December 30, 2013

The Many Shades of Madness

This review of some performances at the NCPA Mudra Festival (April 2013) was written for Avantika Magazine and was supposed to be in the June issue, but the magazine folded up (again). I normally do not write reviews, but I spent some time thinking this one through, so I decided to put it up here. All photos courtesy NCPA Mumbai.

Sanjukta Wagh
“I could no longer show; I just had to be,” says dancer Sanjukta Wagh of her engagement with Kabir’s poetry. In allowing the beauty of the poetry to reign supreme, Wagh, the youngest performer at the recently concluded NCPA Mudra Dance Festival in Mumbai, articulates a choreographic journey that could be true of many other dancers at the festival. The festival was conceptualised by poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. Held in the last week of April, Mudra delved into the boundless world of bhakti poetry through discussions, poetry readings, film screenings and performances. 

The festival, called Stark Raving Mad, after a line from a Tukaram poem translated by Arun Kolatkar, is a fitting ode to the eccentricities of a tradition that sought to democratise the space of the divine. Bhakti encouraged forms of devotion that were essentially monotheistic, but extremely secular in their approach to god. Making devotion an elective process, it brought within its scope hitherto unconventional groups of devotees, who were not mainstream or privileged temple worshippers because of their caste or gender status. It was not bound by the harsh rules that defined devotion in an orthodox tradition. 

Rama Vaidyanathan
In choreographing to bhakti poetry, some dancers at the festival found opportunities to step out of their comfort zones. For Bharatanatyam dancer, Rama Vaidyanathan, costume is a significant marker of departure. Portraying two medieval women mystics, Janabai and Lal Ded, she dresses in the Maharashtrian style and then in the Kashmiri style. Wearing a nine-yard sari, she interprets Janabai, an important 13th century poet of the varkari tradition. Janabai was born to poor parents and entered the household of the poet Namdev as an attendant at a young age. She sees Vithal as a friend; he becomes part of her daily existence, helping her with all her strenuous chores. In her Marathi abhangs, her relationship with Vithal is one of flippant reverence. 

The opening abhang, Utha Panduranga, is framed by a projected sketch of the arches of the Vithoba temple.  In this first piece, Vaidyanathan’s impression of Vithal’s posture makes for a striking image. Her stance is informed by the quality of boldness, almost calling the dance style to question as she stands - hands on her hips, legs unbent and slightly apart. 

As Janabai, Vaidyanathan’s Bharatanatyam takes on an exaggerated element of swaying and bouncing, responding to the cadence of the Marathi abhang. The abhangs, however, are sung in the Carnatic style of music associated with Bharatanatyam. 

If Janabai could be called bubbly, Lal Ded, in comparison, is stark. In the second half, clad in a flowing white tunic and churidar, Vaidyanathan enters the life and poetry of the Shiva devotee Lal Ded. Leaving an unhappy marriage, Lal Ded casts off her clothes and her hard life, for they are of no consequence in her realm of devotion. From exhilaration to inward-looking gravity, Vaidyanathan’s portrayal of Lal Ded spans a wide emotional register. Reciting Lal Ded’s vakhs and then depicting incidents from her life that relate to them, her interpretation is not unlike a Bharatanatyam varnam. The vakhs are separated by passages of sharp nritta. The nritta clearly stands for the singlemindedness of Lal Ded’s devotion; yet, in the choreography, one is assuaged by doubts about its presence. 

Sujata Mohapatra
While bhakti inspires new motifs in Bharatanatyam for Vaidyanathan, it takes Sujata Mohapatra closer to the repertoire of her guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. The renowned Odissi dancer performed abhinaya to Sanskrit, Oriya and Awadhi poetry in her recital. In the ashtapadi, sakhi he, Mohapatra gracefully stretches out her movement, elongating it to fill the most complete extent of time possible. Filled with desire, Radha entreats her friend to bring Krishna, the slayer of the demon Kesi, to her. She recounts the story of their first meeting; whether this is for real or only a fantasy, no one knows. 

In the climax of sakhi he, as Krishna and Radha kiss and the percussionist Ekalavya Muduli beats up a frenzy on the mardala, Mohapatra assumes a slow and deliberate final pose before leaving the stage. Measured, contained movements are the hallmark of her Odissi style. Subtle escalations in the tone of a movement are harnessed to great dramatic effect. In ahe nila saila, a poem dedicated to Jagannath by his ardent devotee Salbeg, a Muslim and a leper who is not allowed past the temple gates, Mohapatra portrays a crocodile. One leg leaves the floor and her body tilts forward at an angle. There is nothing extraordinary about her stance; yet, as she slowly raises her head, showing us the evil glint in the crocodile’s eyes, it is powerful enough to blur her connection to gravity, if only for an instant. 

