The Mukteswar dance festival was a combination of enchanting music, sensitive abhinaya and skilful footwork.

The open-air auditorium against the backdrop of a magnificent 10th century architectural marvel, the Mukteswar Temple in Bhubaneswar, came alive every evening during the three-day festival with enchanting music, foot beats and ankle bells of acclaimed Odissi dancers.

Meant to be an exclusive Odishi event, the Mukteswar dance festival featuring solo, duet and group presentations is a part of the annual Ekamra Utsav (December-January), organised by Odisha Tourism in association with Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi and Odisha Tourism Development Corporation.

Inaugurated by Union Minister of Culture Rabindra Singh, in the presence of dignitaries including MLA of Ekamra Ashoke Kumar Panda, Sudarshan Pal Thakur, principal secretary, Culture, Government of Odisha, and Sushil Das, additional director of culture, the first evening was an auspicious one. It was a full moon night and Poush Sankranti, a rare coincidence.

The towering, mystical Mukteswar-Siddheswar temples behind the sprawling stage emanated a devotional fervour and the implicit significance of Lord Siva, the presiding deity, while the inaugural chorus of “Siva Tandava Stotra” by the students of Utkal University of Culture led by Sangita Gosain reverberated through its precincts.

The first solo, ‘Rudramangalam,’ by renowned dancer Aruna Mohanty, described the presiding deity of ‘Ekamra Pitha,’ - Siva as Rudra, Mahakal and Nataraja. Known for her sensitive abhinaya, Aruna projected the iconic images of the ‘rudra but mangalamaoy’ Siva, the ‘Nirakara Omkara,’ using her eyes to advantage in the excellent portrayal of ‘Chidakasham Akasham, Namoh Rudraya.’ Based on the poetry of Tulsidas, the Sanskrit slokas by Pandit Nityananda Misra with Odiya inputs from Kedar Mishra, rhythm composed by Bijoy Kumar Barik, and Bijoy Kumar Jena’s vocal support, the dancing brought out vividly the ‘Prachanda tandava Siva,’ who is time and timeless, confined to a shape yet beyond confinement.

The poetically composed journey of Sita through shared grief, ‘Mu Bhumisuta Rajnandini Janaki’ (I am princess Janaki born of the soil) in the next item, ‘Bhumisuta’ was a display of soul-stirring execution by the seasoned dancer. Songs such as ‘Jiya binu deha, nadi binu bari’ (body without soul, river without water) and ‘Manasa karmanya vacho samuchayet -Yatha Ramang saha’ (respect and love for Rama is above everything) and when her fidelity is questioned and she appeals to Mother Earth to take her into her bosom-‘Madhavideve bibaram datu marhati,’ - evoked admiration for the commendable performance of Aruna supported by Rupak Parida’s emotional singing.

Pushpa Panda and Lopamudra Jena, students of Meera Das of Gunjan Academy, Cuttack, showed promise in the opening Desh Pallavi in Rupak taal, followed by the well-rehearsed abhinaya with the traditional song ‘Sajani chahabarey nayan pheri, kete rangey rang kheluchhanti Srihari,’ where the dancers had ample scope for various sancharis to portray Kaliyaadaman, Bakasuravada, hori and raas-leela.

The Nupur group of seven female dancers, trained by guru Niranjan Rout, began with the Mangalacharan ‘Narayan Namastutyam’ from Srimad Bhagavad Gita with Bijoy Kumar Jena’s music, the thunderous mardals of Buddhanath Swain and rhythm composer Dhaneswar Swain, accompanied by their Guru on the manjira. Khamaj Pallavi in taal abjati set to K. Ramarao Patra’s music was replete with lovely formation of lotus, an appealing samudra manthan and that of Lord Vishnu astride Garuda, with one male dancer at the centre. Costumes are now of unconventional colours and this group opted for khaki. The duet abhinaya, ‘Ahi Shiba Gouri tumi na diley dekha,’ had wonderful rhythmic composition that surpassed the dancing.

The second day began with the Mukteswar Vandana, ‘Hey Shambho Mama Bandhu,’ by the choir of the noted composer Lakshmikanta Palit. The clarinet in the prelude, touches of marching tunes, electronic accompaniment and the manjira played by the singers themselves with Nityananda Mishra’s lyrics, imparted an interesting patriotic hue to this invocation.

Saswat Joshi, trained at the Odissi research centre and later under Illeana Citaristi, began with an impressive mangalacharan - ‘Sriramabibhum Namami’ - where the devotee offers his prayers to Lord Rama. Choreographed by Citaristi, set to guru Ramesh Chandra Das’s music with script by Nityananda Mishra, the nritta-based number was well executed by the mature dancer.

