Born in Gaya, Bihar, and brought up in Delhi, Kumkum Lal took to dance very early in life. She learnt Bharatanatyam at school, but found her true passion when she watched Indrani Rehman perform a then nascent dance form of Odissi. She started her training under Guru Harekrishna Behera, who in turn was training under the legendary guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. She found her true mentor in Mohapatra, to whom she remained very close till the end of his life. She also studied and performed creative dance with Narendra Sharma, and Chhau under Guru Krishna Chandra Naik. She was the head of the dance section at Sangeet Natak Akademi. Kumkum Lal introduced Odissi in Japan during her stay there, and one of her Japanese students, Asako Takami, went on to become an acclaimed Odissi dancer. After leaving the mainstream stage for many years due to health reasons, Kumkum Lal returned to the field and has been performing and giving lecture demonstrations since.
Following is an edited version of the conversation with Kumkum Lal conducted by Madhur Gupta in Delhi, 2018.
Madhur Gupta (MG): Tell us about your early life. Tell us about your father, who was a pioneer in arts, and your years in Bihar and then the move to Delhi, where you were introduced to Odissi.
Kumkum Lal (KL): My father was in ICS and was from the Bihar cadre. He was posted in Gaya when I was born. He was very interested in writing, drama, history, etc. That was the period of awakening of India’s awareness of its own enriched culture. So, I started learning dance when I was four. There was someone called Utpalji who had studied under Uday Shankar. Whenever we got a chance, we performed, like at annual shows or even at Governor’s house. I remember, in those days, cinema halls were used as stages because there was no concept of auditorium there. I remember, once a movie was screened, we watched it, and after it was over, we got up, went on the stage and performed.
Then my father was transferred to Delhi as Director General of All India Radio. He was already associated with Sangeet Natak Akademi and many other institutions, along with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others. So, culture was seeped in our home. At that time Bharatanatyam was slowly becoming popular here in Delhi. There was one Ramakrishna Pillai who used to teach at Triveni. In those days, Triveni operated from a fourth floor flat in Connaught Place. And Guru Pillai did not speak Hindi. It was great fun. Then I remember the times when we shifted to the new building at Mandi house. Indrani Rahman used to rehearse there.
At my home also there was a rich atmosphere of culture. Rahman was a constant visitor as she was my father’s acquaintance. Then, once I saw her performing Odissi, I was completely enchanted by it. Not just me, everyone was enchanted. For learning Bharatanatyam, for me language was a problem. But with Odissi, there was no such problem. Here is a style with very sweet music and grace and lyricism. So, I was searching for an Odissi teacher. I was studying at Modern School then. Fortunately, the school also had a lot of cultural activities in its curriculum. Narendra Sharma, who introduced Ramlila and all that in Delhi and was also one of the outstanding students of Uday Shankar, used to teach us. He had an assistant called Krishnan Nair. Nair told me that there was boy from Odisha who had come on scholarship to learn Kathak under Birju Maharaj and that he knew Odissi. Nair put me in touch with this person. That was Guru Harekrushna Behera. So, Behera was my first guru, who came to my residence to teach me. I was in the final year of school when I started to learn Odissi under Behera. I used to enjoy it very much. At first we used the tabla which was already in my house. Then we got a pakhavaj. So he taught me the style of Odissi prevalent then. The emphasis was always on grace and not so much on precision. We had to learn 24 steps, 21 arsas (rhythmic combination of steps), etc., before we actually started learning an item.
Guru Behera opened a school called Nritya Niketan near Gole Market. As he himself was a student, he was unable to teach there all the time. So, he brought other teachers from Odisha to conduct classes. They were Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Surendra Sinha and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. It is my good fortune that I could learn from both Guru Raut and Guru Sinha. And then from the master himself. He used to come and spend three months here. Great artistes like Yamini Krishnamoorthi, Sonal Mansingh, Rani Khanna, and when they were in Delhi, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kumkum Mohanty, etc., they all used to come there. Guruji composed dance dramas also when he was here.
In the summers, Guruji did not join Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalay like Guru Pankaj Charan Das and Guru Debaprasad Das. Instead, he took summer courses at Kala Vikas Kendra at Cuttack. It was called a ‘condense course’. It was for three months every summer. We used to go there and attend the summer course. We all used to dance sweating in the summer heat. But I must tell you, Guruji used to come for the dance classes in the blistering heat. Then he went home for lunch, rest a bit and again came back for the classes that would go on till one in the night. Thus I became closely associated with Guruji and came to be totally immersed in Odissi.