She ends with a new choreography set to an extract from the Ramacharitamanas. Shabari, after waiting for a lifetime, finally meets Rama and learns about the nine paths to bhakti. After watching her embody some of Jayadeva’s most compelling ashtapadis and the moving poetry of Salbeg, this finale is slightly mood-killing. The abhinaya is flawless, but Rama’s preachy message to Shabari, and by extension, the audience, inspires much fidgeting. Classical dance is deeply rooted in Indian culture, but as a performing art, it is also committed to telling engaging stories, and Mohapatra’s final piece is far from being one.

Kapila Venu
The next day, seated behind an unlit brass lamp in a nod to fire safety regulations, Kapila Venu uses the layered and intricate narrative of the Saundarya Lahari to reiterate one of its core assertions – Shiva possesses the power to create only when he is one with Shakti. The young and immensely talented Venu is one of the most popular actors of Kutiyattam, an ancient Sanskrit theatre form. Mohapatra stretches time; Venu strikes it senseless. As Parvati, when she witnesses the opening of Shiva’s third eye and its aftermath, her eyes vibrate with the burden of perceiving such a destructive force, as the world around her quivers for an indefinite span of time. 

This interpretation of the Saundarya Lahari is one of many new Kutiyattam choreographies derived by Kapila’s father, G Venu. While adhering to the narrative and the tenets laid down by an acting manual specific to the story, the Kutiyattam actor is free to improvise endlessly. 

Venu started her training under Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar at a young age. “People imagine that I grew up in an ashram surrounded by lotuses. That is far from the truth,” she giggles. In the post-performance discussion, responding to gushing enthusiasts in the audience, she goes to great lengths to explain that there is no such thing as a trance-like state in acting. Even in her trance-like meditation as Parvati, who undergoes penance because she wants Shiva as her husband, Venu is acutely aware of being in performance. 

Performing a day later, Sanjukta Wagh, in her presentation of contemporary Kathak, interprets awareness in a different way, as she lets the space around her shape her movement. In Bheetar Bahar, the first part, she improvises to Kabir’s poetry. Her arms curve around space, periodically evoking images of music-making, as vocalist Makrand Deshpande sings yeh tan that tambure ka (this body is the scale of the tanpura). In an earlier incarnation, this piece focused on the creation of movement; now, Kabir is the star. 

Moving from nirguna to saguna, the second part of Wagh’s recital is Ubha Vitevari, a necklace of abhangs by various poets of the varkari tradition. Each poet understands Vithal differently, but the image of a standing Vithoba in the Pandharpur temple, hands on hips, binds these interpretations. Wagh occupies the same patch of stage space throughout her performance, never moving from it to traverse space. She begins with her back to the audience, turning to face them in the second abhang. Even then, she continues to stand still, only letting her face reflect Vithal’s sentiments for his various devotees. Midway, Wagh begins reciting extracts from some of the poems; this brings the piece together and suddenly makes it feel complete in how she embodies the poets, their poetry and the image of Vithal or Vithoba. 

Classical dance and bhakti poetry go back a long way. Yet, for some of the performers at Mudra, choreographing to bhakti poems meant making radical shifts in language and treatment. How did they go about this? Each dancer had different answers. Vaidyanathan and Wagh let the poetry wash over them and then responded to it. For Mohapatra, the tryst with bhakti reaffirmed the pleasure of performing and preserving the repertoire of her guru. Venu chose not to think about the process, lest she lose it on trying to break it down. Just as there are different paths to the divine, there are innumerable methods to the madness. 

Ranjana Dave

November 12, 2013

My first Swan Lake

After spending hours mooning over videos of Swan Lake, I finally went to watch it live at the Staatsballett Berlin yesterday, with Iana Salenko playing Odette/ Odile. When you see something in one form and are then bombarded with it in the flesh, it can be rather disconcerting. However, it is also amusing.

