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Home > Lifestyle News > Culture News > Article > An Ode to Womanhood How Sutapa pays homage to invincible women through Odissi

An Ode to Womanhood: How Sutapa pays homage to invincible women through Odissi

Updated on: 29 April,2023 04:06 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Ainie Rizvi |

Guru Sutapa unravels the running theme behind her presentation of the divine flower: Parijat, the emotions which shaped her creativity, and the perpetual influence that Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra had on her dance style

An Ode to Womanhood: How Sutapa pays homage to invincible women through Odissi

Sutapa Talukdar and Gurukul Society performing Odissi. Image Courtesy: Sushmita Srivastava

Gracing the Mudra Dance Festival 2023 at National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) is Calcutta’s prodigal dancer: Guru Sutapa Talukdar. Sharply attuned to the motifs of Odissi dance, she has also mastered other Indian classical dance forms like – Manipuri, Kathakali, and Mohiniattam. She founded the dance group, Gurukul Society in 1987 on the advice of her late Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. As diverse aspects of male and female body movements opened before her sight, she developed a profound sense of choreography and plunged Odissi dance to the national front.

At the Mudra Dance Festival, her dance group Gurukul Society is exhibiting a choreography of six dance pieces on this year’s theme ‘Aparajita’ – which stands for the one who didn’t stop till she won. The presentation will showcase the divine flower, Parijat from Devaloka, which essentially represents ‘beauty’. To put it simply, the beauty of the performative arts was synonymous with enchanting flowers from the heavens.

In a conversation with, Guru Sutapa unravels the running themes behind her choreography, the emotions that shaped her creativity, and the perpetual influence of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra on her dance style.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

What is the central idea behind the choreography for ‘Aparajita’?

Sutapa: For Mudra Dance Festival, I am presenting six dance pieces out of which one is a very popular Odissi abhinaya choreographed by my Guru, Padmavibhushan Kelucharan Mohapatra, called 'Tolagi Gopadanda' that I will be performing myself. The remaining five items are my choreographies that include a Mangalacharan for Lord Ganesha, a tribute to Goddess Kali, one abhinaya, one sabhinaya Pallavi, and one pure dance piece. 
In all of these items, the central idea is to communicate the rasa/emotions of affection, devotion, love, fury, and benevolence-all of which are found strongly in women.

The first piece of the evening is the Mangalacharan, an offering to Lord Ganesha. It dwells on the themes of motherly affection vis a vis childish innocence and courage, three indispensable emotions that women most prominently characterise. The second piece Ananda Basanta, is a celebration of nature, life, and energy whose literary and visual representations are always imagined in the feminine form.

The third piece called 'Dekhiba Para Asare ' is an abhinaya that shows the fascination of the gopinis with Lord Krishna and the gradual transcendence of their singular longing into a collective expression of divine love or Bhakti. The fourth item, Guruji's' Tolagi Gopadanda' explores this theme further and in-depth where the highlight is the easy-going, friendly relationship between Radha and Krishna that goes against established gendered norms of conduct. Their union comes through Radha's complete surrender to the tunes of Krishna's flute which seems to have a hypnotic effect on her.

The following item, 'Athatali'Pallavi is a pure dance piece that demonstrates the grace and purely feminine aspects of Odissi or lasya. The last and final dance item is 'Madammatta Matangini' representing the hauntingly beautiful deity, Goddess Kali, who is both a symbol of destruction and benevolence and protection at the same time.

Therefore, her presentation for the festival is a mixed bag of feminine emotions that do not only focus on traits visible to the naked eye; but also, on qualities like courage, power, and complete surrender that only add to the complex definitions of femininity.  These six dances are like the petals of a flower that gradually unfold to open into the majestic Parijat flower, the celestial plant blooming in the heavens, that is her offering to the audience, which she refers to as her God.

How did Sutapa choose what to represent?

Sutapa: When I was informed that I have to present dance items complementing the theme ‘Aparajita’, I knew I had to show something that would convey the plethora of emotions that contribute to the eruditeness of a woman who has emerged victorious against the travails of life. Choosing to convey emotions such as invincibility, power, grace, and affection was not an easy decision to make, especially by focusing on dance items that were rooted in the traditional repertoire of Odissi.

