International Odissi Festival 2011: In conversation with Ritha Devi
Duration: 00:21:38; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 31.926; Saturation: 0.425; Lightness: 0.271; Volume: 0.084; Cuts per Minute: 0.924; Words per Minute: 131.691
Ritha Devi was born in princely Baroda, where she grew up watching court dancers perform Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Over the course of her travels, she studied Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Manipuri, finally dedicating herself to the study of Odissi in the mahari tradition under Pankaj Charan Das. She offers a short history of her fascinating life.
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.
Ritha Devi gesturing to sit.
Ritha Devi: No. No. Don't you want to sit?
Ritha Devi: Don't you want to sit?
Ranjana: So, Rithaji you had a long association with dance. I would would like you to talk about your earlier. You grew up in princely Baroda. So...
Ritha Devi: You know, I don't know how you knew that. But, many people think that I was born and brought up in Kolkata. I wasn't. My father worked for the Gaikwad Maharaja. he was a minister in his Council. And, naturally I was born there and spent my very beautiful childhood in Baroda. It was a very cultured state, very enlightened. The Maharaja was really very...far thinking...very...
Ritha Devi: So there was a lot of reform in the state, like women's compulsory education and I am glad that I had my school education and my college in Baroda. And then, father retired and since my mother was half-Assamese, she wanted to go to Assam to settle down. And Shillong at that time was the capital of Assam, not Meghalaya. So, we moved to Shillong. And there I was, (smiling) and then of course, they married me off and all that. So, connection to Shillong was not that strong. And then, I moved to Bombay. After Chennai...We were first in Kolkata, then Chennai, then Bombay.
Ranjana: And you started studying dance in?
Ritha Devi: I want to...
Ritha Devi: (laughing).
Ritha Devi: One of the most inconvenient times for voicing the...(smiling)
Ritha Devi: No. Actually, you know, surprisingly, there was a durbar
. The Maharaja of Baroda had a very, very cultured atmosphere. And in his durbar
, there were regular performances of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. And at that time, we as children used to giggle or...
Ritha Devi: We used to sort of giggle our lives out, you know, looking at the Ayatamandalam
position of Bharatanatyam, which eventually, I learnt from the same Guru, who had taught all these devadasis
, court dancers, Gaurabai and Kantimathi. And it was the same Guru that I learnt from. But, at that time, everyone used to, sort of, you know, be not at all impressed by the very strict classical Bharatanatyam that we saw in the durbar
...because it was being danced in the durbar
. There was also very good Kathak, but that never attracted me. I was drawn to the South, right from that time.
Ritha Devi: And, then of course, I fell in love with dance because when I saw...I was about five or six years old at that time. I saw Uday Shankar, the great pioneer of the promotion of dance, perform. He had come to Baroda to perform. And even though his dance was not classical, it moved me very much and I was fascinated by dance from that age onwards. And then I saw Rukmini Devi and that turned me towards Bharatanatyam and towards, you know, the classical form of dance. But, of course my parents put their big foot down, because they would associate dance with only what they had seen in the durbar
, like a cheap...you know, being performed by women of a certain class.
So, that was totally no-no to me. and it wasn't till much later..after I had graduated and more or less, I had an opinion of my own and we moved to Shillong, then I found out that Guru Haobom Atomba Singh, who was the greatest exponent of Manipuri. And I made efforts to get his contact. He had been taken to Shantiniketan by Poet Rabindranath (Tagore). And he couldn't take the atmosphere of Shantiniketan. He thought that the people there were not at all serious about dance. So, he went back to Imphal and then he came at my invitation. I started learning from him and I was estatic, you know. After all these years...After all these years, I had begun the first steps of dance...
But, after a week, my father said, "Oh, he is, you know, he is charging too much money. I don't have that much money. I am retired. You are going to stop his lessons." So, I was petrified. I said, "My God. I have just started and this means the world to me." I said, "Alright. If money is a problem, don't give it. I will earn it myself." And in those days, it was unthinkable for a girl, unmarried girl also, to be earning...
Ritha Devi: ...to be earning any money. But, started teaching little children, whatever little I knew of dance. We used to call it 'action-song' in those days. And some of Tagore's songs and this and that. And the little money that I made from that, I spent on my own studies. (Laughing) From then onwards, I had never asked anybody for any money.
I am sorry. Everything seems to be conspiring against you...
Ritha Devi: So, that's the history of my dance and then the person who was going to be my husband...They had found this person for me. I told him, I had barely met him for three or four times. Each time I told him that dance was a passion with me and he said, "Yes. Yes. I will encourage you. I will support you. I will take you to wherever you want to go." The moment we got married, he put his foot down. He said, "No dance. Nothing. You have to become a housewife." And I was terrified. I mean, he was in such a raging fury, that I had never expected that he would react like this to my simpe suggestion that we go and see...
