Remembering Oriya girl Sanjukta Panigrahi dancer of India

Published Oct 24, 2014, 9:08 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 7:21 pm IST
The Odissi exponent has contributed immensely to the dance
At a recital accompanied by musicians.
 At a recital accompanied by musicians.

Sanjukta Panigrahi, Sanju-nani, was, and continues to be, an inspiration to me, both as an artist and as a person. My many interactions with her over the years always provided insights into her remarkable personality and her shining example as a great artist. Odissi dancers today are beneficiaries of her untiring efforts to make the dance form known and appreciated. While there were, no doubt, other wonderful, pioneering Odissi dancers, Panigrahi made the depth and breadth of the art of Odissi known over the widest canvas within India and abroad.

She once told me, in a lighter moment, that she couldn’t imagine trying to make a name in Odissi as an upcoming dancer today. She said, “In my days, there were no other Odissi dancers in competition, the effort was entirely on getting audiences to see Odissi itself, to make it known and appreciated.”

Her performances were dynamic and thrilling and expressed the power of a personality as well as the discipline and devotion of a life dedicated to Odissi dance. Watching her late-night rehearsals with our mutual Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Cuttack, I saw the perfection of her chauk and tribangi. The incredible stamina and drive of Sanjukta and Raghunath Panigrahi with Guru Kelubabu, crisscrossing the country on trains to sleep between performances, created the recognition of the form in the days when Odissi was hardly known.

I remember one occasion in the 1970s during my early years of learning Odissi when I had the unique opportunity to join Sanju-nani and Raghu-bhai in Allahabad while she was on tour. Guru Kelubabu was en route to Delhi at the conclusion of a summer training course in Cuttack via Allahabad in order to accompany her performance. He generously invited me to come along. I felt my presence would be intrusive, but he assured me that I would be accommodated without any difficulty. Sanju-nani was incredibly gracious, welcoming me and including me in the group, which was a unique experience for me in those pre-performing, student days of my career.

Being non Indian as well as simply a student, the few days with Sanju-nani, Raghu-bhai, Guru Kelubabu and the rest of the group was a major learning experience for me in how an artist conducts herself with everyone involved in a production: rasikas, sponsors, escorts, assistants, staff in hotel and theatres as well as the accompanying musicians. I have thought of those days with Sanju-nani many times over the years when I have been ushered in to a luncheon or reception after one of my performances, remembering how she conducted herself, looked after her troupe and interacted with everyone present to meet or greet her.

Among the many challenging situations she faced for her performances, I recall the time she joyously arrived in Delhi to perform on the occasion of her joint Sangeet Natak Akademi award with Raghu-bhai only to find that her suitcase had been stolen during the night on the train. Gone were her costumes and silver ornaments! In one day, master tailor Ganapathi stitched a new costume and, wearing artificial silver jewellery from Janpath, she performed a memorable recital that remains etched in the minds of all who saw it.

Another strong memory was the surprising controversy when Sanju-nani volunteered to offer dance seva in Jagannath Puri Mandir for a month, once or twice a year. Her suggestion was to revive a significant part of the temple tradition that ended because of the British colonial Anti-Nautch Act. She hoped that the aesthetic, spiritual expression of Odissi dance would be welcome into its place of origin and that other dancers would also be allowed to follow suit in order to make this a regular offering in the temple year round.

Her deep spiritual involvement, which created a temple out of any stage on which she performed, made this desire a logical and natural extension of what the dance is and can be. It surprised me at the time that most of the intellectual elite of the country misunderstood her heartfelt gesture and interpreted it through the negative stereotypes associated with the decline of the devadasi traditions of India. This could hardly have been the case with the expression of Bhakti from 20th century’s modern and educated dancers. It is another matter that the pujaris disallowed her request owing to her marital status.

