Asian Music and Dance

Odissi – On The Move

Sanjeevini Dutta argues that the time for odissi to grace the stages of the UK has arrived. A core of finely-trained dancers with personality is about to make its presence felt. The Odissi Ensemble demonstrated this at their sold-out Rich Mix London debut on 6 December 2015. There are an equal number waiting in the wings.

In the lifetime of Pulse and its previous avatars stretching back to 1987, this is perhaps the first time that odissi, one of the eight classical styles of Indian dance, has appeared on the magazine cover. One could argue that odissi has not had a high-profile artist in the UK. Bharatanatyam had Shobana Jeyasingh, Nina Rajarani, Chitraleka Bolar and Angika. Kathak had Nahid Siddiqui, Pratap Pawar and subsequently Sonia Sabri, and the current star Akram Khan who has put kathak on the international map.

Now, three decades later, the odissi dancers featured on the cover are UK-based. And what an arresting image – the dynamism, polish and sophistication of the quartet flies off the page! So how exactly have these professional artists emerged from the shadows? Yes, you may have seen one or two of them before, but as a group their identity was forged less than a month ago.

“The collaborative aspect of this enterprise was novel.”

In the summer of 2015, invitations appeared on Facebook for ‘open dance rehearsals’ – in studios and even in the park – for odissi dancers to turn up and practise together the ‘stepping exercises’ that form the foundations of the style. The collaborative aspect of this enterprise was novel. Instead of competing over classes and students, the rehearsals were open to ‘working together’. Behind this initiative were two friends and dance colleagues, the Italian academic Elena Catalano and fellow odissi passionista Maryam Shakiba. Elena comes fresh from a doctorate in Dance Anthropology at Durham University and is currently employed as lecturer in the Dance Department at Kingston University. It is her great ambition to bring odissi within the university’s offer, at least in the long run. North London-born and raised, Maryam is an Economics graduate from Warwick University who chanced upon odissi while travelling through India. Coming to odissi as adults, both Elena and Maryam show the zeal of converts.

Elena and Maryam were, in the case of the Odissi Ensemble, catalysts for bringing about a new alignment. The conditions that contributed to raising odissi to public consciousness had been ripening for a number of years. Kadam had in 2012 facilitated the creation of the Odissi Ensemble which included two Canadian dancer/academics: Scheherazaad Cooper and Sitara Thobani, together with Malaysian-born and trained dancer Khavita Kaur and current members Katie Ryan and Kali Chandrasegaram. A production entitled Shades of Love toured successfully, giving a vision of what an ensemble of odissi dancers may look like.

“…raising odissi to public consciousness…”

Katie Ryan first started odissi as a 5-year-old in an after-school class run by Kadam in Bedford. Attending a weekly class, performing at community festivals and attending performances just became a way of life. Then, from 1998, the Kadam Summer Camps  offered intensive training by guest teachers (Shankar Behera, Madhavi Mudgal, Sujata Mohapatra), and gave her a glimpse of the professional world of dance. Prompted by her A-level dance teacher, Katie opted to train at London Contemporary Dance School on the first Contemporary with South Asian dance degree forged by Akademi and LCDS (the course ran for only a couple of intakes). Simultaneously, Katie prepared for her manch pravesh under guru Shankar Behera which she performed at the Bhavan in 2009.

The fourth in the quartet, Kali Chandrasegaram, distinguished by his physical stature and magnetic aura, brought his heritage of odissi training from Malaysia (trained by Geetha Shankaran Lam). The high standards of dance technique displayed by Malaysian-trained dancers such as Kali and Khavita recall outstanding masters of form Mavin Khoo and Sooraj Subramaniam. The odissi gharana that flourished in Malaysia was that of Guru Deba Prasad Das, the first visiting teacher from Odisha. After his premature death, his students Durga Charan Ranbir (Khavita Kaur’s guru) and Gagendra Panda continued the relationship with sensational dancer Ramli Ibrahim and his company Sutra. The legacy created by Sutra, whose dance productions captured the imagination of young Malaysians, sent scores of students to dance classes and helped develop a strong body of classical dancers. Kali attributes his attraction to odissi to having witnessed Sutra’s performance, Purnima.

 With a small number of talented odissi dancers and teachers such as Priya Pawar, Parvati Rajamani, Sanjeevini Dutta, Sushmita Patti, Mitali Dev and performer Natalie Rani Rout holding the fort in the UK over the past decade, odissi in the UK has recently benefited from the success of the Bhavan class started by Swapnokalpa DasGupta in 2012 and subsequently handed to Urbi Basu, a fellow Calcuttan and student of the same guru Paushali Mukherjee and Kelucharan Mohapatra’s school Srujan. The Bhavan Odissi group are seen performing in prestigious venues like the V&A and Wembley Arena. Additionally, overseas dancers recently relocated to the UK, such as Shatarupa Chatterjee, have added to the talent pool. In May 2015 when Kadam promoted a dance workshop by Ileana Citaristi, seventeen participants registered, a doubling of previous numbers!

“…now a critical mass of odissi performers…” 

Sensing that there was now a critical mass of odissi performers, Kadam was successful in securing public funding for odissi art form development. There are three strands: to support the development of an odissi syllabus with ISTD (the Imperial Society for Teachers of Dancing) who already examine kathak and bharatanatyam; to revive the ‘Odissi Ensemble’; and, most ambitiously, to work with musicians.  

Building on past experience and with the strength of live music, Shakti demonstrated the appeal of a classical dance form that is well presented by highly-trained and intelligent dancers. Solo items have been re-arranged by the dancers themselves to best exploit the ensemble format. Combined with sensitive lighting, the beauty, depth and emotional impact of the repertoire was powerfully conveyed. The musical accompaniment by percussionists Gudain Rayatt and Dhruv Jogia, vocalist Ranjana Ghatak, violinist Jahnavi Harrison with Parvati Rajamani giving the nattuvangam (spoken rhythms) worked like magic (see review on p.22).

“…beauty, depth and emotional impact…”

The personalities of the individual dancers emerged through the performance. Katie Ryan has a physicality reminiscent of her guru Shankar Behera – a lithe frame that enables lightness. Her abhinaya has a naturalness and unselfconscious quality. An equally heartfelt performer, Kali Chandrasegaram brings a theatricality and flair that are highly individualistic. Elena Catalano has the textbook form of an odissi dancer: her precision, clarity of footwork and measured torso have the hallmarks of Kelubabu’s style, reflecting her training at Srujan (Bhubaneswar, Odisha) under Sujata and Ratnikant Mohapatra. A fellow student of Sujata Mohapatra, the lissome and energetic Maryam Freeflower made an impressive debut.

As the Odissi Ensemble attests, there is a growing number of odissi dancers who are ready to take the space on the UK’s stages. These artists are in the prime of their dancing lives and their time is now. 



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