Ritha Devi: We were actually in Sri Lanka at that time, on our honeymoon, so-called honeymoon. And I wanted to...We were in Kandy and I wanted to see some Kandyian dance and that sent him into a raging fury and I was surprised, I was terrified. I mean, I couldn't recognize the same person who had sort of, told me earlier that he would help me. And then I realized that he had not meant a word of what he said and for three months, I was like a corpse. I had no life left in me.
Ritha Devi: We went back to Kolkata. I devoted myself to the house work and then one night, we had come back from a party in Kolkata, and I found my Manipuri Guru standing there with his assistant. He had come all the way from Imphal, in the hope that Ritha, his favorite student would start a class for him, a school for him. And my heart went out to these two old men, who had come all the way from Imphal, just in the hope that Ritha would help them. And I couldn't let them down. So, dance came back into my life from that time (smiling) and it hasn't left me. Not even now, when I can hardly walk. Sorry, I do get very emotional when I talk of dance.
Ranjana: What about Odissi? How did it start...I mean, with Guru Pankaj Charan Das?
Ritha Devi: Indrani Rahman was the first non-Oriya to have taken up Odissi and she was living at Delhi...
Ritha Devi: Everything comes first. We Bombayites came to know of all these things much later. But, anyway, Odissi came to Delhi, as you know...Priyambada Mohanty was the first Oriya lady to dance Odissi in Delhi, during the Youth Festival, Inter College Youth Festival and she was representing her college, Ravenshaw University in Cuttack. And she and Dhirendranath Pattanaik went to Delhi. And people there, especially the critics, like Sunil Kothari and Mohan Khokar, were charmed by whatever little Odissi they saw there. And then, they persuaded Indrani Rahman, who was at that time, the most popular, certainly not the most proficient, but certainly the most popular; because she had just won the first Miss India contest.
Ritha Devi: She was half-American and half-Indian and she was very pretty to look at and she was chosen Miss India. There were hardly any competitors at that time, it was the first Miss India, you know. So anyway, so whatever she did or whatever she said became very much respected in the dance circles. So, she was sent to Orissa to learn and she chose Debaprasad Das as a Guru. And she kept on bratting to me in Bombay. She said, "I have discovered this beautiful style. You must see me dance it." And once when she came to Bombay to perform, I went to see her. But, I was not at all impressed. It seemed like a folk dance to me. (Reciting and lightly demonstrating a few bols
Ritha Devi: So, you know, I didn't think it was a classical form. Then, I saw Yamini Krishnamoorthy. She was the second non-Oriya to have taken up Odissi. And I was impressed and I made enquiries. And Dr. Minati Mishra told me my Guru's name and address and I am very grateful to her for giving me that contact. And I corresponded with my Guru, Late Adi Guru Pankaj Charan Das. He came to Bombay with somebody, who was again, destined to be a great guru in his own right. He has passed away now. Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. He came to play the mardala
with him. And that was the, my first lesson. In my very first lesson, Guruji (demonstrating with hand and eye gestures) ' Ta ri ki ta, dhi dhalanga tat ta
' and I was struck dumb.
Pankaj Charan Das
Ritha Devi: I had never seen anything so beautiful and when I tried to do it myself...Even though I was trained for many years in Bharatanatyam, my body refused to, you know, accept the new style and my Guru sort of (gesturing disappointment) covered his face. (Laughing) It was so heart-breaking for me. He covered his face nd said, "You are dancing like virangana
, like a warrior woman." And he would reduce me to tears. I would go and cry, you know, at his response to my efforts. Then...This was in 1963 and he was the first Odissi Guru to have been brought to Bombay.
Ritha Devi: I took him to Europe in 1964 on a European tour and there I thought I will be able to learn it in these three months that i was touring there. But, I couldn't put up with his displeasure. He used to be so very displeased, so very, you know, disappointed with my way of dancing. And even though I performed Odissi in all my programmes...just the basic items, he wasn't happy. And then, in 1965, I decided that it's no use bringing Guruji to Bombay. It was too expensive and moreover, I wasn't getting the spirit of the style.
Ritha Devi: I decided to go to Puri because that was where my Guru lived. He was teaching me the mahari
are the devadasis
of Jagannath mandir
(temple). he belonged to that family and whatever he did in the Odissi style had its origin in the mahari
tradition. And I went to Puri and I visited the temple of Jagannath and somehow the style started seeping into my body like, you know, water trickling over stone and gradually wearing it out; and my body became soft and malleable and lyrical.
