Interpreting Tradition

Odissi Exponent Sharmila Biswas began the session by giving the audience a brief introduction to Odissi, its roots, growth and its present. Odissi she explains has many styles. The artists of Odissi, traditionally, have worked on their individual styles in the absence of systematic royal patronage. The Maharis, predecessors of odissi dancers, formed a link between the common people and the inaccessible realms of arts in the religious and royal arenas. Biswas further explains the relationship between Odissi and Gotipua. In the 1940s and 1950s eminent Gurus such as Debaprasad Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Mayadhar Raut played key roles in formalizing the Odissi Dance form. This process of formalization includes requires both ‘a science and an art’.
‘Joining the Dots’ the theme of the conference Biswas said reminded her of an incident which occurred ten years ago. In her work with the ‘langia sabar’ tribe, she came across the curious practice of drawing a pattern on the wall which charts the life journeys of people. This pattern, or ‘Edetaal’ she said signifies the joining the dots of reality for people. Another example she gave was from her work with the weavers who worked with ‘tie and dye’. These weavers were asked to work with newer and flashier threads and patterns by their customers which resulted in their work losing out their individuality. This, Biswas pointed out, was the opposite of joining the dots.
Sharmila Biswas gave the audience a brief glimpse of the work and process of Kelucharan Mohapatra, her guru in concretizing Odissi as a classical Indian dance form. These processes, she said are not talked about enough or overlooked when one sees an Odissi performance on stage. She then went on to recount her own journey of engagement with Odissi which is far from conventional. She spoke about her usage of Mrindangam on stage and the opposition from many who rejected Mrindangam as a folk instrument. She then went on show a short clip of a choreography of the same.
This was followed by a short performance by four dancers who proceeded to dance in a square using basic Odissi beats. This was then followed by a performance which used folk khol music. Sharmila Biswas emphasized that the perception that classical dance is limiting is false. With some effort one can use elements from various folk traditions to find different versions of texts giving dancers freedom to innovate and experiment.
In her research work on Odissi, Sharmila Biswas went looking for the old Mahari dancers but managed to find only 4 in her life time. Two of them she interacted with closely and found out details of their life which she said made her work worthwhile. Biswas followed this with a video clip which gave a short history of the Mahari dancers in Odissa.
Biswas said that while choreographing new pieces one could draw from the 10 basic steps. However, she said that in order to infuse new energy into the she finds it fruitful to go back to the folk forms like Danda, Chaau.
She said that it is the responsibility of the Odissi dancers to be accommodating of new movement and innovation in the form. She then finished by pointing out the importance of music in Odissi and the efforts that she is making in teaching music to her dancers and contributing to the pool of Odissi music itself. 217A1162 217A1083 217A1092

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