The evening performance opens with the rustling of saris as the last few spectators settle into their seats and the announcer’s voice begins over the PA. The stage is bare except for a beautifully adorned statue of Lord Jaggernatha, the primary Hindu deity of Orissa, India where odissi dance was born and developed. The announcements, which appear to be pre-recorded, include a description of odissi as a style, its origins, common poses, as well as a brief biography of the performer herself. Sujata Mohapatra is a well-known name in the Indian classical dance world. The daughter-in-law and disciple of eminent Guru Padmabhibhushan Kelucharan Mohapatra, she has gained international renown for her grace and technical mastery.
The performance followed the conventional order of odissi repertoire: beginning with a Mangalacharan (invocation dance) dedicated to Lord Ram, which was followed by a Pallavi (pure dance item) in raag Bhageshree, concluding the first half with Varsha, a newer composition and expressive dance about the power and delicacy of rainwater. After intermission, the performance resumed with an Abhinaya (story-telling dance) detailing how Radha, the heroine, adorns herself to go out and meet with her beloved Lord Krishna. The following piece, Ardhanariswara, described the unique union of masculine and feminine in the body of Lord Shiva — who is male on the right side and female on the left. The performance concluded with Moksa, a dance of liberation.
What stood out most prominently in Sujata Mohapatra’s performance was the technical brilliance in execution. Her body flowed from perfectly positioned sculpturesque pose to pose with lilting and languid movements. The delicacy shown in the placement of the body, particularly in the Pallavi, created moments in which the poses seemed to arrest and fade as though a picture came into view for a brief moment, only to move seamlessly into another. The stark stage and black velvet backdrop provided a lovely contrast to the vibrant and colourful costume (which Mohapatra changed during intermission).
The shortcomings of this performance were found in some of the presentation choices. The pre-recorded announcements were, at times, quite jarring. Each dance piece was preceded by a recording, which spilled into the room from speakers as spectators gazed onto an empty stage. Oftentimes the distinct energy created by Mohapatra in a dance piece dropped as the audience settled in to the disembodied, impersonal voice explaining the following item. Also considering the long pauses between recordings and several glitches in the system throughout the evening, the pre-recorded announcements proved to be more of a distraction than an aid.
The personal thank-you speech at the end of the performance, delivered by Sujata Mohapatra herself, was a lovely touch allowing the audience a moment to access Mohapatra as a person as well as an artist. She spoke with conviction of odissi dance as ‘the third sister’ in UK Indian classical dance, alongside kathak and bharatanatyam, whom she is hoping will gain her own place in the performance world. By speaking in her own voice, Mohapatra nurtured the audience out of the exalted state of performance back into the regular, mundane world in which we would all leave the theatre to take our various cars, trains and buses home on a rainy London night.
Overall, the evening was an enjoyable introduction to odissi dance for anyone unfamiliar with the style, as well as a delectable foray into Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s movement style for Indian classical dance-lovers and aficionados.