Multifaceted Odissi exponent Ranjana Gauhar’s dedication and work have helped her find her own space on the cultural map of India.

For Ranjana Gauhar, life is an extension of her dance. In acknowledgement of her commitment and deep devotion to Odissi, the country honoured her with the Padma Shri in 2003 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2007. Ranjana felt an instinctive liking to dance even as a little girl. She expressed her interest to her father who decided to indulge her and found her a local teacher. Dabbling in many dance and art forms until the day she watched an Odissi performance, Ranjana immediately recognised her call.

“I was searching for the ideal medium to express myself and Odissi seemed the answer to my prayers. Actually I took it up rather late – I was already in college then – but there was no looking back,” says Ranjana. “The beauty and tremendous appeal of Odissi is recorded in the rapid progress that it has made in a short time-span. The Odissi that we see today – as a classical dance form of India conducive to solo performances on stage – is just about 60 years old!”

The story goes thus: In 1954, at the Inter-University Youth festival in New Delhi, Orissa was represented by Priyambada Mohanty who presented a dance item that was put together for the occasion. Hitherto unknown to the public, this lyrical dance form evoked an ecstatic response and with the review by Charles Fabri, a Hungarian Indologist and art critic, Odissi had taken the first, but firm step in the international dance arena. The rest, as they say, is history with the triumvirate of Odissi gurus - Pankajcharan Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Debaprasad Das (who incidentally conducted the dance for Priyambada on that historic day), putting their efforts together to consolidate the dance style.

Equally important are the contributions of Guru Mayadhar Raut, under whom Ranjana began serious training in Delhi, her home town. “My father was a bit concerned watching me train in this new dance form with its distinctive body movements and postures, especially the tribhanga. He was worried I would break my bones!” she laughs. “But I have been lucky to have learned the art from a learned and dedicated person like my guru.” Training directly under Rukmini Devi Arundale at Kalakshetra for many years, Mayadhar Raut has played a crucial role in shaping the Odissi repertoire as it is today.

To him goes the credit of introducing Mudra Viniyoga and Sancharibhava in the structure of Odissi and Ashtapadis, portraying Sringara Rasa in its repertoire. Ranjana has also undergone training in Kathak, Chhau and Manipuri and used it to good effect in her productions.

Did she ever plan to go professional? “Never. All I did was to be honest in my approach to the art I worship and to the work I do. Beyond that, I believe that it is divine guidance that took me to where I am. I had no god fathers or mentors to put me on a career path. Today I am able to give the right advice to my students who are keen on taking up a career in dance.”

This inherent sincerity and her faith in her inner resources have made her the woman of many parts that she is – dancer, choreographer, researcher, author and film producer. Ranjana’s productions draw upon India’s traditions of philosophy, mythology and spirituality, adapted to suit the modern mindset and to address contemporary issues as well. Says Ranjana: “My work ‘Vasundhara’ is dedicated to the environment with a prayer for harmony and co-existence. ‘Chitrangada’, based on the work of Rabindranath Tagore, uses English dialogues from the poet’s play, while in ‘Jhansi ki Rani’, I have incorporated Chhau to create the effect and mood of valour.”

As a film producer, Ranjana has been commissioned to produce serials and documentaries that have won appreciation. ‘Geet Govind’ for Doordarshan, ‘The Celestial Dancer in the Temple of Jagannath’ for the Ford Foundation, ‘Nupur’ and ‘Prerna’ (on women’s empowerment) for IGNOU and ‘Nectar in Stone’, depicting India’s cultural relations with Vietnam and Cambodia through ancient Hindu temples, are some of her outstanding works.

The pro-active and socially committed person in her saw the founding of Utsav Cultural society to pass on India’s cultural legacy to the younger generation. Utsav also has projects for disabled children to improve their motor abilities through dance movements. To help such children, Ranjana has specially choreographed ballets such as ‘Holi Ki Kahani’, ‘Bacchon Ki Zubani’, ‘Shravan Kumar’, ‘Eklavya’ and ‘Alibaba Chalis Chor’.

In between the performances, rehearsals and travelling in and out of the country, Ranjana seems to maintain a serene balance. “It’s a crazy schedule. But, as often as possible, I seek the oasis of my home; not to mention the delightful company of my pet dog!” she laughs with a twinkle in her eye.