WHAT began as a childhood interest in the folk dances of his Ganjam home district in Odisha (Orissa), India, has brought Gajendra Panda today acclaim as an odissi master.
He recalls being fired by the passion of odissi under the late Guru Debaprasad Das. Coming from a family steeped in the 300-year-old folk theatre form of ‘Prahalad Natak’, which is now considered an endangered Indian folk art form, Gajendra recalls how he was picked to take part in the boys dance of Ganjam called Sakhi Nata.
“After my school ended at 4pm, everyone ran to play. I had some friends who followed me to the backyard of my house where we used to sing different folk songs. When I was in Standard 4, the organisers of Sakhi Nata came to select 5 to 6 boys who could sing well. I was first to get selected after singing one bhajan. That was the beginning of my journey.”
Gajendra left the troupe after his Sakhi Nata guru, Raghunath Purohita, died. “My parents wanted me to continue academic studies but I told my mother that if I didn’t learn dance I would run away.
“So, my father started searching for an efficient teacher. On the day of Bahuda Yatra (Return Chariot Festival) of Lord Jagannath, odissi nrutya (singer) Pt. Bhubaneswara Mishra visited my village. I was part of the Sakhi Nata performing that evening. After watching our performance, he was so impressed that he suggested I was sent to Guru Debaprasad Das.
“At first my father did not believe him but after watching Debaprasad teaching his prime disciple Ms. Bijayalaxmi Mohanty, he was spellbound. When he returned to the village, he and Bhubaneswar took me to Debaprasad, and I spent the rest of my life with odissi. I was 11 years old. The intense training under Guruji has carved me into what I am today.”
In fact, it is said that Debaprasad, who died at the age of 54, soon relied on Gajendra to remember his dance compositions. A unique feature of Debaprasad style was to use all the traditional dance forms, (Adivasis and folk) purified them and connected with odissi to present it with a different taste. This is Tridhara, his own style, the Debaprasad style.
Gajendra performed in Malaysia at the TFA KL a piece called Arpana. It is an emotive offering of the essence of Guru Debaprasad Das’ work in odissi, on the occasion of his 90th birth anniversary.
Gajendra performed with his principal dancers of Tridhara of Bhubaneswar, on the invitation of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre, High Commission of India, Kuala Lumpur .
An Indian critic states that Gajendra’s composition style is refreshingly unique for a variety of reasons, but foremost among them is his masterful use of the “Sabda Swara Paata” which he absorbed, painstakingly and meticulously, from his guru.
Says Gajendra of the appeal of Arpana: “Guruji’s style of odissi is very simple, energetic and is based on neutrality (Vastav Dharmi). Guruji didn’t like unnecessary ornamentation and our style is generally devoid of complexity (unnecessary decoration). It is very close to our life and hence, a non-dance audience easily connects with our dance. Therefore, it is not a big matter that whether one knows dancing or not. But when one watches dance live, not only will they enjoy it but also understand it.”
The iconic odissi master, Debraprasad, was no stranger to Malaysia, as he dropped by Kuala Lumpur with his prime disciple Ms Indrani Rehaman, an Indian classical dance performer who presented Indian classical dance outside India for first time.
Malaysia’s odissi master Datuk Ramli Ibrahim came under the tutelage of Debaprasad and continued learning under Gajendra till today.
Gajendra came from the gurukula (a type of residential schooling system in ancient India with shishya (students) living near or with the guru) tradition of India.
“I have never been to any college, school or any institution to learn dance. Guruji always introduced me as his elder son. Because of this impact on me, after Guruji I had never been to any other gurus. Guru Debaprasad always said ,”Eka Pati, Eka Guru, Eka Bidya Surakhita”( one husband, one Guru and one type of art, is the safest).
“But now time has changed. It has become a trend to shift from one guru to another guru for different and even materialistic reasons which is absolutely impractical.
“People boast, ‘I know a lot of dance forms like western, modern, classical, fusion, Bollywood, Hollywood and also I can play tabla, piano, casio, violin.’ Then parents feel very proud to say that ‘my child is multi-talented’.
“But they are unaware of the fact that devoting to a single form in a perfect way is better than learning many forms simultaneously.”
Gajendra frequently holds workshops and festivals as the odissi art form flourishes with new schools including Geetha Shankaran Dance Studio.
Asked about odissi being contemporarised with modern dances such as hip-hop, Gajendra says that the world is changing and such changes are natural. “I remember one example of my Guruji. He always said, our mother tongue is Odia, but after we learn English or other foreign languages we can never call our Father, Mother Uncle, Aunty. It is impossible.
“The same applies for odissi. It began from the Lord Jagannath temple, so devotion (bhakti bhaba) is the main aspect of odissi. Therefore, whatever change comes in odissi that must be based on Odishan dance and music tradition and should not be influenced by other modern forms.
“First we have to keep our tradition in mind and create many new things. Then only it will look like odissi, otherwise the fusions will create confusions.”
Gajendra feels the appeal of odissi continues due to its beautiful grace, the music, elegant postures (bhangis), attractive presentations… “People say, ‘Once you witness odissi, then you will be lost in it and can never come out’.”
Arpana with Gajendra mesmerised with not just the beauty of the dance, but the immense reverence and dedication to the tradition of Debaprasad.
** This article appeared in a similar format in the New Straits Times. https://www.nst.com.my/lifestyle/groove/2018/06/378517/showbiz-dancing-his-dream