At one point in the ‘80s, I had an occasion to invite her as chief guest for my own performance. At that time, it was usual for bureaucrats and politicians to be invited as chief guests rather than artists. Sanju-nani was extremely pleased and told the audience that it was a wonderful feeling for her, as an artist, to be invited as chief guest and that she felt it was a great idea to show respect to artists in this way. She added that, “Sharon is completely Indian in her dance and in every way, except when she speaks with her American accent!”

She recalled that people would express their censure of a Brahmin girl dancing by spitting as they passed her door. In 1951, at the age of seven, little Sanjukta won the first prize at the Calcutta Children’s Little Theatre Festival after convincing the secretary that the hitherto unheard form of Odissi should be included. The encouragement from the press and eminent people of Calcutta (now Kolkata), combined with a desire to have their daughter get an education along with dance, led Sanjukta’s parents to send her to Kalakshetra near Madras (now Chennai) for six years.

This decision had a major impact on the development of modern Odissi and its relation to shastric texts.  Kalakshetra offered girls of high social status the opportunity to learn a refined and codified form of dance in a disciplined environment as shaped by Rukmini Devi Arundale. From 1952, Panigrahi returned to Orissa each summer to study Odissi and share what she had learned of the Abhinaya Darpana and Natya Shastra with Kelubabu and others. This actually introduced the performing artists of the Orissa stage to the movement classifications and viniyogas (usages) of gestures, Sanskrit slokas on dance, angaharas, etc. of the Abhinaya Darpana. The Kala Vikash Kendra (1952) in Cuttack was motivated to send one of its teachers, Guru Mayadhar Raut, to Kalakshetra for training. Guru Kelubabu, accepted today as the major architect of the present Odissi dance, was in the process of studying the sculptures and palm leaf manuscripts to regain the technique he had learned as a child.  

Along with Panigrahi returning to Orissa with her disciplined shastric training in dance, Guru Kelubabu introduced and gradually increased shastra into his teaching of the dance form at the elementary level, systematising the training technique and exercises to be understood and hopefully mastered before going on to complete dances, essentially the traditional starting point. Year by year this developed as Sanskrit names from the Abhinaya Darpana were assigned for mudras, sirabheda, dristabheda, grivabheda, padabheda, charis, karanas, bhangis, etc. Over further decades, unique Odissi dance elements were provided nomenclature.

Guru Raut and Panigrahi, having returned from their training at Kalakshetra, were instrumental in applying shastric texts to Odissi dance. “The whole world of shastric dance opened before us and with their cooperation and the cooperation enlisted from Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattanaik, Odissi dance gradually got a metamorphosis. The use of shastric foot movements, hand gestures, the gestures of the neck, the eyes, torso and the rasa abhinaya developed on the basis of Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana.”

At the same time, new choreography expanded the scope far beyond the recent past when a complete performance was less than thirty minutes. According to Dhirendranath Pattanaik, “When Mayadhar Raut came from the South after his training in Bharata Natyam and Kathakali, he gave them the clues how to compose dances. The sanchari bhava were not there at the time. He introduced it.”  The only Gita Govinda item in the Odissi repertoire was Dasa Avatara, which had been composed for theatre.  The next was Lalita Lavangalata composed by Guru Mohapatra, Raut, and Dhiren Pattanaik for Panigrahi. In 1958, she presented a repertoire expanded to two hours at the Annapurna Theatre, Cuttack, after working with several artists and scholars.

The memories, interactions and magical performances bring up so many memories: Raghu-bhai singing Dhira Samire for my Manipuri dance in Bombay in ‘77 or ‘78 at a railway officer’s home with Guru Kelubabu on the pakawaj and Sanju-nani cheering me on, the times spent visiting the family at home and backstage, Sanju-nani’s brilliant lecture-demonstrations of vinayog, and, above all, the electricity as she flew across stages and scorched our hearts with her art. I miss her, and celebrate her life and contributions.

(Sharon Lowen is a respected  exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose 4 decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of Modern Dance and Ballet in the US and an M.A. in Dance from the University of Michigan)