Odissi dancer Aruna Mohanty on the pioneering contributions of Orissa Dance Academy to the medium
Grace, clarity, style, subtlety and a compellingly expressive abhinaya define the art of the very acclaimed Odissi dancer Aruna Mohanty, Secretary and Creative director of Orissa Dance Academy (ODA) and Vice-President of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi. Learning Odissi for the last 40 years, the Sangeet Natak awardee (2010) began her training at age eight under Srinath Raut and Govinda Chandra Pal, and from 1972 was the foremost disciple of the late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. Known for her hypnotic abhinaya, Aruna’s dance brings every fibre of her body in unison with the rhythm and so skilful is its dramatic power that a soul is seen moving, transmitting the magical mechanisms from the dancer to the audience. Her choreographic designs are of high distinction attributing precision and a new dimension to the age-old art without sacrificing traditional poetry or dramatic sensibility. She has earned rave reviews in her recent three-month long U.S. tour with 12 members of her ODA. Here, Aruna talks about her late Guru and the institution she heads. Excerpts:
Being the torchbearer of Guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s legacy, how is it to have taken the reins of the Academy after him?
Orissa Dance Academy was started in 1975 by my Guruji (Guru Gangadhar Pradhan) and scholar Dhirendranath Patnaik with the first five students — Dipti Sahoo, Saratpriya Patjoshi, Nandita Bera, Mamta Naik and me. We were also the founder members of the academy which grew from practicing in private verandahs, private houses to rented places. Till today we haven’t been able to build a house, a roof over our academy.
Don’t you seek Government help?
When Guruji was there, he tried but nothing happened.
But you are the Vice President of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Yes but in a different capacity. I am supposed to look after their activities, with that I cannot improve anything for ODA but we are very fortunate that in 2007, the State Government has allotted us a Government house. So we are conducting classes there. From the very beginning, Guruji’s vision was to create a family of artistes, not an institution which would only perform and entertain, propagate or popularise the dance form. He thought if the artistes can feel that they are the members of an institution and can hold each other’s hands to strengthen the cause and be there at the time of need and success too, then this art form can go to a different height. So with that motto in mind most of the members of the ODA are still there for the last 25 years. I can say this institution has been the home for most of the Odissi performers as well as the Gurus. Today, if you see the senior male dancers of Odissi who are creating a niche for themselves in India and in different parts of the globe, at one point of time they must have had some kind of training and experience in ODA, be it Bichitrananda Swain, Monoranjan Pradhan, Ganesh, Lingaraj Swain, Ramesh Chandra Jena,Yudhishtir Naik and Pabitra Kumar Pradhan.
What attributes make ODA possess and produce the maximum number and best male Odissi dancers of the country?
You know, my Guruji was a Gotipua dancer. He thought Gotipua dancers after they are 14 can’t perform, so they come to learn Odissi. But people love to see a female body as dancers on stage. So it was a kind of norm that if you think of a dancer it should be a female dancer on stage. Guruji broke the convention. ‘Why should all male dancers become teachers?’ They should become performers too. So with that we introduced male performers. Today, we very humbly but proudly say that we have created history.
You mean to say ODA is the first to project male dancers?
Yes, male dancers in a professional way. Male dancers were learning, Guruji, Govind Chandra Pal were all learning, but no one had promoted them as performers. They have all become Gurus. ODA is the first institution in the history of Odissi where male dancers were promoted as full time performers. We started in a modest way, there was no money but a passion for dance. We scouted boys from villages, 20-22 of them, gave them a shelter and free training. This was something!
In Bhubaneswar, in our rented house. We were not driven by money but by a passion and spirit to learn. That’s why we didn’t have a bank balance but lived from hand to mouth. Whatever we used to get from fees was nominal. Even today, the dance academy fees are Rs150-250. For the last three years, we are getting grant from the Union Ministry of Culture and Sangeet Natak Akademi used to give us artistes for our festivals. They had also given us two-three production grants.But the studios have never been vacant. From 7 in the morning till 1 in the afternoon, we practise. After lunch from 4-6 p.m., the repertory unit do items for programmes and after 6 p.m., the teachers who practised in the morning, take the classes of the youngsters. So we are the performers, the teachers and creative people there. So it is run by the artists completely.
A sort of ashram....
Absolutely. When Guruji was alive, he would also eat in the mess — bhaat, dalma — that was the staple thing and once in a while fish or eggs. Even today, no one has left. Only recently, Monoranjan and Bichhi have started their own institutions and Lingaraj is working in one. You want your children to fly when they grow up and not to tie their wings so that they are stagnated! ODA is their father institution and when Guruji passed away we offered a shraddanjali in his memory. All the old students performed together. Even today if they need anything they come to me anytime —they call me aapa —sister and have a right on me and are treated as one of us. That kind of a thing I am inculcating in our students — do your work but appreciate others also.
How often do you perform?
We perform a lot.
Your own regime?
My own solo is my own responsibility — I compose something and practise — that is separate. But every morning all 20 of us — all the teacher-cum-performers practise together. We create create small pieces to challenge ourselves. That’s how we know whether the quality is maintained in the teachers and performers. Every month we do a programme in our school hall where the parents, well-wishers and board members come and one experienced dancer from three senior batches perform a solo, explain and answer questions on what they are doing. This is what I have introduced now.