Rahul Acharya literally toddled his way into Odissi. That was at age three, which would mean that this young man of 28 has already a quarter of a century of dancing behind him. And in this journey Rahul has passed many memorable milestones. Rahul is the first and the youngest male Odissi dancer to be awarded the prestigious Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Pratibha Puraskar from the Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi. He is the recipient of the Senior Scholarship from Government of India's Department of Culture, an empanelled artiste of Indian Council for Cultural Relations,and an A-graded artiste in Doordarshan, to name a few of those landmarks. Excerpts from a conversation with Rahul …
How it all happened
Yes, it would seem a bit strange that a boy from a family of bureaucrats, doctors and engineers would take up dancing for a profession and seriously at that. As a kid, I used to accompany my sister to her dance classes and guruji noticed my interest in it. He probably though that I was “fresh clay,” ideal to be moulded and so approached my mother with the request to teach me. Being the progressive woman that she is, my mother agreed and thus began my journey in Odissi. However my parents insisted that I excel in academics as well. I have taken a post-graduate degree in bio-technology, foregoing my admission to JNU, to be in Bhubaneshwar and pursue my uninterrupted study of dance.
I come from the family of Raj Gurus of Lord Jagannatha in Puri. My mother Binapani is the first chemical engineer in the state of Orissa and father, K.P. Acharya, is a bureaucrat.
I have been very lucky to have been taught and moulded by the renowned guru Durga Charan Ranbir. Guruji is the most famous disciple of the legendary Debaprasad Das and is responsible for preserving the Debaprasad Gharana in Odissi and popularising it all over the world. He is the founder director of ‘Nrutyayan,' where he imparts training to students in Odissi.
Career in dance
I took up my profession as an Odissi dancer with my eyes open, being well aware that Odissi was a “female domain.” I knew that Odissi had the label of “lasya” stuck to it and that I would run the risk of being branded effeminate. It was exactly this taboo that I wanted to break and this image that I wanted to clear. I would be lying if I said that I had to struggle to come up this far. Frankly I had everything handed to me on a platter. A supportive family, an ideal guru, scholars for relatives, and understanding teachers at college who put up with my intermittent attendance in class.
My art has taken me to many parts of the world – in fact I am travelling as much as I am dancing! I also enjoy giving lecture-demonstrations, which seem to have been well received judging from the feedback I got from the Indian Institutes of Technology, Santiniketan, and some South American Universities. Movement for Indian Fine Arts, Italy, International Dance Council, UNESCO and working in tandem with the eminent choreographer Ramli Ibrahim are projects that have given me a lot of satisfaction.
Research on Odissi and Jagannath culture
Jagannath has always been close to my heart –well, devotion to Lord Jagannath is something that I was born with, I suppose. Now, with my background in Odissi and the dance form's close association with the Jagannath temple, I am inclined to research into its antiquity and put the history of Odissi and the Jagannath culture into a proper perspective. Odissi was given the status of a classical art form in 1958. But there is no doubt that Odissi in its earliest form – as a ritual in worship – is very ancient and entwined with the Jagannath temple, as the records testify. In fact, dance as a ritual of worship practised by the Devadasis finds mention in several Puranas, as does the Jagannath temple.
Evolution of Odissi
The Devadasis of Jagannath were known as Maharis, probably derived from ‘Maha Nari' meaning “noble woman,” which alone is enough to denote the status that this class enjoyed then. In the course of my research, I have had the occasion to interact with many old Maharis and I have heard them quoting names of Shastras such as ‘Devadasi Nrutya Paddhati' of Narayan Mishra, ‘Nachuni Vidhi' of Madhu Pattnaik, ‘Niladri Nacha' of Mukta Mahari. Bharatha Muni's Natya shastra has classifications of dance forms from different regions and the Udra-Magadhi style that is mentioned would relate to the dance of modern day Orissa. Over the years, the fate of Odissi was shaped by royal patronage, the Bhakthi movement, and the development of the ‘goti pua' variation danced by boys. It fell in stature, as is evident from the rather dismissive term ‘Odiya nacho,' which it was given till the not too distant past. Ratikant Mahapatra, son of the doyen Kelucharan Mahapatra, works along with me in my research. My work now would be to establish in undeniable terms the antiquity of the Odissi heritage which lies written, perhaps not in words, but in the paintings of the Rani Gumpha caves or in the stone images of the Parashurameshwara, Lingaraj, Konark, and Jagannath temples.