So, my first guru was Guru Harekrushna Behera. He himself was a student of Guruji. So, when I started learning under Guruji, there was no change for me. When Guruji was here, we would learn from him and the rest of the year, when Guruji was not here, we would continue with Beheraji. Sometimes when he went to Odisha, whatever he learned, he would share with us when he came back and vice versa. The special thing about Beheraji is that he was one of the earliest students of Guruji, and one of his favourite students at that point of time. He was very intelligent and diligent as well, and used to write down each and every thing that he learned. So it was very easy for him to recall everything. If we had to recall anything we used to refer to his notes. Once, Guruji had composed an exclusive item for us in one of the condense courses. A composition called Vaidehi Vilas which is a chhando. A chhando is a poem that doesn’t have a refrain, it just carries on from stanza to stanza. Vaidehi Vilas is about Sita’s marriage. Guruji created this beautiful item in 1970 or ‘71. I performed it only once. And Sonal Mansingh also performed it. That item is lost. Later Guruji resurrected it in a shorter form. Since then many people have choreographed Vaidehi Vilas. But that long item which he created, he could not fully recall later. I performed it for my debut. And then Beheraji and Sonal learned it from me. Guru Behera did have the notes but, unfortunately, all those papers are lost now.
And then, once I asked Guruji: Why don’t you compose a chambu? We will get all your students and we will perform it. So he did that. Most others couldn’t come, but Kumkum Mohanty came and she did Krishna’s role. There used to be beautiful girl called Komal Mahuvakar who did a role in the movie Payal ki Jhankaar. She was very talented and very beautiful. She did Radha’s role and I did Lalitha’s, the sakhi’s (female companion) role. As it happened, Lalitha had the most number of songs. That was a great introduction for us to chambu, and that became the seat for a lot of later items that he composed. I must also tell you—while Guruji was teaching me at Triveni, he composed several items with me. I was very fortunate to be the person with whom he experimented.
MG: Which items did he compose for you?
KL: One was Ahe Nila Saila. At that time, this item was not the dramatic version that you see now. It was a very sweet composition. Then, To Laki. To Laki was composed earlier with Kumkum Mohanty. Kumkum Mohanty had left the field of dance by then. It was a long item with her. But then Guruji recomposed it with me. When I was in Odisha, he recomposed the Aravi Pallavi with me. Orginally Aravi was composed with Kumkum, but then Guruji recomposed it and that is the version you are learning now. These items that you learn now are the versions that Guruji redid with me. And some were composed with me. Later on, in Mumbai, Aravi Pallavi, Bilahari Pallavi, even Khamaj Pallavi, for which Sanjukta and I were there. I must also tell you Guruji’s creative mind would become fully alive only late at night. When we camped at his house in Odisha . . . I have not told you about his house. He had his own house in Cuttack which he built with his own hands. It was built on a swampy land which he filled with soil and built the house on top. He loved masonry. I think he would have been some kind of an engineer if he had not come into dance. His mind used to work in all these areas. Such a multi-talented person! A brilliant mind! So, this house, he built himself. He loved to plaster. When we slept in the afternoon, he would go up and do his bit of plastering. So we used to camp there. There was no running water in his house. There was a well, but the water was not good for drinking. So, for drinking purposes water was brought form somewhere else, but for other purposes, we used the water from the well. He added a dance room later. I gifted him a sculpture of Krishna to keep in that room. I remember the time he built that room. He painted a lotus flower on the floor. I have tried to duplicate that in my own dance room.
Guruji was very interested in gardening too. We learned many things from him apart from dance. When we had some sort of household problem, I would say: Let Guruji come, I would ask him how to solve this, whether it is plumbing or masonry or anything else. So before he built the house, we used to stay at Kala Vikas Kendra, which had a hostel. I remember we used to pay 45 rupees as mess fees. Food used to be only dal chaval (rice with lentils) and aloo (potato). Right above the hostel was the dance class where Guruji would take classes till late at night. Then we went down and made tea for him. Those were very exciting times.
MG: He must have been composing and not taking classes till late at night, right?
KL: Yes, that is right. The classes were over in the evening but we all used to sit around while Guruji composed. He put in a great effort when he was composing Vaidehi Vilas. Bhuvaneshwar Mishra was always there to take care of the music part. Guruji was choreographing and we were there to try out the steps.
The routine was the same when we used to camp at his house too. Guruji had sleep issues. He would say, he felt jealous when he saw others sleeping and he could not sleep. He got up late in the morning. But if he had work, he would totally be immersed in it. Work was his elixir. He used to survive on work.
He taught me Nahi Ki Kari Dela at Triveni, I think. I will tell you the story behind it. The first Odissi solo female performer was Guruji’s wife, Srimati Laxmipriya Mohapatra. She was a star in her own time. As you know, both were in the theatre at first. The curtain raiser for a performance always was a short, attractive dance. Everyone would come rushing to watch it. In those days, Laxmipriya used to dance to a song, Nahi Ki Kari Dela. Minati Mishraji told me that her house was close to where the theatre held shows, and when the bell tolled, she would rush to the theatre to watch Laxmipriya dance. Laxmipriya had so much vivacity about her. Her movements were very graceful. But now, unfortunately, she is bedridden. She would wear jhumkas all the time, such a charming and lively person. So, this item is a very significant one. This was the first item ever created, and it was composed especially for Laxmipriya by a Gotipua guru. Guruji taught it to me, and later Madhavi too learned the item.
