Dancer Shibani Patnaik talks about Odissi and how it became a integral part of her life.
More than a decade ago, Shibani Patnaik hit the headlines as a member of the US-based ‘Patnaik Sisters' Odissi dancers' trio who choreographed and performed with superstar Madonna for the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. In 2001, Stanford University presented her the Asian-American Performing Arts Award. The University also awarded her the Chapell-Lougee Scholarship to conduct research on the history of Odissi. And recently Mukteswar International Odissi dance festival featured her solo performance..
How was the beginning?
I was introduced to Odissi at a young age. Since my parents were keen that their children serve Indian arts and culture like them , three of us learnt Odissi from teachers who were specially flown in from Orissa.
Did you enjoy learning Odissi in the beginning?
Initially, it was difficult for me. I didn't enjoy it at all. I would have to say that the transformation occurred when I was about 16-years-old. I began to realise and understand the beauty of Odissi. Now Odissi is my life.
Who were your gurus.
I have learnt under several gurus. Late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan was my first teacher. Then I have been under the guidance of Guru Aruna Mohanty. She has not only been my guru and my mentor but a friend-philosopher-guide as well. I have also learnt under gurus Manoranjan Pradhan, Yudhisthir Nayak and Ramesh Chandra Jena – all from Guru Gangadhar Pradhan's famous Orissa Dance Academy in Bhubaneswar.
Did dance distract you?
Never. I studied computer science at Stanford University. So my studies were quite difficult and demanding. I managed to keep up my dance by practicing four times a week for two hours a day. I also taught Odissi at Stanford's Dance Department.
How difficult is it to establish as an Indian classical dancer in the West?
It requires significant effort on the part of the dancer and support of the family as well. I was blessed to have the support of my parents.
To what extent a dancer's family background, connections with influential people and the media matter in his or her future?
I think, in the end when you are performing on stage, the audience does not care who your father, mother and husband are. Or if you are a celebrity or connected to some celebrities. The only thing that matters is your performance and your ability to impress.
How important is it for any American-Indian to have knowledge of Indian language and culture to be an Indian classical dancer?
Extremely important. How can you perform an abhinaya without completely understanding what you are portraying? Translations and interpretations do not help much. Being a part of the culture and knowing the language are essential for any Indian classical dance. You also need to understand Odissi classical music, Sanskrit, myths and epics in Hinduism. You must experience Jagannath culture, be familiar with Orissa's history, its legends and myths. You must be able to immerse completely in the local culture.
Keywords: Shibani Patnaik