The Odissi Dance-form, A Tribute to Lord Jagannath

Dance-guru Chinmayee and her recollections

Annalakshmi, the traditional food eatery at Racecourse in Coimbatore has been an icon for decades. This spot had been the residence of the criminal lawyer, N. V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, and family for several decades. The large joint family had been adherents to the principles of Sanatana dharma. The Karta of the family, N. V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, and his wife, Padmavathi Ammal, were known to be gracious people. Padmavathi Ammal, popularly known as Chithi, was a wonderful hostess. The house was always full of friends and relatives. One could always notice the affectionate Padmavathi Ammal cooking and serving her guests with a smile on her face. The house was known as Lakshmi Sadhanam.

Thanks to Padma Maami and Subramaniam Maamaa, Swami Shanthananda, the Founder of Shivanjali, began to visit Coimbatore from 1972. Yes, 2022 is the Golden Jubilee of his association with the iconic city. The Golden Jubilee needs to be celebrated. Swamiji came up with the concept Annalakshmi and it took the form of a restaurant in Coimbatore. This happened in the year 1989. Actor Visu used to call this wonderful restaurant, “A wife away from home.” Well, the story of Annalakshmi and its founder, Swami Shanthananda, is relevant here. He had founded the Temple of Fine Arts and several dance teachers; musicians have created a veritable atmosphere for culture in Coimbatore. They are all part of the Shiva family.

Lakshmi Sadhanam has now become an icon. The property has been finely developed by Synchron, founded by the Entrepreneur Sriram Sankaran. The family of N. V. Krishnaswamy Iyer continues to live here. The well-known Odissi Teacher, Chinmayee Dwaraknath, hails from this family. She spent a few hours with Team Verandah Club on her favourite subject, Odissi. Chinmayee happens to be the daughter of Thyagarajan (Now Swami Thyageshananda) and Girija (Girijamma now). Girijamma had been a music teacher with Shivanjali. Chinmayee's sisters, Shivapriya and Swarnalatha, are dancers in their own right. Basically, the Odissi exponent is from a dancer-musician background.

Chinmayee's maternal grandmother, Seethalakshmi, was good with music. She had been a homemaker those days. The Odissi exponent had spent four years of her life in Nigeria along with her parents. Later, the family moved to Singapore. They had been there between 1986 and 1998. This was the time when they got associated with Swami Shanthananda. Chinmayee got married to Dwaraknath in 2004 and this made everyone else from her family to eventually make the city their home.

The dancer has done her B. A. in English Literature from Meenakshi College for Women (Madras University) and a Master’s in fine arts from Sastra University in Thanjavur under the guidance of the famous Bharatanatyam legend, Dr. Padma Subramanyam. She has also done her graduation in Odissi at the Temple of Fine Arts (Malaysia) and Bharatanatyam in Coimbatore.

“The strong expat community in Africa was really united. We used to celebrate in each other’s company. Mythily Raghavan, a Kalakshethra graduate taught me Bharatanatyam during my childhood years. I began to dance from the age of five. Thereafter we moved to Singapore, and I learnt Bharatanatyam from Kamakshi Jayaram. It was the Vazhuvur Bhaani. Odissi came into my life while I was 15 years of age, and it was under Geetha Shankaran-Lam. She taught me in accordance with the Guru Devaprasad Das Gharana. I must say that Odissi chose me. I was electrified by the costume, jewellery and music connected with this heritage dance form. ‘Life in King Janaka's Court’ was the first programme that I got to see in Odissi. I started learning Odissi and also continued with Bharatanatyam. My teachers encouraged me, and I am grateful to them for the same,” stated Chinmayee while arranging items and books connected with Odissi on her dining table.

Chinmayee spoke about soundless exercises and body conditioning. She added that dancers are cultural athletes. “The Torso Movement is distinctive in Odissi. The lower half of the body is stable, and the upper part is lyrical and fluid. This blend gives it a unique identity. In Odissi, the Chouka position is important, and it is directly connected with the stance of Lord Jagannath. Chauka means square. Tribanga or the three-body bends happens to be the other distinctive feature of Odissi. This dance form has a lot of circular movements.”

“I was really fortunate to be under Swami Shanthananda through the Temple of Fine Arts. It is thanks to him that I got to see the beauty of the various dance forms of India. My Odissi journey under Geetha Shankaran Lam went on from 1994 to 2010. She moved on thereafter and I was lucky to be associated with Guru Ratikant Mohapatra. He happens to be the son of one of the principal gurus of Odissi, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra (1926 - 2004). This prolific teacher and choreographer has many ballets and solo pieces to his credit. Awards like Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan have added to his splendour.”

“Ratikant Mohapatra is the Director of SRJAN, Guru Kelucharam Mohapatra Odissi Nrityabasa and is also Dean of Art, Communication & Indic Studies at Sri Sri University. He was honoured with the prestigious, Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 2016. Guruji plays the Mardala (Percussion instrument) and had also received a junior fellowship for the same from the Government of India (Ministry of Human Resource Development). I interact with guruji and have been to Odisha a couple of times. We also travel to Singapore, Malaysia etc., and attend workshops. It helps us to assimilate more. TFA organizes these workshops and the teachers from all the other arts participate in it. Swamiji used to tell us that art is for art’s sake, and we try to live up to his motto,” smiled Chinmayee while talking about Odisssi and her connect with this ancient dance form.

