Dance

In Kelubabu’s masterclass

Legendary Odissi dancer and guru Kelucharan Mohapatra

Legendary Odissi dancer and guru Kelucharan Mohapatra   | Photo Credit: Avinash Pasricha

As dance academies across the world launch virtual classes, son and disciple Ratikant Mohapatra elaborates on what made Kelucharan Mohapatra a guru nonpareil

"Growing up, even when my father was at home, I felt he wasn’t actually with us. We were constantly competing with his art for attention. It wasn't easy getting past hordes of disciples, admirers and organisers to reach him. But my perception changed when I once fell severely ill. I found baba always at my bedside, running his fingers through my hair or massaging my legs,” says Ratikant Mohapatra in an emotion-choked voice.

With an extended lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 and dance academies across the world launching virtual classes to continue training, it is also a good time to look back at gurus who defined art education. Kelucharan Mohapatra was certainly one of them.

Though a Odissi legend, his influence on the wider dance world has been profound. His many influences blended seamlessly in his vision for Odissi. He was a Patachitra artiste, could play the tabla and mardala, worked in Annapurna Theatre (where he learnt about sets and acting) and traced his artistic roots to gotipua, a ritualistic dance form of Odisha. Kelubabu (as he was fondly referred as) took the dance form from temple precincts to global platforms by bringing about a radical shift in Odissi’s structure and technique. He conveyed the richness and sensuality of his distinct style with a slight stretch and curve of the arms, gentle moves, statuesque poses, a supple and twisting spine and an intensely expressive face.

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Though tradition was his leitmotif, there was also a stirring display of imagination. Whether he was dancing, teaching or ideating, the body or mind never experienced a dull moment. “As disciples, we were awe-struck by his improvisational skills, with his compositions taking on a new shape every time they were taught or performed. There was so much to observe and assimilate. He was a generous guru, who shared every little nuance with the students and watched with delight when they performed. Most of the star Odissi dancers such as Sanjukta Panigrahi, Sonal Mansingh, Kumkum Mohanty, Madhavi Mudgal and Protima Bedi trained under him in the gurukul paddhati. I often felt lost and let down about not getting preferential treatment, but over the years, I realised how his approach has helped me find my own space in the world of dance,” says Ratikant, who now heads Srjan, the school of dance founded by Kelucharan Mohapatra in 1993 at Bhubaneshwar.

Enriching the repertoire

With his insatiable curiosity to learn and explore, Guru Kelucharan kept adding to the dance form, enriching its repertoire. In 1990, he underwent a bypass surgery, which was performed by eminent cardiac surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty. During his visits to the hospital and his stay there, the veteran artiste would ask the doctor several questions to understand the human anatomy. Post-surgery, armed with enough scientific information on body dynamics, he brought about changes in Odissi's movement vocabulary. He especially came up with the ardha-chauka posture to minimise strain on the knee and hip and for equal distribution of the body weight.

Kelubabu had 5,200 direct disciples. Whenever Ratikant travels with the Srjan troupe for performances and workshops, he meets people who invariably mention some member of their family having been trained by his father. “When it came to his art, he enjoyed moving with the times, incorporating contemporary sensibilities into its presentation. But personally, he preferred to remain a simple man from a small town called Raghurajpur. I feel his dance derived its soul from his simplicity and warmth. As artistes, we could get carried away by praise, sometimes even allowing it to get to our head. But not him. I have put up baba’s pictures all over Srjan to keep reminding us what it takes to leave one’s footprints.”

Ratikant Mohapatra

Ratikant Mohapatra  

Recalling one of the most heart-warming incidents, Ratikant says, “Among the people who came to pay respects to baba the day he passed away were two rickshawallahas. One kept flowers at his feet. The other placed two beedis and a matchbox. When I asked him why, he said baba used to travel in his rickshaw when working in Cuttack. ‘He was one of my most trusted friends with whom I could share my worries and woes. He would often buy me beedis and has helped me on several occasions. I have come from Cuttack to pay tributes to this kind soul’. That day, I realised the true meaning of art being a way of life.”

For guru Kelucharan, teaching was a continuous process. His house always echoed with the sound of music and footsteps. “A taskmaster, he insisted on studying the Natyasastra, gaining knowledge of music and instruments, reading ancient texts, knowing the folk forms and fine arts and understanding the culture of the region to find newer dimensions of the art. Everything was about dance for him. The hardships of his early days as a daily wage labourer, watering and carrying sand for the maintenance of betel groves, made him work unceasingly when he was finally able to pursue his passion — Odissi.

“He wanted to pass on the art to as many since his dream was to see Odissi become popular around the world. He would often tell me, ‘Hundreds of my students are dancing today and I feel as if I am dancing through them. Only when nobody can take my dance forward will I experience sadness’,” says Ratikant.

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 9:47:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/in-kelubabus-masterclass/article31747166.ece

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