Durga Charan Ranbir and his Rahul Acharya engaged in conversation. Courtesy: Durga Charan Ranbir

In Conversation with Odissi Guru Durga Charan Ranbir and Rahul Acharya: Keeping up Guru’s Legacy

in Interview
Published on: 14 September 2020

Madhur Gupta

Madhur Gupta is one of the leading Odissi dance exponents of his generation. He is also an author and columnist widely featured in national and international publications for his sensitive writings in the field of arts and culture. Apart from extensively performing and writing, Madhur also teaches Odissi at Sangeet Vidya Niketan, New Delhi.

Madhur Gupta in conversation with Guru Durga Charan Ranbir and Rahul Acharya.

Durga Charan Ranbir is a leading guru of contemporary Odissi. He trained in Odissi under renowned gurus Debaprasad Das and Pankaj Charan Das. Durga Charan Ranbir follows the style of his guru, Debaprasad Das, but has been successful in forging a path of his own in the dance. Many of his choreographies have received critical acclaim. He taught Odissi at prestigious institutions in several places like Cuttack, Bhubaneshwar, Kolkata, Delhi and the US.  At present, he runs his own institution, Nrutyayan, in Bhubaneswar. For his contributions to Odissi, he has been honoured with several awards, including the Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Veda Vyas Award of Bhanja Kala Kendra, Orissa Samman by the Orissa Press Academy, etc.    

Rahul Acharya is one of the most popular Odissi performers today. He has been training under Guru Durga Charan Ranbir since he was four years of age, and has been performing prolifically across India and abroad.     

Following is an edited transcript of the conversation with Durga Charan Ranbir and his disciple Rahul Acharya conducted by Madhur Gupta in Delhi, 2018.    

Madhur Gupta (MG): Guruji, tell us something about your childhood, where you are from, and how you got into Odissi.

Durga Charan Ranbir (DCR): I was born in 1950 in a remote village called Kamaguru, in Odissa’s Khurda district. I was interested in music and dance right from when I was a young boy, but my family never approved of this since we were a zamindar family. On several occasions, I have quietly slipped away from home at night to dance for local theatre troupes. There was no TV back then. I remember, once I heard something on the radio about Guru Debaprasad Das dancing with Indrani Rahman in the US. I was so in awe, and wondered who Guru Debaprasad Das was. This strengthened my desire to pursue dance.

There was this school teacher in our village; I used to call him Bhai. He was really interested in dance. He pushed me to apply to Utkal Sangeeta Mahavidyalaya in Bhubaneswar. So, I filled in the form after I passed matriculation. The interview letter reached my home, but I did not get it. I saw it much later, after my interview dates were over. Feeling desperate, having missed my chance, I went to Bhai. He consoled me, and took me to Rabindra Mandap the following day. The college was there then.

We saw Guru Pankaj Charan Das there, on his way back from his evening classes. Upon seeing him, I said namaste and he asked me where I’m from. I told him I was from the village, and that I would be grateful if I could learn dance from him. To this, he said the dates were over, and that I should apply the next year.

Bhai pleaded with him, and finally we were told to come in the morning the next day and meet the principal—Dr Minati Mishra. I met her first thing in the morning, and we spoke for a while. I told her about my passion for dance. However, she turned me away saying the interview dates were over. When I insisted further, she suggested I go to Kala Vikas Kendra and learn from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. I came out of the room wondering where I’d get the money from. My family was unwilling to support me either.

I waited around the college till noon. At around 12:30, I went to the principal’s room again. Then she said to me: I turned you away once, why are you here again? Musician Balakrushna Das walked into the office then. I had a conversation with him, and he arranged for my interview to be conducted by Guru Debaprasad Das and Guru Pankaj Charan Das.   

During the interview, Guru Debaprasad Das asked me what dance form I’ve learnt, and I confidently told him I have learnt everything. To this, Deba sir joked saying: Why do we have to teach you then? You should probably teach us something.

He then asked me to do the Odissi dance. After my performance, Deba sir commented that it was “Fodissi” and not Odissi. He then said: You have great talent, and I liked your expressions. You just need proper training. We’ll learn Odissi here, leave your Fodissi. And that is how I joined Sangeet Mahavidyalaya.

Things weren’t as easy as I’d expected. During my initial days, the classes were physically tiring. So, after a few months, I decided to give up Odissi and packed my bags to go home. I ran into Guru Debaprasad Das on the way. He asked me where I was off to, and I told him I was going home.

