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...

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