  • Swan Lake or Horse Lake? Watching ballet videos, you have no clue how noisy pointe shoes can actually be. So the swans are at it, making these fluid, beautiful movements, making you feel sorry for them - but that requires some suspension of disbelief, because they sound like a traffic jam of horse-drawn carriages. 
  • For the first ten minutes, I kept expecting dancers to trip on their nightgown like-dresses. Thankfully, they didn't. In general, there were some conflicting costume ideas - men and women were dressed to fit into different centuries.
  • Talking of dress, Siegfried's tutor (if I correctly identified the hulking/sulking man who dances a duet with Konigin) looked like he had escaped from the bank that's across the road from the Deutsche Oper. And stolen someone's pants on his way to the theatre. I have never seen such ill-fitting pants on stage in a long time. He danced beautifully but the pants were his undoing.
  • I liked the scenes between ill-fitting pants and Siegfried, where they fought while dancing something that I'd like to call a pas de deux (but I'm not sure if it'd actually qualify as one). 
  • Till the very end, Von Rothbart was a random man behind a screen, waving obviously fake cloth wings. Initially, I thought this was a surprise Matthew Bourne-esque male Odette/ Odile, but turns out it wasn't! His wavy arms reminded me of the drill we performed on sports day, back in school.
  • I've been watching staid versions where Odile just laughs when Siegfried promises her eternal love. But, in this one, Odile and Von Rothbart come back to Siegfried to say aye popat! before they disappear. In the background, Odette is fluttering so madly - I'm not sure if she was trying to lose feathers or was just really upset.
  • We all know that everyone dies (in life and in Swan Lake). But why die so thanda? Odette just dances her sad duet with Siegfried, says chalo ji main chalti hoon and flutters away with her swans. She doesn't even give Siegfried time to run after her. Then, Von Rothbart appears, in the flesh, finally, and discards his wings before fighting Siegfriend. He dies like Gulshan Grover. Siegfried looks at Von Rothbart's body with such yearning, that I began to wonder if the two of them were in love. Then he also says, "Fuck it. What's the point? The party is over. I'm going to go lie down in this white smoke too." (lots of white smoke from wings) Konigin comes and shakes his dead body with such vigour, she should take over from Raakhee in Bollywood.

November 01, 2013

How I met Alina Cojocaru

 Yesterday, I watched Alina Cojocaru in Romeo and Juliet, dancing with the Hamburg Ballett at the Hamburgische Staatsoper. I'm too swayed by emotion to be objective about her performance. I want to talk about what happened after that. When I emerged from the theatre, I saw people waiting by the stage door. I assumed that they were waiting for the principal dancers to emerge, so I joined them. Initially there was a crowd, which dwindled after most of the other dancers left the building. By this point, it was 11 pm – the performance had ended an hour ago. Romeo had left. There were seven of us still waiting.

I was not sure what to expect and didn't know if she'd be interested in being nice to people after a long day. So I was more than a little taken aback when she finally emerged, apologising for making us wait. Most of the others were her groupies, who seem to follow her around from country to country, so she knew them. She spoke to all of us individually; she was thrilled that someone from India was watching her and even posed for a photograph (okay, I stop gushing here). The woman photographing us was not sure if my camera had taken the picture, and it was super cute when Alina Cojocaru told her which button she should hold down and for how long. (I know I'm objectifying her here by expecting her to be an ethereal being. Sorry, cannot help it.)

I expected her to pose for photographs, sign people's programmes and go away. But someone commented on her performance and she was very eager to talk about it. She favours John Neumeier's Romeo and Juliet over Kenneth MacMillan's version ever so slightly. She feels that Neumeier makes the story more dramatic by starkly distinguishing the periods of happiness and sadness in the characters' lives. “You can't be silly and mature,” she said, explaining that being a rough-around-the-edges Juliet in Neumeier's choreography lets her react to the story in a more visceral way. Juliet is a young girl who is still unsure of herself and uncomfortable with the idea of the woman she is expected to become. Her inability to fit in is portrayed through a series of steps that her mother teaches her, which she executes imperfectly and reluctantly. However, even Cojocaru's imperfect, faltering steps are an act of perfection.

In MacMillan's choreography, Juliet must react in a mature manner when she is forced to marry Count Paris. Cojocaru feels that the MacMillan version characterises Juliet by dwelling on how the family reacts to her, whereas Neumeier tries to bring out what Juliet must really feel. Someone asks her if she has ever considered doing Romeo and Juliet to another composer's music (this one was by Profokiev). She says that she identifies most with his music, having performed it for so many years.

I don't remember this part of the conversation well, but I think she said something (addressing nerves, or Profokiev, or both) on the lines of - This was my first role at the Royal (Ballet) when I was 19; I feel that if I could dance it at 19, I could definitely go on stage and perform it now.

