by Ranjana Dave, February 2011
They visited the toy stores in Ginza and were accorded the privilege of dancing barefoot at a Noh theatre. In 1986, at her home in Tokyo, Kumkum Lal hosted Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra (Guruji) and a group of musicians including the renowned composer Pt. Bhubaneswar Mishra, for a month. During his stay there, Guruji taught Kumkum and held workshops for her students. Kumkum and Guruji also travelled across Japan, performing at venues as wildly apart as a Nohgakodu in Tokyo and a studio in a popular department store. Twenty-five years later, Kumkum Lal revisits the Japan tour through recordings made by her husband Ashok with his first video camera, then a novel purchase he was tremendously excited about. While watching Kelucharan Mohapatra outside the performance space makes everything about the footage seem out of the ordinary, Kumkum makes her way through days and nights spent choreographing, cooking, teaching, drinking tea, dancing, stopping, to take in the ephemeral, scattered moments that are windows into other lives and other stories.
I like to think of the Lal household in Delhi as an eclectic caravan serai. There is life in every corner, be it in the unexpected guests whom you suddenly encounter in the living room, in the profusion of greenery that fills their verandah, or the dog who might be an inch away from your face when you suddenly awake at midnight. Food is a passion, and tea is an art. All your idiosyncrasies are welcome here, as long as you add ghee to your dal, for that is one household rule no one breaks.
At several points of time, while watching the Japan videos again with Kumkum Lal, I hyperventilated about the pace of work. Interruptions were frequent – there were household responsibilities, a steady stream of guests, telephone calls and much more. In the end, working across these minor breaks, sometimes doing sessions at night when the world was asleep, we managed to review almost all the footage we had planned to work on. Looking back now, those interruptions may have served their own purpose. Not directly affecting responses to the footage, but perhaps in opening up the archive to so many unlikely recipients. From her septuagenarian neighbour, to a Japanese dance student, to the woman who came in to do the household chores just as we began our sessions each morning, to the cook who had to wrest the table from the subsuming embrace of the archive, laying dishes and plates around my omnipresent laptop, everyone had some role to play in the process of recollecting stories and thus reimagining memory. To draw from 10 Theses on the Archive, archiving then became a process where our starting points were thrown forth into a shared and distributed process that was based on diffusion, not consolidation, imagination and not memory, and creation, as opposed to conservation. 
Much of the footage pertained to Kelucharan Mohapatra’s visit to Japan in 1986 and the performances, lecture demonstrations and workshops he undertook with Kumkum Lal. Also of significant import were two recordings of some of his last performances, shot in 2003 during the International Odissi Festival organised in the USA
In my own experience, whenever I have moved between cities and thus Odissi teachers, every teacher has a different style and asks of different things from the dance – a greater tilt of the head, a bend in the body. The common thread that links them all is the stories they have shared as disciples of Kelucharan Mohapatra. Telling you that Kelucharan Mohapatra was born in Raghurajpur in 1926, that he danced since a tender age, first training with the village gotipuas, then in a rasa lila troupe, and then at Annapoorna Theatres, going on to become a vital figure in the restructuring of Odissi during the Jayantika movement, an iconic teacher and a legendary dancer, isn’t enough. Dry biographical detail cannot contain this larger-than-life character. He lives through the countless little stories that make up his existence, colourful anecdotes about the ways in which he touched people’s lives, what he did, what he ate and the colourful things he said.
A significant part of annotation work required me to go back to texts like the Gita Govinda and compare translations to see what suited my work best. Kumkum is also an enthusiastic student of Sanskrit and many of the ashtapadis we watched were punctuated by trips to different bookshelves in her house. We spent a whole day going over a fifteen minute video of kuru yadunandana. Nowadays, my favourite sport during dance concerts is guessing the numeric place of an ashtapadi in the Gita Govinda (rather like the mathematicians who collect Guinness records for memorising the 31,812th value of pi); however, the painful process of transcribing all our delightfully (and on some occasions, in hindsight, woefully) long conversations brought out little nuances that usually eclipse us. But they are so vital to the process of interpretation and choreography.
