Interview: Rani Karnaa
Cinematographer: Ranjana Dave
Duration: 00:30:00; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 17.729; Saturation: 0.327; Lightness: 0.081; Volume: 0.289; Cuts per Minute: 0.100; Words per Minute: 100.257
Summary: Rani Karnaa was born in Hyderabad, Sind, now in Pakistan, and studied Kathak with Nrityacharya Narayan Prasad, Pandit Sunder Prasad and Pandit Birju Maharaj. One of India's foremost exponents of Kathak, she brings an unusual sense of aesthetic adventure to the great traditions of the Jaipur and Lucknow gharanas. Her creative repertoire finds expression in integrated compositions of Sahitya (Literature), Sangeet (Music) and Nritya (Dance). She received the Padmashri in 2014 and is also a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee. She was the founder and head of the dance department of the Calcutta School of Music from 1978 to 1993. She also founded and headed the dance department at Ahana - the music and dance wing of Aurobindo Bhavan, Calcutta from 1980 to 1987.
After marrying into an Oriya family, Rani Karnaa began studying Odissi with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. In this interview with Ranjana Dave, she reminisces about her time as a student and performer of Odissi, her understanding of the dance form and her memories of Kelucharan Mohapatra.
Transcribed by Ayesha Susan Thomas.
Ranjana Dave (RD): As a child - I was reading another interview of yours - and you learned a number of dance forms, you learned a bit of Bharatanatyam, Manipuri and you also started learning Kathak.
Rani Karnaa (RK): It started with Kathak and along with that an opportunity to do Bharatanatyam and Manipuri and to see Kathakali and then later after my marriage, I became an Oriya bahu, I desired to learn Odissi because I had seen Odissi and I got infatuated.
RK: Priyambada Mohanty was the senior-most
disciple of Guruji (Kelucharan Mohapatra). She had performed in youth festival 1955. She had presented.
RD: I also wanted to ask you about that period because it was a time...I've been speaking to Kumkum Lal and others who've learned in that era. Everyone learnt a number of dance forms and -
RK: I wonder if Kumkum Lal had learned other dance forms.
RD: She had...she did Kathak, she did a bit of Kathakali...what I mean is that there was a different kind of excitement to the whole dance scene and -
RK: Yeah, the recognition for Odissi was then of a recent time. It was not even heard of...
RD: So could you talk about your learning experience then, also what you heard and saw of the scene at that time, in detail.
RK: That's what I started with. In detail? Well...if it's relevant detail it is worth it...that's why I underlined when I became an Oriya bahu. My husband is from Orissa. We became friends in college and the friendship continued for quite a long phase and courtship. The youth festival phase is 1955, '56, '57. It had just started in 1954, you check,...Talkatora gardens, it used to be organised. Lovely atmosphere. All young...students, male, female, coming from all over India, coming from various universities and the host University was Delhi University. And I being from Delhi University, I was in Hindu college, naturally the audience was in Rani Karnaa's favour! But I performed Kathak, continuously, successively for 3 years- '55, '56, '57. Then, Birju Maharaj was my teacher and also Narayan Prasadji. So 3 years I have performed. I had the good opportunity of watching...the first time I watched it was at the festival, Priyambada Mohanty who is senior to me, I call her Apa, and I was just infatuated. It was an exposure for the first time and since I got married, of course there was a gap from '55 to '63...
8 years! And I felt this is the land where I've come, where Odissi hails from. Why can't I learn Odissi? Kumkum Mohanty is related to us; I am her bhabhi, she is my nanand. We were friends. Her mother was very fond of me. I asked her - please check with Guruji, would he accept me as a disciple? Will he teach me? So she passed on the message and he said, "Of course." In the university context I had made an impression, and so he readily agreed. So I started. But before I started with him, his disciple, Harekrishna Behera, who recently passed away, I started with him first. Then I gained some confidence and courage. Every summer I religiously, regularly, visited Cuttack, my in-laws house was in Kaipara (?). (?) they call it, I used to go by rickshaw, go to Guruji's house for the whole...and it started and continued for quite some time.
RD: And what was it like to watch him teach and also choreograph because there was a lot of choreography happening in the mid-sixties? All the pallavis...
RK: 'Choreography' word was not used then, in the 60s. The traditional grammar, the traditional methodology, there itself is so much of design and choreography. That term has to be in context of group presentation which comes from the West, the ballet. In ballet the design is there, but the other features of ballet are that they assess the background, the characters; it is not a solo dance. Our classical dances, some of them, are basically solo dance forms. So the 'choreography' word, we have to be careful, when we use that word, when we use this term. But design is always there! Dance cannot be without design. This is what we do...in space and time we use our body as a medium and you design and you design. So choreography comes in terms of group presentation which Guruji Kelucharan Mohapatra had started quite early. He was teaching, and Odissi was given so much importance, so much name, so much fame and people would just get dizzy...
