Professor Ramhari Das, Odissi music guru, hopes connoisseurs will give this genre its due one day.

Anything deeper than a superficial understanding of music today must come from a knowledge of the people who have dominated it so long, and Professor Ramhari Das from Odisha is one of them. A distinguished vocalist and composer, a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2008), he is a singer, scholar, teacher, author, administrator, researcher, composer and propagator of Odissi music. The 60-year-old guru has been teaching at the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya for 30 years and is Professor and Head of the Odishi Vocal Department of Utkal University of Culture, besides being the Chief Executive of the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Odishi Research Centre. He is known as the first Odishi vocal guru to take Odishi music to educational institutions through SPIC MACAY and the first to be interviewed on Odishi music (April 2012, Doordarshan). Professor Ramhari Das was recently felicitated with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Samman by the President of India at a ceremony during the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan convocation in Bhubaneswar. Excerpts from an interview with the soft spoken maestro:

Has classical Odissi music, especially vocal music, remained mostly for Odissi dance recitals?

No, no, not at all! Odissi music is extensively taught and learnt in Odisha as well as major Odia settlements outside the State, like the Bengal-Odisha border, the Singhbhum districts, in Raipur, Chhattishgarh and others. Undoubtedly, it has achieved immense popularity in Odisha and also received tremendous appreciation from music lovers in cities like Kolkata, New Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Pune. The Government has been organising Odissi Sangeet Sandhya in major cities to popularise it. I have also performed in all these cities and received tremendous appreciation from the critics and rasikas. The interest among the young generation and the general public is increasing and the SNA is also helping to develop it. Earlier, members of Odia families used to recite devotional poetry in Chhanda and Champu at home. But those days of training at home are gone and so more and more youngsters are taking interest and learning in sangeet vidyalayas. Music for dance compositions is completely different from the individual recital of Odissi music, because the style of singing and gayaki is not the same as in the dance compositions. Also, all genres of Odissi vocals are not used in dance.

How did you begin?

I come from village Kanpur in the Balasore district of Odisha and started learning from my uncle Radhakrushna Das and a local musician, Sri Prafulla Kumar Sur. After (completing) my Higher Secondary, I took admission in the Odissi Vocal Department of the Utkal Mahavidyalaya, Bhubaneswar, and trained under the late Pandit Markandeya Mohapatra, and my journey began. Later, I was formally trained under Gurus Balakrushna Das, Gopal Chandra Panda, Bhikari Charan Bala and Singhari Shyamsundar Kar.

In your opinion, why is Odissi classical music not as popular as its Hindustani and Carnatic counterparts and still not been conferred the ‘classical’ status?

Perhaps Odissi music needs to be projected more and more in major festivals and programmes throughout the country. It has all the components of the other classical styles, with well-defined, unique system of raga, tala and alankaras (embellishments) — but to present them in their purest form and maintain a definite standard is a major challenge. Musicians and the people of Odisha are trying, but there is no apex body to confer the status. But we are still trying our best.

What is your contribution in the development of Odissi music?

For the last three decades, I have been teaching, performing, participating in major seminars, symposiums and workshops in music to popularise this art form and providing facilities to budding talents as well as senior and established artistes of Odissi music to perform and nurture this art form.

How does the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Odishi Research Centre G.K.C.M .help in this direction?

The main objective of the Centre is to promote and popularise Odissi music apart from Odissi dance. As per the mandate of the institution, there are certain activities like publication of books, organising seminars, programmes, conducting workshops apart from training and documentation on Odissi music. The Centre is also documenting the allied art forms of Odisha which inevitably have enriched Odissi music.

And your gurukul?

The gurukul at Birgobindapur, Sakshigopal, is my dream project — the “Ramhari Das Odissi Guru Kula Trust”. There is nothing to compare, but the newly developed gurukul is meant for the revival, promotion, projection, propagation and popularisation of Odissi music, Odissi dance and Odissi mardal through workshops, teaching, training, identifying and grooming talent. A major project would be to identify musicians of interior places like Manjusha, the Andhra border, Singhbhum area, call them to the Gurukul and retrieve old bandishes. It is meant to be residential and impart teaching and training to outsiders and help them pursue their career in the field of Odissi music, Odissi dance and mardal. At the moment, local children are training but soon it will be residential. Guru Dhaneswar Swain teaches mardal, Himanshu Shekhar, vocal and Narayan Raout teaches dance.

What are your expectations as an artiste?

I have no expectations except to see Odissi music get its due recognition at the national and international levels, with a number of performers keeping the tradition intact. Yes, my responsibility is to see Odissi songs are sung properly with Odissi taste and flavour — otherwise called gayaki, the style of singing — with perfection. I am also committed to groom a number of students to carry forward this tradition with all its purity, authenticity and pristine glory. To me the future of Odissi music is bright.