A spotless reputation, puritan lifestyle and a missionary zeal marked the life of Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.
‘Men may come and men may go; but I go on forever…' (The Brook)
Odissi dance is incomplete without Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. His contribution to this system of dance is like the perennial river that has no bounds, no end. If it is on the verge of dehydration, that can only be till the rains pour to resuscitate it with a fresh lease of life! This is precisely what had happened to Odissi dance form before Kelubabu - as he is affectionately addressed in his home state- came on the scene. Odissi dance had existed earlier too, but in an amorphous form.
He was a visionary with a mission which he meticulously nurtured, breathing his entire life into it, so that today, it has struck roots and risen like a mighty tree providing shelter to aspiring artists. Kelubabu is alive in every single disciple he had sculpted with scrupulous care and concern. He is the founding father of Odissi dance form which now has a layered structure and rich content that cannot be tampered with. “He is a path-finder who resurrected this loosely knit dance into a wholesome art form ,” says Kumkum Mohanty, one of his earliest disciples.
To his wife, Lakshmipriya, the first female Odissi dancer on stage, he was the young percussionist (mardala/maddela) who had a penchant for dance and fell head over heels in love and as a run-up to marriage with her, learnt Odissi dance himself! He turned out to be an ace dancer, imbibing the spirit of dance, vesting it with reverberating rhythm and statuesque postures gleaned out of Orissa's rich temple sculpture heritage. On October 1, 1947, Dasavataar was staged as part of the stage play Saadhaba Jhia (Traders' girl) and the young couple danced together. Later, due to family commitments, she decided to call it a day.
To Ratikanth Mohapatra, his talented son who heads Srjan, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Odissi Nrityabasa, he was an affectionate father. Says Ratikanth, “I remember when I was ill for 15 days, he was at my bedside, nursing me with great care and affection. He had to give personal attention to the ones he loved-that was more or less a principle with him. . I am most fortunate to be twice-born-as his son and his disciple. He was deeply religious, devoted to Lord Shiva.” From being a householder to a performer was a complete transition. “He would get transformed the moment he put on the grease paintHe would internalise the role he took on stage,” says Ratikanth. Writer Pratibha Rai rightly described him as abhishakt gandharva and on his passing away is quoted to have said, “maybe out there in the heavens, they fell short of a great teacher and took him back.”
As a guru, Kelubabu was a ‘complete package', as Ratikanth puts it. Recounting the very early days of his great father-guru, he says, “it would surprise many that father was actually transporting water pots in a betel grove. He was often heard singing at work and one fine day, the master of the grove, sensing his innate talent, helped him with a meagre finance to learn music. Father joined Gotipua (a community of young boys trained to dance in temples). Father learnt music, dance and acting for 12 years under Mohansundardev Guruswami and later joined Annapurna studio (theatre) as a tabla player. This was where he met my mother. Post-marriage, both moved to Cuttack Kala Vikas Kendra. He started researching on folk arts, temple sculptures as he taught dance. And towards the end of 1957, three meetings on Odissi repertoire called ‘Jayanthika' were held and the three great gurus (Pankaj Charan Das of Mahari style, Debaprasad Das of Tandava style and Kelubabu) pledged to work for a unified Odissi. Till 1980, there was no discipline in Odissi dance style and Kelubabu was the architect who chiselled the dance form into a discipline. He knew the scientific significance of dance on biological responses and body mechanism.
To Sujatha Mohapatra, his illustrious, talented daughter-in-law, Guru Kelucharan is God in flesh and blood. “It is my great fortune to be a part of this dance family. Unlike other disciples, I could watch him, live in his presence, so I imbibed his nature, his responses, his discipline, his dedication, his teaching skills and his style of expression through dance, not to talk of his boundless affection,” her eyes echo what her heart speaks.
One of his older students, Jhelum Paranjape recalls, “to guruji, dance was his religion, his passion, his life. The dancer-disciple who would don the role of Krishna was not allowed to touch guruji's feet before going on stage, for to him, the dancer was God Himself. Once when Mahanadi was in spate and the waters had inundated his puja room and come up to his waist, he was patiently trying to squeezout the flood waters with cleaning towels for nearly an hour! He was like a child. The moment his Padmasri award was announced, he went running across the street excitedly shouting ‘we won' in the sense that Odissi finally got recognition, not he, mind you! Even when he underwent an open heart surgery, he would and lift up his shirt to show us his lengthy scar! As a teacher, he struck terror in our hearts but was an angel out of class! That's guruji for you!”
With a spotless reputation, a puritan lifestyle and a missionary zeal devoid of a desire for material gains, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra was a cut above the rest. “There are many great gurus but he was greater and by far the greatest,” say his disciples in unison.