ODISSI MAGIC IN AUSTRALIA
By Indira Laisram
Three male dancers come together to explore the sensibilities and spirituality of Odissi with great classical virtuoso.
Like all Indian classical dances, Odissi is dominated by female dancers despite most gurus being male. However, these three prove the misconception that classical dancing is the privilege of women as they woo audience in Australia with their technically sound and flawless performance.
Melbourne-based Odissi dancer Sukkvinder Singh Goraya aka Sam Goraya has roped in two dancers from India – Santosh Ram aka Kamal Kumar and Samir Kumar Panigrahi – for his project titled ‘Mystery of Chakras’, a five-dance sequence with the hope to spiritually uplift the audience. Together they produce magic on stage.
Sam believes that the purpose of dance is not just to entertain but to impart knowledge as well. He rues there are so many beautiful classical dances in India “but no one explains anything. If you don’t understand, it becomes entertainment. If you just want entertainment you can watch Bollywood, whereas any classical dance form leads you to a higher consciousness. That is why it is called Shashtriya Sangeet.”
The Mystery of Chakras stems from Sam’s desire to create concepts, “to make sense of why we are doing this”. With this dance theme, he hopes to dispel some of the misinformation floating around on chakras sourcing his knowledge from research and study on Tantrism. Every dance is accompanied by a commentary in English. “The subject is huge and complex and we are doing our bit so that people can understand something. I created these concepts with commentaries using Odissi as the means to express. So you go back with knowledge,” he says.
Sam says it is easy to put five dances together and present a show but that is not how he views his projects. Every concept or project he creates is like a necklace with the number of dances woven into a main theme tying them all together into one. His earlier projects included the Triguna, Sanskar, Purush and Pakriti and this year it is the Mystery of Chakras, explaining the highly complex internal subtle non- physical functions of a human body using chakra systems of Tantrism.
The Mystery of Chakras is a new experiment for the three dancers but Sam’s focus is on the two young dancers, Santosh and Samir, for whom he is the immediate mentor. It has been his endeavour since the past six years to help artists from underprivileged backgrounds, sponsor them and give them exposure to an international platform. It’s his unabashed love for Odissi, he proclaims (more on it later) that has prompted him to take such initiatives.
The trio performs in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Auckland. They wrap up their performance on November 4th. Let’s look at the Odissi journeys of Sam, Santosh and Samir.
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With a post-graduate doctoral degree in mathematical modelling to solve oceanographic problem, Sam Goraya’s profile hardly fits that of a nimble classical dancer. But clearly he has had an exhilarating adventure with Odissi dance, an art form he fell in love with since the age of five.
Growing up in Delhi, both his mother and aunt were into classical music in the late 1950s, a time when Odissi was also getting revived. Sam’s mother was enrolled at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, an institution established in 1939 to popularize Indian classical music and dance. But with marriage came restrictions and she could not pursue it anymore. However she started teaching at the Manav Sthali School in Delhi and coached privately too. Watching his mother teach, Sam felt the urge to learn but would often be dissuaded with a “it’s for girls only”. When he insisted and told his mother her guru was a man, she relented.
Sam continued dancing Odissi till the age of 18, by which time his body began changing too. Being a Punjabi Sikh he also had to wear the turban and grow a beard. So he stopped dancing and instead started focussing on cricket and studies. None of his friends knew he had an interest in dancing.
But when the infamous anti-Sikh riots of 1984 hit Delhi, Sam chopped off his hair like many others. It was at that moment that he told his mother, “Now that my hair is gone I might as well start dancing again”. She sent him to Madhavi Mudgal, a widely-acclaimed dancer and recipient of Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours. Recalling his first meeting with Mudgal, Sam says he was asked to show a few steps. When he did, Mudgal told him to forget whatever he had learnt and follow her style which was along the lines of Kelucharan Mohapatra, a guru credited for the revival of Odissi in the 20th century.
After learning Kelucharan’s style for some years, Sam decided to leave India. “It was not something I could continue with and since I am gay I wanted to leave the country.” Having managed a scholarship to study in Canada he completed his Master’s degree in Mathematics there and got another scholarship for further studies in America. But he had to go back to India as his mother was not keeping well. To cut a long story short, Sam’s academic skills found him in Australia in 1991.
As a new immigrant scanning for jobs, he saw an ad in The Age on the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Dance Academy in Richmond. He contacted the Academy and it would be an association that lasted two decades. He also chose Swinburne University to complete his PhD as it was closer to Richmond.
At the Academy, Sam revived his dancing and also learnt the other two classical dances Bharatnatyam and Kathak but Odissi remained his first love. In 2012, he left the Academy after 20 years and started performing solo with a purpose: to raise funds for various causes. He has so far fundraised for charities in India such as India Vision Foundation to help women prisoners in Delhi’s Tihar Jail learn skills to earn an income.