Of course, she said that her Juliet changes every evening – and a couple laughed in delight because they've watched every single Juliet she danced this season (I am jealous). In the end, she picked up her own bags and struggled with two flower bouquets, and thanked the woman who offered to help carry one of the bouquets profusely. I am utterly charmed by the Alina Cojocaru I met.

September 23, 2013

On contemporary dance in India

A brief history of contemporary dance in India, NCPA Onstage magazine, December 2012, coinciding with their season of contemporary performance. Click on the images to zoom in and find legible text.

Pointe of Departure

This is a piece I wrote for Onstage, NCPA's monthly magazine, in March 2013, about ballet in India, when NCPA was beginning to screen performances by the Bolshoi Ballet earlier this year. Click on the pictures to see legible text.

August 17, 2013

Reflections on Kadamb and Kumudini Lakhia in Bombay

I've often wondered whether senior artists tire of blessing the scores of people who dive down at their feet. They must put up with this, and multiple inanities that other generations have not grown out of yet. Why are we so sycophantic in our dealings with artists? 

In two days, Kumudini Lakhia has left me enthralled. I love her; she is so charming and acerbic, I wish she were my grandmother. I have never seen her work on stage earlier, but I have been reading about her for many years now, and this has made her assume a mythical significance in my book of choreographers whose work I couldn't wait to watch. 

Perhaps it was not the right way to receive a new work - but what I finally saw struggled to affirm that image of startlingly revolutionary dancing I had painted in my mind's eye. The dancing was good, mostly synchronised. There were a few moments that were positively electric; for instance - when Sanjukta Sinha's tatkar reverberated through her entire body at the end of Yugal. 

I don't have a very detailed idea of the evolution of Kathak, but I sense that Kumudini's work brought about a great shift in how Kathak was performed and understood at one time. I yearn to be able to see her work through that chronological lens. I want to share her great regard for Atul Desai, her music composer of four decades. But  I cannot ignore the Muzak-like tunes. Or the stencilled light design in too many colours (though, sometimes, the blinding light elevates the dancing in a way that flat light just doesn't).

The disco lights make much of the work look like a corporate gig, and I'm not sure if that is a bad thing, but it is just too much clutter where I was expecting none.

Kumudini says that she encourages her students to choreograph and take ownership of their performances. Yet, Kumudini and Kadamb are tangled entities - one is because of the other, and vice versa. So even if some of these pieces were not choreographed by her, they get slotted as work she endorses.

Standing ovations are such a mob-driven thing. Someone stands, then two others stand, then the people sitting next to them stand, then the row behind them feels awkward and stands, and soon enough, everyone is standing and clapping as if their lives depended on it, even though most of them couldn't care less.

But I digress. Today's performance was followed by a discussion with Ratna Pathak-Shah, who took everyone through Kumudini's life beautifully (but persisted  in saying Ram Kumar instead of Ram Gopal). And the audience questions that followed - they were gems. It is touching that people are moved by art, moved enough to want to move themselves. But their gushing comments and questions obliterate the already marginal space afforded to critical questioning in classical dance. 

I am all for nostalgia and reminiscence as an important mode of writing about the arts. But a post-performance discussion critiques the performance one has just seen, not:

  • Madam can you please open a dance class branch in Bombay? 
  • If we cannot come to Kadamb or cannot dance due to other reasons, what advice do you have if we really want to be able to dance? (To which she said - so start dancing again! :D)
  • How old is too old, to begin dancing? (Aforementioned questioner goes on to list the ages of his various family members...)
  • Your feet are always moving even while you sit and talk! (oh golly that is so cool, you must be a dancer!!!)
  • What was your experience of Rekha when you took her out in a burqa while shooting Umrao Jaan in Lucknow (in that vein)? (Also analyse the bhavas on her face under the veil and other nuances of her hidden abhinaya).

The session degenerated into a cloying wah-wah clapfest, and I never got to ask her what I really wanted to. How does she see her choreographic work in the present-day context? Has its immediacy been altered by the passage of time? Has she felt that, perhaps, it is time for yet another shift?

March 08, 2013

A morning at the RTO

I'm just back from the Andheri (W) RTO, where I gave a driving test to get a permanent license to ride my scooter, and since it was an ordeal, I'm just writing this down in case it helps somebody.

Of course, I cannot resist taking a few potshots at the way it is run...

