Guru Harekrishna Behera, who passed away in New Delhi this past Sunday, will be remembered for popularising Odissi outside his native State.
As the 20th Century saw India increasingly waking up to the call of Independence from British rule and eventually take its place among the nations of the modern political landscape, the arts were an enthusiastic part of this phenomenon, as traditional and sacred forms of expression were rediscovered and often repackaged to meet the contemporary world halfway and help a newly independent country take pride in its heritage. Mistakes too were made, and misunderstandings perpetuated, but that phase of nation building cannot be wished away. And there is no doubt it was laden with hope and a constructive energy. The 21st Century, though, is a sober reminder that nothing lasts forever. A determined wave of loss engulfs, one by one, the icons who made us proud to be Indians, the elders whose lives were their message. Among the latest to leave the flock and embark on his last journey was Guru Harekrishna Behera, Odissi dancer and preceptor to hundreds of students across the world, who breathed his last this past Sunday at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The Odissi field seems to be particularly unlucky in that it has lost its leading lights in quick succession, some to really untimely deaths.
Guru Behera is recognised as having helped establish Odissi as a classical dance form when hardly anyone had heard of it outside his native State.
His daughter Kavita, noted Odissi dancer, says he was singing Oriya songs and the Dashavatara ashtapadi from the Gita Govindam hours before his passing. Having suffered a long illness, he had been in and out of hospital over the past couple of years, and had recently returned home after another 10-day stint. Kavita’s narration of how on Saturday he became strangely silent, then partook of prasad from the local temple where his students had performed, followed by his singing of devotional songs just before becoming breathless and being rushed to hospital, is only further illustration of a life immersed in unquestioning bhakti. Towards the end, says Kavita, he told his wife and doctors attending on him that his “ticket has been issued” and died peacefully.
Messages of grief and condolence are pouring in from all over the world on Kavita’s Facebook page and other sites. Student after student points out how Guruji, beyond teaching dance, taught one how to be a good human being.
A man of humble beginnings, his precise date of birth is the subject of some confusion to his daughter, since the family knew it to be 23 March 1931, although the records placed it at 1938. Hailing from village Buanl in Balasore district of Odisha, he studied, says his daughter, perhaps only till Class V. However, he was an avid reader and made up for his lack of formal education, teaching himself to read and write Hindi and Bengali, and acquiring a working knowledge of English.
His depth can be gauged from the fact that he undertook systematic training in Kathak from Pandit Birju Maharaj, as well as Thumri from Siddheshwari Devi. He was never known to perform these forms. While today the trend is to pick up bits and pieces of training to create a picturesque amalgam for performance, here was a man who allowed knowledge to deepen his awareness yet did not flaunt it.
It was during these knowledge gathering forays that he forged bonds with artists across the spectrum. Shovana Narayan and Uma Sharma learnt Kathak under Birju Maharaj alongside Behera.
“Papa used to say that whatever I am today is because of Birju Maharaj,” relates Kavita. This was because at a time when his scholarship from the Ministry (of Culture) had expired and he did not know how to make ends meet, the Kathak maestro strictly told the young Behera, ‘You will not return to Orissa.’”
Thus the young Odissi guru took up accommodation with Birju Maharaj till he found his feet in the Capital.
The list of people who have learnt under or taken guidance from Guru Harekrishna Behera in Odissi dance reads like a roster of luminaries from various walks of life. Yamini Krishnamurti, Sonal Mansingh, Madhavi Mudgal, Radha Reddy, Jyoti Srivastava and Smriti Mehta are just a few of the dancers. That well known journalist Barkha Dutt too was his student is illustrative of how variously and in hidden ways a guru can touch the world through his art.
Strict in teaching, his favourite way of scolding his disciples was “bhaalu gadha,” laughs Kavita. The students loved it so much that they unconsciously have begun to imitate the reprimand in their own classes. One senior student, conducting class in front of Guruji, only realised what she had said in the sudden ensuing silence. Then Guruji burst out laughing, to her relief!
Having set up classes at his home in Asiad Village besides Alaknanda and Gurgaon, Guruji was taking active part in the teaching from his residence — the other centres are handled by the younger daughters Kaveri and Kalyani — till the end, says Kavita, and though his memory may have been failing him on other counts, he was always accurate in remembering the dance compositions. Though all his daughters are Odissi dancers, he never used his influence to help them get a platform, they say.
Guruji had started a college for art and culture in his village Buanl. In his last days he was nostalgic for his native land, says Kavita, though he had lived in Delhi for over 45 years.
A memorial service is being planned in Buanl in the near future.