“Why don’t you wait till your Dussehra break to go home, don’t miss your classes,” he told me. I broke down in front of him, and told him I didn’t have the will to dance anymore. He then took me to a hotel nearby, and bought me rasgullas.

“See, you may have a tough time the next four to five months. But after that, you’ll definitely find joy in dancing,” Guru Debaprasad Das said. “But what will I gain from it,” I asked him. “My family is dead against it. They are really angry at my decision.”

“They will come around once you start performing really well. Maybe one day you can also teach Odissi like us here. You just have to dance well,” Guruji said.

Then I asked him if I could learn from him in private, and he agreed. However, he said I should attend college too, stressing on the fact that it was important to have a college certificate.

So, I went to Guru Debaprasad Das’s home after my Dussehra break. He asked me to hand him a five paisa coin. I gave him the ten paisa I had in my pocket and bowed to him. From that day, with the blessings of Lord Jagannath, I began training under him.

MG: Guruji, how difficult was it for men to get into dance during the time you started learning? How do you think things have changed now, especially for your male students?

DCR: When I was learning Gotipua in Rameshwar, I came across many male Gotipua dancers. But there were very few male Odissi dancers, even though there were some male students in Sangeet Mahavidyalaya. After graduation, they would take tuition classes. They never became performers. But families have become relatively more supportive of late. During my time, these things were frowned upon by family members.

Rahul Acharya (RA): Well, since time immemorial, men have been the ones to carry forward the legacy of dance. The Natyashastra talks about women being apsaras [celestial maidens].

I would say, things have changed for male dancers now. But the structure is more or less the same as in Bhubaneshwar. People who take up Odissi there mainly come from economically weak backgrounds. This is slowly changing now; many men who are academically qualified are being attracted to Odissi. However, it is still difficult for men to think about earning a livelihood solely through dance performance, because for that you have to be exceptionally good.

In our patriarchal society, men have the pressure to earn their livelihood and support their families. That is why most men who learn Odissi resort to giving private classes as soon as they finish learning. Sometimes even before they finish learning, and this is a dangerous tendency as it results in mediocrity.

But more avenues have opened up now; people are more open to the idea of men dancing. The whole idea that dancing is meant for women, and the concept of grace—all of this is changing.

MG: Guruji, what did you do after graduating from college?

DCR: I became a dance teacher in a school, and performed once in a while. I took part in dance ballets whenever I got the chance, playing the role of Rama or Krishna. The ballets back then were different from what we have now.

MG: How were they different during your time?

DCR: Nowadays, dance ballets don’t always stick to the traditional steps. Gurus back then used to maintain the shuddhata [purity/perfection] of traditional nritya [dance]. The mudras [hand gestures] and angas [body movements] were confined to whatever was prescribed in the shastras and vyakarana [grammar] of the Odissi dance. Now, they often substitute the mudras with theatrical props and dialogues. During our times, whatever we did with our bodies, mudras and abhinaya [expression], were in line with the shastras.

Also, the audience used watch us perform for almost two hours back then. Now the performances are for much shorter durations.

MG: When the Jayantika Association was formed, Guru Debaprasad Das and others had agreed on following a uniform style of dance. But, later, he went on to develop his own style in Odissi. Why do you think he took that decision?

DCR: The Jayantika Association was formed in 1954 [1959]. There was this youth festival (the first Inter-University Youth Festival) where Priyambada Mohanty danced. She had gone with three gurus—Guru Debaprasad Das, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Guru Pankaj Charan Das. The performance made several people sit up and take note, including Dr Charles Fabri, who wrote about it in the Statesman. After such a great response to the programme, the gurus started brainstorming on how to further popularise Odissi. Kavichandra Kalicharan Patnaik and Dhirendra Nath Patnaik played a significant role in this. That’s how Jayantika was formed in Cuttack. Many gurus, including Kelucharan Mohapatra, Dayanidhi Das, Mayadhar Raut, Debaprasad Das and Batakrishna Sena, were part of the association.

Jayantika worked to develop the different items of Odissi dance, based on the alaripu, jatiswaram, shabdam . . . in the pattern of Bharatanatyam. They first decided on beginning with the invocatory dance or mangalacharan. Then came batu nritya or sthayi nritya, which is performed in honour of Lord Batuka Bhairava or Lord Shiva.