This year, he is helping the Rudraksh Foundation in Bhubaneswar run by Bichitrananda Swain, another great proponent of Odissi dance. Swain’s foundation looks after Gotipuas, young acrobatic male dancers who become redundant after a certain age. Swain takes them under his wings and trains them in Odissi. Inspired by his work, Sam travelled to Orissa and trained with Swain and his boys on their techniques for this project. Both Samir and Santosh are from the Rudraksh Foundation and Sam has sponsored their trip to give Australia and the world a taste of genuine Odissi talents. “I hope they become celebrities one day,” he smiles, adding, “I don’t expect anything out of it. I love Odissi, I will do anything for it.”
Sam‘s partner Zlatko Varenina helps him with the marketing, photos, music etc., in producing the kind of spectacle he has so far!
SAMIR KUMAR PANIGRAHI
Samir hails from a small village in Bhadrak district of Orissa. Dance and music ran in the family. His grandparents established a small dance and music school in the village, his grandfather still pens poems in his language Oriya and his father, a primary school teacher, always encouraged him to sing and dance from a young age. But it was more his grandmother who coaxed him to dance. “Come and join in. You will get some exercise and remain fit and healthy,” she told him.
But Samir hated the drill. Often he played truant only to be hauled back to class. “My father would somehow find me and put me in the Sunday class,” he laughs. Whenever there was any dance competition in the district or the state, Samir’s father saw to it that his son participated.
After year 10, Samir’s father enrolled him at the prestigious Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in Bhubaneswar much against the decisions of his relatives who did not like the idea of the only son in the family pushed into dancing. Samir enjoyed his stay there. “I had a good guru who taught me a lot,” he recalls.
But it was a time when contemporary fusion dance was making waves and Samir got lured into it by his friends who had formed a dance group by the name of Tiger Dance Group. While they did go on to become the runners up in a popular TV show Best of Orissa and also managed two rounds at India’s Got Talent in 2012, Samir did not really connect to the dance form. “I ended up wasting a year,” he rues.
It was at the Dhauli festival (major festival) that he saw a dance number performed by a team from the Rudraksha Foundation. “I liked the male form of dancing, I thought I could justify my talent,” he says. Fortunately for him, a cousin who knew Guru Bichitrananda Swain (founder of Rudraksha) introduced him to Swain in 2013. And Samir knew he had found the place he was looking for.
He has since travelled to the US, France and Sri Lanka to perform. What has stayed in memory is the full house reception in France despite inclement weather. “Everywhere people appreciated our dance,” he recalls.
Odissi dance, according to Samir, is his culture and bhakti (devotion). “I feel I can make my career in dance. We also teach to get some income. But this is my life.”
SANTOSH RAM aka KAMAL KUMAR
Like Sam and Samir, Santosh’s journey is the product of a strong parental influence. Santosh grew up in a family of four brothers none of whom took to the arts. His mother, an avid singer and dancer, could not continue her dancing after marriage. On the two occasions that she did, her father-in-law threw the family out of the house. On assurances and reassurances that she would not perform again in public, they were reunited with the main patriarch. And Santosh always wanted to fulfil his mother’s dream.
When Santosh’s father got a job transfer to Bhubaneswar from West Bengal, his mother who had studied in Bhubaneswar reconnected with her dancer friends who had all progressed in their own careers. This made her sad, says Santosh. As the youngest, he often found himself spending time with his mother who would teach him bhajans and some Odissi dance moves every now and again. The day she showed him Mangalacharan, a repertoire sequence that starts with an invocation in praise of God, Santosh really liked it. He was a student of Year six then and malleable enough to learn the few steps his mother started showing him. “Initially I had no interest but I was happy to make my mother happy.”
During Year 7 to Year 10, Santosh had to concentrate on his studies so he couldn’t devote much time to dancing. However on completion of Year 10, he joined the Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in Bhubaneswar training under different gurus.
“As there are lots of female Odissi dancers, I was looking for the right teacher to embrace the masculine dance form,” says Santosh. Even after graduating from the Mahavidyalaya, he felt he was not improving, something that saddened him as he still could not find the right teacher who could mould him in the way he wanted. “I wanted to learn about dance, I had a deep interest, particularly, in what will be good for male dancers.”
It was then that a senior friend of his took him to Guru Bichitrananda Swain. “On day one itself Guruji took me. And I learnt all the things that I didn’t know about my dance. I learnt so much, stories of mythology, what is dance, my interest for dancing deepened. He used to teach two times from 9 am to 1 pm and from 6 to 9 or 10 pm. It was long distance travelling on the bicycle for me but even though I used to get tired I would make it just to listen to Guruji’s words.”
Odissi, reflects Santosh, is a way of life. It offers people a glimpse into the Oriya way of life and culture and spreads knowledge and understanding… I didn’t know what dance was. Now my heart and dance is one.”
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