SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Yen for Odissi

FACE TO FACE

Yen for Odissi

Masako Ono of Tokyo came to India in 1996, learnt Odissi from Protima Bedi first and then shifted to Bhubaneswar to hone her talents under the legendary Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. Today, she spends almost her entire time there teaching Odissi and Yoga, choreographing and performing at various places. She is not shy of experimentation and fusion, one of her performances being with Louis Banks. H. BALAKRISHNAN had a no-holds-barred conversation with her. Excerpts:

YOU have been a leader for foreign students coming to learn Odissi. How long have you been here?

I have a huge house here. I started living there with an Italian dancer learning Odissi from Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. Obviously, Bhubaneswar has very few "foreign" student dancers at any given time. So, naturally we get to know each other. At one point I thought, "Alright, instead of going to different places, for a change, why don't we all gather together and give a performance right here?" So, all of us gave a performance at my house. That's how this started.

When did you start living in Bhubaneswar?

Actually, I was coming off and on to Bhubaneswar since 1998, visiting from Nrityagram for long stretches. But, I really started living here two years back.

Tell us something about how and when you learnt about India, Indian dance and Odissi.

In elementary school, in social studies class, I first saw Taj Mahal in colour. I fell in love with it and wanted to be an architect. In Japan, it is very tough to enter a University. I failed the entrance in the best University. But India was my real dream and I wanted to learn something about it. So, I studied Hindi and Urdu at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. I majored in India and Pakistan. I saw Bharatanatyam when I travelled to India but I didn't know about Odissi. On my return, I started learning Bharatanatyam from a Japanese teacher. A fellow student gave me a video of Guru Kelucharan performing in Tokyo. Then I decided, "This is what I want to do in my life".

How do you feel about the transition from one dance form to another? Do you think you have "arrived" where you "want to be"?

That's a difficult one! I thought my aim was to be "an Odissi dancer". But after five years I was getting rather bored, to be honest. I would not accept it. From Nrityagram, I came to Orissa. I saw different gharanas and learnt from many gurus.

What exactly do you mean by gharanas?

Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra has his own, Guru Debaprasad Das, Guru Pankaj Charan Das and, of course, Sanjukta Panigrahi. Each of them has something unique. I mean the style. Even one dancer can have his or her own different style...

So, are you thinking of some experimentation with, or addition to, Odissi as it is now?

To that, I should say "No". It is not for me to change Odissi. First, I am Japanese. Secondly, if I dance in a particular way and it does not conform to accepted norms, I know there would be criticism. If people don't want to call it Odissi, that is also fine. I want to perform whatever the audience wants. I don't want them to get bored.

You know about the evolution of Odissi from the gotipua and mahari traditions. How deep is your knowledge of "lyrics" of the music?

Lyrics I have understood from translations, from teachers, Sanskrit teachers... from everyone (who taught me).

Which part of the dance do you think you perform best?

That's for the audience to judge. But then, my friends — all Odissi dancers — tell me that they like my Pallavi.

Where do you think you have to improve?

I know my weak points. I don't think it is in abhinaya or Pallavi. But I think I need to be more grounded.

As a person, do you think that you are too assertive? Sometimes, it seems you feel like doing things your way.

Analysing movements in dance is something I started after seven years, I should say. It is only after a certain level that you know what you are doing. I never doubted whatever the teacher said at Nrityagram. But later, I started thinking and asking questions. If you don't do that, you're just copying.

How often do you go to Japan these days?

Since I left Japan in 1996, I have been going once a year or so. It is becoming less and less frequent.

What is the reaction of people in Japan to your dancing, and Indian dance?

They have not seen me often. The last time I performed in Japan was in 2001. They liked it, but they took it as some form of "regional" dance, not as an art (form). People should think of Indian dance as an art. They think of Western classical ballet as an art. They think of Indian dance as folk dance, something "ethnic". Odissi should be projected as an art. I want to do that.

Tell us something about your performance in Japan.

I was fresh from Nrityagram. I later realised that my make-up was horrible. But nobody told me that. I looked very funny, I suppose.

What about your dance experience in Orissa?

In Odissi, Pallavi in particular, I found some movements that I was looking for. In Chhau, I remember my meeting with Guru Nabakishore Mishra who lives with a Chhau Master called Subrat. Guru Nabakishore's movements were so powerful; I have never seen such power in anyone else. It was beyond me to perform like him, particularly the depiction of Durga and Shiva. I tried, but did it badly.

Then there was the time I got a phone call from someone who said that a certain movement is prohibited in the Natyashastra. For instance, lifting your feet above the waist. I don't want to argue with people who don't know but pose as if they know. Bharatanatyam is also a classical dance form. There, the legs are lifted not just above the waist but even higher.

What are the places you have performed in?

In Bhubaneswar, my first performance was for the Bhubaneswar Music Circle. Earlier, I performed in Mumbai for Louis Banks — Fusion Dance. In India, I have performed for Bhagavata Mela in Thanjavur, Dharani in Kochi, Kite Festival at Hyderabad ... I have also performed in Japan and Sri Lanka.

How long do you practise?

At least four hours. I also practise and teach Yoga. This year, I have been preparing my website, brochure and such other things. Earlier, I was practising so much that people thought I was going mad! I want to perform and make Odissi and Indian dance known as an art everywhere.

E-mail the writer at

Recommended for you