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 composed...as 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 Pad.ma, 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...