Her mother wanted Sangeeta Dash to learn music. But the teacher who came to teach young Sangeeta turned out to be a dance teacher. So she started learning dance much to the dislike of her mother. “She wanted to know why girls should learn dance when after a point they would have to get married and take care of their family,” recalls the Odissi exponent. She adds with a chuckle, “In fact, I also didn’t want to learn dance. I was lazy.”
However, at the age of eight, while staying on the campus of Agricultural University in Bhubaneshwar, where her engineer father was posted, she happened to interact with Odissi exponent Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. He was impressed by Sangeeta’s talent and took her under her wings.
“I would say dance chose me,” says Sangeetha to Friday Review. She was in the capital city to perform as part of the Horizon series of concerts of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient says she owes her career to her gurus, Guru Ranbir and late Guru Deba Prasad Das. In fact, the veteran turns emotional when she talks about Deba Prasad Das. She talks at length about how her guru tried hard to propagate his style of Odissi that fell behind Kelucharan Mohapatra style in patronage and popularity.
Sangeeta learnt from Deba Prasad Das for six years. “He was a genius and was disappointed when his style was sidelined on several public platforms. My guru was the one who introduced tandav and Saptaswara pada to the dance form. Tandav is now done in other styles too. His untimely demise came as a shock. I thought I wouldn’t dance any more. But then I took it upon me to take forward his style of Odissi,” says Sangeeta.
The Deba Prasad Das style is different from the Kelucharan Mohapatra style in many ways. “Our style is more intense and grounded. It has powerful footwork and speed. Nothing is overdone, be it in the basic position of chauka [square] or movements of the torso. The jumps and pirouettes are sharp and strong,” she adds.
She has even tried her hand in films with the sole purpose of “making my guru famous. I have done eight films in Oriya. It was a deliberate attempt as films reach out to more people. I thought, once they know me, they will know my guruji as well.”
With over four decades of career behind her during the course of which she has performed at venues across India and abroad, she has been a witness to many of the changes that have come into the dance form, be it in the costume or make-up. “The costume has to be traditional. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be practical. For example, since wearing a sari was time-consuming, I started using readymade costume with pleats in the centre. Initially my guru was upset with that. I also experimented with the make-up; the old version was pretty much like a mask. I focus on being sophisticated, yet natural,” she says.
The dancer is now settled in Puducherry where she runs Meera Dance Academy and Research Centre. She also teaches at the Aurobindo Ashram, which she calls “a service.” It’s also the reason why she prefers to be away from the competitive world. “I am away from the competition happening around. I tell my students to not go after fame and awards. There are so many good things happening around. Experiment with what you have,” she says.
Meanwhile, she is pleased that Odissi, especially her guru’s style, is getting more stages in South India. “Many don't know about Deba Prasad Das style and I am trying as much I can to take it to more people.” In fact, later this month she is organising a two-day event on Odissi and its music and percussion in Puducherry.
And something she is really looking forward to is a new production based on the life of ascetic Sabari from The Ramayana. “My student Aneesh Raghavan is helping me with it. Here is a woman who seeks moksha through her bhakti. The piece is special in that I have reached a phase where I seek the divine through this vocation of mine,” says Sangeeta who will turn 50 this year.