For instance – the obscure fact of tall, prickly aquatic grass growing on the banks of the Yamuna, which gives Radha her walk in Yami He, or the mirrored ring Radha wears in Kuru yadunandana, as she watches Krishna trying to braid her hair, that makes for a sculpturesque pose.
As a dance-text, it is necessary to view the Gita Govinda as a framework for the situation of these small details that make up the body of the dance and that distinguish good pieces of choreography; after all, just saying that Radha loved Krishna and he betrayed her and then she was angry and then they made up is hardly enough to flesh out a story.
How do we relate to stories, which, by their antiquity and their association with the ‘classical’, seem far removed from our lived reality? I failed to understand the reluctance to engage with ‘forbidden’ liaisons in forthright ways in the texts we came across, or rather, in danced interpretations of these texts. Kumkum feels that the clandestine nature of an erotic escapade adds to its charm; that element of storytelling I have gradually come to acknowledge. But my biggest question remains - who is it that interprets the text? When I started grappling with this, the idea of a uniform societal expression of the accepted and forbidden across time periods puzzled me. Some recent incidents are helping me make connections, quelling questions if not answering them. I am beginning to accept that sanchari or mimetic elaboration in dance is collectively authored/ inspired by a smorgasbord of cultural sources, surfacing in the era of new history, where texts do not speak, only authors do. 
While I was in the midst of pondering the logic behind the various obstacles Radha faces when she sets out to meet Krishna in the forest, I came across a newspaper expose on the cosy lovers’ hideouts carved by enterprising touts deep within the Navi Mumbai mangroves near Vashi.  There were no beds of leaves like the one Krishna prepares for Radha; thermocol covered by flex posters served the purpose. And there were errand boys who could run out to buy you a soft drink if you so wished. Buzzing aerial insects are not conducive to romance here – the complimentary mosquito coil provided to each couple ensures their complicity in absentia.
The story, echoing local sentiments, expresses mild indignation at the destruction of mangroves; overwhelming shock, however, is reserved for the sleazy (emphasis mine) intimacy of the exchanges that were hidden from unsuspecting, rosy-cheeked morning joggers by a few metres of foliage. As the reporter puts it, “You could be jogging and inside there in the mangroves it could be the Italian PM with all his bunga bunga girls and you would not see a thing.”
The case of the 21st century mangrove lovers seems to me to illustrate how each piece of dance is linked by the parallel threads of a ‘proper’, textual story, and an indexical story. In the end, when one has finished looking at performances through conventional paradigms of meaning, what remains is the ‘life-detail’ that moment evokes. And being able to hear and relate to these stories is important for us, because we have often been told about how certain movements in Odissi were inspired by what the people in Jayantika saw around themselves. Kelucharan Mohapatra is famously known to have worked the walk of a woman balancing a water pot on her hip into his vocabulary. Without the little, personal stories that keep attaching new meanings to a dance vocabulary, constantly reinventing it and nudging it towards a dynamic evolution, dance would stagnate at the level of antiquated technique and become, simply, boringly, and tragically, the sum of its parts.
Enigmatic traces of Guruji’s tour of Japan remain, periodically surfacing as material and thought in many likely and unlikely corners. An Odissi music record cut in Japan under the aegis of the Japan Victor Company by the musicians who toured with Kumkum and Guruji turned up at a music store in Europe. Recorded smoothly, and mastered at a soothing volume, these songs, Kumkum feels, are special, because Guruji’s magical percussion skills are not overwhelmed by loud vocals or instrumental music. https://pad.ma/AAL/00:09:46,00:15:09
Yumiko Chatani, who trained at Nrityagram in the 1990s and is now Kumkum’s student, told us how an Odissi performance by Kumkum made her fall in love with the dance style. Kumkum always loves an opportunity to practise her Japanese. It is interesting to watch her teach Kuru yadunandana with Japanese subtitles. But then, as she pointed out to me, teaching dance meant that she had to familiarise herself with the language, and she did so enthusiastically, whereas Ashok, her husband, only picked up what was absolutely necessary. Kumkum was immensely amused when she saw herself laughing like a good Japanese woman while on stage in the Japan videos; her hands rushed to cover her mouth every time she laughed.
