INTERVIEW Odissi dancer Aruna Mohanty on the pioneering contributions of Orissa Dance Academy to the medium. NITA VIDYARTHI
G race, clarity, style, subtlety and a compellingly expressive abhinaya define the art of the acclaimed Odissi dancer Aruna Mohanty, secretary and creative director of Orissa Dance Academy (ODA) and vice-president of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi. Learning Odissi for the last 40 years, the Sangeet Natak awardee (2010) began her training at age eight under Srinath Raut and Govinda Chandra Pal, and from 1972 was the foremost disciple of the late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. Known for her hypnotic abhinaya, Aruna’s dance brings every fibre of her body in unison with the rhythm and so skilful is its dramatic power that the magical mechanisms get transmitted from the dancer to the audience. Her choreographies are of high merit, attributing precision and a new dimension to the age-old art without sacrificing traditional poetry or dramatic sensibility. Here, Aruna talks about her late Guru and the institution she heads. Excerpts:
On being the torchbearer of Guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s legacy
Orissa Dance Academy was started in 1975 by my Guruji [Guru Gangadhar Pradhan] and scholar Dhirendranath Patnaik with five students – Dipti Sahoo, Saratpriya Patjoshi, Nandita Bera, Mamta Naik and myself. We were also the founder members of the academy
You are also the vice-president of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi…
Yes, but in a different capacity. I am supposed to look after their activities but the designation alone will not help me do anything. We were very fortunate that in 2007, the State Government allotted us a Government house. So we are conducting classes there. From the very beginning, Guruji’s vision was to create a family of artistes, not an institution which would only perform and entertain, propagate or popularise the dance form. He thought that if the artistes felt that they were members of an institution and could hold each other’s hands to strengthen the cause and be there at times of need and success too, then this art form could conquer great heights. So, with that motto in mind, most of the members have been part of the ODA for 25 years. The senior male dancers of Odissi today, who are creating a niche for themselves in India and abroad, must have had, at one point in time or the other, some kind of training and experience in ODA, be it Bichitrananda Swain, Monoranjan Pradhan, Ganesh, Lingaraj Swain, Ramesh Chandra Jena,Yudhishtir Naik or Pabitra Kumar Pradhan.
ODA grooming male dancers
My Guruji was a Gotipua dancer. He knew that Gotipua dancers could not perform after they are 14. So they come to learn Odissi and become teachers. Guruji broke the convention. He wondered ‘why all male dancers should become teachers? They should become performers too’. So we introduced male performers. Today, we, very humbly but proudly, say that we have created history.
That means ODA was the first to project male Odissi dancers?
Yes, male dancers in a professional way. ODA is the first institution in the history of Odissi where male dancers are promoted as full-time performers. We started in a modest way; there was no money but a passion for dance. We selected boys from villages, 20 to 22 of them, gave them shelter and free training.
A sort of an ashram…
Absolutely. When Guruji was alive, he would also eat in the mess – bhaat, dalma – that was the staple thing and once in a while fish or eggs. Even today, no one has left. Only recently, Monoranjan and Bichhi have started their own institutions and Lingaraj is working in one. You want your children to fly when they grow up and not tie their wings. ODA is their father institution and when Guruji passed away we offered a shraddanjali in his memory. All the old students performed together. Even today if they need anything they come to me anytime – they call me ‘aapa’ (sister) and they have certain privileges. This aspect is what I am inculcating in our students – do your work but appreciate others also.
Your own regime
My solo is my own responsibility; I compose something and practise – that is separate. But every morning, all 20 of us – all the teacher-cum-performers – practise together. We create small pieces to challenge ourselves. That is how we know whether the quality is maintained in the teachers and performers. Every month we do a programme in our school hall where the parents, well-wishers and board members come and one experienced dancer from three senior batches perform a solo, explain and answer questions on what they are doing. This is what I have introduced now.
Photo: N. SRIDHARAN