ it is not about focusing one’s attentions and efforts on only the gifted students, it is about the supporting the committed ones who are passionate and dedicated to the art form. It is the teacher’s job to give unconditionally to the student.

GR: Student turnover is often a challenge for dance institutes. Orissa Dance Academy is one of few institutions that have successfully managed to retain many of their students – what is the secret to your success?
AR: There really is no secret here. A leader of the army will tell you that his/her growth and success depends on the growth and success the individuals working under them. Whatever success I have achieved is because of the students, teachers, and staff who I work with. They know that they belong here and are an important part of the institution. I am very particular about all of my students, every day I call to check on the class attendance. While I give the students special training for their solo work, each are assigned their own classes/batches, with which they are expected to compose an item every year. I empower them to think and create and develop their creative instinct. The students have realized that I am not here to take all the cream leaving them with nothing. They know that I will share my knowledge and experience with them unconditionally. They also know that I will be there for everything – from each and every detail of their training and performances, to their personal ups and downs. I have also trained my senior dancers to step in when I am not there. We have created a system of faith, belief and emotional honesty. I also have a wonderful board, and they listen to the dancers so that things can run smoothly. It is very important to me that the communication is open and if there is a problem then it is addressed in an open forum.

GR: Can you speak about the implications of technology on the dance form?
AM: I am going to broaden the scope of that question to include ‘science and technology’ – I will start with an example: Years ago I was involved in a seminar organized by the Central Sangeet Natak Academy in Delhi, which explored how Odissi became enriched in the process of its evolution. I did a lot of research on the various performing arts traditions in the region such as Chau, Ghoda Nacha, Pala, and other tribal and folk forms. I discovered that as Odissi evolved, it incorporated many elements of these allied art forms. When I researched these forms individually, I discovered how the Aharya, the costumes affected the movement. So in some forms we would see an expanded use of the torso and upper body with limited foot movements, whilst other forms, such as Chau, would use larger foot/leg movements because of the less restrictive Aharya. And these variations of these movements have been incorporated into the Odissi.

So broadening one’s knowledge base can provide a greater understanding of the form, and in in the process, start examining at the dance on a more scientific level: Determining what angle the foot/arm placements should be, alignment of the body, etc. Taking a more scientific approach to the art form will allow one to develop the appropriate training. Take the Tribhangi position for example: All of the weight is on the back foot. Keeping this in mind, we have to use the appropriate exercises and techniques to strengthen the legs. Before a performance would be only 5 minutes, now it is two hours, which requires the dancer to incorporate more endurance building in his/her daily routine. Science and technology also open up new creative spheres as far as presentation is concerned. Stagecraft, multimedia, are all areas which have been expanded through the use of technology. Communication technologies also allow for collaborations on a national and international scale.

GR: In your opinion, what areas of the dance ecosystem need more attention and how?
AM: We have to learn the art of effective PR. We should know how to market ourselves and do the right packaging and presentation. It is important to take feedback from people, not just those with a dance background. Talk to different people, as they have a way of evaluating and appreciating the art. That is how we decide how to package the form, to make it accessible to others. There comes the role of scholars. When you work with scholars they will have a different perspective that will add another dimension to your thinking. Even if they are not well-versed in the dance vocabulary, it is important for scholars and dancers to work together, forming a collective effort to bring out the finer essence of a particular creation.

In Odissi we need to further develop a collaborative approach. The previous generation never sat together to discuss their work and share ideas. In my generation however, we share information, ideas, and discuss our advantages and challenges. We share our ideas and give one another feedback. If we continue to experiment, and discuss, we can continue our growth as creative artists. It is important to experiment, and provide honest feedback.

GR: Beyond sponsoring programs and scholarships, how can government bodies to support the dance form and the dance artists?
AM: Festivals are very helpful to provide opportunities for upcoming dancers, while scholarships definitely ease the financial burden for needy students. Beyond that, it would be very helpful for dancers if the government could create facilities and organize platforms for artists to interact and share with other artists and art forms. Increased support for scholarly work and research in the field would also enrich the dance field. I would also like to see periodical reviews of government funding to ensure the appropriate use of funds. Without a detailed and rigorous review process, people will become complacent. It is important that government funds be used appropriately to support the work of dedicated artists and institutions. The funding guidelines and review process be transparent and accessible to everyone.