In all fairness, most officials I dealt with were polite and reasonable. But the place is a mystery, because it took me quite a while to learn where to go, and often people at the counters were blank about where one had to go next. The biggest signboards lead to the Ladies Toilet.

Sheep and chicken abound; whether they were giving driving tests too is uncertain.

So I spent a considerable amount of time figuring out where I had to go. I already had an LMV License, so I started with filling Form 8 and submitting it with photos at counter A-7 (back of A block). I paid Rs. 300 and collected my receipt from the next window.

From A-7, I went to Mr. Nerkar in the D block office, who verified my vehicle registration papers and added details from them to the form.

After that, I went to the G Block, which is the shed next to the test area. There, my documents were verified and I was then asked to take the test. The test officer again looked at my documents and told me to bring my scooter to the test area.

Clearly, if you can find your way around the RTO, you are sane enough to drive a vehicle. I drove my scooter into the test area, and went up to the inspector, and he gave me his seal of approval.

Having passed my driving test, my headache was washed away by relief. It was too good to be true. I then had to go to A-5 (front entrance A block) and submit this sheaf of forms. That alas, is yet to happen, because the person concerned was on leave. The bald man staffing the window was the first rude person I met in the RTO, who refused to even tell me when the office would open tomorrow. Of course, if they had signboards somewhere, I wouldn't have asked him in the first place.

I live less than a mile away, and the temperature difference was startling. Please cover up, wear sunglasses to avoid the dust clogging your eyes, which happened to me. There's so much smoke, and no concrete tracks, so the smoke and dust literally hang in the air like some manifestation of Voldemort. That thing called smog.

Fingers crossed, and hope the goddess of A-5 is in her seat tomorrow.

March 06, 2013

Video - Interview with Kumkum Lal

The video interview with Kumkum Lal, complete with transcripts, is up. To watch and read simultaneously, go to -

Else, you can also watch it here...

February 25, 2013

Interview with Kumkum Lal - Part Two

Kumkum: So Guru Harekrushna Behera who is commonly known as Harebabu. He was one of Guruji's favourite students because he was so sincere. He had come from Balasore to learn from him. He was very meticulous; he used to write down everything that he learned. And whenever we used to forget anything, we would go to him because we had it all written down.

But, lately, when I went to him, he said that there was a time when there was some rain and flood in his house and everything got spoiled. He used to come home three times a week - the room that had removable beds, that's where he used to play the tabla in the house. And Odissi - I loved it, because it was so graceful - in those days, the mudras were also not fixed. Like when we do this thing (a stance in mayura). In those days, we would just do it like this (katakamukha to alapadma).

All this was done in the early 60s or mid 60s when Guruji started polishing the style. In that time, we used to do mangalacharan and do batu in the same item. We would do mangalacharan - the bhumi pranam, and then we went to touch all the instruments - on the stage during the performance, and then we did batu, which was much shorter, much simpler, more charming. Just now, it is a proper exercise to do it, very tough. But at that time it was not like that.

And, as you know, the system of teaching, the methodology of teaching, was different from what it is today. The steppings are ten in chowka and ten in tribhanga. Earlier, we had six groups of steppings, four in each, so twenty-four steps. But they were mixed-up. Some of the steps now look very antiquated, or in many ways, new. Because nobody does those steppings now. But I think that they are very useful and it is also like a lexicon of steppings, because you always refer to - do the second step of the fourth group, and so on. So it is also like a reference point.

Whereas today's steppings are very good for exercise and for learning. These steppings also, I may tell you, were created by Guruji because when he started teaching outside Orissa and he could not teach for a longish period of time; he had to teach then in a short time. And they were already dancers. Then through these steppings, they could get into the mould of Odissi. And then, straightaway, an item was taught to them.
So, within a restricted period of one or two months, he could train a dancer, and it would be very intensive. Because it would be every day. And at that time, he realised he couldn't teach all the twenty-four steps. So he created this. Initially it used to be only till 6. I remember; I think it was about the time he started going to Bombay, which was when I moved there, from 1980, when these chowka-tribhangi steppings came up. And uptil then, when he was teaching us - all of us were already dancers and he didn't need to teach steppings when he would come to Delhi for his workshops.

Anyway, this is about stepping. As far as I am concerned, Guru Harekrushna Behera taught me very regularly and very meticulously everything that Guruji had learnt. And then in the summers he would come back to Orissa and pick up whatever Guruji had done during the rest of the year and then come back and teach me. And then around 1963-64, Guruji changed the batu, the mangalacharan and the moksha. In fact, for one or two years, it was in a state of flux. And I found some things which I had learnt in mangalacharan had gone to the moksha and what was in the moksha had come here - till it completely settled down to what it was - today.

