Theatre of memory

Guru Mayadhar Raut talks about the Odissi revival in which he played a pivotal role.

August 05, 2010 05:03 pm | Updated 06:14 pm IST

Odissi dance Guru Mayadhar Raut. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Odissi dance Guru Mayadhar Raut. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Guru Mayadhar Raut is recognised as one of the main pillars of the Odissi revival of the 1950s that resulted, over the past half century, in making this dance form one of the most popular Indian classical dance arts across the world. He exemplifies the concept that sometimes a greater perception of one's own art comes from stepping away and making a deep study of other arts. Once he had seriously taken up Odissi, he went to Kalakshetra, Madras, where he not only observed and took inspiration from the restructuring and revival of Bharatanatyam and studied the Sanskrit dance treatises, but also became proficient in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. He also learnt Kathak, and his theatre and music background ensured he had an all-rounder's vision.

In this interview, the guru, whose 80th birthday was recently celebrated, cheerfully reminisces about what, evidently, seems like yesterday! Excerpts from the conversation:

From Cuttack to Kalakshetra

Whatever Odissi I had learnt in childhood, it was passed on to me by the old gurus who taught us whatever they knew. There were no published works on the theory and philosophy of the dance at that time. Whatever was available was in the form of palm leaf manuscripts. In 1955 I got a scholarship to study at Kalakshetra. (V.P.) Dhananjayan, (C.K.) Balagopal, Krishnaveni, M.R. Krishnamurthy, Shankar Hombal… they were all my batch mates.

Learning, sharing, earning

I saw that the mudras we learnt did not always correlate with the shastras — we were making errors, since there was no one with systematic knowledge of the shastras as applicable to the dance of Orissa. During the two month summer holidays, I would go back and teach what I had learnt at the first school for Odissi that we had established (Cuttack's Kala Vikas Kendra). It was, after all, on the strength of my work in Orissa that I was given the government scholarship to Kalakshetra. I introduced the Abhinayadarpanam to my contemporaries in Orissa.

Facing local opposition and forming Jayantika

When I popularised Abhinayadarpanam, many in Orissa objected fiercely, saying this is not Bharatanatyam. But nowhere in the text does it say the Abhinayadarpanam is for Bharatanatyam. I realised it was necessary to form an association. Pankaj Charan Das, Debu Prasad Das and I, along with others, formed Jayantika. My friend D.N. Pattanaik also joined. The gurus would demonstrate movements and we would correlate them with what was written in the shastras. From the Natya Shastra and Abhinayadarpanam, we selected those elements that applied to the practice of Odissi dance. For example, Abhinayadarpanam mentions akasha bhramari (a pirouette done in the air). We don't have this movement in Odissi, so we did not include it in our list. The gurus had all been following the system without knowing the names. We needed some erudite people with us to convince them.

Practical influences of Kalakshetra training

My elders in Jayantika asked me about the presentation of Bharatanatyam. I showed how we learnt alaripu, jatiswaram, shabdam, and so on. So we set up a repertoire on similar lines in Odissi: mangalacharan, battu, abhinaya, pallavi, etc., up to moksha. I stressed on including the Gita Govinda, as this was from the repertoire of the maharis (temple dancers). We blended elements from the two traditions — of the mahari and the gotipua.

Getting classical recognition

In 1964 there was an all-India dance-music seminar. I, Sanjukta (Panigrahi), Ramani Ranjan Jena and others attended. We would demonstrate, and people would ask questions. When we presented the mudras, postures and accompanying instruments, the participants were so impressed, they said this form must be considered classical. They encouraged us to bring it to the notice of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Then in 1966 Odissi was officially declared one of the classical dance forms. The push had started in '64, and much of the scriptural evidence was provided by me.

Coming to Delhi

I felt that to propagate Odissi further, I must move out of Orissa. I came to Delhi. In those days there was no one to sing or play for Odissi. I trained a number of musicians. I began with some Bengali musicians, since Orissa is close to Bengal.

On Gita Govinda and perceptions of shringar

One should think of the time, of Radha and Krishna, the attitude of the bhakta. You should not think you are dancing at that time. You need to forget yourself. It will seem obscene only if you take it literally or put yourself in that place. Think of a 100-watt bulb. It will envelop the light of a 40-watt bulb. That is the relationship of the jeevatma which always yearns to merge with the Paramatma.

* * *


(Mylapore) Gowri Amma (the famous devadasi) taught abhinaya, and the other teachers taught us dance. Chandu Panikkar Asan would sit and teach us Kathakali, while K.P. Kunhiraman would demonstrate. Balagopal was the naughtiest among us. While Gowri Amma slept in the afternoons with her head resting on the phalakam (wooden plank used to keep rhythm), he would come and rattle a steel tumbler and bowl, and she would get up with a start. Every Wednesday we had a check-up. We had to step up and down on the raised platform in the prayer hall and then our heartbeat would be checked. They took so much care of us!

I had four sets of clothes. Once we had gone to hear a lecture by Athai (Rukmini Arundale). The Kalakshetra students always sat on a durrie in the front at such events. Athai saw my kurta was torn. She asked me how many sets (of clothes) I had. I said four. Two would go to the dhobi, two I would alternately wash and wear. She asked the warden to get me another four sets at her expense.

She was very good to us, but when she entered the classroom, hamare paseene chhoot jaate the (we were terrified). She missed nothing: your hair, your clothes, your posture.

She told us that mudras are an international language.

Once when I was in Tamil class, she walked and asked, “Nee inge yanna pandrai? (What are you doing here?)” She said what use will learning Tamil do you, and had me transferred to English class. “Odissi Yaatra: The Journey of Guru Mayadhar Raut”, written by his disciple Aadya Kaktikar and edited by Madhumita Raut, has just been published by B.R. Rhythms.

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