Ritha Devi: And from that time onwards, little by little, I discarded all the styles that I had learnt. Kathakali, definitely, because Kathakali was too masculine and I used to specialize in the demoness roles - Poothana Moksham
(character of demoness Nakhratundi from the mythological story of Narakasuravadham
(salvation of demon Narakasura)...I gave that up. And, I even gave up Bharatanatyam after a time, because it was clashing very badly. Concentrated wholely on Odissi and this is where I am.
Ranjana: Can you tell us about the compositions?
Ritha Devi: Sorry?
Ranjana: About the compositions of your guru's style? I think people would like to know about that...
Ritha Devi: I was fascinated by the Panchakanya
drance dramas which I had seen Yamini perform. She had...There were five legendary women - Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara, Kunti and Mandodari. And Yamini had just started on that. And I saw her 'Ahalya' and I saw her 'Draupadi' and I was absolutely charmed. And instead of concentrating on the beginning items, I requested Guruji to teach me the Panchakanya
. So, he taught me most reluctantly. He wasn't at all interested in teaching me, you know, such an advanced item. But, I learnt it. This was in 1965. 'Ahalya', 'Draupadi', 'Tara', 'Kunti', 'Mandodari'; I learnt all five of them one after the other and I performed all of them together in a marathon four hour performance in Bombay in 1971.
New York University
And just then my name was beginning to build up, people wrote galore about my performance. All the critics and journalists were impressed. But, as I said, I just just gone through a very traumatic divorce and I didn't have enough money to bring my son up. Of course, he was with me at that time. Ten years old. And I was still touring Europe and America. And I met the person who was going to be the Chairperson of the dance department at New York University. And he was very much interested in Indian dance. Having seen I think Rukmini Devi and he offered me the position.
For me it was important at that time. Because it meant money. It meant a steady salary and it meant a prestigious position. So, I moved to Europe...I mean I moved to America, to New York. Then, my son joined me there six years later. Joined the university. So, I just stayed on and on and on (smiling). And then, even though my heart wanted to come back to India, because I visited India every winter. But, to leave America permanently and come back, the decision was taken only in 2001, when the terrorist attack took place.
World Trade Centre
Remember this World Trade Centre...it was terrible. We were absolutely...we were targetted for no fault of ours. We with brown skin...anybody with a brown skin. And finally we decided to come back to India. In 2003, we came back. And my son chose Pune because it was near Bombay. So, even though there is no particular interest in Odissi in Pune, I just stayed on there. But my visit to Bhubaneswar is a kind of a life-breath for me. It restores my, you know, love for the art.
Ritha Devi: Go else where? Yes. Ya, but I think you have got the major portion of my life. There is nothing else left.
Ritha Devi: You can ask me one last question and then we will stop...
Ranjana: We have seen your dance, I mean...Do you think...
Ritha Devi: Sorry?
Ranjana: That its getting much harder for young dancers to sustain themselves through dance and...because you have done that, right? What you were saying about...
Ritha Devi: You know because the passion is lacking. Unless you have fought for something, you have sacrificed for something, you have totally surrendered for something, you can't acquire it. And you have to have dance as your main passion in your life. And like my Guru brother there (Chittaranjan Acharya), he was an engineer and he gave up his profession to concentrate on dance. Why? Certainly did not bring him more money than engineering. He...he did that that only because he had that passion for dance. And that passion is lacking. They all dance like mechanical, you know, dolls. Really, you see that passion and unfortunately when that passion is there, the tutelage is not there.
Ritha Devi: And I learnt from the...who I think is the very best, the most perfect, the most dedicated performer of Odissi dance, that was my Guru, Pankaj Charan Das. And even though, teaching was not exactly, his first love. I mean, he was a dancer. His passion was to dance and I imbibed that passion from him and I imbibed that desire for perfection. Nothing short of perfection would please him and I have got that attitude from him. And what I see these days, disappoints me, because technique is there...because they learn now earlier in life than we did and the technique, sort of, seeps into the body. But, the perfection for your...(demonstrating) this turn...We call it bhramari
, turning on one leg. Guruji always said that this, 'The sole of the foot should be inside the other knee, because you should not show the sole of your foot towards the deity. You are dancing before Him, so you must not do that'.
Ritha Devi: They don't respect all these conventions. They just dance anyhow. The more impressive the dance, I mean, the more, what shall I say (laughing), I mean, sort of a gimmick. The more gimmicky the dance, they think that 'I have impressed the audience'. The audience is also like that. very few, just a handful of people really know what real Odissi is. So, that is the situation now and I hope and pray that Odissi is restored to its original glory and there may be just one or two people here in there...who are still respect it for its grace, its lyricism, its devotional attitude. Not just use it as a kind of a technical show-off.