MG: What was this item about?
KL: Well, it is about a girl who is in love. It goes: ‘Who stopped my love from coming to me? I wrote him a letter. Even then he didn’t come. The bees have come and been lured into the flowers. Still my love has not come.’ It is a beautiful composition.
Then my husband got posted to Japan. He used to work with a public sector company called State Trading Cooperation, which had offices all over India and abroad. We got posted to Japan. We were in Tokyo. You know that in Japanese houses the floors are covered with slabs of tatami mats. The part of the house which was Western had carpeting on the floor. So the question was where to dance. The kitchen had laminated flooring. So, we used to dance in the kitchen with the accompaniment of pots and pans shaking. Once, by chance Suresh Avasti came. He was the former secretary of Sangeeta Natak Akademi. He did a lecture demonstration there, where I performed. Some of the girls who watched it wanted to learn. One of those girls was Asako Takami. She became my first Japanese student. I took classes in my home, but eventually we moved to one of the community centres. Japan has a nice system of community centres where they let out rooms for classes. So, I had a bunch of students. And we would have a three-hour class. You know, the level of dedication of Japanese people is superb. They were ideal students, if I may say so. Some of them were very talented. For them it was a vocation. Some of them even made it their profession later on. A couple of them even learned Odia, came to India, and stayed in my house just the way I used to stay at Guruji’s house. These girls used to work in order to earn money. Once one of them told me she had left the job, and when I asked her why, she replied that she quit the job because it didn’t allow her to come on time for the dance class. An Indian would never do that! So that is the level of their commitment. I went to Japan about two or three years ago. I was visiting Japan after 27 years. Children and grandchildren of my students came to see me. I learned that Asako had gone and settled in San Francisco. Unfortunately, she died of cancer, but she had become an icon in Japan, which I discovered when I was there.
MG: One of your contributions has been in popularising Odissi abroad, particularly in Japan.
KL: See, it is an accident of history that you are born at a certain time. I did not do anything purposely. Everything happened by accident. My USP was that I was an Indian teaching Indian dance. There was a Japanese girl who was teaching Bharatanatyam, but then I offered the real flavor.
MG: Why could Odissi music not attain the classical stature like Hindustani or Carnatic?
KL: This term classical, what do you mean by that? Once upon a time there were all sorts of terms margi, desi. We should think in terms of the larger body of music in the world. This is regional music, and it has a status of its own. This concept of classical is Western. Classical music only means that it adheres to some sort of discipline. Odisha is a cauldron of different influences. Its music even has tribal influence. In fact, you should read Mayadhar Mansingh’s History of Odiya literature brought out by Sahitya Akademi. You will realise that these categories of classical or non-classical are redundant. You should appreciate the richness of whatever you have.
MG: Could you talk about how much Odissi has changed in terms of technique and intention?
KL: Our sense of aesthetics is very different that of the Western. In Indian aesthetics, we have the theory of ras. Through dance we have to create an ambience that will awaken those feelings which are already in you. What I am saying is that you have already formed your experiences whether that of viraha (separation) or of love or whatever. When I dance, those feelings will reawaken in your mind and then you will connect to my dance. But in Western aesthetics, everything is very visual. The dynamics, the kinetics, the expertise with which you move your limbs . . . that will mesmerise you. That concept has now seeped into Odissi as well. The other thing is that the spontaneity of artistes is very important. Not so much the discipline of it. Okay, your technique should be correct. But you should go beyond it. Your Guruji has told you to move three inches here, five inches there and then make a circle. And you do it. The dancers are very dedicated now. They will practice their steps and poses for a long time. They practice making a circle for a long time. So they would get the precision but then where is the creativity? Art doesn’t need so much discipline beyond a point. The dancers now focus too much on the clarity and disciplines of moves and poses. Earlier, we were only concerned about if our movements looked beautiful. And in Guruji’s style, he emphasised the torso movement. But it was already there. Swaying of hips was very much part of Odissi. When we started, we also did it. But it certainly has the potential of becoming vulgar. Guruji recognised that potential and said: You pay attention to the torso when you have to do the hip movement. If the swaying looked beautiful and not vulgar, Guruji would let it go. Guruji had that potential in him—on one side he could do complex footwork and, at the same time, he did Yami He which had just once action per shabd (word). It was so beautifully done. He knew what this artistic endeavour requires. Once I even asked him: How do you create these compositions? We get so many ideas but do not know what or how to use them. He said that he thought about them. When he rested in the afternoons, I had seen his fingers moving in the air. He was probably thinking and creating the compositions. So that is my analysis of it. No art can remain stagnant. It keeps growing. So I accept everything. I admire the competence of the performers today, but what was there earlier is also equally important.