Guru Bichitrananda Swain: Dance and Devotion

 
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Guru Sri Bichitranda Swain is a force to be reckoned with. Answering the call of his childhood dream, he immersed himself in dance despite great difficulty. As a result of his hard work, unrelenting drive and determination over the years, Guru Sri Bichitrananda Swain has emerged as one of the leading Odissi choreographers of his generation. His impressive body of work, spanning over two decades, reflects his depth, sensitivity and understanding of the art form and has earned international acclaim from dance critics and connoisseurs alike.

After having served as Principal of Orissa Dance Academy for many years, Guru Sri Bichitrananda Swain started his own institution, Rudrakshya, in 2003. Under the banner of Rudrakshya, he and his students have toured various cities throughout India, the USA, Canada, and Sri Lanka. A meticulous and highly sought-after teacher, Guru Bichitrananda Swain has trained a number of today’s leading soloists. Rudrakshya remains a home to many young aspiring male dancers who lack the financial means and support to pursue their dance training. Guru Bichitrananda Swain and his students have imparted training to hundreds of students both in India and abroad. During the course of a long tete-e-tete with Global Rasika, he very candidly shared his struggles and triumphs on the path of becoming who he is today.

GR: Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in dance?
BS: There were no artists in my immediate family. My Mamu (maternal uncle) had a Gotipua group, so whatever artistic influence came from my mother’s side. However, My father was an art lover – he respected art, dance, music and literature. With regards to dance, no one told me to do it, it was my own wish. In our village (Balipatna-Tikipada), there was Odissi, Jatra, and Gotipua, so I had that exposure to dance and music. The very first time I saw Odissi, I was completely captivated. I tried to imitate the mudras in the dark (I was a very shy child). Somehow, even as a child, I had this deep yearning in my heart and soul to just go and learn dance. I was very good at drawing and sculpture, so the art and that sense of aesthetics was always there.

GR: Being a male, was it very difficult for you to study dance back then?
BS: Those days in our village there was Gotipua, Odissi, Jatra etc. Access to Odissi was not such a difficulty for male students. Back then, the boys were learning but not performing. Guru Biribara Sahoo also ran a Gotipua school there. While I never studied gotipua dance, I did learn some steps and mudras.

GR: How did you begin learning Odissi?
BS: This is a very long story: My father came from a Zamindar family. Of my grandfathers, (seven siblings in all) four were very highly educated. However, the next generation was not that ambitious and did not do so much. My father was a schoolteacher. He had five sons, out of which I was the fourth. As I had an inclination towards art, my father told me that he would send me to Santiniketan, which I was very happy about. Unfortunately, none of my eldest brothers studied or managed to earn a living, so it was very stressful for my father. One day he called me over and told me: ‘these three sons of mine did not study. If you do not study I will never be able to show my face in the village.’ There was no additional income source, so he did not have the funds to send me to Santiniketan. I was totally devastated, but I had no choice but to study. So I secretly went to see the Gotipua Guru, Birabara Sahoo and explained the situation. He told me to just ‘learn something’ and taught me some chauka and exercises. I then got the idea to go to Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya (the fine arts college) in Bhubaneswar since I could not go to Santiniketan.

My father however, had different plans for me, and after my 11thclass, he admitted me into a regular college where I was forced to study. After six months, one day I just sat and cried. Tired of seeing me so sad and upset all the time, my friend Lakshman who was engineering student advised me to just get my school certificate and do the entrance at USM. For that however, I needed 500 INR and my father’s signature on the school certificate, which seemed impossible, he did not even earn 500 INR for his salary, and getting the signature would be impossible. And I almost let it go. But then my friend suggested that I just say I lost the certificate and get a duplicate.

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Photo Courtesy: Rudrakshya

I managed to go to USM for the interview even without the 500 INR because Deba Sir, (Debaprasad Das) was very fond of ghee. He knew that we had very good ghee in our village and asked me to bring one liter of it for him. And I did just that, I went for my interview, with a nice big bottle of ghee. I told them I would present ‘Namami’ but I had no sense of tala, dance, nothing at all. But Deba Sir said ‘fine fine’ – and they passed me.

