On Friday night, my friend Andrea and I attended an Odissi recital in Palo Alto, hosted by Yuva Bharati—a non-profit cultural organization that supports Indian culture in the US. The evening featured two male performers currently touring the country, Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Rahul Acharya.
Odissi is one of India’s classical dances, this one from the state of Orissa in eastern India. Like its sister forms, Odissi is both ancient and modern. The classical arts of India reached their initial fruition thousands of years ago and have influenced the arts throughout Eastern Asia or what was once called “Greater India.” In addition to Odissi, India’s classical dance forms include Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, Kathak, and Manipuri each a regional reflection of the movement arts as written in the Natya Sastra. This sacred text (believed to be directives from the Lord Brahma to the sage, Bharata Muni) is a 2,000 year-old dramaturgical manual outlining acting techniques, costume, makeup, play construction, proper story material, the organization of theater companies, and even arranges for competitions in order to judge the best performance. In short, the Natya Sastra outlines the entire aesthetics of Indian classical dance and drama.
But Odissi is not linked to a single legacy; it does not have an unbroken line to its original forms. Its progress was halted and redirected over the centuries by changes in political and religious affiliations, some forced, some not. It’s modern revival began in the 1930s when a number of dancers, musicians, and actors collaborated on a series of theatrical pieces and consequently created the foundations for the Odissi we see today. Two important figures at this dawning were Kelucharan and Laksmipriya Mohapatra, the parents Ratikant Mohapatra.
Mohapatra and Rahul Acharya each performed two solos and concluded the program with a duet. Mohapatra performed three of the 15-20 minute piece (I’m guessing on the time), each depicting a story from the Ramayana. Acharya performed a “pallavi” or “pure dance” expressing the harmony of music and dance, and a piece inspired by the sculptures of Ardhanariswara, the fusion of Siva and Parvati, male and female in harmony. The two performed together for the final piece, Jatayu Mokshya, choreographed by Ratikant Mohapatra.
Jatayu Mokshya concerns the spiritual salvation of the vulture, Jatayu, who attempts to save Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, from the evil Ravana who has kidnapped her. For his efforts to save Sita and through Rama’s blessing, Jatayu loses his life and gains salvation.
Mohapatra plays Ravana driving his chariot through the sky and holding captive Acharya’s Sita. They enter the stage gliding on both feet in lunge position as if leaning into the wind. They are propelled by their rapidly shifting feet which are pushed forward by crawling and crunching their toes against the ground. Their bodies remain steady and horizontally even—no turbulence in this ride through the sky. The effect was remarkable and effective. Later, Mohapatra plays Jatayu flying through the space with arms as wings, attacking Ravana and falling when his wing is cut off. There is a beautiful scene in which Acharya, now as Rama, hears Jatayu’s story and blesses his noble act.
Perhaps because there were two actors in this dance, or because the story was so clearly enacted, I was able to follow it as a dramatic piece. Even with program notes and verbal explanation of the previous four dances, I could only grasp them abstractly and enjoy the movement for its own sake. Mine are the eyes of a newcomer to Odissi dance-drama, though I am somewhat more familiar with Bharata Natyam and Kathakali.
Yuva Bharati hosts six performances during the year as a showcase for local Indian dancers (Friday’s program was a bonus). It was a very nice event and I am looking forward to their next presentation, Kalpana, on August 21st. This will be a showcase for developing choreographers in many styles of Indian dance and from many studios. Sounds like a great opportunity to learn more about these beautiful dance forms. For more information go to Yuva Bharati’s website.