Mediating Odissi Culture: My Experience

Photo Courtesy: Susil Pani

Photo Courtesy: Susil Pani

by Saswat Joshi 

In 2006, I went abroad for the first time to South Korea with my Guru Dr. Ileana Citaristi to assist her with an Odissi workshop she was conducting. Being from the state of Odisha, that was the first time I felt like a true ambassador of Odiya culture. I began to think more in-depth about certain aspects of my culture that I had always taken for granted. One very simple example is attire: during the workshop I wore a dhoti, which I had always worn as a student at the Odissi Research Center. The workshop participants were quite excited to see me each morning because I was dressed in this traditional attire. Another example is that of “Guru Pranam.” Touching the Guru’s feet and taking their blessing was something the students were not familiar with. But every morning before the workshop session started, I would touch my Guru’s feet, as this is part of our tradition of learning dance, and something I was quite proud of. On the very last day of the workshop, without any prompting, the students came and touched our feet.

During that workshop, I met many Korean students who were learning Odissi steps and mudras, pronouncing the names in a very comical way – at the time I laughed, but then I later realized how difficult it was to learn and adopt another culture. During that tour, students were coming to me wanting to know more about Odisha and Odissi. It was very difficult for me to explain the entirety of Odisha and Odissi in just a couple of sentences, there was no way to give justice to the enormity of that topic. It was during that time when I realised, I have to study more and more to be able to answer all of their questions. Back then I was not using Google, nor was I surfing the internet so much, so I did not have all the information so readily available to me. But that experience strengthened my resolve to never have to say “I don’t know.”

But time changes everything.

These days, I travel to different places in India and abroad every year for workshops and lecture -demonstrations. In that time I gained a lot of experience having worked with people from different cultures and nationalities. When I started teaching my own workshops, I started to develop a framework to make the  content more accessible to all participants. When I happen to be abroad during a particular Puja or festival such as Saraswati Puja or Ganesh Puja, I try to incorporate that into the workshop to develop the students’ awareness of our mythology and customs. Other times I organise a Ghungroo Puja or teach them how to tie a dhoti or sari. But while I do my best to teach the students about India’s culture and customs, I do not try to force anyone to follow Indian culture – just because they are learning Odissi they do not need to behave as though they from India. When I travel I try to learn as much as I can about the local culture to try to understand people’s emotions and sentiments – it is important to learn about and accept one another’s cultures without judgement.  I find the differences are quite interesting when we are open with one another, and moreover it expands our own  world-view.

When one takes Odissi and the culture of Odisha into a global platform, it is important to understand that people are not fools and one cannot teach them whatever he/she wants. I have gone to many places where other dance teachers had been, and one thing I hear very often is that “I learned ‘X’ item in two days because the workshop was two days.” I am requested to polish the mentioned items, which I try to do, but the conditions are quite similar and our capacities are limited and there is really not much that I can do for them in such a short period of time. Another important thing I have learned from my travels is that there are many Odissi Gurus and dancers who teach abroad, with a wide range of styles.  Thus it is quite common to have students of different schools/gharanas in a workshop. I have learned that it is never productive to force a student to adopt the style that one is teaching because he/she has been practicing that style for years and it is unrealistic to expect that they will change their approach and understanding of Odissi in just two-three days. So when one travels abroad to teach Odissi, it is useful to focus the workshop content on improving technique and enhancing the beauty of the style, so that students remain attracted to the beauty of our culture rather than feeling frustrated. It is not necessary to teach items at the beginning stage. Rather there should be levels according to skill and expertise: Beginner, advance, intermediate, etc. so that one can teach each group a very specialised aspect of Odissi.

It is not easy at all to mediate Odissi or any culture outside Odisha and abroad. The success of ‘translating’ cultures is entirely dependent on the person teaching and how he/she is receiving and giving knowledge. The true path of any successful dancer is to follow the 4 Ds: devotion, determination, dedication, and discipline in whatever they do. Only then will one reach their fullest capacity as an artist.

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