Multifaceted dancer Sonal Mansingh shares her journey of discovering Odissi and its musical forms

Sonal Mansingh has always maintained artists cannot live in a vacuum. Therefore art responds to conditions in society, and, no matter how ancient its origins, always has a contemporary message. The literary sources for her performances have ranged from the Vedas to commercial Hindi film songs. Trained in a number of classical traditions, including Bharatanatyam, Chhau and Odissi, she has significantly contributed to enlarging and informing the audience for classical dance. She has engaged in decades of research into the fading musical forms of Orissa and enriched the repertoire of Odissi dance. For all her scholarship, Sonal also conveys ideas in a manner accessible to ordinary folks. Recently she presented “The Silver Lining,” a programme that paid tribute to the poetic and artistic heritage of India, and to the people whose lives it sustains — sometimes even in the absence of basic necessities like food. The Vedas are alive today in the mouths of the poorest of the poor and the Dalits, says Sonal, in their songs and dances and other creative arts. Excerpts from a conversation:

Artists and problems of society

My job is to give a push in your heart. What (else) can an artist do? I can’t stage a dharna. I’m not a (political) leader. After the programme I had so many emails and phone calls from unknown people. They were crying, they said they were going to do something about it. What they will do I don’t know, but my mission is successful.

The importance of technical perfection in arts considered spiritual

People think spirituality comes in a bottle! Spirituality is also discipline, and until you master that mental and physical discipline you don’t become spiritual. I’ve learnt this from my own experience.

On Odissi music in the early years of the dance form’s revival (late ’50s and ’60s)

When I started learning Odissi (1965), the music was either Carnatic or Hindustani. I’m talking of the Kelucharan Mohapatra school. The main reason being that Guruji (Kelucharan) formed a partnership with Bhubaneswar Mishra, who was a student of (renowned Carnatic musician) Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. Another stalwart in those days was Balakrushna Das. His emphasis was on Hindustani. The singing too was not the typical Oriya way of singing.

The search for original Oriya music

In 1972 I came under Jiwan Paniji’s mentorship (when Kelubabu refused to teach me). I said, it’s very strange. I’ve learnt Bharatanatyam. Nobody dared tamper with Dikshitar, Tyagaraja, and the other composers. Even Tagore, nobody can monkey around with. Why does poor Jayadeva have to suffer? Was he a fool to mention the names of the ragas for each ashtapadi in his Gita Govindam?

Finding the original ragas

Jayadeva is from the 12th Century, and Sangeetaratnakara from the 13th — there is not a very long gap. The ragas taken up for description in the Sangeetaratnakara were the ones prevalent then. Sure enough, we found the ragas mentioned by Jayadeva in Sangeetaratnakara. So we started recomposing the ashtapadis in those ragas. And believe me, the bhava just blossomed. “Lalitalavangalata” was set to Vasant (the one described in Sangeetaratnakara). “Kuru Yadunandana” was set to Ramakri — it brought out Radha’s whole mood of appeal. In “Pashyati Dishi Dishi” when set to Gunakri, that whole description by the sakhi of Radha’s condition comes out. Side by side, we took up existing melodies of traditional songs and recognised which ragas they were related to.

Then we had a seminar in 1983, and in ’85 Madhavi (Mudgal) organised the Anghar festival of Odissi. Many of the stalwarts were dead against what Jiwan Pani said about Odissi music at the time.

Expanding the Odissi repertoire

I performed Charya Geeti — songs from Tantrik Buddhism — where it is always the male sadhak yearning for a female goddess. We revived a lot of other old compositions, like the Oriya Pala. There is a main singer and a group, and the main singer is a scholar with knowledge of literature from all over. They explore a text all night. In this genre I presented “Sukuntala” (She of beautiful tresses). Bankim Sethi has some 277 new compositions which Jiwan Pani and I introduced. I learnt Mayurbhanj Chhau in Baripada. I also integrated some vigorous movements into the languid movements of Odissi.

Revealing old traditions

When I brought Prahlad Natak (theatre form of Ganjam) to Delhi we built a 12-tier stage. We introduced Mayurbhanj Chhau to Delhi in 1973. People talk of innovations and experiments! We lose sight of our traditions, and when we re-present them, they call it innovation!