The other thing that Guruji did at that time was that he became true to the bols, and he tried to make the tala interpretation more perfect. And the extreme example of that is batu, where every syllable is brought out by the foot. You can't do kada-taka, you have to do ka-da-ta-ka. So that was something he did with the batu - it's an exercise over there. This happened in the early 60s. He was in a very creative mood and he redid whatever he had - older items which he himself had created - he polished it and made them like this.
I have learnt the old batu as well; some of it I still remember. I know how simple it used to be. I have performed that batu and then subsequently this new batu come. And the repertoire was also built up - the mangalacharan and batu became separate, the touching of the instruments vanished.

Ranjana: Were there pallavis already being composed?

Kumkum: There were two pallavis - Kalyan and Vasant. These were the only two pallavis that were being done in those days, in the early days. Then, in the early 60s, it was a creative period of his - he created Shankarabharanam with Kumkum (Mohanty), Saveri - maybe with Sonal, I am not sure, and Mohana. These three were the mixed group of pallavis created by him. And also the Vasant Pallavi underwent some change. 

Ranjana: Did all the initial pallavis have a sloka to go with them?

Kumkum: No, the most initial ones - Kalyan and Vasant had them. And we always performed them with the sloka.

Ranjana: And what was the logic of the sloka - it was a sloka about the raga?

Kumkum: Yes, absolutely. You know that in music, they have visualised every raga. And the visualisation of the raga has nothing to do with any god and goddess. And it is just the visualisation of the ambience that the raga creates. It was like that. The Kalyan raga has got a more energetic spirit, so there was a warrior involved in that. And Vasant raga is a more free-spirited raga, so it has this very 'mast' person with peacock feathers in his hair. Actually, people think it is Krishna but it is not Krishna.
But at some stage, Guruji decided to do away with that. So then people started performing Kalyan and Vasant without the sloka. And subsequent pallavis never had any sloka. But they had - you see, Guruji and Bhubaneswar Mishra became a team around that time. And a lot of Gita Govinda songs...Guruji's intellectual guide was Kalicharan Pattnaik. So for every song, he would get his meanings very clear from him, and the music was done by Bhubaneswar Mishra, who was such a nice man and so kind and he was so generous with his giving. We owe so much to him but I think the world never gave him back anything. He was just...

Ranjana: Can you say more about how they a team?

Kumkum:Well, at that time I was a very young person. Later on, I can jump then, because...

Ranjana: No, don't jump, you can come to it later.

Kumkum: When I was learning from Harekrushna Behera, he had opened a little school called Nritya Niketan in this marketplace called Bhagat Singh Market, which is near Gol Market in Delhi. And so in the first floor flat, of one Mr. Khosla - Mr. Khosla's daughter used to learn and his granddaughter used to learn, and he was a widower, so he just gave his flat and in his drawing room was the so-called school and when Guruji started coming he would be given one bedroom. We used to go there...Guruji started coming, Harekrushna Behera first got Surendranath Jena to help him.

Then, Harekrushna Behera brought Mayadhar Rout, who was very well-known for his abhinaya. His abhinaya was very good. And he had been to Kalakshetra - I mean, there were many people who had been to Kalakshetra. So the viniyogas and all have all come from there. He did some abhinayas, he taught us - I also learnt from him. We were learning from both the gurus. But then he also separated and he went off to Bharatiya Kala Kendra. And then, finally, Guruji came.

Guruji came - he used to stay for two to three months. We used to all go for class. We used to have one-to-one classes in those days. I mean, I have learnt yahi madhava and all that...there was one other girl with me; she was a professional dancer from Bharatiya Kala Kendra. And she found Guruji's teaching very slow, because he used to enjoy himself. He would explain everything very well. Something that was later on not done at all. Each word, each thing, each sanchari was...he used to take time.

One week passed, but we would still be on the first stanza. She left in the middle, because she said - this guru takes too long to teach. But I remember his words - how he taught Yahi madhava. Each of the comparisons that he gave.

He also did a ballet. Dance drama. He did Kanchi Vijay (Kanchi Abhijan). In that, the heroine was Sonal Mansingh. Sonal was also learning. At that time, Rani Karnaa was also coming there regularly. These people were proper students of Guruji's. And Yamini also came to learn a few items, so she would also come there. And then any other person; Kumkum (Mohanty) would come when she came to Delhi. So that little flat in Bhagat Singh market had all these luminaries coming to learn from Guruji.