Hence, I decided to bring in a new approach to identifying dance items that would communicate the spectrum of these emotions as felt, experienced, and embodied by women. Therefore, I decided to select pieces from both Guruji's choreographies and my own inventory to create a series that focuses exclusively on women.

Through the depiction of Parijat flowers, how does she relate the heavenly flower to represent the theme of Aparajita?

Sutapa: The time that I spent battling cancer was a dark phase in my professional life. Often, I would curse or bemoan my luck for this obstacle. However, I reflect on this period as nothing but a divine blessing, one that has helped me derive deeper meanings of life through the medium of dance. I have chosen to express this as the embodiment of my divine blessing in the form of Parijat, a flower known to be found only in the realms of heaven.

How does Kelucharan Mohapatra's influence impact her choreography for Aparajita?

Sutapa: I have been raised under the tutelage of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra for a bit more than two decades. The knowledge that he imparted to me has molded me into the dancer that I am today. However, no two dancers can have completely identical styles and as his pupil, I have evolved as an individual dancer. 
These six dances in Parijat perfectly display the harmony of techniques and choreography that has seen itself seamlessly. While I am influenced by Guruji, for all I know as an Odissi dancer under his guidance, Parijat has its own unique and distinct nature.

Given the rise of contemporary dance forms, how relevant is it to experiment with classical arts for them to survive? Do modern experiments miss the deep knowledge of traditional dance arts?

Sutapa: To be frank and candid, classical art forms and contemporary dances are two completely different genres of dance that need not compete with each other to survive. While contemporary dances may derive some techniques from classical dance forms, it is safe to say that the two portray completely different cultural temperaments that are incomparable. Furthermore, classical dance forms have steadily thrived and shall continue to do so for the years to come, the survival of which is not dependent on a wholly different dance form such as the likes of contemporary dance.

How is Sutapa instrumental in taking ahead the classical dance form of Odissi? What is her vision for propagating Odissi on the national front?

Sutapa: I have spent a major part of my life performing for India and spreading the idea of classical dance as an intangible aspect of our country's cultural heritage. However, I have not limited my experiences and negotiations with Odissi only to my capacity as a performer, but have taken steps to ensure that it leads to a wider cultural enrichment of our society.

To this end, I established my dance academy South Gurukul Society in 1987 which is still running successfully as a premier institute of Odissi dance. In 2004 I set up the Creative Wing at my dance academy, Gurukul, to incorporate competent dancers from different backgrounds to engage in choreographic exercises that extended beyond the creative limitations of Odissi.

I have experimented with martial art forms such as Chhau and Kalaripayattu in many of my choreographies and executed innovative ideas in terms of combining new musical styles with Odissi as well. Creative wing dancers at Gurukul have also been a part of my international tours on behalf of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India to countries like the USA, Vietnam, Japan, and Bangladesh.

In 2010, I started free training courses in Odissi for women from lower-income groups, and in 2014, I extended this program to include underprivileged children as well. The cooperation that I have received in this regard from corporate companies like TATA Industries Limited, Kolkata Port Trust and the Exide Industries Limited, has strengthened my resolve in this regard, and today, Gurukul aims towards identifying and teaching Odissi to those students who have the talent, but not the means to support themselves.

I am confident that the recognition of my capabilities as a dancer through the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award will further help me to expand the scope of my work and telescope my cherished dream of making Odissi accessible for all. I wish for the enrichment and upliftment of not just Odissi dance but all Indian classical dance forms.

To ensure this, I have orchestrated several endeavours that propel the importance of retaining and preserving our ancient arts to the forefront. One such program that I have planned to execute is to host pure classical dance competitions amongst the esteemed educational institutions that shall give its students a novel platform to display their skills. Through my efforts, I want to ensure that the visibility of talented and gifted dancers across all social and financial backgrounds occurs at par with the mainstream fields of achievements in pure academics.

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