Odissi exponent and musician Guru Ratikant Mohapatra on having Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra as a father and guru

The man in whose hands the great legacy of Padma Vibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra rests is his illustrious son, the great Odissi dancer and musician Guru Ratikant Mohapatra. Trained to perfection in the technique, elegant classicism and the philosophy of the art by his father and guru, most of the dazzling elements of his choreography are the accumulated result of his own determination, experience, heritage and tradition. The task has been somewhat near to the labour of Hercules, as he is a rare complete artiste. He speaks fondly, with a lot of reverence, about his father as a parent and guru. Excerpts from the interview:

Was your father different as a parent and a guru?

He was definitely different. I could see two different men while he was teaching as a guru and off the class as a parent. He was extraordinary and one had to really spend time with him to know and understand him. He never gave me any importance while he was teaching in class. He used to treat me as any of his other students, which benefitted me a lot. Today when I think about that, I thank my father a lot for that was a kind of training for me to learn to struggle in my life and stand by myself to achieve something in the field of Odissi. As a parent he was totally different. I was in the 5th or 6th standard when I was having severe gastric problems. I could not go to school for 15 or 16 days and was almost bedridden. The whole period my father was constantly with me, nursing me, pressing my legs and head, giving me medicines. I remember him holding me in his lap and taking class.

Do you do that with daughter Preetisha?

I really try but my time was totally different from hers. It is very tricky to handle her as she wants importance as a child but I am there with what my father left behind — the time. So I am sure Preetisha will cooperate. So I never treat her as my daughter in class.

Did you get anything extra from your father?

Initially I never wanted to be a dancer. I was in the NCC in school and would read many detective books and somewhere in my young mind the idea developed that I wanted to be a police officer. At the same time I was playing cricket in school. I played for my State too. So I was struggling between a police-officer and a cricketer but I landed as a dancer!

At what age was your stage debut?

In 1975; I was 10 years old and performed for the first time on stage in a dance-drama called “Konark”. The story of the Konark sun temple was being performed for the Indian Science Congress at Bani Bihar, Bhubaneswar, where Indira Gandhi ji was the chief guest. Guruji was playing the main role, Bissumaharana, and I was playing his son.

Naturally you must be dancing from a very young age...

Dancing and singing used to go on 24 hours in the house. I used to see Sanjukta ji, Kumkum ji and many others practising Manglacharan, Botu, Dheera-Samiray, and by seeing them I just remembered them. I also played the mardala. Guruji was a great mardala player, so when there were no studies I used to be in the class though I never thought I’d be a musician or a dancer. It was very interesting for me — to see him teaching and scolding students and also playing in the class. So being there I could learn. I used to dance too. So everybody started saying, “Shibu is Guruji’s son, genes would speak,” and listening to all that something went into my head unknowingly. Guruji came to know about it and felt that his son was going in a different direction now. So one day he caught hold of me and said, “Your mother told me that you play?” I said yes. So he said, “Play.” I replied, “I am not in a mood to.” Then I really didn’t know what a guru is, what a disciple is, and what the relation between them should be. I used to treat him as my father, like any other child would. He said, “Okay, okay, just let’s see how you are playing. Let father and son play.” So he played, and I played the very basic syllable for any mardala or tabla — “Dhai tere kiti taka, na tere kiti taka, teen tere kiti taka , na tere kiti taka”. But before that he never taught me; I watched him and played. That’s it.

The first speed I played, the second I managed, but the third and fourth I could not. My father said, “You are my son, you can’t play?” I replied, “I am not in a mood. Today I can’t play.” The very next day he was travelling abroad for a month and in the morning told me, “Do me a favour. Like you do your handwriting and homework everyday, for exactly 10 minutes daily, not more, not less, morning and evening play the same bol, the same syllable, in one speed, and when I come back I will check.” I replied, “I’ll try.”

After my father left I thought it was my responsibility to play since my father told me to. My uncle had given me a black electronic wristwatch with red markings. I put it on, started the stop-watch and played for exactly 10 minutes. But I played all 30 days.

Just after his return on a Sunday, we played together and I could play all four speeds without fumbling. My father said, “Oh!, you can play.” I replied, “That day I was not in a mood but today I am in a great mood, so I can play.” “Good, go on,” he praised. Then, when we were having lunch, he explained why I could play nicely after one month. I was a child then, but the way he injected reason in my mind that day was like writing on stone that stays forever, and it’s still with me. He said, “That you are my son makes no difference. What makes a difference is that practice of one month. So being my son is not important, what is important is that you practise. That will make you achieve your destiny in life”. Then I understood what he was saying was very sensible, that, yes, he is right.