International Odissi Festival 2011: In Conversation with Ratna Roy
Cinematographer: Niraj Jani
Duration: 00:22:45; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 10.139; Saturation: 0.191; Lightness: 0.288; Volume: 0.078; Cuts per Minute: 0.132; Words per Minute: 137.494
Summary: The 4th International Odissi Dance Festival in 2011 was held from December 23 to 30, 2011, at Rabindra Mandap Bhubaneswar. The festival was preceded by an attempt to create a world record by having around 550 dancers perform together at Kalinga Stadium. It saw the participation of most major Odissi ensembles in Orissa and a few from outside the state. With performances for over twelve hours each day, the festival featured several hundred performers in solo, duet and group works over eight days. In its scale, the festival offered a bird's eye view of the landscape of contemporary Odissi and its ever-changing nature. It foregrounded new trends in choreography, music and costuming. The seminars during the festival sparked lively debates on issues and concerns in Odissi. One such concern, voiced repeatedly, questioned the definition of tradition within the space of the dance form and the limits it could be stretched to. This raised parallel questions about innovation and experimentation in Odissi - a debate that found itself mirrored in the performances during the festival.
Ratna Roy is a prominent disciple of Guru Pankaj Charan Das, who practised the mahari style of Odissi.
Evergreen State College
Govinda Chandra Pal
Pankaj Charan Das
Urvasi Dance Ensemble
dancing for an audience
dancing in the diaspora
histories of oppression
using stage space
Ranjana: I would like you to talk about your life, your early childhood...
Ratna Roy: Well, I grew up in Ranchi, which is now Jharkhand. And, at a time when I grew up, dancing was not acceptable to my family. As a child, both my parents were doctors, so, they sent me off to a Kathak class, just to get me out of the way, with an older kid and the particular teacher saw me at the age of four and decided 'Wow, if I can put this four year old on stage, it would make the younger age category that was eight and under.' So, he started teaching me and ended up with them making the first place, because anyone would like a five-year old over an eight year old. Right. As long as the five year old can keep beats. (laughing)
And, so, that started my career. I was also the darkest kid in our family, at that time. And, my mother was very, very beautiful and fair. But when I go on stage, I would be fair. So, that got me loving the stage. So, I started theatre and dance simultaneously. That was the beginning of my career. I did not come to Odissi until much, much later. I finished my PhD, came to Orissa to teach at the B.J.B. College and I saw Dr. Minati Mishra dance and I fell in love with Odissi. So, that's the beginning of my Odissi career.
Ranjana: And when was this?
Ratna Roy: When was this? In 1972-73, I was here and I started Odissi at that time.
Ratna Roy: I started with Guru Govinda Chandra Pal, that's who Dr. Minati Mishra gave me. And, then once I started training under him, I realized, I wanted to continue. So, I wrote letters to Dr...to all three of the Gurus that lived in Orissa. To Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Deba Prasad Das and Guru Pankaj Charan Das. And the first response I got was from Guru Pankaj Charan Das, so, he became my teacher.
Ranjana: This is something you probably are well-equipped to talk about, the compositions of Guru Pankaj Charan Das' tradition?
Ratna Roy: The interesting thing is, you know, when the Jayantika was formed, the dance had debilitated, no question about it. You know, it was a very short repertoire. And from there, there was a lot of research done by a lot of research scholors and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra himself as well as Guru Mayadhar Raut, working at that time, with them. And, so, through that research, they reconstructed the dance, right. They increased the repertoire, they elaborated on it and changed the repertoire and all of this happened. But, Guru Pankaj Charan Das did not have that many students. So, that his style did not naturally emerge through that...you know, very strong path of fire, at that time.
He was an incredible dancer, incredible in his theatre work, very imaginative, but, nothing had emerged. In 1985, I got a Fulbright and this was not just a Fulbright to learn dance, it was a Fulbright for an advanced scholor. And, this was the first Fulbright given to someone to come to India as a dance scholar, not as a dance practitioner. So, when I came as a dance scholar, I interviewed all the Gurus that I could interview. Anybody that I could interview, I interviewed. Unfortunately, of course, I didn't interview everyone, in all of India but, I did interview a few of the Gurus. And I spent a lot of time with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Deba Prasad Das and Guru Pankaj Charan Das, as Gurus and as a scholar.
And, everybody, and I talked to Dr. Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi, Sanjukta Panigrahi, all of them, all of the...Dr. Minati Mishra. So, everybody told me what they had done and so I collected stories and I collected more stories and then, I started thinking about those stories when I went back. In 1988, I became faculty member at the Evergreen State College in the dance area. And, it is a very unique college and once I became faculty in dance, then I started teaching Odissi as a regular college curriculum towards the Bachelor's degree. And all my scholarship helped a lot. But I started thinking, 'Why not recreate Guru Pankaj Charan Das' tradition the same way?' So, I started working with my Guruji.
I would come back and talk to him about, "This is your movement. Here is what the sculpture shows me; here is what the texts show me. Help me.' So, I would give him...he would tell me different suggestions and I would give him different movements and he would tell me, which one looked right. And that is how painstakingly, step by step, second by second, we started reconstructing his dance technique, through months of work. I would go to Puri, just sit with him, bring back all of the work and do use the same techniques in some ways, use different techniques, use western techniques in other ways.