The dancer spoke about Kelucharan Mohapatra performing Gotipua in his early days. This traditional dance form from Odisha is one, where young boys dress up as women to praise Lord Jagannath. Later in life, he had done extensive research on Gotipua and the Mahari culture. This led him to restructure Odissi. He had been skilled in Pattachitra (Painting) too. His spouse, Laxmipriya is herself a dancer. Chinmayee spoke about the connect of Lord Jagannath to Odisha and proudly mentioned that they are synonymous with each other.

The costumes and head dress for Odissi were in fact connected to Jagannath. "The Tahiya is representative of the Shikhara (Tower) of the Jagannath temple. The material used to decorate Jagannath, Balabadra, and Subadra, are used in Odissi. Dance had been part of the Seva (Service) offered to the Lord. Mahari-s (Devadasi Dancers) used to perform the ritualistic Mahari dance form in front of Lord Jagannath at Puri. This dance form spurred the development of Odissi and Gotipua dance forms in Odisha.”

“The Mahari-s have been among the foremost experts of both traditional Odisha dance and music. The Mahari dance is about a thousand years old, and it has been part of the daily rituals at the Jagannath temple of Puri since the time of the Ganga rulers of Utkala. The last of the professional Mahari-s was Sashimani Devi. Mahari stands for Maha Nari, great lady. These Mahari-s were given grants of land for sustenance and they in turn behaved as the spouse of Lord Jagannath. They would sing and dance ‘Gita Govinda’ by Jayadeva to please him. The ‘Gita Govinda’ was ritually sung in accordance with the traditional raaga-s and thaala-s of Odissi. The deity would be dressed up in specially woven saris containing verses from the text. A Mahari Award was also instituted in the course of time,” added Chinmayee. She had done her Manchpravesh (Arangetram in Odissi) in 2001 at Malaysia.

Chinmayee juggles between family, dance, and the society. Her mother-in-law, Rajalakshmi Vasudevan, has a strong interest in music and her sister-in-law, Srividya, had been a Bharatanatyam teacher. Shubangi Dwaraknath is a student of Odissi at TFA (Temple of Fine Arts) and Abhay Dwaraknath plays the tabla. Dwaraknath had tried his hand at the tabla but his busy schedule with Annalakshmi made it difficult for him to continue. However, Dwaraknath sings well.

Odissi had seen a decline during the times of Islamic onslaughts and European rule. It had been badly in need of a revival. The reconstruction perhaps began in 1954 at an Inter-university Youth Fest in New Delhi. Priyamvada Mohanty performed Odissi and won the third prize. The dance had been performed in Odisha for the first time ever. Art-historian, Charles Fabri, wrote about it in his ‘Statesman.’ Thereafter, a few guru-s formed a movement, Jayantika, for the purpose of standardizing the teaching and performance of Odissi. Kabichandra Kalicharan Patnaik (23/12/1898 - 24/7/1978) gave it the name Odissi and Indrani Rahman (1930 - 1999) made it famous internationally. She had toured with Guru Debaprasad Das (1932 - 1986). Kalicharan Patnaik was the eminent figure who had been associated with Odia cultural identity in the twentieth century. He was a famous literary figure of Odisha with brilliant contributions in the field of Odisha music and plays.

Guru Debaprasad Das, Pankajcharan Das (1919 - 2003), and Kelucharam Mohapatra, are among the pioneers who had given Odissi its due during the modern era. Pankajcharan is considered to be the adiguru of Odissi. He was the adopted son of a Mahari (Temple dancer) Ratnaprabha Devi and had learnt the art of devotional movement from her. Pankajcharan Das taught the famous guru-s, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Debaprasad Das , Mayadhar Raut and Bhagaban Sahu. Chinmayee was eager to talk about the dance forms and the pioneers who made it what it is today.

The dancer, Chinmayee, had been bed-bound for a few months after having injured both her legs. “My injuries and immobility made me introspect for a few months. Fortunately, my passion for dance got me out of it. The grace of His Holiness Swami Shantananda Saraswathi has made me come back to dance. I am grateful to him for his guidance and blessings. Blessed to be a dancer. I am happy to share this message, “If something is beautiful enough, you will do what you can do to indulge in it,”” affirmed the Odissi exponent.

Chinmayee kind of gave a mini-lecdem while talking about Odissi. This practitioner of Odissi is eager to continue to take the ancient dance form to newer vistas.

Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu is one of the founding members of the Verandah Club Pvt. Ltd. He is a leading columnist, historian, jeweler, entrepreneur, and a heritage enthusiast who is earnestly working to revive the past in the light of the present. Experiential learning about the history of Coimbatore is his main course of interest and he is also a panel member of many colleges in the city.