The abhinaya, ‘Karna,’ scripted by Dr. P.K. Mishra, was based on the poignant tale from Mahabharata when Kunti visits Karna and pleads with him to save the Pandavas’s lives, finally revealing that she is Karna’s mother. Saswat, a strong dancer with a fine stage presence, performed the lasya (Kunti) and tandava (Karna) elements of Illeana’s choreography with competence, although at times as Karna her movements were too athletic and stretched that tarnished the beauty of the dance with abhinaya being overdramatic.

The duet by Shalaka Rai and Shobha Bisht, New Delhi, was a well-rehearsed ‘Raagmallika Pallavi’ set to beautiful music - predominantly to ragas Kalyan Thaat, taalmalika - by Madhup Mudgal and choreographed by their guru Madhavi Mudgal.

The frail dancers were well trained, their execution bore the stamp of their guru as was evident in the tender Odia abhinaya, ‘Patha Chhari De’ (Let me pass), where Radha while collecting flowers encounters Krishna who obstructs her path. Kavi Banamali’s captivating composition (sung passionately by Manikuntala Bhowmik), originally choreographed by late guru Kelucharan was re-choreographed by Madhavi Mudgal in this enjoyable item.

The group Tridhara, named for imbibing the three traits of tribal, folk traditions and classical Odissi, upholds and disseminates the late guru Debaprasad Das’ style under the guidance of his torch-bearer, guru Gajendra Panda. Their Manglacharan, ‘Siva tandava,’ set to raga Darbari, Ekatali, began with ‘Om Namah Shivaya,’ followed by Kasi Vishwanath Ashtakam. The flowing River Ganga through Siva’s matted locks was well displayed, after which came the Dhyan sloka, ‘Jatta Katah Sambhraman.’ There was a vast use of Debaprasad Das’s Sabdeswara Pata in Gajendra Pandas’ group choreography.

Bajrakanti Pallavi in tala Ektali and Triputa lacked neatness as well as confidence by the dancers but ‘Gannnanaayaka Panchakam’ embracing Sabdeswara Pata with some typical footwork of Chhau, Prahlad Natak, especially in the sequence of beheading Ganesh, by Panda as the angry Siva and Rasha Nrutya was impressive.

The final evening saw the usual Siva Vandana (chorus) by Keshaba Chandra Rout and group followed by the recital of Jhelum Paranjape of Mumbai, a senior disciple of guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Commencing with the traditional Siva Upasana stotra, Jhelum stunned the audience with the Ashtapadi ‘Dheera Sameera - choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra set to Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra’s music. Splendid execution apart, the audience was mesmerised by the captivating mardal accompaniment by Ratikant, the illustrious son of the guru, Rupak Parida’s singing and Srinibas Satpathy’s flute.

The acclaimed husband and wife, Monoranjan and Minati Pradhan’s invocation – ‘Nagendraharaya trilochanaya’ - displayed skilful nritta. But it was ‘Jatayu Sambadam,’ based on the Bichitra Ramayan of Biswanath Kunthia that brought out their abhinaya skills. Minati as Sita surpassed Monoranjan as Ravana, when she was abducted from the forests in the heartrending, ‘Hey Banagiri, hey Latagiri.’

The crowning glory of the group presentation in the festival was the performance by Srjan under the guidance of guru Ratikant Mohapatra. Beginning with ‘Vande Mataram,’ choreographed by guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in raga Desh, the imagery of the lyrics, the spirit and the nuances of the song by Tagore, arrangements by Ramesh Chandra Das and Bijoy Kumar Jena endowed it with brilliance with the dancers executing them immaculately.

The image of Bharatmata under the arches (by the dancers) were a visual treat. Hamsadwani Pallavi boasted not only of technical skill of the dancers but also the fine use of performance space and forms using combination and permutations of linearity, diagonals and concurrent dispersion from the centre to the periphery with perfect geometrical ease.

That guru Ratikant was a creative marvel was again underscored by the group choreography of ‘Ardanarishwara,’ which was originally choreographed by his father, with music by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi in raga Malika.

The vital lyricism and physical bearing of the dancers, either gliding across or standing still facing the Mukteswar temple complex, the innovative use of the hand around another depicting the serpent motif around Siva’s neck or the Sarpashira mudra (hooded snake ) were imageries that would remain etched in the mind. Innovative costumes within the Odissi style does not in the least modify admiration.

The success of the festival lay in the untiring efforts of Dr. Chittaranjan Mallia, secretary, Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi.