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Odissi exponent, super artist with multi faceted genius: Kelucharan Mahapatra

By Dr Ashok K Choudhury | PUBLISHED: 21, Jul 2012, 12:25 pm IST | UPDATED: 21, Jul 2012, 12:41 pm IST

Odissi exponent, super artist with multi faceted genius: Kelucharan Mahapatra “I was once a labourer in a betel farm.
I was lucky than even though I rose from scratch,
My talent got recognised”
- Kelucharan Mahapatra (1926 – 2004)

These lines explain the humble Guru, how simple he was, who was aware there are not many others who have been so fortunate like him.  In the field of art and culture, there are very few who can make it to the top and even fewer those who do spare a thought for their lesser brethren.  But Kelucharan Mahapatra, affectionately called Kelubabu, the doyen of Odissi, was a refreshing exception.

Compared by the American media to Nijinski “for the same magnificent back and arms movements”, and to Chaplin, “for his capacity to create a full world with the simple gestures of his hands,” Kelubabu never forgot his origin. The story of his life is one of the struggle and unending dedication. From the traditional chitrakaras through the entertaining art of the Gotipua and Jatra parties, the bhakti oriented rasa leela performances and the innovative attempts of the Annapurna Theatres; Kelubabu’s artistic journey is one of the continuous learning and growth.

Beginning life as a domestic help and later, a mason, this dizzying climb to national fame can be ascribed to the grace of Lord Jagannath. The legendary Guru who passed away on 7th April 2004 in Bhubaneshwar was a multifaceted genius, equally brilliant as a choreographer, pakawaj player, painter, make-up artist, dancer, teacher, researcher, innovator, and last but not the least a fine human being.

Describing Kelubabu as ‘Abhishakta Gandharva’, Pratibha Ray, an eminent fictionist, on his passing away, said, “May be out there in the heavens, they fell short of great teacher and took him back”. Sudha Thakkar Khandwani of Cannada says, ‘Kelubabu’s manifold contributions to Odissi – whether as a performer, teacher, choreographer… are so fundamental that historians of modern Indian dance will identify the last 50 years as the Kelucharan era of Odissi. He was a total artist with a versatility that stretches beyond dance into music, painting, set-design and anything that goes into creating poetry through movement and mime”.

When once asked how he copes up with these multifarous activities, Kelubabu replied, “My first love is Odissi, and I am doing whatever I can for the dance”. He was courteous, simple and totally unassuming, absolutely untouched by celebrity airs. “Whatever Odissi or I have achieved, it’s due to Lord Jagannath’s blessing”, he used to say. Each action in his life as in dance was a continuous offering at the lotus feet of Lord Jagannath.

An Indian noted Sanskrit poet says on the proponent of Odissi, “Saango-paang-subhangi-laasa-madhuram Samteerna-nrutyaarnavam” (which means “Each fraction of his dancing body leads to paramount sweetness through miraculous pose and postures”).

Bringing Odissi out of the temple and establishing it as a classical dance form has been a long road traversed by him. Kelubabu was ‘arguably’ the one man who has had the greatest influence on the dance form as we know it today. Odissi climbed to new and dizzy heights and became universally admired art through which Guruji paid the devoted service to divinity. He was the founding-father of Odissi. With his death, the classical genius of his time, an era has come to an end.

Leaving his innumerable admirers, disciples and contemporary artists in a state of shock, Guruji breathed his last on his way to the hospital. Considered as one of the architect of modern Odissi, he was the last of the redoubtable triumvirate of Odissi. He was instrumental in getting the Odissi dance the coveted classical tag which till the ‘60s was limited to performances either inside the temples by name of Maharis or the streets as Gotipua, the boy dancers.

Kelubabu, the divine dancer, can be called the ‘creator’ of today’s Odissi. Kelubabu, the path-finder is alive in every single disciple he had sculpted with scrupulous care and concern.

The maestro’s disciple, Kumkum Lal, says, ‘I often compare Guruji to Parambrahma, the Supreme one, whom all (disciples) take for granted”. Sharon Lowen says, ‘his contribution to the world of art is unparalleled. Odissi was not only recognised as a classical art form but Kelubabu popularized it across the world”. He took the art form to international level gathering laurels for the country and the state and established Odissi as one of the most interesting and popular form of classical dance form.

A symbol of humility, Guruji, who performed on the stage till recently, had a career spanning over six decades. Even while pushing eighty when he took the stage he kept the audience spellbound and his majestic expressional display made one hypnotized. Guruji had once said, “The form of Odissi I represent is the one that belonged to devadasis and gotipuas. The dancer has to follow a particular pattern when changing from, say, samabhanga to tribhanga or to ardhabhanga. Each movement captures within itself the pure traditional form and there is no scope for jumping steps erratically”.

Odissi and Kelubabu are synonymous with each other. His is the classic story of unflinching devotion of God, leading to greatness. The syntax of his creativity mediates between his unflinching commitment to the purity of Odissi and his intense abhinaya. Watching him on stage it itself a spiritual experience. Divinty is the foundation of his art.

Everytime he was taking the stage with such a grace and emotion that the stage itself became a temple. He used to start each performance with a prayer. There was an idol of Lord Jagannath placed in a corner. His graceful moments and his intense feelings, coupled with dedication and humility was reflecting the strength of his relationship with God. His compositions, styles, techniques, delicate and extremely graceful, dominate the world of Odissi.

When he himself was performing, there is a deliberation in the movements which lends grace and depth. The simple, but charming mangalacharan which include an invocation, with which he used to begin his programmes was enough proof of this. Whenever an example was required of a maestro’s ability to transcend the body, Kelubabu’s name would spring to mind, as the bald man who could transform himself into a blushing nayika through the power of mime and devotion. When he performed an asthapadi at Kalkshetra in the early ‘80s, Rukmini Devi Arundale commented, ‘I felt I was watching the ‘real’ Radha’. But Shankar Menon reacted, “I was imaging it was Padmavati.”

The authenticity of the emotions and the sensitive of his expressions and the extraordinary realistic sense in his choreography, showed the level of projection to which he has raised the special form of dance. Once, he had said, “I pray to Lord Jagannath that I do not die before death! Let Him keep me alive, as long as I am able to dance”. The Lord obviously heard him and fulfilled his desire.

Barely a couple of days of his last performance at Gandhi Auditorium, Lucknow, on the eve of Utkal Divas (Odisha Day) on 1st April 2004, he passed away dancing till his last breath. Aside from his own performances, Guruji’s illustrious disciples who earned him even greater eminence are - Sonal Mansingh, Kumkum Mohanty, Minati Mishra, Kumkum Lal, Madhavi Mudgal, Ileana Citaristi, Bindoo Sahoo, Sharon Lowen, and late Sanjukta Panigrahi and Protima Bedi. His illustrious legacy will be kept alive through his disciples and his innumerable choreography and his own creation, ‘Srijan’.

His 75th birth anniversary was celebrated with great aplomb by his disciples from India and abroad, at Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi, in collaboration with Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Srijan, and Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra Satkar Samiti on July 5, 2001 on the day of Guru Purnima, though actual his birthday was in January. Though his Janampatri was lost in his childhood, just as Tagore is identified with a period in contemporary Indian art, and Rukmini Devi Arundale with an epoch in Bharatnatyam, Kelubabu’s life defines Odissi in post-colonial India.

The two-day festival, to mark the 75th anniversary of an artiste and Guru with well over half a century spent transmitting the art form to another generation, began with a morning Guru Pooja, and in the evening duet and group presentation by senior disciples of Guruji’s choreography. Next day’s session was began with the screening of excerpts from documentaries on Kelubabu produced by different film experts – Prakash Jha, Kumar Shahni, Ranjana Gauhar – with evening performances.

The celebration, a collective effort of the maestro’s disciples, was not only for Guruji but also for Guru Maa, Laxmipriya Mahapatra, the first Odia female dancer on stage. This was a fascinating and comprehensive tribute by the disciples to Odissi’s most renowned teacher Kelucharan Mahapatra.  The felicitations to Guruji remind one of other Gurus also who have contributed to the evolution and propagation of Odissi. The two days were rich beauty, joy, reminiscences and loving gratitude, as junior and senior dancers got together to perform, watch, learn and indulge in some stocktaking.

As a loyal disciple and as a fitting Gurudakshina to a Guru, Ileana Citarist, the noted Odissi dancer and one of the gifted disciple of Kelubabu, has written a biography entitled, The Making of a Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra : His Life and Times (2001), which heralds a milestone in the life of the Guru.
The Guru was born on January 8, 1926 in Raghurajpur, the village synonymous with pattachitra, near Puri, Odisha. Inherited the traditions of Chitrakara from his father, Chintamani Mahapatra, a painter and khol (drum) player, his love for the dance of the gotipua, and for sankirtan and jatra that influenced little Kelu. In the evening little Kelu could be found in one of the two Akhadas in the village, watching and imitating the dance moments of the akhadapillas (boys of the gynasia) under training or trying his hand at reproducing the rhythm of the Pakawaj on his own hips. His elder brother, Anand was also a percussionist in a jatra patry.

Hence, art was very much in the intimate surroundings. Kelu was never close to his father, who was strongly disapproving his inclination towards dance, because gotipua nritya is badly disgraced by the 20th century. His mother encouraged him a lot.

Unable to dissuade Kelu from indulging in effeminate art of gotipus, his father allowed him to train under Balabhadra Sahu and finally abandoned him to Mohan Sunder Dev Goswami, then Director of Kunja Behari Rasa Leela in Puri, with whom he toured and performed. During his ten years stay his working day began early morning with training in singing and rhythm and closed with lessons in the communicative art of abhinaya in the evening. During the day period he used to attend to the household chores, like cooking and cleaning, and dedicated him to various sevas for the guru. With Guru Goswami Kelubabu was initiated into the art of abhinaya, percussion playing, singing, make-up, choreography, and stage-craft.

When he was learning the ethics and basics of dance form from Mohan Sunder, his father passed away. With no fixed source of income he left the Rasa Leela party and he had to work as a labour by rolling bidis (indigenous cigarattes) and carrying sands and later in the paan (betel) grove at 20 paisa a day where his job was to carry 150 pitchers of water for watering the plants.

Kelu was often heard singing at work and one fine day, the master of the grove, sensing his innate talent, help him with a meager finance to learn music. This struggle for survival eased somewhat when he landed a job with Odisha Theatre, a theatre company of Kali charan Pattanayak in Cuttack at a monthly salary of Rs.7/-. There his work was included almost everything - playing instruments, acting, managing stage make-up, arranging chairs and other sundry things. He continued with the group till 1952. Here under the able tutelage of Gurus like Agadhu Maharana, who taught him the mrudanga; and Khetramohan Kar and Harihar from whome he learnt tabla; from Guru Pankaj Charan Das and Guru Durlva Chandra Singh, he learnt duets with Laxmipriya, whome he later married; learn Uday Shankar’s dance techniques  and the use of hand gestures from Guru Dayal Saran.  

Then he went back to his village and started teaching dance in Rasa Leela party. After working for a couple of months, he went to Puri to watch a performance where the co-workers of his earlier dance troupe had performed their own party, Annapurna Theatre, which has produced number of celebrities. As per their request Kelubabu had given up his job as a dance master and joined Annapurna, mainly responsible for performing themes related Lingaraja and other popular deities.

He, once, confessed, “I gained a lot, many things which shaped my dance later. Here I was trained by Guru Pankaj Charan Das, a great dancer, who taught me the intricacies of Odissi. Annapurna provided us a platform from where we become dancers and gurus”. His big break came after a solo piece in a dance-drama on ‘Devi Bhasmasura’ where he brilliantly played the dancing Shiva, where he met Laxmipriya, dancing in the role of Mohini, under the direction of Guru Pankaj. 1st October 1947 was a turning point in his life as Dashavatara was staged as part of the stage play Taa Poi (trader’s girl), which became a legend.

This incredible incident marked a turning point in his life. From the traditional expertise of the  chitrakaras through the entertaining art of the gotipua and jatra parties, the bhakti oriented rasa leela performances of the innovative attempts of the Annapurna Theatre – Kelubabu’s, artistic journey was one of continuous learning and growth.

Subsequently he joined the Kala Vikas Kendra, Cuttack, the first college of music and dance to include Odissi in its curriculam, in 1953 where students like Sanjukta Panigrahi, Priyambada Mohanty, and Minati Mishra were his disciples. He continued to teach there for 15 years, and choreographed number of dance dramas in Odissi style, including Panchapuspa, Krushna Gatha, Geeta Govinda, Urbashi, Krushna Leela, Sakhigopal, Konark, and Shriketra. Besides, Kelubabu conducted research on folk and tribal dance of Odissi and enriched his repertory of Odissi dance poses through further study of temple sculptures, especially those found on the Brahmeswara, Parasurameswara and Konark temples.

During his Kala Vikas days the ‘Kelustyle’ was gradually taking a distinct shape and simultaneously became systematic and precise. He composed Pallavi in ragas Vasanta, Shankaravaran, Kalyani, Mohana, Saveri, and Aravi and the first Astapadi from Geeta Govinda like Lalita Labanga Lata, Sakhi He, Dhira Samire, and Yahi Madhava. In ‘80s he left the Kendra, and travelled to different parts of the country to spread awareness about Odissi. He became a visiting faculty in Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Delhi; NCPA, Mumbai; and Padatik Dance Centre, Kolkata. Later he was associated with Odissi Research Centre, Bhubaneshwar, and made valuable contributions to the work of codification and systematization of the Odissi style.

Whatever he performed he left the audience spellbound by sensual beauty and naturalness of his interpretations of the characters from Geeta Govinda and innumerable Odia songs. Kelubabu had not only danced in India but worldwide, participating in the Festivals of India in London, Russia, Germany, France, America, Japan, where his raga Bagesri, Khamaj, Kirwani, are noteworthy for their intricate rhythmic structures and for his choreographic ability as well as for his mastery over mardal (pakawaj) playing.

After leaving the Kala Vikas, his significant contribution to Odissi was ‘Srijan’ (creation), the Odissi Natyabasa, an institution founded by him and his wife, to keep alive this equisite art form, indeed a ‘unique’ academy which gradually gained the distinction as a Mecca for Odissi dancers. ‘Srijan’ symbolizes Kelubabu’s humble offering of the classicism of Odissi dance, music and percussion to our rich national ethos. Kelubabu assiduously set about building a legacy for the future generation of dancers through the traditional guru-shishya style.

Established in 1944, ‘Srijan’ housed in a modest building in the suburbs of Bhubaneswar, assisted by a few well-wishers mostly from outside Odisha, is looking after by his son, Ratikanta, a leading dancer, along with his wife Sujata, an Odissi dancer too. The academy, with a difference, humility and dedication, are the hallmarks of learning. Regular dance classes for local and special classes for foreign students are augmented by summer workshops, performances and new choreography and music creation.

‘Srijan’ has a repertoire of talented male and female dancers. Guruji has also conducted regular workshops in various cities. As a center of learning, he had also established an important library and video archives. To extend a small financial support to aging and retired artists, through ‘Srijan’, he had instituted an annual award, ‘Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra Award’, in 1995, carrying a citation and cash prize of Rs.25,000/-, given to artists belonging to four fields: dance, drama, music, and cinema;  all of which Guruji was associated with in his long artist career.

‘Srijan’ hosts a number of classical dance and music festivals on an annual basis like: ‘Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra Award’, which honours lifetime achievement in dance, cinema, music, and theatre; ‘Samsmranam Festival’; ‘Marga Darshan Purush Dance Festival’, featuring only male dancers. Its Kolkata Chapter, established in January 2005, organizes the Yuva Prativa Samman’, as part of the annual ‘Deesha Festival’, where an accomplished young dancer is presented with a cash prize and free dance training session for a year.

His dedication has been acknowledged by a number of awards and honours, though Kelubabu was never hankered after awards and recognition. He was first honoured with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1966 and there is an interesting story on how the Guru got the news of the award. When a telegram reached him, he was busy plastering the wall of a new portion of his house, which was one of his favorite pastimes.

Since he didn’t know how to read, Kelubabu requested the postman to read it out to him. ‘You have been given Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’, the postman said. Thinking that the postman was playing a trick on him in order to get some money, he ran towards his daughter’s school headmaster, who told him the same. The story was revealed by him on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Kelubabu was honoured with Padmashri, Padmabhushan, Pamdavibhushan, the great national honours, in 1972, 1989, 2000 respectively, and Kalidas Samman of Madhya Pradesh government in 1967, and Tulasi Samman in 1989. He was conferred an Honorary Doctorate by the Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in 1981. Sangeet Kala Kendra, a premier institution for the promotion of art and culture, honoured him the ‘Aditya Vikram Birla Kalashikar Puraskar’ in 1998 for his life achievement in classical dance.

He was also awarded ‘Shrimanta Shankardeva Award’ of Assam state Government in 2001, which was instituted in 1986 in the memory of the 18th century Saint Shankardeva, who led the reformist movement in Assam, the award was aimed at honouring individuals whose live were an example towards establishing universal human values and creating a new society free from class differences and religious intolerance. He was awarded ‘Commandeur dans I’ ordre des Arts et des Letters” (Commander of the order of Arts and Letters) in 2004 by French Government in recognition of his contribution to cultural diversity in France and India.

Though he received many an accolade, the amount of work produced: 200 solo compositions and about 50 dance dramas, and the number of students hail from all over the world; Kelubabu had never lost his simplecity and childlike purity. Despite bypass surgeries and a patient of asthma he was untiring in his sadhana.

Guruji once observed, “Dance is a great treasure and the pleasure of dancing comes from God. He has put the seed in my heart and I want my children to bring it to greater heights. Sometimes I am lost when I dance. I perform as a devotee, who is expecting to meet the lord”. Guruji has not died. Kelubabu, “the God in flesh and blood”, as Sujata Mahapatra, his illustrious daughter in law quote him, has ‘perhaps’ left off meeting God. A temple dedicated to Kelucharan Mahapatra at Nrityagram Dance Community, near Bangalore, where God Kelu is deity.

#Dr. Ashok K Choudhury, a postdoctoral scholar & lit critic, is with Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.
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