Eminent Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen goes down memory lane, revealing a hidden turn or two.

Raising her eyebrows and drawing out an “Oh really,” with a broad accent, Odissi exponent Sharon Lowen imitates the reaction of people when as a young American woman, she told them she was in India to learn dance. But being able to say she was a Fulbright Fellow provided greater acceptance. But acceptance implies a society. By Sharon's account, life must have been lonely.

When she came to India, she knew “four people” — artists G.R. Santosh, Shanti Dave, Himmat Shah and Shanko Chaudhuri, who were closely associated with her family. But Sharon had come to pursue Manipuri dance. Joining New Delhi's Triveni Kala Sangam under Guru Singhajit Singh, then director, she found life quieter than she was used to: taking solo classes, watching the troupe's rehearsals — but not able to interact with them on a friendly basis — and watching every dance performance that took place in the city. With few friends and no window for interaction, it was a far cry from her busy schedule in the U.S.

Looking back, Sharon says, “When you're young, you have no idea what you're up against, and it's so important not to know.” So it was that Sharon, trained in Ballet, Jazz, Modern Dance and Manipuri in the U.S., took the plunge. She had originally planned to study at the Manipuri Academy in Imphal and describes wryly how difficult it was to explain to the miffed gurus who did not understand English (“leave alone American English”) that she had not opted for Triveni on a whim, rejecting the Academy's offer of admission. India did not allow foreigners to go to Imphal, and the Fulbright Programme made special arrangements for her in New Delhi. In another example of how historical events impact individual lives, her arrival in India was delayed by a year. “I was supposed to arrive in 1972, but right after the Bangladesh war, India and America didn't have cordial relations,” she recounts.

With paperwork taking longer than she expected, Sharon completed her Masters in Dance in the U.S. And that was good, says Sharon, since later she was free to extend her stay in India beyond nine months. In 1973 and again in 1976, she did go to Manipur and took lessons under some of the finest masters there.

Sharon was also among the pioneering women who learnt and performed the male Manipuri dances such as the kartal cholam with success.

Today Sharon is known best as an Odissi dancer, though some know of her Chhau training too. Her foray into Odissi was part of a careful process in the artistic journey. “My idea is, your teacher tells you to move when you're ready to move on.”

So, not only did her Odissi training start with permission from Singhajit Singh, she also resisted the temptation to join Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's workshop when the opportunity first arose since she didn't want to be a ‘dance collector' as dilettantes were known.

In 1974 when the Odissi maestro came to Delhi, she only opted to watch. Kelu Babu, says Sharon fondly, knew not only how to demonstrate perfectly but also “how to see everybody, correct everybody, as if it was an individual class” even if he were conducting a workshop for 20 students. Also, what Sharon noticed was the camaraderie in the class, “the way Kelu Babu treated everyone so equally.”

Across cultures

This ability of Sharon's to see across cultures has no doubt contributed to her artistic vision. But it also contributed in a practical way to her learning several dance forms. When in the following year, Guru Kelucharan returned to Delhi, she joined his classes and he soon had her coaching the juniors and learning dance compositions far beyond what she normally would have learnt given the amount of time she had given to Odissi. Before that, though, she had begun learning Chhau.

“That was also the year when Krishna Chandra Naik (Mayurbhanj Chhau exponent) got the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Bharatiya Kala Kendra got him to choreograph some of their ballets,” she recalls. “I was coming into the last lap of my two years (her grant had been extended).” Planning to return to the U.S., she thought about how actors learnt Chhau for a short period and vastly improved their skill base. Would she not, with her trained dancer's body, benefit perhaps even more?

Her training in western styles was helpful in this respect, as “Chhau originates its movements from the torso,” she explains. “The leaps, turns, jumps, balancing I had from my earlier training.” So she began learning Chhau under Guru Krishna Chandra — incidentally, alongside creative dancer-choreographer Bharat Sharma of Bhoomika.

She remembers her gurus with fondness, especially Kelu Babu who seemed to see the wild streak in her. In 1981 when she got a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship, she came back to India. At Kelu Babu's classes in Orissa, she learnt five dance compositions. In Delhi, under Naik, she gave a demonstration for the BKK Repertory as her guru was old and unwell.

Today, performances and new productions occupy Sharon. Among the latest is ‘Siva Vivaha.' She helps organise and sometimes choreographs in Khajuraho for the Lalit Group of hotels every year.

Sharon is likely to repeat a dance theatre production based on a work by Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati. But she has a book in the pipeline too. She wants to listen to the Dalai Lama, visit Spiti, and work with social organisations. One knows better than to ask her how she will do it all. There is the matter of a track record.