Kanchi Vijay - the raja was Harekrushna Behera and Sonal was the Padmavati. And Rani Karnaa was the curd seller. I was doing Krishna's role or something like that. I was a kid at that time - not kid, but a younger dancer. So, in that Kanchi Vijay - for the dance drama, Guruji had composed Harir iha mugdha vadhunikare. It was part of that. The music had been composed by...just now, my memory is not working too well, but I can let you know.

Harir iha was composed as a puja dance. I remember we used to all enter with a thali and do the puja - ringing the temple bells and all that, and then harir iha directly to the idol. Then, Dasavatara was also part of it but Guruji composed vedanudharate, which is a sloka before the Dasavatara, in which all the avatars are listed. Beautiful music - Bhubaneswar Mishra's music. It was a lovely piece. I have unfortunately not performed it. It can easily be done as a mangalacharan.

And then there were many other songs which were there. So Guruji started coming and we were introduced to him. I had seen Guruji for the first time when he got the award - the SNA award. In those days, we were very enamoured of Indrani Rahman, so when I saw him - you know, he has a small face and he was playing the pakhawaj, and Balakrishna Dash was sitting imposingly, so I thought he must be Kelucharan Mohapatra. Guruji's face was pockmarked and his hair was receding. That was my first introduction to him. After that, he mesmerised all of us with his personality and his dance.

February 22, 2013

Interview with Odissi dancer Kumkum Lal - 1

This is the first part of the transcript of an interview I did with Kumkum Lal about her life and dance in Bhubaneswar, in December 2012. The video interview is up on, which I shall link to in subsequent posts. I am still transcribing it, but I'm so supremely excited about how it turned up that I had to put it up in text too.

Khajuraho Festival brochure, 1978
Ranjana: You could start with your early life, again (we were repeating the interview because we never completed it, the first time in Delhi). In Patna.

Kumkum: Patna is where my father was posted. My father was very interested in all the arts. My father would do plays, and he was very interested in indigenous art forms. And, naturally his daughter was put into the dance class which was available, which was Shri Hari Uppal's, who had studied with Uday Shankar and at Shantiniketan. So those days the only two classical forms which were prevalent and widespread - one was Manipuri, because Shantiniketan was promoting it; and the other was Kathakali, which Uday Shankar had also picked up and got a teacher there (Almora - Uday Shankar's dream school of Indian dances).

And these two forms were not 'tainted' by women dancers of 'disrepute'. So that was girls were taught. And that is what I was taught at the age of four, when I started dancing. Subsequently, we moved to Delhi, and in Delhi the classical style which was being taught at various places or which was very well-known was Bharatanatyam, so there were several teachers of Bharatanatyam, and Guru Ramaswamy Pillai, who was from the Vazhuvoor style, which is the more graceful style, not the Pandanallur style. He used to teach that and he was employed by Triveni Kala Sangam, which used to be on the fourth floor in one of the flats in Connaught Place at that time.

And of course, Guru Ramaswamy Pillai never knew any Hindi or English. So he would talk to me in Tamil. So that is how I started learning Bharatanatyam. Triveni moved to its present premises subsequently and I learnt uptil the Varnam over there.

But after seeing Indrani Rahman do Odissi, one fell in love with that style because it was so charming and the music was so sweet.

Ranjana: When did you see her dance?

Kumkum: This must have been around...maybe, '57-58? But there was no teacher in Delhi. Then, later on, I heard that there was a student of Guruji's who had come on a scholarship to learn Kathak from Birju Maharaj. That was Guru Harekrishna Behera.

So, he was contacted. Meanwhile, of course, I was in Modern School. So I was regularly doing creative dance, and learning from Shri Narendra Sharma, who was one of the outstanding disciples of Uday Shankar, having been trained in Almora. So, in Modern School we had that, and I was always dancing that. Anyway...

Ranjana: No, you should talk about that, about Modern School.

Kumkum: (laughs, then continues) Well, Modern School, it was a very interesting experience to learn dance from Narendra Sharma because we had eight houses, no, twelve houses; so every House had a little dance performance on the House Day. And so he used to create small dance pieces - maybe a rainy day - and then you were a cloud or the rain or something like that. Another thing was mirrors; so then there would be two dancers opposite each other and they would be...(demonstrates mirror image movement).

