Friday Review

In the memory of her guru

Guided by an unthinking love: Sharmila Mukherjee Photo: Bhagya Prakash. K.

Guided by an unthinking love: Sharmila Mukherjee Photo: Bhagya Prakash. K.  

Odissi exponent Sharmila Mukherjee recalls the days of her tutelage under guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and tells Archana Nathan that it is difficult to fill the void left by idols like him

Sharmila Mukherjee must have been 17 or 18 when she first attended an Odissi recital. “This was in the early eighties in Calcutta. Kelucharan guruji was playing the pakhawaj for Protima Bedi. Here was a puny man playing the pakhawaj but the sound that was coming out of it was powerful and amazing. I was mesmerised both by the way he was playing the instrument and by the dance form embodied by Protima Bedi. It was then that I decided that if I’m going to learn classical dance, it would have to be Odissi. I was clear I wanted to be a dancer,” she says emphatically.

There is a sense of self-assurance that Sharmila exudes as she speaks. This is reflected not just in the uninhibited manner in which she talks about her love for Odissi, but also in the way she approached dance itself, right from the time she was a teenager. “I was very clear I wasn’t going to do a corporate job. Of course, it wasn’t easy to choose dance as my career back then, when all my friends were busy trying to find jobs with pay packages etc. And this was 25-30 years ago, when taking up dance full-time wasn’t looked upon as a good thing. But, there was nothing else that made me happy. Perhaps, it also had to do with how old I was when I chose Odissi. It was a blind, unthinking love for the form that soon translated into a fierce commitment towards learning,” she explains.

Sharmila was pursuing an undergraduate degree in History (honours) and she finally went to Kelucharan Mohapatra to ask if she could learn Odissi from him. Since she would have to attend college in the morning hours, it was decided that Paushali Mukherjee, a disciple of Mohapatra would teach her. However, her first class was with Mohapatra himself. “I was very impatient. I couldn’t wait to learn from him. I learned that he had a residential programme in Cuttack. But to be eligible for that, one would have to reach a certain advanced stage. Guruji, meanwhile, used to come to Calcutta often, play for us and supervise our classes. I was terrified of him because he was a short-tempered man,” she recounts.

It was in 1988 that she managed to enroll into the residential programme and as Sharmila says, there was no looking back after that. “He was a hard task master and specially, his style which has a lot of torso movement, is tough. The technique was very important to him. Of course, he is not the only one but he is among the few that have given Odissi its basic structure. He used to make us dance for hours and had no sense of time. In Cuttack, the classes used to go on till 1-2 in the morning. People today ask me why I take these long classes and I tell them that there will be no improvement in one hour long classes. There was merit in what the guruji practised and taught and I cherish that,” she says.

That Sharmila had an enthusiasm for Odissi was more than evident but her talent for it too was soon recognised when Mohapatra himself said he would play the pakhawaj for her rangapravesh. “It was a hot day in May in Cuttack and my first workshop with guruji. He had just taught us a pure dance piece, a pallavi in Bihag and made us practise it for hours. During the break, I sat down next to him and he told me, ‘I’ll come to Calcutta. You organise a programme. You should perform the Bihag Pallavi and I’ll play for you’. I rushed outside, searched for a landline, called my mother and told her that the programme has to happen,” says Sharmila as her eyes glistened with the memories.

The residential programme was akin to the guru-shishya parampara and for Sharmila it was not just about dance, but the lifestyle that one imbibes by living with the guru. “He used to like us going to his house. He would be more at peace there. We used to sit on the floor with our thalis. Guruma, his wife would be strict with us too. She was a Mahari dancer while he was a Gotipua dancer. She would not let us go out of the house and we had to cajole her to get permission. We had to wash our vessels, clothes, clean the dance floor. It was a lifestyle that was marked by a strict regimen and a complete form of learning,” she recalls.

Having been Mohapatra’s direct disciple for about 20 years, Sharmila says that only sheer brilliance can make a guru of such a stature. “I’ve never heard guruji say he was tired. He had a lot of curiosity. He would watch other dance forms with avid interest. When he would travel, he would insist on seeing the place thoroughly. All of this, his insatiable need to know things, informed his practise. He wasn’t educated. It was his work that made him who he was.”

Marriage and her husband’s transfer to Bangalore brought Sharmila to the city at a time when Odissi had barely introduced itself to the region. She then set up her school of dance, Sanjali. “Nriyagram was already there in 2004 when I came but it was far away. There was no Odissi in the city. I called a number of senior gurus here to tell them that I was moving here and all of them were so welcoming. Maya Rao, Bhanumathi Akka, Lalitha Srinivasan, Shanta Rudrappa, Usha Datar- they were all very nice to me,” says Sharmila.

The responsibility on Sharmila, though, was huge. Not only was she going to craft her own career from scratch in Bangalore, she was also among those setting the ground for Odissi in the region. “I started with three students in July 2004 and by July 2006, I had fifty students. There is no barrier in art and that’s what I realized. But there is also something peculiar about Bangalore and Karnataka that made me feel welcome. There was no hostility at all.”

And, what was it like to introduce Odissi in what is considered a bastion of Bharatanatyam? "There is a lyricism and a sensuality that Odissi brings to the classical arts and therein lies its appeal. The audience likes to see what is beautiful. For instance, our version of Jayadeva’s Kuru Yadunandana is quite explicit. I remember guruji would tell me he can’t teach me the piece until I’m married! There is a maturity and an elegance that accompanies the sensuality in Odissi, which I think appeals to the audience."

Today, she says things have indeed changed for the better for Odissi in the region. There are many practitioners of the form in Bangalore and competition, Sharmila says, is good and prevents complacency.

Happy with the status quo and preparing for her next production, Sharmila says, there is one thing she does miss, though. "I'd love to pick up the phone and discuss a new piece or an idea with guruji. There is not a single day that I don't miss him. I think one of the problems of the present is the lack of such idols. Everyone today is a small little guru in their own way…"

Odissi in a Kannada folk tale

On April 16, Sharmila and her Sanjali dance ensemble will present ‘Sookshma’, an Odissi ballet based on a Kannada folktake, ‘A flowering tree’ written by A.K. Ramanujan. “It is a simple story that has elements of nature, pathos and joy. It tells a story of a woman who is blessed with the ability to transform into a flowering tree,” says Sharmila. The production will be performed at ADA Rangamandira at 6.30 p.m. as part of a one-day dance festival- ‘Pravaha’ in remembrance of guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Tickets will be available at

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2020 8:45:33 AM |

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