Chat Odissi danseuse Monalisa Ghosh says that spiritualism is the cornerstone of Indian dance. Ambili Ramnath
M onalisa Ghosh is an Odissi danseuse whose work is known for its classicism, lyrical beauty and spiritual expression. But her work does not end with dance performances alone. She has taken Odissi across India, teaching it and gifting it to the underprivileged… ‘Dance with a purpose’ could well be the motto of her life and work. Monalisa performed in Kerala for the first time at the Soorya fete – an experience that she describes as “fabulous”. Excerpts from an interview…
Interest in Odissi
I come from a culturally inclined family. Both my parents were classical singers – no dancers in the family, though. When I was seven, my father was transferred to Cuttack, Orissa. There we often went to dance performances. I remember being mesmerised by the dynamic performance of Sanjukta Panigrahi and immediately expressed my wish to learn Odissi. Sanjukta didi later became one of my gurus.
Training under gurus
My first guru was Ramani Ranjan Jena, the only guru who taught Odissi at Kalakshetra, Chennai. My sensitivity and devotional approach to dance is his legacy. My skill at abhinaya was gained after I started learning from Kelu sir [guru Kelucharan Mohapatra]. Although I was terrified of his anger, he was wonderful at spotting our rough edges and polishing them. Unfortunately, I did not get to train under Sanjukta didi for long.
But I was an ardent fan of her performing style. I learnt the most difficult, yet fabulous compositions from her such as ‘Ardhanariswar’, and even today, I dance to the original recording of that piece, made by didi .
Experiences in teaching and performing abroad
In 1991 I received an invitation from my students in California to conduct a 20-day workshop, followed by a most memorable performance with Ustad Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar. On my way back I stopped over in Germany, where Pandit Subroto Roy Chowdhury recommended me to two theatres – in Braunschweig and Stuttgart. In Stuttgart it was an impromptu concert and only seven spectators were present. But immediately after the performance I received an invitation from the director of the theatre, Helga Brehme, who wanted to promote my dance. Soon invitations from other organisations poured in. I was asked to conduct workshops in several places in Germany, Vienna (Austria), and so on. Most often the participants were totally unaware that such a dance form existed. Over the years, I have taken Odissi to every corner of Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, France, Italy… Working with receptive foreign artistes has been a satisfying experience. I believe that I have been able to convey to them the meditational, philosophical, aesthetic and therapeutic value of Indian classical dance. More recently, I was given the post of artiste-in- residence at the Korzo theatre, Netherlands, where I choreographed the dance-drama ‘Jatayu Moksha’ for the Indian Music and Dance Festival.
Kalajyoti is my dream project. Talented youth from economically disadvantaged rural and tribal families are given free training in Odissi along with lessons in yoga and rhythm. They are given the opportunity to perform on stage and as an added motivation, some of these children have been included in the presentations staged in India and abroad. In Kalajyoti we also promote the gurukula system in which students from all over the world live and learn with the guru.
Conveying spirituality through dance
Spirituality is the core of Indian art. To do justice to the depth of devotion hidden in our texts, the dancer has to be shown the path to learning dance with spiritual feeling. When I dance, I am in a trance. It is an outpouring of my inner self.
Goals and projects
At the moment, I am excited about presenting my production ‘Promila - The Empowered Woman’ across Europe next year. It’s a great chance for the senior students of Kalajyoti. My life’s mission and goal is to impart authentic training to all my students – to encourage them to love and respect our traditional dance forms. This legacy handed down to us by our gurus reflects the real spirit of India.
When I dance, I am in a trance