When it was performed in Konark, there were poses describing such actions as the playing of the mardala, veena and flute. “If this is how batu britya is supposed to be, how can it be dedicated to Lord Shiva?” My guru asked. Guru Debaprasad Das believed that the term ‘batu’ should be applied only to a piece which would be dedicated to Lord Shiva, and that piece should involve rigorous tandava movements.

When I learnt Gotipua at the Sata Sahi Akhada in Puri, we danced to the lyric Tam thai Ta Kitataka, ta Ham ta tat tat tha . . . [Thei ghara nata style]. This is the swarakhanda vadya. Deba sir used this particular lyric for sthayi nritya. Similarly, he also adopted some elements of the Chhau martial movement tradition. This had become controversial back then. There were many differences within Jayantika about the style in which different mudras and postures were supposed to be done.

The gurus had their own sets of influences and styles. For instance, unlike Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Debaprasad Das would use a lot of hamsasya (swan’s head) mudra. Guru Pankaj Charan Das would use the pataka [flag] mudra a lot. However, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Mayadhar Raut had very similar styles, since they worked together for a long time at Kala Vikas Kendra.

MG: In terms of technique, how did Guru Debaprasad Das’s style differ from that of his contemporaries?

DCR: Odissa’s folk culture always had a strong influence on Deba sir’s style. He travelled across the interior villages of Odissa and discovered many traditional dances.

He went to Kumbhari village, and danced for the people there. Then he asked them to show him their style of dance. He then refined the grammar and hasta mudras of their dance form and revived it. Deba sir imbibed it into his style of dance. He even adopted one of his signature movements, chakramana chari (making a leap), from one of the folk dance forms.

Classical Odissi dance evolved from the folk dances. Just like how worship of Jagannath is linked to the worship of Jara sabara (a hunter belonging to an ancient tribe). They dance in circular motions at the Jagannath temple, and we have the bhramari movement in Odissi. Bhramari is a technique which requires sthirata [stability] and ekagrata [focus]. Even the chalis [a particular kind of movement in Odissi]—there are a variety of those in our folk dance forms. Deba sir compared these to the shastras and then adopted them in Odissi. The goiti chali (a twisting walk with the dancer shifting weight to the heels, and placing one foot in front of the other) is one such example.

Deba sir would use this line to describe some essential steps an Odissi dancer must know:

Utha Baitha Thia Chali, Buda Bhasa Bhaunri Pali (Utha: to rise up from the sitting pose and then dance, Baitha: to bend one’s knees in equal measure and dance with the weight of the body set up one’s waist, Thia: the standing pose at the beginning or during the pauses or at the end of the dance, Chali: to step forward while singing in a measured way, Buda: to lift one’s hands above the head, Bhasa: to bend the body alternately to either side, Bhaunri: to dance in quick circular motion, Pali: back-stepping while dancing)

MG: Where did Deba sir draw inspiration from for choreographies like Ashta Shambho and Shabda Swara Pata? Also, tell us about some of your choreographies.

DCR: Deba sir’s Sabda Swara Pata is an important contribution. In terms of abhinaya, he practised a careful restraint and his renditions were mostly simple and direct. Also, his compositions feature no sancharis, or repetitions of the chorus phrases, which would be interpreted in a different way during each repetition.

My choreographies are definitely in line with Deba sir’s vision of Odissi. I go by guruji’s parampara [tradition] when it comes to tandava movements. But in my abhinaya, I use more of sanchari bhava. Another difference is that guruji uses more traditional mudras, while I mostly follow Abhinaya Darpan mudras.

MG: Rahul, Can you tell us something about the influence of guruji’s style on your choreography?

RA: I have been with my guruji [Guru Durga Charan Ranbir] since 1986. I feel Deba sir’s style would have died an untimely death had it not been for Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. Because, when he left, he did not leave behind a huge legacy of great dancers like Guru Kelucharana Mohapatra did. Guruji [Durga Charan] actually dug into a lot of unexplored aspects of Deba sir’s technique and style.

For my choreographies, I take inspiration from my guru. More so, I am guided by the texts. Thanks to my Sanskrit background, I see in the texts what Guruji has taught me. I also see other styles, and take inspiration from the Natyashastra.

