Guru Shankar Behera was in Bhubaneswar recently to receive the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra award 2013 for lifetime achievement in odissi dance. Dancer, teacher and Padma Shri awardee Ileana Citaristi met up with him for an exclusive interview for Pulse.
hankarji, now in his early sixties, was born in Berhampur in South Odisha, and after undertaking training in odissi at the National Music Association, Cuttack, from 1960 to 1964 and Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Bhubaneswar from 1964 to 1970, migrated to Mumbai from 1971 onwards.
Guruji, how did you decide to learn odissi at a time when the style was almost unknown and dance was hardly considered as a profitable career for a male student?
My grandfather, Dukkha Behera, was a folk dancer and I used to follow him whenever he would perform with some local troupe. He was responsible for sending me to Cuttack when I was only 9 years old, to learn odissi dance under Mahadev Rout at the National Music Association. After four years I joined the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya at Bhubaneswar where I completed a six-year course under the guidance of Guru Pankhaj Charan Das, Guru Dev Prasad Das and Dr Minati Misra. During the summer months I used to join the condensed courses at Kala Vikash Kendra conducted by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. So I can say to have learned from all the main Gurus of odissi.
How did you decide to move to Mumbai and was there any odissi school during those years?
I gave a solo performance in Sur Singar Samsad in 1972 in Bombay (now Mumbai)and some of the dancers who saw my performance asked me to teach them odissi dance. There wasn’t any school in Bombay that time. My first students were Menaka Thakker, Jaya Deer, Baby Gouri, Flora Devi and Protima Bedi. In 1974 Flora Devi invited me to Mauritius to teach for three months; that was my first visit abroad. In 1989 Sanjeevini Dutta who had been my student in Bombay invited me to London and organised my first workshop at Akademi. Flora Devi, who joined that workshop, invited me to Montpellier to teach at her Anjali Association. For the next twelve years I spent two to three months a year in each of these centres. I performed and toured both with Sanjeevini Dutta and Flora Devi. I oversaw the choreography of Sanchari Dance Company (partnership of Sanjeevini Dutta and Bisakha Sarker). I also gave performances in Italy, Spain, Denmark and Germany.
How did you feel when your Mumbai students left you to join Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s classes?
They asked my permission to do so and I agreed. I would not have denied them the possibilities to learn something more from a great Guru like Kelu Babu. Although I have learned from all the three major Gurus, he has been my main Guru too and I also used to join his classes when he started taking workshops at NCPA from 1981 onwards. Moreover, some of them still continued to learn from me after joining him.
You have been determined in spreading odissi in Europe and some of your students over there have opened schools which are still running, but very little of all this is known in your home place Odisha. How do you feel about this?
It is true that I could not do much in my own native place. I was out of Odisha most of the time and travelled abroad a lot. Even in Mumbai I could not open my own school till now. I would like to have the opportunity to give workshops in abhinaya in Odisha, specially on Geeta Govinda, if somebody calls me. I have always been appreciated for the intensity of my abhinaya, some sort of radiance and aliveness that I am able to communicate through my dance. I got this quality from my two main Gurus, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Dr Minati Misra.
What do you think of the present generation of Odissi dancers?
Technique has improved but depth of bhava has decreased. The experience of being totally soaked in the bhava portrayed is lacking in today’s performers. Also the softness of odissi, which gives the style its distinctiveness, has today been replaced by harshness and fast footwork.
How do you feel about receiving this award from Odisha, in the name of your Guru?
No doubt it is an honour to be recognised by the institution founded by my Guruji and I am grateful to his son for selecting me. But I also feel sad not to have been able to do more in my own land. I hope this award will give me the opportunity to go back to Odisha more often and to be able to interact with the new generation of odissi dancers and to enrich them with my insights and experience.
Shankar Behera remembered by his students
It was a wonderful time, learning from Shankarji, living with Sanjeevini and her family, not knowing what it was all for. But every day I felt so very lucky. We didn´t have a programme, or a syllabus, and I didn´t know how long it would continue that way. I didn´t know what I was receiving at the time, but maybe I do now. A very generous gift. I think that´s what dance is.Lucy Bannon
Guruji’s dance is phenomenally fluid, malleable and strikingly expressive. As a teacher he is genial, patiently demonstrating and repeating movements, chuckling at mistakes and giving an explanation here and there when necessary. He drives his students to seek his hard-won praise and fosters a sense of joy in movement and quiet devotion to odissi. What I most admire in Guruji is the sincerity and humility with which he approaches everything. That for me is his greatest lesson.Katie Ryan
I started learning odissi under Guru Shankar Behera in 1996. Then I have studied under Rashmi Rekha Das, sent to me by Ileana Citaristi for intense training. I enjoy odissi immensly in these years, when grace is more important than strength.Roberta Arinci
I first saw Guru Shankar Behera dance forty years ago when the young Shankarji had just come to Bombay. I was entranced by the graceful, fluid movements, the amazing abhinaya and the spiritual essence of the dance itself. I was to be Shankarji’s devoted student for many years, bringing him to Mauritius, France and Switzerland where I was teaching odissi.
When we danced together Chandana Charchita from the Gita Govinda how inspiring it was to be dancing Radha to Shankarji’s Krishna! The gods were really with us. It will always be a wonderful and deeply cherished memory.Flora Devi
I fell in love with odissi watching Shankar Behera and Flora Devi dance at the NCPA in Bombay. Shankar Behera became a guru, friend and member of my family ever since that fateful day in 1973. As a dancer, Guruji is in a class of his own. The length of his line, the height of leap, the bend of the torso are so exaggerated that it is hard to categorise him. The tenderness of his expressions and the humanity of his abhinaya make him an all-round dancer. His heritage lives on in the next generation dancer Katie Ryan who is developing what she has received from Shankarji in her own way.
We are deeply grateful to Ratnikant Mohapatra for conferring this recognition on Shankar Behera.Sanjeevini Dutta