I here would recall and would like to say that since Odissi had not come out from Orissa, after the seminar and in early '60s the recognition was given. Guruji had also not performed onstage, so Kumkum Lal, myself, and some of the other students - there was an institution in Delhi, I'll try to recall...they came forward. I suggested they view our lecture demonstration. First lecture demonstration, with Guruji; we made him dance. And my guru, Professor Dr. SK Saxena who recently expired, he was 92, he was the Dean of Philosophy department at the University. He had this very very individual, personal interest in studying dance forms, understanding them. He has written on the aesthetics of Hindustani music, Hindustani taal, dhrupad, and Kathak.
Recently he was was with...remind me, Madhavi's niece?
RD: Arushi (Mudgal).
RK: He was with Arushi. Arushi would go to him regularly and he has written on Odissi also. This is part of the work being done in Odissi by different persons. Sunil Kothari has written, of course; Dr. SK Saxena who has written on the aesthetics of Kathak, as well as dhrupad, Hindustani music, Hindustani tala and Odissi he was working with Arushi. That's the way he would analyse... analytical application... the analytical way of studying the subject straight from the dancers, he would hear the padhant
, see the anga
and share the views.
So to come back to the choreography part, this was important because Oriya is the language, Orissa is the land, Odissi is the dance. So Odissi terminology, and the Odissi grammar, phraseology, phrases, were not even known. That, Guruji was teaching us. But the way Guruji would demonstrate is the pure, genuine thing, movement, the accent, the emphasis; where it originates, he would show. You have by this time seen a lot of Odissi and you know the epicentre and you know the chowka, and the torso movement. It's not the nitamb
RK: You can use buttocks. Nitamb
- it's not the movement of nitamb
, it's the movement of torso, nabhi
, and in the horizontal movement we go right and left and there's also this kind of movement (demonstrates circular movement) and then up and down. So the dancer cannot explain unless the person who is opposite the dancer, in front of me, knows something. So vaksha sanchalan
and gati sanchalan
was misunderstood and even- I would not name them - the writers and critics have written the nitamb
movement. No, that is not allowed. It's the movement of the buttocks. So we requested Guruji, who was on the stage, and he would explain the basics. And that was how it started, the charcha, baat-cheet, about Odissi, just seeing and watching this beautiful dance form, getting allured, getting impressed, at things which are evident. But what all goes into it has to be explained by the lecture demonstration, what we called illustration. And Dr. Saxena would do a commentary and if necessary I used to interpet it, translate it. So Guruji's demonstration gradually became a feature. We needed it. I had shifted to Calcutta by then. Delhi phase was over for me, in that sense. By '78 I shifted to Calcutta. But before that I had started Odissi in '66, '67, and I continued.
Say about '78 onwards, 80s I had been to Europe, Western Europe- I performed there also. In Luxembourg I performed, I had performed in India, a few places, but I had a chance and I had gone abroad. So of all the places, in Luxembourg I did Odissi. Why I'm talking of this is it needs years and years of discipline...isn't it? You have not asked why I did Odissi, I did tell myself that I need to do it as a comparitive study of dances, having done Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Manipuri...I chose to specialise in Kathak, I was from (?). Where I am from you may know or may not know, but I was in Delhi for quite a long period. So Devanagari Hindi i was comfortable with, while Telugu, Tamil I did not know.
As I got married and started learning Oriya I felt I would be able to justify Oriya songs, the flavour, understand a part of it, share in the community with Guruji...and Guruji, of course - Hindi and English he was not well-versed in, so it was needed that the student must understand Oriya!
I'll take a pause now.
I used the word... I was infatuated by Priyambada Mohanty's Odissi. As I told you, after my marriage, the first time when I went to Orissa, after marriage, was for only 5 days. I hardly had time to think. So much to see. Travel to Puri, Konark, and the next year...not next year...a couple of years later I thought...I was busy, so I started Odissi, in '66, with Harekrishna Behera and by '67, I had some input of Odissi, the fundamentals, so that I could take off based on that. After 1966, I started visiting Orissa - Cuttack - regularly during summertime. He used to hold classes in Kala Vikash Kendra called condensed courses. For one full month. Intensive training. Recently I did intensive training in Kathak for students from SPIC MACAY. That kind of intensive training helped... the availability of guru and being trained directly under the guru at his residence and at Kala Vikash Kendra. So this is the way one specialises.
With me, Guruji was very loving, very caring. He was loving and caring to all the students but since I was senior, as I'd already done Kathak, he used to be very careful; he would guide me, don't be upset, we will do this, I used to be disturbed. So I recall beautiful situations - like his observation, and no partiality between students. He would adorn, arrange the tiara with flowers for all the students and I was the special case for various reasons and he'd tie the ghungroos also. I remember one occasion when the centrepiece was missing, which is tahia (tiara). As we were coming down from the house there was a tree trunk. I happen to remember the botanical name, Antigonon Leptopus - the pink bud, he plucked, and it was needed here at the back, at the point, he took it for that, he plucked it and then tied it there. He had a special eye for observation.