When Guruji choreographed Shivashtakam (Deba sir’s original piece), he reworked that piece with me. Because he saw that I had a flexible body, he used a lot of karanas [unit of movement in the Natyashastra] in that. This was pretty new to Odissi,

So I take inspiration from what I have learnt from having spent such a long span of time working with guruji, and whatever aesthetic sense I have developed watching so many dancers, and more so, the texts. And my choreographies have to be textually correct, like right from the shastras.

DCR: What Deba sir used to do… during mangalacharan, bhumi pranam [salutation to the earth] would happen first, after which would be an homage to Jagannath and a sloka describing a mythological figure. He wouldn’t start the dance during this time. It is when the sabha pranam [where the dancer acknowledges the audience] starts that he begins dancing.    

After that, in the pallavi, there would be a Sanskrit dhyana sloka, which describes the raga on which the dance is based (these slokas feature the personification of the raga, in which its physical characteristics are identified).

He designed a specific hand gesture for each of the notes of the scale. The first musical note sa corresponds to peacock, re was for deer, ga for goat, ma for bird, pa for parrot, dha for horse and ni for elephant.

Then he dances according to the raga. This would be followed by the sabhinaya pallavi [a song and a pallavi in the same raga].

In my opinion, musical notes make Odissi even more beautiful; I have more of those in my compositions. So, my pallavis are much more elaborate. But I do make sure that my guruji’s basic style is maintained as such.

MG: Guruji, do you think learning under the guru-sishya parampara is important for classical dance and music?

DCR: There is definitely a lot more strength in the learning that you get from a gurukula. The guru’s wisdom seeps right into you. This online learning of dance these days, you don’t get to learn properly there. These days, I feel like the mudras have become mere geometrical forms. When I used to learn with my guru, he would hold my hand and tell me how each mudra is supposed to be.  

RA: It depends upon how you approach the form. For me, it’s not art. It’s a way of life. So you have to be involved with it, you have to make it your life. With technological advancements, we have these Skype classes and learning over YouTube now. But it doesn’t work. 

When we were dancing with guruji, we never looked at the mirror because guruji was in front of you and he would correct your dance. And the practice was so rigorous that you often didn’t need that correction too. You will never reach perfection if you learn from a video.

It’s kind of a compromise. And the guru becomes more than your teacher. There is a vast difference between a guru and a teacher. The guru is your preceptor, he becomes more than your father; he becomes your guardian, your mentor. He takes care of you like his own kid. He infuses vital life lessons in you through his art.

So, yes, no matter how technical you get, online learning of dance doesn’t work. These were temple forms. Specifically with the Mahari tradition, there was a rule that nobody was supposed to see the dance. It was performed strictly within closed doors, and was meant for the God. There were no acoustics or props. This is not chitrabhinaya, this is pure dance. If you want to learn, you have to give it your life and learn it from a guru. It takes a lifetime to imbibe the technical nuances of that particular guru’s art.

DCR: In the gurukula tradition, we fully dedicate ourselves to him. We observe everything about him: from what he eats to even the way he sits. With the wisdom and blessings of the guru, you can go a long way. But I don’t see this being practised anymore.

MG: How have the different techniques in Odissi changed today, especially in the way it’s presented on stage? Why do you think this is happening?

DCR: People still perform tribhanga [stance where the body is deflected at the neck, torso and the knees] and Chhau the same way. Theoretically, there has been no change to the practice of Odissi from the time of the four gurus. But many dancers these days try to include certain aspects of Bharatanatyam and Kathak into Odissi just to please the audience.

The abhinaya has changed a lot these days. Even the costumes! This is a matter of great disappointment. If it goes on like this, Odissi won’t survive for long. People will start forgetting about Odissi in about ten to twelve years if it continues like this.

MG: What advice would you give to young Odissi dancers? And what qualities do you think a dancer should ideally have?

DCR: He/she should be a strong dancer. Odissi requires rigorous practice. Students should practice for at least three hours every day. It is ideal for dancers to follow their guru’s style and keep the basics without any distortion. Further, I would want dancers to strictly stick to the Odissi costume.

They should also observe the abhinaya of the major dancers. After all, Odissi is all about abhinaya! Observe their abhinaya and try to practice it by yourself. Do it in different ways, like try to do a flower in 50 different ways. Keep practicing, and slowly you will develop your own style. Dance really happens only when you put your life and soul into it.


Translated by Medha V.