Later the same day, Kumkum and Yumiko exchanged notes on the special experience of dancing in a theatre built exclusively to stage Noh performances. With a wooden stage to one end of a long, curved walkway (hashigakari), with beautiful pillars intersecting this space, performing Odissi at a Noh theatre was an enchanting experience, especially because Guruji used the pillars to great effect in his ashtapadis. The musicians sat at the back. There is a particularly delightful moment – scheduled to dance Yahi madhava with Kumkum, Guruji plays the mardala for her entry and an extended section where Radha waits for Krishna. As dawn approaches, Radha is in despondent sleep; now, Guruji stops playing the mardala, divests himself of the shawl that covers his upper body, rotates once in the confined space behind the mardala; now holding a flute, he has become Krishna and walks around a pillar, leaning beyond it to peer at Radha as his transformation from the one behind the mardala to Krishna completes itself.
Dancing Through the Archive
Culled from her footage archive on Pad.ma, these clips from the recordings of Kumkum Lal and Kelucharan Mohapatra's Japan tour in 1986 reconstruct the full-length Odissi repertoire, commencing with an invocation and going on to feature the rhythmic and narrative aspects of Odissi.
Mangalacharan is usually the first part of an Odissi recital. It consists of a prayer to the earth; bhumi pranam - asking to be forgiven for stamping on the ground, a verse dedicated to a particular deity (or sometimes, person), and sabha pranam, where the audience is acknowledged. The sabha pranam ends with trikhandi pranam, a set of three salutations; the dancer pays her obeisance to the divine, the guru and salutes the audience, specifically in that order.
This piece, dedicated to Ganesha, is one of the most popular mangalacharan compositions in Kelucharan Mohapatra’s style. It is simple to follow and is often the first composition a student of Odissi learns. Kumkum Lal prefers this over other mangalacharan compositions for its simplicity, one that doesn’t take away from the real purpose of the composition – to pray, she feels.
The newer versions of this composition may include a prayer to Jagannath within the dance itself. In Kumkum’s performances, the verse invoking Jagannath is sung right at the beginning of the performance, followed by the dancer’s first appearance during the mangalacharan.
Mangalacharan, Enkei Gekijou, Aoyama, June 1986
This is a piece offered to Shiva in his form as Batuka Bhairava, a child. Batu Nritya draws its sculpturesque poses from the walls of the Konark temple. Before the ukuta or refrain is sung, a series of bols establish the musical instruments used in performance; the veena, the flute, the mardala and manjira.
Batu Nritya featured in only one of the performances in Japan – one of the two programmes at Studio 200 – a performance space in a huge department store in one of Tokyo’s main shopping areas.
A pallavi is a pure dance composition, set to rhythmic strings of meaningless syllables called ukutas or to a tune articulated by singing the notes of a particular raga (the sargam). It begins at a slow pace, emphasising the movement of the eye and small movements of the hands and feet, covering larger distances in space as it progresses, even as the time allotted to movements decreases, as the laya or tempo increases to reach an exhilarating finish in the last moments of a pallavi, where the blitz of movement is rounded off by a tihai, three equal repetitions of a rhythmic pattern ending at the first beat of the tala or cycle of beats. Saveri Pallavi has motifs of srngara, the nayika gets dressed for her lover, but there is no bhava; there are only motifs. It is primarily set to an 8 beat cycle, but has portions where one ukuta is performed in cycles of 6 and 7 beats before returning to the 8 beat cycle in the end. Saveri was a recurring composition in the Japan performances – it features in all but one of the performances recorded here.
