Over theyears, Odissi has emerged as one of the most popular classical dance forms in India, the credit for which goes to the significant role played by the ‘trinity’ of Odissi — Gurus Pankaj Charan Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Debaprasad Das. Yet another person who created history with unswerving determination, professional excellence and artistic integrity is ‘Guruma’ Laxmipriya Mohapatra, the first woman to perform Gotipua on stage, back in 1947.
Hailing from a village in Khurda in Odisha, Laxmipriya absorbed the essence of the art from its natural surroundings. She was introduced as a dancer in Annapurna Theatre’s (Cuttack) Group A by Bauribandhu Mahanty where she met Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra who was later to become her husband. Kelubabu joined the Theatre’s Group B as a tabla accompanist but played the mardala and drums as well and became her percussion support.
Their aesthetic support to each other, leading to the marriage, turned out to be their lifetime commitment to the dance form. Credited as the first dancer to perform Odissi on stage, Laxmipriya’s valuable contribution to its propagation and the decision to continue dance and theatre even after marriage and a family, encouraged many Odia girls in her time to learn and pursue the art. Her keen perception and power of observation kept track of the faults and progress of Kelubabu’s disciples even while they were performing on stage.Her stellar roles made her a most popular stage artiste in the plays “Manager”, “Aloka”, “Bharasa”, “Ta poi”, “Mulia”, “Kalapahada”, “Jahara”. and the “Dasavatara” sub play in “Sadhaba jhia”
With her keen sense of aesthetics, she would choose for his students the right costumes, appropriate colours, jewellery and even rush to buy flowers for the girls when required. Laxmipriya also acted in lead roles in landmark Odia films like “Suryamukhi”, “Manika Jodi”, “Amada Bata”, etc.
Even after retiring from the stage in 1985, she remains an important part of Odissi and to the guru’s disciples as their very loving ‘Guruma’. Occupying a chair at Nrityabasa, her home in Bhubaneswar, Laxmipriya, even at 85, looks every bit thedistinguished dancer that she was in her times even as she moves her hand gracefully to show a particular movement (mudra).
In this interview with Ashok Palit ,Editor, Odisha News Times she looks back at her life and the times here is an Excerpts from her interview:
How did you learn Odissi?
Once, a group of Gotipua dancers came to perform at the Annapurna Theatre. Lingaraj Nanda, the proprietor, on seeing these boys performing dressed as girls, said, “If boys are performing dressed as girls, why can’t the girls from Annapurna Theatre perform the dance form?” They then called a teacher from Banapur, a place in Odisha, and started teaching the girls including me. Guruji (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra) was employed there as a tabla accompanist but he already knew dance. The edges of the Gotipua are very rough. So when a Gotipua dancer was teaching the dance to me and the other female dancers, since Guruji knew dance, he was trying to trim those rough edges by correcting the movements of the hands. Madhu Palai, the music director of Annapurna Theatre, came to know that Kelucharan Mohapatra is also a dancer. Then onwards, they involved him in dance teaching too.
How the Dasavatar dance was composed?
Dasavatar that year was a part of a play called “Sadhaba Jhieo” performed at the Annapurna Theatre (October 1, 1947). The sequence was that of a group of Sadhaba Puo (the businessmen from Odisha who went to Bali, Sumatra and Java) going for Bali Jatra to meet men from other countries for exchange of business. On the first day, everybody was required to perform their own dance form. In that sequence, Dasavatar was performed. It was partly choreographed by Pankaj Charan Das. The music was composed by Madhu Palai and tabla bols were by Durlab Chandra Singh. The Dasavatar dance was composed the same year as my first stage performance of the Gotipua dance.
Did Pankaj Charan Das teach the dance for all the avatars?
Durlab-Da taught us but Guruji also suggested that if the hand moved in a particular way, it would be different from the Gotipua movements, and would look better and Pankaj-da agreed to it.
Basically, it was a combined effort.
What happened after that?
One day, while I was performing at the Annapurna Theatres, Minati Mishra’s mother came to see my performance and she wanted her daughter to learn.
Then Guruji began teaching her. Then onwards, we got married, left Annapurna, started working individually, and Guruji joined Kala Bikas Kendra in Cuttack.
Did you dance solo?
No, after that I danced duet with Guruji. I did Dasavatar, danced as Mohini…I did so many roles — it has been a long time —how much will I remember?
Did you learn from anyone else?
No. I have not learnt from anybody than Guruji.
Have you seen mahari dance?
Of course. I had seen “Dunguri mahari”. Do you know how they dance? These Dunguri maharis dance while on a chaapa (boat ride). They look at god, sing, move their hands a little, sit, talk and also lie down. There is almost no footwork in the dance. Obviously, there are maharis from the Puri Jagannath temple, but the maharis in the inner sanctum used to sing and moved a bit to dance to the god, but nobody saw them to know what they were doing. The Dunguri maharis are different. They go with Madan-Mohan in the chaapa during Jatra when Madan-Mohan (Radha-Krishna) and not Jagannath come out of the temple to take a boat ride around the Narendra Pukuri (water tank).
During the boat ride, the Gotipua group would dance and the maharis used to sing.
Actually, mahari dance is not a formal form. When we talk, we move our hands, and likewise, the maharis used to do. While they were singing, they moved their hands and feet a little, it was a sort of movement
But was not Odissi influenced by the mahari dance?
Now what is going on in the name of mahari dance is not that but Odissi. No mahari was dancing with such intense abhinaya and so many mudras.
You can’t say that Odissi came from mahari. Odissi definitely has heavy influence of Gotipua.
Gurus say that what Odissi you see today is a combination of Gotipua and mahari, but the influence of mahari is very little.