And then, my husband is a cinematographer and so if I thought in the middle of the night, he would turn on his video camera on me. So, I had the recordings of my thinking through twenty-four hours of the day. (Smiling) As we started thinking about these dances and what is it, but it came from my Guruji. Whatever he thought was right, is what was right. At that time, you know, he was getting older so he could not do the movements but he could tell us how to do the movements. My students also went with me and they would do the movements. So, that's how we started looking at dance.
He would say something like, "Ae lasya houni..." I would say, "This is lasya
' and he would say, "No. This is not lasya
. This does not look like lasya
'. Then, I had to think what would look like lasya
? How would you do that lasya
, when he is saying, 'This is not lasya
?' So, I would try to work on it and work on it, with timelines that are different in the upper body and the lower body.
So, between one and two, there is a time lapse, right? the time lapse should not be in the upper body. You know the one-two, the two hits come on the lower body. But, the time lapse between the two is taken over by the upper body. So, trying to look at that in terms of...and putting that into the computer and graphing those time lines. I started looking at how are you going to make it happen and we started working with young people came from all over United States to work with me; and get full credits. Sometimes, that's all they did and got their four year degree. (Smiling)
So, that's what, you know between my husband David Capers, the Evergreen State College; and its complete backing and my Guruji's understanding. And working with me. We started looking at the dance and seeing 'What the style really is?' and articulating that style.
Ranjana: Could you describe some of the compositions of his style especially, I mean, I think that is relevant now because, I think the last few Maharis
of the Puri temple, who offered their dance are probably in the last years of their life. This is the only thing that is coming...
Ratna Roy: So, one of the things to remember is, Guru Pankaj Charan Das comes from the line of devadasis
, but that's not the only thing he is, right? He was not a devadasi
, obviously. He was a man. So, being a man, it was a male dancer dancing, right? He was also in the jatras
. So there is the Sahi Naato, Jatra Naato
, that's also a part of him. So, he is a composite human being. But, technically, the thani
, the spirituality comes out of the Mahari
tradition, right? So, how does he stand?
The thani, the movements, those come out of that tradition. The compositions, the choreographies, they often come out of a jatra
tradition, right? The panchakanya
come out of the Sahinata Jatra
tradition. But, when you do, it's hard to talk about it, like when you do khadagam
(sword) to show Kali
, are you going to hit your arm into position, or just get your arm into position and use your eyes, in theatre, to create that?
comes, he is not ugly, he breathes. the breath is important. You know, I can demonstrate it, but I cannot talk about it. Those became important to me and because I was in theatre from the age of five...
Ranjana: Would you like to demonstrate something?
Ratna Roy: It's hard. While sitting, I can just show you...You can go...(Demonstrating)
Ratna Roy: You can see the difference, right? Or if you are doing Kali
, you can go khadgam
(demonstating) or you can go (demonstarting) khadgam
. Can you see that? The hand is still soft, the body is soft, it's the bearing that takes the...when you are...because the devadasis
were more subtle in their spirituality, you can go crying (demonstrating) or (demonstrating)
And there are tears in your eyes, automatically. It makes a difference, that's what I am saying there. So, the subtlety Ranjana: Yes) of emotions. But, he was very good with audience. So, he would tell me, that if there is a large audience, you dance differently; from if there is an intimate audience. So, any dance, had to be monitored for the audience. But, that doesn't come from the devadasis
because the devadasis
didn't monitor anything for an audience. Do you see what I am saying? That came from his Jatra
background. So, there is that composite human being there and I don't want to limit him to this or that aspect of his life.
He was tall. He liked to use space. He would always tell me, "You are too short, you can not use space." So, I was determined that I was going to use space. Today, I am famous for using space. You know, there is no nook and corner of the stage that I won't use, if I am left alone on stage, right. Because, using stage, you know, it was important. But, having also been a Shakespearean actress, having been trained by great directors in theatre, has helped me. Tremendously. because I understand what theatre is, how do you project, what do you do in that projection? How do you work with different audiences?
And, one of the beautiful things about Guruji's work was, it was dialoguic, which means, if I would talk to him and say, "This is how I feel", he would change the choreography to accomodate me. So, I learnt...like he would say, "If someone has a buck-tooth, don't let the person smile with the teeth showing. Change the dance...the essence comes through. The essence, say, is happiness; my teeth look pretty good, but I should show them, 'Well, show your teeth'. If it doesn't look good, don't. But, the emotion of happiness has to come out and do anything. Somebody has beautiful wrist movements, you do a beautiful (demonstrating) Someone can't move their wrists, then you use their bodies to develop on the (demonstrating) because the wrist won't do anything, right?
So, change the choreography so that it accomodates every dancer. That to me was absolutely important. The final thing that was important, that he gave me, was the value of womanhood.