But there was still the problem with the certificate. There was a complication with the duplicate that would require me to go to Puri. I had never been to Puri, nor did I have the money to go. I could not ask my father because he had no idea what I was doing. I managed to cut some Biri in our village and sell it to secure the fees for my travel and the certificate. I managed to find my way to Puri and got the certificate without too much difficulty. But then there was the issue of returning home. The last bus to my village was supposed to leave at 8pm. I went there early to secure a spot. But then all the businessmen were already sitting there and all the seats were taken, the others had to sit on the top of the bus. It finally left Puri at around 8:30-9pm. By the time we reached Balipatna Square, it was already midnight and decided perhaps it would be quicker to just walk the remaining 6km rather than waiting. I remember it was August, pouring rain and late at night. Had I stayed on the bus it would have taken too long to return, so I just prayed to Maa Mangala and all of the Goddesses to be with me and headed home by foot.

It was not a very well-developed path, basically it was designed to go through all the cremation grounds in each village. I was so terrified. But to do? I had to get home. As I was walking, I turned the corner, the rain and wind had pushed a dead body right there in front of me. I was so nervous and terrified, I thought I would die of a heart attack right then there. And then I just cried for Maa Mangala to save me. And when I opened my eyes, something miraculous had happened – I did not feel I was myself – I felt 3% my name was Bichitrananda Swain. I felt this different strength inside, like I could kill billions of tigers. I could feel the Mahashakti inside me. I felt no fear whatsoever. I walked home with my eyes big, taking long strides. When I returned to my village, I suddenly lost the power, and then I became afraid again, but then I realized that I was already saved. God saved me. I prayed to the Takurani (Goddess) in my house and then went to sleep. That was the time when I really felt the presence of God. Before, when I would watch others doing Puja, I used to question “Why?” is God actually there? But that day I realized it is true. God is everywhere. In whichever way or form you call, God is there. From that day onwards I have had so much faith. I gave my certificate to Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya and did my admission. Three months later, my father found out and didn’t say anything – he had after all wanted me to study at Santiniketan, so he was happy I was there.

GR: Can you describe your experience at Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyala (USM)?
BS: USM was life-changing experience for me. I gained a lot of experience there. I must say that I was very lucky as a student. Birabara Sahoo actually introduced me to Ganga Sir earlier – I could have learned with anyone, but I was very lucky that all of the Gurus in my life have been diamonds: Ganga Sir, Deba Sir, Pankaj Sir etc. It was very very helpful in my career.

In between my BA and MA, I went to the Odissi Research Center. There I learned Chauka 1-10 with Kelu Sir (Late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra). When I learned from him, I felt there was nothing left to learn, it was really like receiving “Mahaprasad.” – it was the biggest blessing ever.

But with this wonderful training, my student days were very difficult. I was very poor. My father had passed away in that time, and my mother had passed years before, so I was basically an orphan. I had no money nor did I have any financial or emotional support at that time. My seniors were all experienced dancers, either Gotipua or Odissi. They all told me, ‘you have no dance experience, but you have an education. You could have done a nice job, so why get into dance?’ I was also very thin, which everyone would comment on including the dance Gurus. I was always so depressed and full of self-doubt during that time, I used to wonder whether I should dance or not. I was always criticized and discouraged, so I used to think ‘why did I come here, no one is saying I should dance.’ Most of the time I was frustrated and depressed. But in spite of everything, I was very stubborn.  Something inside me said ‘I will try. I will do it.” And I somehow believed that if I try I will get there somehow. The only people who never discouraged me were Sanju Nanni (Guru Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi) and Kelu Sir (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra).

