Parwati Dutta is on a mission to popularise Kathak and Oddissi in rural areas and make such art forms accessible to the marginalised.
What makes Parwati Dutta an avante garde dancer is her ability to harness her passion for dance for the benefit of society. Mahatma Gandhi Mission Sangeet Academy (MAHAGAMI), of which she is the founder-director, is more than an institution that imparts training in Kathak and Odissi. The curriculum and activities of this two-decade old institution situated in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, have been ingeniously designed to awaken marginalised sections in the society, culturally. A revered guru, she has to her credit more than 1,500 disciples belonging to all age groups. Anubhuti, a unique art-awareness project, has touched several lives. The globe-trotting dancer is a member of the International Dance Council of UNESCO. In 1999 BBC produced a documentary on her highlighting her contributions to the society through the medium of dance. MAHAGAMI is perhaps the first ISO certified art organisation in the world. An ardent researcher, Parwati has been successful in salvaging many lost elements of Kathak and Odissi and also in enriching her choreographies using them.
Recently in Thrissur for a Kathak workshop and performance, organised by Navaneetham Cultural Trust, she spoke at length about her adventurous dance journey. Excerpts:
Beginning of the journey
I was born in Howrah and brought up in Bhopal. My parents, both engineers, were well disposed towards arts and culture. They exposed me to performances of maestros who frequented Bhopal. My passion for dance was so intense that at the age of three after watching a recital by Guru Birju Maharaj, I insisted on dancing with him! Going by my academic record, engineering was my natural option. I was set to go to the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to study computer engineering. All was set for my travel. But something pulled me back. I revealed my ambition to pursue dance to my mom. Her reply was a turning point in my life: “Parwati, decide what kind of life you would like to lead after six years”. So I took the bold decision to join the Kathak Kendra, Delhi and the journey was on.
As a student of dance in Delhi
Delhi threw open vast vistas before me. I became the favourite disciple of Guru Birju Maharaj. For Odissi, I had Madhavi Mudgal and Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra as my gurus. Delhi enriched my experiences with morning riyaz, exercises, performances and long tours abroad. I realised how the gurus imparted not only the intricacies of art but also inculcated in me their vision of art. Later in my career, this proved to be helpful to me. I was committed to rediscovering our hoary tradition. That commitment got a boost when I was selected to work as a research consultant at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts under the scholar Kapila Vatsyayan.
Into the realm of adventure
I received an invitation from the Mahatma Gandhi Mission Trust to open a gurukul school of dance in Aurangabad. Ignoring the advice of all my gurus to stay back in Delhi, I accepted the invitation. The rural environment was totally strange to me; but I accepted the challenge and opened classes for Kathak and Odissi for the people for many of whom Bollywood films epitomised Indian culture. For a woman of my age to live in a single cottage in a jungle-like place, was really an adventurous proposition. There was resistance from some political activists against teaching Odissi, which was not a part of the Maratha tradition. My cottage was ransacked. But the Gandhian in me was unfazed. I identified the cause of the resistance – absolute ignorance about our culture. So the solution was creating awareness among them. Braving teething problems, I embarked on activities that included training, dissemination, production, documentation, research, publication, educational outreach and social awareness. A stream of luminaries performed regularly at the annual Sharangadev festival. Named after the 13th century musicologist and author of Sangeetha Ratnakara, who lived in Aurangabad, the festival was a boost to glorify the cultural past of the region. Interestingly, MAHAGAMI is situated in a land that was the heartland of many traditions. Ellora and Devgiri Fort, where the first music concert was held during the Yadav period, are monuments of the glorious past.
Interdisciplinary workshops have created many novel productions, including Rangakriti, Kan, Srijan Teerth and Odissi production Punaravritta for which Dhrupad has been used. Varna Riti in Kathak is based on mnemonic language of Pakhawaj and Vadya Pallavi in Odissi, on the lyrical patterns of the mardal.
For my shishyas, I am a parent. I stitch their costumes, make them up for performances and also look after their physical wellness. A good number of them are recipients of scholarships and freeships from different agencies. Most of them have presented solo and group performances with me in all the major festivals in India and abroad. I bank on them for the awareness programmes regularly held in different places. rescue homes, military schools, orphanages, old-age homes and even in prisons. We have plans for more outreach projects; but there is a dearth of dancers who are prepared to serve in rural areas.