Everything was seen through a woman's eyes. So, eveything was seen through a woman's eyes; but he also talked a lot about "How come they diss us?" You know, because the caste system...and what it did to him. He talked about that. So the underprevilaged and women were very important. For me, it was really interesting when he taught me Draupadi
. When he taught me Draupadi
, he had the whole sabha
(assembly), one person was missing and that was Karna
. I never questioned him, I just wrote papers on it.
Now, if Karna
were there, it would have disenfranchised the lower caste. But, with Karna
not there, all the focus would go on Draupadi
. So, what I would do is, not question him, but watch what he had done and then as a scholar analyse, what he had done in terms of his own life. Who was he as a human being? What happened to him? And what caused that; for him to choreograph, what he did choreograph, if that makes sense.
You dilute it. The feminism is diluted the moment you put Karna
into that scene. Pull Karna
out, the woman becomes important.
Ranjana: You talk of similar things, for example, in that 2003 video where you are talking about Panchakanyas/i>. And, I think I read somewhere that you call yourself a womanist as opposed to a feminist. So, I found that very interesting...
Ratna Roy: Because feminism in the west, is really about white feminism and not about people of colour. And, that's why, for me, its really important...Karna
is an important character. You know, because Karna
represents me as a black woman. Now, you can say, "No, no, no. We are Indians, we are not black." To white people, we are just as black as anything else. According to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Indians were the sons and daughters of Kane, not Abel, from the Bible. Alright. (Smiling) What does that tell you?
You know, I could not have been married to a white man forty years or fifty years back. He would have lost his citizenship or we would have been in trouble. Right. I can not forget all of that. That's history. You know what I am saying. And so, the role of Karna
is very important to me, because it represents me, in many ways. And Draupadi
is important to me, because she represents me in many ways. Right, and so, his whole vision of looking at things, from a woman's point of view...you are from the subaltern's point of view. It was very important to me; he was a subaltern in this society and he looked at things from a subaltern's point of view.
He was a tall dancer that used space. The devadasis
had a small space. they can't even use space. You see, what I am saying. So, there is a totality that was Guru Pankaj Charan Das, just like any other Guru. Now, that totality, for me, was amazing and it was wonderful to work with him. You know, sometimes, I would go and ask him a question and there would be no answer. Two days later, he would start chanting something. So, one day I said to him, "What are you chanting?" and he said, "Buddhu (Stupid), didn't you ask a question?" By two days, I had forgotten my (laughing) question and two days later, you know, I got the answer. You know, he was an amazing human being, an amazing choreographer and I feel like his dances should be preserved. His choreography, his themes and I am just continuing new choreographies based on the same, you know, the subaltern's point of view and the woman's point of view.
Ranjana: Also, um, this is the last question. I am not sure, how to really put it, but, you may feel, we have touched upon it in the past few days. While, dancing in the diaspora, is there a problem Is it, is there a problem, sort of, trying to find something to connect to?
Ratna Roy: I will tell you the biggest problem I have. The biggest problem is lack of musicians. That is the biggest problem. I do not have a problem in terms of literature. The college has given me an office. Actually, everybody has one office. They broke the wall between two offices and gave me two offices to make one office. The college has given me mirrors and monitors and two computers and everything else. So...and I have got all of the Sanskrit texts, I have got all of the Oriya texts, but they are all in my office. So, I don't feel like I lack anything.
If I tell the library, "A new book has come out", within seven days, that book is acquired and sent to me. So, I don't feel, like I lack the literature. What I feel I lack is the music. The musicians. If ideas are coming to me, I can not find musicians to do that. To come up with it. For example, 9/11 happened and I did a choreography on 9/11. Now, I could not say, "Let me go to India, get the music and come back to do 9/11". It happened and the choreography has to happen within one month. The choreography became very well-known. Right. But, I had to use found music, instead of created music. So, that is the one thing I feel I lack. Support from the Indian community is incredible. Support from the Oriya community is incredible. Support from musicians from here, is incredible for me.
All I have to do is e-mail and make a phone call. They sit down and work out things. It's just that if it's a new thing, it's hard for them to visualize until I come here. That's where I feel, I lack in the diaspora. Um...it is very hard here, you know, very few people here have Utkal University supporting them. Whereas, I have a State College supporting me. From the costume shops, the set design shops, lighting shops, with two hundred light instruments, supporting me. I go into a production, I can use two hundred light instruments. That support I don't have here.
You know what I am saying. So, that kind of support to really convey things, the infrastructure is all there. Um...the support that I need to do something; the theatre, if I ask for the theatre, I have the theatre. You know, um...videographer, lives in my house. Right. I want to check on certain things that I did, I need a DVD by tomorrow morning, the DVD is on my desk at six-thirty in the morning. I have that.
So, I am not sure exactly what the question is, but yeah, that is primarily the stuff that is missing, for me. I have incredible students. They have been with me for years and years and they still continue to work with me. And, we are a family. We are not, you know, they are not students. We make executive decisions together. I don't make decisions alone. So...so, I think I have a lot of support, I just wish I could transport my musicians there. That's all. (smiling) Which I might. Which I might. I just want to take them and move them there. (Laughing)
Ranjana: I think I have exhausted all my questions.
Ratna Roy: Okay. Thank you very much.