Jayanti Sarmah, an Odissi dancer interviewed by Ashwarya Samkaria (2017)

About the Intern: A Master's in  English Literature from Hansraj College, DU, Ashwarya wishes to excel as an Odissi dancer. She is a shishya of renowned Guru Madhumita Raut and Padma Shri Guru Mayadhar Raut.

Why dance, and why dance a classical dance?

Delhi has many roads which lead us to the world of classical arts. The tall trees have seen years and years of art practitioners breathing, talking and living the classical arts. One such section is the world of Odissi dancers. 
This project aims to familiarize the readers with the world of Indian classical dance and particularly, Odissi. In the pages of this project, the reader will find the past and the present of Odissi and a range of interviews of students of Mayadhar Raut School of Odissi Dance telling us what Odissi means to them. 
Dialogue is the nourishment that sprouts the seeds of creativity. What I have tried to do in this project is create a space for dialogue.
This project is a montage of individual journeys, photographs, and histories, all of which locates Odissi in New Delhi. 
I hope that we can all enrich our lives by turning towards classical dance and starting a dialogue with it. I hope that we begin talking Odissi…

AS: What’s your story?
JS: I have been associated with dance since the age of 4 but I was learning Manipuri classical dance and by the time I was in the 9th standard, I’d finished my visharad in Manipuri.

AS: Where did you learn Manipuri?
JS: Assam and Jorhat, where I was born and brought up. 

AS: So how did Delhi happen?
JS: I wanted to pursue my higher education in Delhi after I finished my 12th. So I came here to study and with my design course, I also wanted to learn Manipuri again. But I couldn’t find the right guru from the same gharana. The styles being taught were different and so I thought I’ll pursue something else. Odissi had been on my mind since a long time.

AS: Why Odissi?
JS: The beauty it depicts, the sculpturesque quality, the sensuous, delicate movements had attracted me for a very long time. So I started searching for a Guru here in Delhi.

AS: Do you remember the first time you came across Odissi? 
JS: Yes, I do. When I was young, there was an ad (‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ on DD) that used to come on television and that was the first time I saw Odissi. I had also seen some shows. I am partly Bengali. My father is a Bengali and my mother is an Assamese and the culture of Odissi is huge in Bengal. I had also traveled to Orissa many times with my parents. So Odissi was quite important to me and I really wanted to learn.

AS: So how did you reach Madhumita ma’am? Was it through the internet?
JS: When I was in Delhi, I started looking for a good guru and then Madhumita didi’s name came across. And no, one of my friend’s friends referred me to her. I went there and met didi and Guruji. They were so welcoming and warm.

AS: When was this? Which year?
JS: This was way back in 2005.

AS: So it has been more than a decade! Have you had to face any challenges?
JS: Yes, I did face some challenges. When I picked up learning Odissi, I was already working. During the initial days of working, you want to prove myself. I wanted to prove myself and be good at my job in the office. So I really had to work hard because I did not want to let go of my dance. With Guruji and didi, it is very important that you do not take your dance lightly. So we are not there for just a stroll. We are there in complete discipline. So it was a challenge for me to balance my work and dance. Then I got married and had a child and I was still dancing. I am still a working mother and I am still dancing. So it is a little difficult to maintain balance between all of it but that’s where you have to show your own abilities and capabilities to handle and do what you want to.

AS: Coming to the two dance styles that you are familiar with, are there any similarities between Manipuri and Odissi or are they really distinct forms of classical dancing?
JS: Yes, in fact I also learnt Bharatanatyam for a brief period of time to just understand how different it is and to experience the relationship between classical dances of India. Also, since  Bharatanatyam was easily accessible. I learnt it in Assam and I understood that it was quite different from Manipuri. So when I came to Odissi, there were similarities. The fluidity of the upper body of Odissi is a lot like the fluidity of Manipuri dance as a whole and the softness and the grace of these dance styles mirrored each other. 

AS: So you found it slightly easier to fit into the framework of Odissi because of your training in Manipuri? Did you manage to go back to Manipuri?
JS: Yes. No, I haven’t but I would love to. 

AS: Do you feel that dance has helped you in your personal expression? Has dance made you evolve in that sense?
JS: Yes, dance has helped shape the character in me, the person that I am today. More so because it is classical and so disciplined, one really needs to control the body and mind. The controlling aspect has also helped me discipline my life as well.

AS: So art does have an influence on the life that you live.
JS: Absolutely. 

AS: Where all have you performed?
JS: In Chamba, Agra, Jaipur, Assam, and Malaysia.

AS: Has anyone around you started learning any classical dance form or any other cultural activity?
JS: Yes, a very good friend of mine, Shweta Pandey. She never had any training in dance but after seeing me get so engrossed, she started learning under didi only. She couldn’t continue for a long time but she did learn Odissi for a brief period. I have another friend, an old schoolmate, Snighdha Sharma. Even she started learning after watching me dance.

