SNA Award recipient Sharmila Biswas on what it means to be a dancer and Kelucharan Mohapatra’s disciple
For people like her, says Odissi exponent Sharmila Biswas, dance — rather than recognition and money — is what matters, or “that’s what we like to think — that it is an end in itself.” Still, when she heard of her selection for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award — 2012 (which she received the other day in New Delhi), she “was hit by a wave of elation”. Back in Kolkata at her institute, the Odissi Vision and Movement Centre, she says the wave continues “and seems to have brought a new joy” to her dance and teaching.
Sharmila recalls fondly that her first solo performance was at SNA’s Nritya Pratibha festival, her first research project got SNA support, and the first time she actively participated in a seminar was at an SNA event in Puri.
“They have played a major role in shaping the dancer in me. So it is a good feeling that they appreciate me for what I am now,” says the choreographer and performer known for her innovative use of stage space and integration of lesser known instruments of Odisha with conventional Odissi.
Here, she shares her views on her art — one she prefers to spell as ‘Odishi’ — with palpable passion. Edited extracts:
Innumerable dancers have trained under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, but all have distinct identities. Would you credit Guruji’s training for this or do you think it is due more to the nature of the individuals?
Guruji defined Odishi dance. He was multi-talented — precise in defining the grammar and his distinct style. Even in his use of the mardala, was a revolution, and created the distinct Odishi style of mardala. He worked on his solo and group compositions, stage and costume designing to the last detail. This holistic approach formed the structure of his teaching. Absorbing stimulations, he himself evolved constantly. Students were exposed to the grammar, but were also encouraged to interpret for themselves. For those who genuinely wanted to learn, these classes went far beyond grammar and composition. They were inspirational.
Another important factor was that his classes were not just confined to his residence. He travelled to different places through the year. He had this astonishing ability to understand the mindset and the ability of each group of dancers and accordingly adjust his teaching. Each movement, each composition, expressed subtle changes, but the technique and essence stayed the same. I had the opportunity to learn most of his compositions time and time again as part of divergent groups. I experienced directly his genius in every aspect of his art. The gaps that came between classes when he travelled were chances for every student to imbibe the substance of his teaching and grow independently according to their inclination and aptitude.
These are the reasons why, I think, one sees many of Guruji’s students having distinct identities, yet displaying very strongly his gharana.
What inspires you in selecting themes for new choreography?
It is hard to put a finger on it. They are, of course, themes and subjects I can identify with. They would have to have the depth to give me an opportunity to personally interpret, expand and they will have to stand the test of time. They would need to bring out some aspect of traditional Odiya performing art — but not commonly known.
There is a prevailing feeling that a career in classical dance is an option only for the wealthy or risk-takers. With so many talented and committed younger dancers giving up dance because of personal restrictions it is hard not to feel frustrated. But it is equally disappointing to see young dancers give up with no practical or binding reason, coming up with excuses, such as you mentioned. I understand that priorities change over time. I try not to be judgmental. Yet I can’t but feel sad.
To the young people who wish to take up dance as a career I have a few suggestions:
* Start planning a career right after high school.
* Choose a subject that leads into a profession that will supplement your income from dance.
* Look for a part-time job.
* Organise and edit your life so you can pursue your passion.
* Live a simple and disciplined life.
* Choose a life partner who has the understanding to let you be who you want to be.
* Above all, mean it when you say dance is your first priority, and acknowledge that you are not here to make money.
* The professional dancers today have gone through many of the problems you are going through, often many more as they also had to fight against the more severe conservatism of their time. Ask them how they coped.
Can the concept of a dance career be widened beyond the performer and teacher?
Many dancers now are expanding the horizons. Research and choreography are popular. Dance therapy and dance to address specific needs are also ways to continue one’s relationship with dance.
There is a concept I find very interesting. Since dance is a composite art encompassing literature, history, mythology, aharya (costume design, jewellery, stage design, props), music, and science (human physiology, anatomy and psychology) — why can’t we integrate it into our education system to enhance it? In fact, dance is possibly the only link through which children can learn about our traditional and cultural heritage. A dancer aware of human anatomy and physiology can consciously teach dance to increase endurance, stamina, concentration and relaxation techniques to help improve one’s quality of life.
Actually, these are works of universities teaching dance as a subject. The teachers there should come up with curriculums and courses which would empower dancers, and not just teach dance techniques.
What are your current projects/interests?
We, the current generation of dance teachers, confuse material for performance as the material for curriculum. In most of the classes attractive items are used as training material. These do not help the dancers to either strengthen their foundations or evolve later as dance practitioners. The very few who emerge successful are self-motivated.
If we read about the lives of devadasis or old traditional dancers, we begin to appreciate how thorough their training was. An effective curriculum for dance today will have to be more inclusive. My current concern, apart from composing for the stage, is to make the training system sounder.
The four most essential qualities a physical training system must incorporate are endurance, stamina, flexibility and balance. I am now in the process of developing a system that addresses all four through the science of dance and yoga techniques. Two other sadly neglected aspects of dance are music and literature, the principal pillars of dance. A dancer not familiar and comfortable with either cannot interpret or improvise dance with acumen. I am working on including both these in a dancer’s curriculum. This knowledge will again have to be imparted through dance, in a thorough and systematic way. A dancer’s mind absorbs information more readily through dance.
Recently I completed a workshop focusing on the chakkars (bhramari-s in Sanskrit). The students tend not to be too fond of long lists of techniques. I was planning how to string together all the bhramaris, circumventing the boredom of learning dry grammar. Beginning with a list of bhramaris — once done by Guruji, I added a few subdivisions. Shri Lingaraj Swain and I analysed them by breaking down and simplifying the movements. After that we taught specific exercises needed to execute each bhramari effectively. I strung all the bhramaris into a dance item. Watching the happiness on the faces of the students I realised not only had they enjoyed the workshop but also had fun learning and participating in the ‘new item’! Now I will add dance games to bring unpredictability and challenge and make the practice pleasurable for class. I probably will also use a style of music that is part of the Odishi tradition, but one the students are not familiar with.