He was very fond of instruments, gadgets - if the the recorder and the tape was kept, he would there and then start checking it. As far as teaching is concerned he really pampered me. I would say - Guruji, I want to learn Dasavatara. Kuru yadu and Dasavatara. Maybe I was not really prepared but he took pains to teach me Dasavatara because I had background of Kathak so tala not a problem, but the style, the technique. Once it was to lagi gopa danda mana re kaliya suna
, this is an Oriya song about Krishna. To lagi gopa danda mana re kaliya suna
. And there was a programme which I had to prepare for, and he saw that I was getting tired and he was so loving and caring he said, "Ma, tame basa
. Come and sit down, I'll dance for you, you watch." You ever heard that?
I had to work with Kathak, for a programme. Once people knew I was doing Kathak and Odissi they would invite me for both the dance forms! So I was naturally a little tense, because Odissi I had not spent so much time. My first recital was in Delhi in 1967, and this preparation was hardly a few months, at the time. So he could not, he was with me if I needed and he said, you take rest, I'll dance for you. I could never even think that...so that I gain assurance and confidence he would do things like that. He himself was very hardworking, burning the midnight oil; late hours at night he would work and at home; eventually in the morning it was little late, but among all the chores nothing was a small job - from arranging his well, water well, the barrier, arranging flowers, pots, plants - the personal touch was there. You know, just the day he left us, I have found out that he was actually tending gendo, gendo
RK: No yellow, orange colour flower.
RD: Yeah, marigold, isn't it?
RK: It's marigold? Haan, marigold. He was tending that plant. He was uncomfortable and in pain so he told Guruma that I think I need to check with the doctor, so I'll go and quickly come back. Guruma said - I used to call her Apa - I will also go. No, he said, don't worry, I'll be back. That was it...the last. So active, and so full of life and I don't think there was anything he was not interested in. Films, theatre, food! He was very fond of food. I'm Sindhi. We cook Mughlai food at home, he was very fond of what my mother used to cook. So that confirms, that real artists are interested in good food and good sweets also! About dance, he would never be angry, never was angry, never scolded. He let you have the freedom, the liberty, to discuss, maybe not all the students, I take that permission to discuss the situation. Chhanda. And of course we took the time to be close to Oriya language. He had patience, a difficult composition - Vaidehi Virasa- have you heard of this? Vaidehi is Janaki - Sita. Janaka ki putri Sita, who is not born out of deha, not born out of body, you remember it was the pot...as she was not born out of wedlock. Vaidehi Virasa is in Oriya, it's a very beautiful text and not very frequently performed.
The verse is kind of alliteration. Alphabets in order...written in the same alphabet...various verses. Kumkum was remembering, and I used to write the detailed notes which she'd ask me for and I'd send to her by post. So she was again saying maybe if I have some more notes, please send. But for a non-Oriya to dance to Oriya songs, literature, he had all the patience with me - and since you have already talked to Ileana Citaristi and she is an Italian, so if she can do justice then one should be able to do justice. So the difficult verses - he would make it easy to understand.
As far as the dance compositions are concerned his is a rich repertoire. Then fortunately he is associated with artists like Bhubaneswar Mishra, Rakhal Mohanty and he was well-versed in pakhawaj. So the compositions and music were all set. By the time we started, it was defined and delineated and he would just choose and teach and I used to ask - I want to learn this. So here the solo dance design was already set and now I'm recalling there's a presentation, there's a group production - Kalinga Vijaya, have you heard that? Did anyone mention it? Kalinga Vijaya.
RD: Yes, Kumkum Lal mentioned it.
RK: Yes. So, there, there is a role , Manika Gauri. Gauri is the shepherd, she-shepherd. One who sells curd and milk and butter, home-made butter, churned at home! I'm fond of curds, very much, everyone knows at home, so I was given the role of Manika Gauri. So this piece - here choreography was needed and the story-wise Manika Gauri meets Krishna and Balarama and there she is given a ring as a gift so that she has a remembrance of this meeting Krishna and Balarama. This piece was presented in Delhi. And it's a long time...but I don't think it has been staged many times. At that time there wasn't any video, we don't have any film record. Did you ask anybody?
RD: I don't think there is.
RK: So this is a very sorry state that the productions of that time were not recorded. I was wanting to share with you that I was in Calcutta and Guruji was not available always so I couldn't have his guidance. I was invited by Indian Museum to perform. They had a plan of presenting programmes in their own hall- Asutosh Programme (?). They invited me to do a piece on Meghadootam. There, I got the opportunity to design. And Ratikant Mohapatra had come to do the pakhawaj, so I did...(?), I tried and designed and I made it a lecture demonstration. How hand gestures are used, delineating the design and different types of flowers, trees, leaves - as per the verse I explained. It was appreciated. And later I had the invitation to record at University Kendra (?), but now, at this time, to find it all will be difficult, in the archives. I wonder if there still is a record.
So other than that I didn't have much opportunity to really do Guruji's productions, so (in) later phases various dancers have been working, but I somehow missed the opportunity. Madhavi (Mudgal) has been doing good work and Sharmila Biswas, in Calcutta. Beautiful concepts. How she goes to the interiors of Orissa and meets the artists and I would say indigenous music and percussion, use of percussion, and the dance also. So she learns and brings it to Calcutta and teaches it also and then designs. I appreciate this. For some years, I have been totally out of touch for some time and latest what's happening I think I would like to know from you! Last choreography festival you were there and Ratikant...