GR: What are the skill sets of required of dancers today?
AM: The expectation from today’s dancers is very different from previous generations. Odissi artists are now competing with dancers from around the globe, not just local artists. It is important for dancers of today’s generation to have the right understanding of the art form, an understanding of their bodies, good communication skills – both speaking and writing. One must also be a thinking dancer, as now he/she will be shouldering a responsibility to take this art form to even greater heights, competing not only with other dancers but also with other professions. As a thinking dancer one has to convince the learned person that Odissi is no less a profession or passion or means of means of survival. Intellectually we are establishing the art as a viable profession and creating a status for it in the society. Through our intellect and understanding of the art form, we have to demonstrate the tremendous contribution of the arts as a means of social building. Performing arts have the ability to enrich society and enrich the lives of people. Unless we do not prove this, people will not give it the respect it deserves.

GR: What can the Odissi community do to support these efforts?
AM: It is important to support and encourage upcoming artists in order to create a positive atmosphere for them, and not allow any personal grudges to affect their opportunities. If I know X is a good dancer and I don’t feature her a festival, or if I am organizing a seminar and do not invite her to speak, knowing that she is a good scholar, or if I don’t participate in an initiative that she is organizing – then I am being discouraging and disruptive, dividing the community and being very negative. We have to look at all dancers objectively and support their efforts.

GR: Having actively been involved in Odissi dance from an early age, how do you think the form is faring? Do you think it is better/worse now than before?
AM: It really depends on the context. If we are talking of quantity, whereas there may have been 400 Odissi dancers in Bhubaneswar, now there are over four lakhs of Odissi dancers around the world. Interest in the form has increased. Parents are actively involved in their children’s dance career: Who they learn from, what they learn, where they perform, etc. Many married people taking up dance professionally with the full support of their families. Performance opportunities have also increased, so there is more visibility for dancers and repertory groups. Choreography has expanded in terms of challenging compositions with new concepts. Technology has allowed scope for experimentation, which has given some freshness to the work. With that said, I do have some concerns for today’s generation of dancers: Lack of respect for teachers by not acknowledging their contribution to their growth and development. Commitment to quality work is also missing. And lastly, this lack of support for co-dancers and peers: Sadly enough, many dancers do not attend their peers’ performances. It is very important to watch, observe and learn from one another. I always request my students attend programs of their friends and peers. It is also important for upcoming dancers to create networks of artists on the same wavelength.

GR: Can you discuss your thoughts about the Guru-Shishya Parampara:
AM: When referring to Guru-Shishya Parampara, many will always refer to a static concept from thousands of years ago, complaining that students of this generation are not committed, they don’t give the time, etc. However it is important to understand that this system has changed over time. Before, the student would stay with the Guru, who would provide them with food, shelter, training, etc. Did this situation not change? Why compare? I definitely do not believe that my experience with my gurus will be the same with my students. When a tradition is handed down from one generation to another, the structure of the present society: the demands, the values, the way of life, etc. will serve to ‘filter’ out what does and does not work in the Parampara system. Ultimately, Guru-Shishya Parampara is really a process where you as a Guru are trying to create a positive environment for your students, understanding their circumstances and creating a space for them to grow and evolve.

GR: Can you speak about your experiences with your Guru Sri Gangadhar Pradhan?
AM: I was very happy with my teacher – he was always a mentor to me. Besides teaching me dance, he taught me a number of other things: how to respect commitment, how to manage one’s time, how to organize festivals, which is very important skill for dancer. He would always force me to speak – I was not very confident initially, but he would always insist. When ODA was created, we were all drawn to it like a magnet. He has this ability to make us believe in him. And though we had our share of disagreements, I would try to understand his point of view because only with that understanding could I analyze the situation and overcome it. And I would apply this method in all of my relationships. There is a lot of turbulence in a teacher-student relationship – but it also gives way to a peaceful silence. If you leave at the time of turbulence you will never feel that peace. These teacher-student relationships are based on unconditional love and giving. Make your life a peaceful journey by continuing to give. If you receive that is great, let the students fly – if they fly high that is your reward.

To conclude, I would like to mention that, in my life I was very fortunate to have the family I have. My husband is a true friend and support. My in-laws respect Odissi not as an art form, but just as they would any field. That support gives me the positivity to always retain coolness and patience to continue to move forward. I am very thankful for what I have been given and the opportunities shown my way.



Patnaik, Sutapa. “Aruna Mohanty: The Thinking Dancer.” Narthaki.com. N.p., 6 July 2014. Web. <www.narthaki.com>.

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