One of my favourite versions is the one Kumkum performs during a lecture demonstration at a university near Tokyo.
Set to Raga Khamaj, this is one of the longer pallavis, around 19 minutes when performed at moderate speed. It was composed in 1979 with inputs from Bhubaneswar Mishra, and later, Raghunath Panigrahi. Kumkum was in Orissa when it was composed and had the opportunity to learn it alongside Sanjukta Panigrahi as Kelucharan Mohapatra worked on the composition. It is set to a cycle of 5 beats – khanda jati ektali.
Excerpts of Khamaj from two performances in Japan:
Oriya abhinaya – Ahe nila
Ascribed to Salbeg, the dance ahe nila was composed at Triveni Kala Sangam in 1973. The imagery is of an elephant playing in a pond and things growing in the muck, like lotus flowers. While the elephant plays around them, these are all destroyed. In that manner, may you also destroy the weaknesses of my heart; that is my 'arata', my prayer, says Salbeg to Jagannath.
Performed here by Kelucharan Mohapatra, ahe nila is full of dramatic moments – the elephant trapped in a crocodile’s jaws, Draupadi dragged by her hair into the Kaurava court and Narasimha tearing Hiranyakashipu asunder with his bare hands.
Ahe nila, Nohgakodu, Tokyo, 1986.
Oriya abhinaya – Braja ku
Braja ku was composed in the eighties. In the song, a mother cajoles her naughty young son to sleep, employing pleas, threats and prayers in vain. The child is not spurred into slumber by the thought of the demon who seeks to carry him off; instead, he shakes his fat fists and legs at the mother, who reprimands him lovingly for his antics.
This is not a performance recording; it was shot at home after Kumkum Lal learnt the entire composition from Guruji. The learning sessions would take place at night; this composition, shot over two days, is probably the only morning event set at Kumkum’s home.
Braja ku chhora, Kumkum Lal’s house, Tokyo, 1986.
Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda – Excerpts from various ashtapadis
The Gitagovinda, Jayadeva’s 12th century epic, is an ode to the love of Radha and Krishna. In 24 ashtapadis, it takes us through the various stages of Radha and Krishna’s relationship, through various trials and tribulations to the happy union in the end.
Yahi madhava, where Radha takes Krishna to task for spending the night with another woman even as she waits for him in their secret grove, and priye charusheele, where a repentant Krishna pleads with Radha, asking for forgiveness, imploring her to place her foot on his head, were often performed as a set during the Japan tour. Sometimes, the performances were preceded by detailed explanations, but there were occasions when this was not possible.
Watching Kelucharan Mohapatra perform Kuru Yadu Nandana, one is increasingly left with the feeling that Jayadeva wrote the song for him. The archive features many recordings of kuru yadu, performed solo by Mohapatra and Kumkum on different occasions, but my personal favourite is the performance at the university lecdem.
Moksha is the culmination of an Odissi recital. A blitz of delirious movement that takes the dance to its ecstatic conclusion.
Moksha, Aoyama Enkei Gekijo, Aoyama, 1986.
 Pad.ma, Ten Theses on the Archive, Beirut, April 2010.
 John Keane, More Theses on the Philosophy of History, from James Tully (ed.), Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton University Press, 1988), Chapter 12, pp. 204-17.
 Mumbai Mirror, Only in Mumbai: Love Nests in Mangroves, Saturday, February 19, 2011.
Ranjana is a writer, dancer and researcher based in Bombay. She has written for The Hindu, The Indian Express and Narthaki. She recently completed an MA in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Mass Media from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, with a major in journalism. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of performance and cinema, particularly the courtesan film. She is also intrigued by possibilities of a historiographic analysis of the performances of temple dancers in Tamil Nadu, with special reference to ideas of a fluid sexual identity and seeing how real or reconstructed ideas of dance content can shape contemporary performance.