AS: Have little children or the youngsters been inspired by you to pick up classical dancing? 
JS: Yes . My friend’s daughters. They are now learning classical. You know, classical is not a fad with little children and they opt for other forms like pop or jazz etc. That’s not bad either but one needs to also be familiar with our roots and culture.

As: Do you have many Gurus in Jaipur?
JS: There are a lot of gurus for Kathak because one of the gharana is in Jaipur. They also have Bharatanatyam to an extent but nothing more than that.

AS: Do you have any plans of teaching dance?
JS: I don’t mind but as of now I’m concentrating on learning more and exploring myself. Maybe after some time.

AS: What is extremely particular about the Mayadhar Raut School of Odissi Dance is the Guru-Shishya Parampara that they espouse. You’ve given more than ten years of your life to this art form and this school. What is Guru-Shishya Parampara to you? 
JS: I also come from an extremely rooted Indian cultured family . You take the blessings of your elders every now and then and for special occasions too. So the importance of learning under a guru, respecting the guru, serving under the guru and then taking all his blessings and his teachings to really reflect upon you, it’s important that you learn under him with full dedication and there has to be a lot of feeling of service inside you for the guru and then the guru selflessly passes on all the heritage to you. That is what Guru-Shishya Parampara and learning under Guruji and didi is like, you’re not just learning the art but you are also taking in a lot of sanskars and knowledge. 

AS: Do you think that learning the art form with not just yourself and the guru but with other students in the classroom help in performing on stage? Does one-on-one teaching differ from collective learning? Does that help in your bonding with the students?
JS: It’s just like team effort. If you’re learning from the guru, you’re just going to learn from the guru. But, when you’re in a team and you’re performing with the group, the bond is not just of friends but it’s like that of a family. You’re like sisters, you need to care about each other, you need to look after each other which definitely makes a lot of difference and helps in connecting better. 

AS: Which dance piece do you enjoy dancing the most? And why? 
JS: I love dancing the abhinaya pieces because I feel I am at ease while doing the abhinaya pieces. But other than that, I love doing Moksha. It is extremely close to my heart. It's like attaining salvation. It's a pure dance piece and I absolutely love doing it. 

AS: You are one of Guruji’s senior most disciples and you’ve performed one of the ashtapadis that he introduced to Odissi. How rigorous was the learning and understanding of this ashtapadi? 
JS: I did one of Guruji's most important ashtapadis, which is 'Rati Sukh Sare'. Learning under Guruji itself is quite rigorous and his daughter, didi, is no less. She picks up on every minute detail while training. Number one, I enjoy doing it and number two, it takes time in understanding the whole meaning of the poem 'Rati Sukh Sare' by Jayadeva because you need a mature self to understand its true meaning. So now that I have been learning under Guruji and didi for so long and I am old enough to understand the meaning, it's easier for me to bring out the expression as per the meaning. And learning under him is rigorous. Every minute detail is noticed by him and didi and we 
are corrected at every point and it goes on forever. And it is quite welcomed because I think dance and art are something at which you can excel if you are open to corrections and open to the criticisms of the Gurus.

AS: How content is the dancer in you?
JS: Yes, to some extent I am content but not completely. I think the dancer in me will always keep dancing and it's not just about dancing on the stage and performing. It is important to dance on the stage for an audience, for the progress of the art. Progress of Odissi is important but the dancer in me wants to dance throughout my life. I want to keep doing something which would be good for the art and take my Guru's name ahead.

AS: What are your dreams and aspirations?
 JS: I want to keep dancing for a very long time and would like to do whatever I can for taking the name of Jayantika, Guru Mayadhar Raut and Odissi ahead and spread it as much as I can. So this is the only dream and aspiration that I have right now and yes, I need blessings to be able to do that. 

Dance is a form of expression. It is a means of expressing creativity. It is an outward expression of an experience. Classical dancing defines this outburst of creativity and gives it shape. It encases and finely smoothens the rough edges of expression. It is a manner of reshaping reality, of transforming reality, of experiencing a new reality. 
Odissi doesn’t  limit itself to the classroom alone. Having spent hours conversing with the dancers of Mayadhar Raut School of Odissi Dance, what was brought to the fore was the translation of their classroom riyaaz and knowledge into shaping up the lives they are leading. How beautiful a world, where creativity and imagination shape souls. 
Some have deliberately taken the lessons of Odissi and are trying to adopt it in their day-to-day living and for some, the art has subconsciously reshaped their selves. But for all, in one way or the other, Odissi has become a way of life. 

Contact - 23.ashwarya@gmail.com


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