Every time, a new idea had to be done. It wasn't like Devi, or a puja dance, nothing like that. Very creative dancing, Sharmaji. And of course, during the annual day we would have dance dramas based on Tagore - Tasher Desh, Muktadhara. So I kept up my dancing with that, and Bharatanatyam...

Ranjana: And, going back to what you said about Indrani Rahman, could you describe the performance, if you remember some of it?

Kumkum: See, in those days, several dancers were doing more than one style in their performance. In fact, some people, Yamini (Krishnamurti) also; they would one-third Bharatanatyam, one-third Kuchipudi and one-third Odissi. This was the fashion those days. Indrani Rahman used to do Bharatanatyam and then she would do the Manduka-shabdam from Kuchipudi, and then she would do two or three Odissi items. I remember there was this Ganapati dance that she would do and then some very simple abhinaya.

But, you know, it was so sweet and it was so charmingly done that everybody used to love it and be completely charmed by it when she danced. And she, of course, was very revolutionary because she had shed the chunni. Because the Odissi dancer those days used to be dressed up in a very musty kind of way. She would be wearing a full-length velvet blouse, and then she would have a thick chunni coming down (down her breasts) and then some salma-sitare ka belt (along her waist), and then very heavily painted on the face.

So the expression wouldn't show. So she (Indrani) did away with all that. She simplified it. She did away with the chunni altogether, and she was tying the sari in a very simple way, without the natawari. And she started wearing silver jewellery.

Ranjana: Natawari is the...?

Kumkum: The cloth that covers the bottom. Because the bottom, from the back, might look very untidy and all. So, they cover it up with that. Earlier they used to tie a cloth. And now we have (tailored hip-pieces). She was fortunately very slim. She used to be Miss India, you know.

So, that, and she changed the jewellery to silver jewellery. Because the belt used to be silver. She of course, changed the belt and everything. She took some very artistic pieces. Which was absolutely a no-no. Because, earlier, the rule was that above the neck you always wore gold, and below the neck, you could silver, and on the feet, of course, you must wear silver. And she changed this whole thing. So for the purists of that time, it was quite shocking.

I remember that when I started, I was told very strictly to wear gold above the neck. But then everybody was influenced by Yamini Krishnamurti. And most people said - how can this be - gold and silver worn together? 

Ranjana: This was Harekrushna Behera who told you to wear gold?
Who told you to wear gold?

Kumkum: We were wearing gold; conventionally, everybody wore gold.

Ranjana: But you said that you were told...

Kumkum: Guruji (Kelucharan Mohapatra) was very particular. He was particular. Until he couldn't stem the tide of opinion and people wanted to wear silver...

You see all the old photographs of Sanjukta - you will find only gold jewellery. All the old photographs.
But at some point, I think in the mid-1960s or something. Sonal (Mansingh) also used to wear gold. But at some point in the late 1960s, it changed over to silver. Because the understanding was that only lower-caste people wore silver on top (above the waist). And the reasonable classes wore gold above but they could never wear gold on the feet. That, only royalty could do.

So these are the commonplace rules. Indrani Rahman had brought about this revolution and she simplified the fussy kind of Odissi that was there. And it was very nice to watch. And then I started learning from Harekrushna Behera, who used to live in the premises of Bharatiya Kala Kendra, where Kathak Kendra was based. 

Ranjana: You were talking about the gold jewellery.

Kumkum: So, in those days, when we started, we were wearing gold jewellery on top and silver below. And we would always wear chita (sandal paste). That was also compulsory. Initially, we always used to tie (drape) our dress.

Ranjana: What is the kind of dress you would wear?

Kumkum: Earlier, people would wear Banarasi sarees also. By the time I started learning, they were wearing sambalpuri sarees. And the chunni was not made out of the sari. It was usually made of Banarasi material or...I was also wearing a chunni. Because I was very slim at that time and I wanted, like Indrani Rahman...chunni mat pehno (not to wear a chunni), so I had this very thing chunni. So we used to wear this very thin nylon or net chunni.

Then what Harebabu did was - he said, the chunni will have to be worn, so he stuck the chunni on my blouse. So my midriff was not covered. In those days, I was so slim, it was okay. In my earliest photographs, I have got chunnis like that (v-shaped). Subsequently, I started wearing the same thing (the one-shouldered drape). And finally, it was made out of a sari, which is very comfortable if your midriff is not that slim.

To be continued...