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Photo Courtesy: Debojyoti Dhar

GR: Did you ever consider leaving Odisha for your career?
BS: There was one time when I stayed at Nrityagram for one year. I could have stayed comfortably and not struggled so much. But during my time there, I would always have this nagging feeling at the back of my mind – I would remember an incident from my student days at ORC: We were in Delhi with Kumkum Madam (Guru Smt. Kumkum Mohanty), where she urged us to observe classroom sessions by some of the senior dancers and Gurus in Delhi. It was a very good experience, and I learned a lot about teaching. But one incident really bothered me: I was observing a class. The teacher, who was from Odisha, had put on a lot of weight. He had a gigantic belly and was sitting with the pakhawaj. When the girl came for her lesson he would play a little bit on the pakhawaj and then just tell her a couple of corrections without getting up. When the class was over, the girl paid her money and left. When I was at Nrityagram, I feared the same fate. I realized at that point that I was not ready to be a Guru – I did want to do this with my life, sitting and taking classes and earning money. So I left Nritagram and returned to BBSR.

Another instance I remember: My group had presented my composition ‘Chandrika Kamodi Pallavi’ in Delhi. A senior dancer-scholar came to me afterwards and said “Even if you have to eat pakhala (water-rice) and spinach, never leave Odisha. Here you will make money. But what about Odissi? There is no art in Delhi. It is there in Odisha.” And I knew I could not leave Odisha.

GR: Can you tell us about your foray into choreography?
BS: I was influenced to start choreographing by Sanju Nanni. I went to a seminar of hers many years ago in Soochana Bhavan. Back then we did not even know the meaning of the word ‘choreography.’ During her presentation she said, ‘If the artiste does not have any creativity, then no matter how big or how famous they become, that art will mean nothing – it is totally useless.’ When we heard this, we all panicked! I thought to myself ‘What?!?!’  I had never composed anything up until then. What did that mean? It really bothered me. I was around 25-26 that time. I had learned many items but I did not know how to choreograph– I felt I would never be a good artiste. I was very sad and depressed thinking that this was a skill that I did not have – I wondered how our Gurus were able to choreograph so beautifully and here I could not create anything.

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Photo Courtesy: Debojyoti Dhar

One day I went to the Konark Festival where Swapnasundari was performing with her group. I really enjoyed the presentation, which was based on a Radha-Krishna theme. I thought about it a lot, and then the idea for ‘Basanta Rasa’ came to mind – my very first composition. Bijaya was there (Bijaya Jena) to compose the music. With the Orissa Dance Academy students/dancers:  Sanjukta (Sanjukta Das), Bijayini (Bijayini Satpathy), Dimple, (Madhusmita Mohanty) Seelu, (Sheela Mohapatra) and Ramesh, (Ramesh Chandra Jena), I created that first dance composition. And somehow it has just clicked, ever since.

Another experience I vividly remember: I was composing Haragourastaka for Dimple and Ramesh. I would think about it constantly. At night I would have many ideas, but when in the morning when it came time to sit with the musicians and choreograph, nothing would ever come to mind. And I would stress out about it all the time. Then one day I just decided to surrender. I prayed to Maa Mangala: I am an artiste because of you: You saved me that time when I was getting my school certificate, so I think your blessing is with me. I fully surrendered and since then, it has just been happening.

GR: Do you have any particular process for when you choreograph?
BS: For me there is no process or script. I just do it – I just surrender. I pray to Maa Mangala, to Jagannath. feel that there is a divine power doing their work through me, that they are doing the choreography, not me. Because whatever I do – It just comes to me automatically. I do not feel like I am doing anything.

GR: What was your incentive to focus on male choreography?
BS: In my young age, I always wanted to be a dancer, but it was not easy. When other male dancers came to me to study, I thought ‘if I wanted to dance, why shouldn’t they dance.’ But there was limited scope for male performers and moreover I found that the choreographies we were doing did not necessarily enhance the male form. Then there was a seminar Bhubaneswar which focused exclusively on the issue of the male dancer in Odissi. Jayanta Kastaur who was the SNA Secretary at the time had said that while there were many beautifully choreographed items in the Odissi repertoire, they were somehow lacking a particular masculine grace. It is also important to remember that many of these items were composed were composed on a female body, which had a very different aesthetic and did not necessarily suit the male form. I was very inspired by that seminar. I worked with Dhanu Sir to compose a piece specifically for male dancers, and that was how “Tala Madhurya’ came about.

