Friday Review

Manimala, end of an era

Manimala  

Nearly nine decades ago, when her poor parents from a non-descript Odisha village decided to name her as Manimala – a garland of gems – little did they imagine that the girl would wear a garland of great honours and appreciations as a legendary actress of Odisha’s theatre and cinema someday.

Winner of the State’s highest honour for cinema - the Jayadev Puraskar, Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi’s highest honour for contribution to theatre, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Award for legends of cinema and theatre and 14 President’s award winner Odia films in her kitty apart, she had won innumerable accolades as a veteran actress during her times. When she passed away recently in a hospital in Bhubaneswar at the age of 86, the theatre and film fraternities admitted it was “the end of an era”.

The life of this gifted actress was replete with ironies and miseries. Often referred to as the ‘tragedy-queen’ of Odia cinema, her reel-life and real-life were almost alike. Born in 1930, she lost her father at the tender age of seven. The widowed mother passed away a couple of years later. But, before her death, she had requested popular stage actress Radharani Devi, whom she knew, to find a livelihood for her daughter. Thus, Manimala was brought for her “survival” from the far off Balibili village of Cuttack district to the temple town of Puri as a child artiste for the famed Annapurna Theatre where Radharani was an established actress .

Seven year old Manimala grew under the watchful eyes of her mentor Radharani. Though she didn’t know how to read and write, she developed the habit of remembering her dialogues very well apart from articulating the characters and emotions besides showing keen interest in dance. And she was gifted with a golden voice as well. Thus, the child artiste, who had her distinct debut in the immensely popular play Jayadev century saint-poet who composed Geet Govindexcelled in acting-singing-dancing. Her extraordinary talent got noticed instantly and paved her path to join prestigious Annapurna Theatre’s B-group and Janata Theatre in Cuttack city later on.

Cuttack, the cultural capital of Odisha then, was the cradle of Odia theatre and cinema. Here, the teenaged and aspiring actress, learnt music under stalwarts like Kalicharan Patnaik and Balakrushna Das and dance under Dayal Sharan, the visiting associate of Uday Shankar, and from Odissi maestro Kelucharan Mohapatra. She became an approved singer for All India Radio, Cuttack in 1953 and was later selected to dance Kathak in honour of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who visited Odisha for foundation stone laying ceremony of its capital city at Bhubaneswar. Her powerful performances as the lead actress in scores of popular plays like Jhanja made her a household name.

Her foray into films was a natural transition from theatre. Her debut in Sri Lokanath, the Odia box office hit movie (1960), won President’s Award as the best regional film at the eighth National Film Awards ceremony. It was followed by a series of such awards for her acting in the next six years. Those films like Laxmi, Bhai Bhauja, Suryamukhi, Jeevan Sathi, Abhinetri, and Malajanha are all regarded as classics today . Along with Samuel Sahu (Babi), the most respected actor of her times, she had formed as the permanent pair for almost all the stage plays and films. Together they were in the highest demand.

However, despite her reputation, she was sidelined since 1970s when demand for theatre declined while the film industry veered towards glamour and entertainment. She was not cast in any of the roles. However, internationally acclaimed Odia filmmakers Nirad Mahapatra and Manamohan Mohapatra brought her to the parallel cinema that they made during that time. As a result, she was featured in path-breaking films like Nirad Mahapatra’s Maya Miriga (known as the most acclaimed Odia cinema so far) and Manamohan Mohapatra’s award-winning films like Niraba Jhada, Klanta Aparanha, Nisiddha Swapna, Kichhi Smruti Kichhi Anubhuti, Andha Diganta and Vinna Samaya.

Alongside her premature exit from the film industry, Manimala suffered from a number of health aliments that made her life more miserable for the next 16 years till she breathed her last. She was almost bed-ridden for a majority of these years. Eminent filmmaker and actor Gopal Ghosh (who passed away last year), her partner in personal and professional lives, had also grown older and finically weaker by that time to look after her health-care. On a number of occasions, Manimala had appealed to the Government for financial assistance to meet the expensive hospital bills but her appeal fell on deaf ears. Even the film industry did little for this eminent actress. She died without the care and honour she deserved.

Long before her actual death, Manimala Devi had been forgotten by one and all.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 10:17:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/Manimala-end-of-an-era/article14488578.ece

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