Indian Classical

Kelucharan Mohapatra, a perfectionist and guru par excellence who redefined Odissi dance

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YouTube screengrab of Kelucharan Mohapatra


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Watching a video of a 1985 lecture demonstration on Odissi dance, it is difficult to take your eyes off Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. His steady stance coupled with fluid movements and perfect posture while he shows both the tandava and lasya bhaav (masculine and feminine emotions) is sublime — at some points, he looks like something out of an ancient temple’s sculpture.

His approach to dance was very visual, in a manner of speaking. “As he came from a family of Pattachitra (a traditional Odia art form) practitioners, he used to emphasise a lot on the correct posture while teaching,” recalls Sujata Mohapatra, a leading exponent of Odissi and Mohapatra’s daughter-in-law. “He visualised the dancer as a sculpture and transferred those movements and curves in his choreography. You will feel that he is trying to create a shape, and a dancer needs a push to come closer to that shape.”

“He knew exactly how to push to get the best out of you… he was truly a perfectionist in every sense,” she tells ThePrint.

Kelucharan Mohapatra, fondly known as Kelu Babu, was born on 8 January 1926 in Raghurajpur, now a heritage village of Odisha famous for its Pattachitra paintings and Gotipua dancers. His father, who played the traditional khol, a percussion instrument, introduced him to the world of percussion from an early age. Mohapatra later joined Annapurna Theatre where he danced, played pakhawaj and learnt the intricacies of Odia theatre. All of these skills informed his Odissi dance practice.

In her review of his performance in 2000, New York Times dance critic and cultural reporter Anna Kisselgof wrote, “At 75, Guru Mohapatra leaves the fast footwork to others. But like the greatest of Kabuki actors, he can touch the viewer with a raised eyebrow, a modest giggle and a body molded into an expressive pose.”

With more than 200 solo compositions and about 50 dance ballets to his credit, Kelucharan Mohapatra played a monumental role in shaping Odissi dance.


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Breaking every rule

“Kelu Babu was unique because he defied many popular notions about dancers. He was bald, came from a very humble background with no support system and he didn’t dance during his best years,” Ashish Khokar, reputed dance historian-scholar, now director-curator of the Mohan Khokar National Dance Archives-Museum at IGNCA, Delhi, tells ThePrint.

“In a dancer’s life, age 30 to 50 is considered the peak period. But he was not dancing during those years. He was first doing dramas and theatre with Annapurna Company and was active from 15 years of age till 30. Later he remained active from 50 to 80 years. He defied this concept that a dancer’s body only works perfectly at a certain age,” Khokar says.

Later, when he started teaching, he not only had students in and around Odisha but all over the country and beyond. In Khokar’s words, he was a pioneer of the “flying generation of Gurus”.

“Accompanying his senior dancers, he travelled all over the world and gave lecture-demonstrations and workshops until he became a sort of ‘jet-set guru’, flying from Bombay to Washington, Delhi to London, Bhubaneswar to New York, responding to an enormous demand,” Odissi dancer Rajika Puri wrote of Mohapatra.


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The experimenter

For centuries, the maharis — traditional temple dancers — were the chief repositories of Odissi dance while young boys called gotipuas used to dress like women and dance in temples as well as for entertainment. Mohapatra, too, belonged to a family of the gotipua tradition. He later spent a couple of years doing research on both mahari and gotipua traditions to bring in new dimensions and experimental techniques to his craft.

In 1953, he started teaching Odissi at Kala Vikas Kendra, the first college of music and dance in Cuttack. “His qualities as a Guru are reflected in the quality of his students. Sonal Mansingh, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Sujata Mohapatra, Protima Bedi, Madhavi Mudgal, Meera Das — all these big names of Odissi were Kelu Babu’s students,” says Khokar.

“He was not just propagating Odissi in and around Odisha, but he was traveling throughout. He was teaching Sanjukta Mishra nee Panigrahi in Bhubaneswar, flying back to Bombay to teach Protima Bedi, coming again to Delhi to teach Madhavi — he was truly dedicated and passionate about teaching,” he tells ThePrint.

Meera Das, a third-generation disciple and Doordarshan’s top-grade Odissi artist is almost overwhelmed while talking about her beloved Guruji. “I came from a small village, totally unaware about the basic grammar of Odissi. Guruji shaped me and under his training, I realised that dance is my life,” she tells ThePrint.

Sujata Mohapatra recalls, “When I first met him, I realised that he is the guru who can make me a dancer. I had a two-fold relationship with him — as a father-in-law and as a guru. He was very lovable as the former and very liberal yet strict as the latter. As a human being, he was very kind.”

Das also recalls how he pushed everyone to be the best version of themselves. “I used to occasionally hum. Guruji realised that I sing well, so he used to repeatedly ask me to sing a particular line. I used to feel exhausted but he never gave up,” she says. “Now when I sing for my own dance compositions, I realise what a blessing it was.”


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The all-rounder guru

Das tells ThePrint that Mohapatra had a tremendous sense of music and multiple other talents. “He was also a great make-up artist, used to compose music and do sound editing.”

“He was like Birju Maharaj — har department mein perfect (perfect in every department),” Khokar says. “From costume making to sound design, choreography, music composition and stage conceptualisation, he did everything.”

On 7 April, 2004, the legendary dancer, who was also awarded Padma Vibhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi award among many others, passed away in Bhubaneswar.


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