The union of Raghunath Panigrahi and Sanjukta was a life journey discovering the mysteries of the art
It was early morning of the 24th of August 2013. The phone rang with the message “Raghu Bhaiyya is no more”. An era had ended. Would I hear myself called “Änni”(Bhabhi) as Raghu and Sanjukta did? My thoughts went back to 1980, when my daughter’s fiancé with parents, from Chennai, came on a visit to our Bhubaneswar home, with the father-in-law-to-be surprisingly requesting, “Can you take us to visit Raghunath Panigrahi? As a boy learning Carnatic music in Chennai along with many others in classes held on one side of my father’s bungalow at Pilattoppu, he had lunch there every day — and even in those days, his exceptional talent stood out. We have a special corner for him in our hearts.” Visiting Sanjukta’s home was to witness a delighted Raghunath hasten to throw himself on the floor in a saashtang namaskar before the couple. After much back slapping and hugs, the room resounded with excited Tamil words about the “good old days”. Raghunath’s affinity with the South got reaffirmed with fate playing a hand in bringing into his life Sanjukta, who had studied Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra and spoke Tamil like a native.
Raghunath and his “Sanju Nani” (as Sanjukta was endearingly called) had a unique relationship, Raghunath’s extraordinary singing accompanying Sanjukta’s phenomenal dancing, creating Odissi history, taking its aesthetics to every part of the globe. With two strong-minded geniuses bonded, the tie inevitably had its moments of passionate arguments alongside total togetherness on stage creating moments of ecstatic art. She was the worker bee running the chores of managing a demanding career with its giddy performance whirl, straightening constant tangles in procuring visa clearances for frequent travels abroad. If he had his moments feeling that playing ‘second fiddle’ to a dancer had restricted a brilliant solo career, she had her complaints about his amazing musical frills distracting the dance, making her role difficult. But enriching each other, their union was a life’s journey discovering the mysteries of art.
Italian theatre specialist Eugenio Barba in whose International School for Theatre Anthropology Sanjukta frequently participated, said that when he asked Sanjukta to give him just the Odissi sensitivity without any formalised dance movement, she froze — till one line of Raghunath’s music was enough to trigger the flow of ideas from her.
When the record of Raghunath’s singing of the Gita Govinda ashtapadis was released, lovers of music hailed that few musicians had sung Jayadeva’s poetry with more feeling. His Vasanta, a raga Raghunath called the ‘King of Ragas’, was in a class of its own. His compositions in Kirvani, in Charukeshi, his golden voiced music for verses from the Ramayana danced by Sanjukta, his uncanny ability to find the inevitable raga for each situation with the honeyed voice which could melt the stoniest heart — Raghunath in many ways was an exceptionally creative musician. He belonged to the three greats of Odissi — Balakrushna Das who had learnt Hindustani music at Benares, Bhubaneswar Misra who had been trained for years under violinist Dwaram Venkatswamy Naidu and Raghunath who had trained in Carnatic and Odissi. All these singers while absorbing from other styles gave Odissi its special identity.
When cancer snapped Sanjukta’s life still in the prime of her art, grieving Raghunath lost his inspiration with life stretched before him in one empty future. Much later, when he started composing music for Nrityagram, his compositional wizardry seemed to find new zest. He once told me, “When I happened to watch Surupa thinking, dreaming, choreographing, breathing and living Odissi with a burning passion, it was, for me, like catching a whiff of Sanjukta’s lifelong intensity of involvement with Odissi, and only that could inspire me to make music again.”
For Nrityagram, now Odissi without Raghunath Panigrahi is difficult to comprehend. Says Lynne Fernandez: “Panditji was one in a million. Where will we find another so versatile?”
23rd August was Sanjukta’s birthday. Next morning, quietly bidding farewell to this world, Raghunath had joined his ‘Sanju Nani’ in eternal peace.