GR: Do you think the situation for male dancers have improved over the years?
BS: In some ways, yes – a lot. There is definitely more scope for male dancers to establish themselves, which wasn’t necessarily true years ago. While there is more scope nowadays as a performer than before, it is still challenging. Even for the ones who pursue an academic degree in fine arts, once they pass school they still need to work to support themselves. There are some good dancers there, but where is the time to dance if they have to work? Had they been able to focus completely on their dance then maybe we could create another genius Guru. If they can earn as lecturers why would they stay and teach? Many of these young men are all working in schools.

GR: What has your greatest challenge so far?
BS:  I don’t have any major challenges per se, but the financial aspect is the most stressful. To choreograph, you need money – to pay musicians, scriptwriters, etc. I am very fortunate to have the support of musicians who are happy to help me. Ramhari Sir (Ramhari Das), Dhanu Sir (Dhaneswar Swain), Patra (RamaRao Patra) Sir have all helped me, even in the most dire conditions, to create good work. These days to create an item, you need at least 1 lakh, more with the music recording. These days music recording is a necessity otherwise it will fade away. Students need to have that music in order to practice. Before we had the script and we were performing with the live music a lot, but these days a recording is a must.

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Photo Courtesy; Rudrakshya

GR: What do you think is necessary for dancers to succeed today?
BS: For today’s generation, it is a very different and difficult situation. Firstly, that drive and that commitment. In your generation, yes there is Bijayini Satpathy, Madhusmita Mohanty, etc. These dancers are very different. Nowadays is hard to find dancers with that same level of commitment. I don’t see it as much in the younger generation – that drive to continue in spite of school, marriage or other commitments. The sadhana that was very much a part of our generation is not there anymore. Younger dancers are too busy with work or school to focus on their practice, and the ones who are spending that time to pursue it in college spend very little time for their dance – 45 minutes in a class will not make a dancer. Many either lack the patience, or just give it up. And it is challenging to pursue dance professionally. These days, for soloists- you need a good platform and good promotion, which is very difficult. Money or power (or both) are needed.

GR: What is your opinion of the current performance scenario?
BS: These days there are a lot of festivals, and a lot of performances. But the standard has gone down. Few are talented and exceptional.

GR: Who has inspired you the most as an artiste?
BS: Sanju Nanni really inspired me. I learned so very many things from her. From Sanju Nanni I learned a lot, about body language, how to imbibe and really feel the character we are playing. I remember she was teaching us a line from the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, gandiva sansrata hasta.  Arjuna is unable to pick up the bow because it is so heavy. I showed it to her and she said ‘No! it is not that – try to pick up something heavy.’ She showed me how the arms are tense and the natural reaction to the body when you are trying to lift something – that is abhinaya – the feeling. Arjuna was unable to lift the bow and we need to feel that to express it. She said that we had to really understand the character and the context. If they are holding something heavy, we need to feel it rather than making it superficial and pretty.

Take for example, the dhanu (bow). When you lift it, there should be that strength in the arm lifting it. When you string the bow and pull it back, there should be that tension in the other arm – it should shake, that is how much tension there should is. And then – where do you look? How do you look for your target? Abhinaya is not about making the dance look pretty… and that is what we see these days. A character is a character: If you are playing the role of Radha, then yes, it should be soft and feminine. But it is important to really imbibe the character – a male will have a very different feeling inside than a woman.

Sanju Nanni also supported male dancers a lot. She would always recommend our names for performances and would attend our shows. It is a real loss that she died at such a young age. There is really no one like her.

Other artistes who have inspired me are Vempati Chinna Satyam – I really enjoy his choreography, as well as Birju Maharaj. They are extraordinary artistes who present very high standard of quality not just in dance but also in the design, costume, and stage presentation. Kelu Sir (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra) is of course another artiste I have been inspired by, for his high standard of dance and sense of choreography.

Rudrakshya Foundation Reel: “>

Comments

  1. Simply inspiring. Wonderful read, illuminating thoughts.

  2. Baishali Kanjilal says:

    Great interview, very inspiring – anecdotes and thoughts from the heart !

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