March 6, 2016

Book Review - My Journey: A Tale of Two Births by Ileana Citaristi



Well-known Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi’s third book My Journey: A Tale of Two Births is an autobiography and memoir which tells the story of her coming of age during the student movement in Europe, her artistic journey which led her to India, and chronicles her experiences and achievements as a dancer, performer, choreographer and author.

The title alludes to Citaristi’s life before and after her arrival in Cuttack, Orissa in June 1979 to study Odissi under the renowned guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, a trip which was supposed to last only a few months. She considers this to be her ‘second birth’, while her ‘first birth’ happened twenty-seven years earlier in Bergamo, a provincial town in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

In this absorbing memoir which is a factual chronicle of her life story but also reads like a travelogue, she tells how her identify was forged during the student protests sweeping Europe in the late 1960s, a time when she rebelled against conservative society, her Catholic upbringing and her authoritarian father. She joins a theatre group after finishing school and explores different aspects of physical theatre. At the same time she’s drawn to Eastern philosophy, earning a doctorate degree from the University of Venice.

Her interest in the East and her experiments in theatre and a search for a ‘complete body movement vocabulary’ inevitably take her to India. After a first exploratory overland trip, she returns a few years later for an intensive workshop in Kathakali in Kerala and travels to Bhubaneswar, Orissa where she takes her first lessons in Odissi from renowned dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi. Her third departure for India in 1979 becomes her last one: she eventually makes Orissa her home, studying with guru Kelucharan Mohapatra until his death in 2004, and in the meantime making a name for herself as a performer and choreographer of Odissi and Chhau (which she studies under guru Sri Hari Nayak), establishing her own dance institution in Bhubaneswar, and eventually being conferred the prestigious Padma Shri award by the Indian government in recognition of her contribution to Odissi.

In the book, Citaristi reveals the challenges of being a foreign student of Indian dance, attracting at first the support but also antagonism of other dancers, and experiencing heated opposition to her very first innovative works in a staunchly classical milieu. She also shares many amusing anecdotes about the inevitable clashes she experiences between the two cultural worlds she occupies. Having rejected authority and asserted her feminist and egalitarian ideals during her student days, in India she finds herself submitting herself to the demands of a traditional dance form and guru. She tells the humorous story of how her guru left the room the first time she stood before him with her “mass of unruly curly hair”, long rainbow-coloured skirt and sleeveless t-shirt. She took a hint from a fellow student to “cover herself more” and appeared for dance class the next day in what she thought was an appropriate kurta, only to have her teacher take her aside and mumble the word ‘bra’. Finding herself far, far away from her bra-burning feminist days, she urgently telegrammed her mother to send her all her bikini tops without delay!

The theme of transformation is a dominant one. When her parents came for a visit a year and a half after her arrival in India, they are surprised to find their rebellious hippie daughter transformed: her ‘wild hair’ is tied back neatly and she’s wearing a sari. She describes her transformation as the culmination of her search: “The rebel in me did not have reason to exist anymore since I had found what I was searching for.”

This memoir is of obvious interest to students of Indian classical dance and readers who enjoy reading about cross-cultural experiences and travelogues related to India. It is also an important chronicle of the author’s experiences learning under one of India’s most renowned dance gurus. Considering the author is a non-native English speaker, the book would have benefited from more careful editing.

Ileana Citaristi is also the author of The Making of a Guru, a biography of guru Kelucharan Mohapatra (2001), and Traditional Martial Practices in Odisha (2012).

You can watch a video of Ileana Citaristi speaking about A Tale of Two Births here.

Published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Pulse magazine.

December 25, 2014

Experiences of the traditional gurukul system: past and present


A fellow dance friend was dismayed when her teacher told her she was going to the US for a series of summer workshops and would be away for two months. “Not to worry,” her guru assured her, “we can continue our classes via Skype.” I thought of a musician friend in Calcutta who holds regular Skype lessons with his students in Europe, and reflected that this new trend in ‘tele-teaching’ seems far removed from the traditional gurukul system where students used to live and study under the same roof as their gurus. Students were able to interact closely with their teachers, who gave them dedicated and focussed training, and often taught them not only an art but also a way of life. In today’s world where the study of the arts is often an extra-curricular activity, and teachers are also performers with busy performance schedules, teaching and learning has moved far away from the romantic ideal of the gurukul. Taken in today’s context, the traditional gurukul system does not seem practical or even feasible.

Curious about this traditional system of learning and its viability today, I spoke to musicians and dancers who have had the benefit of training in a gurukul. Some are attempting to continue this same tradition by teaching their own students in the same way. They shared with me their learning and teaching experiences and the challenges of replicating the gurukul system.

An experience learning under the traditional gurukul system

Chennai-based singer, composer, nattuvanar, and music and dancer teacher SK Suresh lived and studied for many years with his great-uncle, SK Rajaratnam Pillai, a renowned Bharata Natyam guru who trained many well-known dancers including Malavika Sarukkai, Priyadarsini Govind, and Vidhya Subramanian. Having closely worked for many years with well-known Bharata Natyam dancer Urmila Sathyanarayanan as vocalist, co-choreographer and composer, he also has his own dance school in Chennai. His mastery of not only music and nattuvangam but also dance, choreography and music composition reflect the all-round training and personal attention he received from years spent in close proximity to his guru from a young age.(Left: SK Suresh)

Hailing from a family of temple musicians serving the famous Murugan temple in Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, SK Suresh was surrounded by music from a very young age and grew up listening to his father Pandanallur P.V. Kalidas playing the nadaswaram. Noticing the interest he had in music, his great-uncle and future guru, suggested to his parents that he should study music and dance with him. At the age of 12, he left his family in Swamimalai and went to live with his guru and his family in Chennai.

The young disciple spent the whole day with his teacher, observing all his classes, assisting him by singing, and imbibing all there was to learn about music, dance and nattuvangam. “In the early mornings I would practice my singing and then spend the rest of the day with him,” he recounts. “I didn’t have any proper lessons. I learned through observation and imitation and by absorbing everything. Of course he would correct me if I made mistakes and this is also how I learned. I was the only one learning with him in this way under the traditional gurukul system. Also, no one else learned nattuvangam with him. At that time gurus wouldn’t teach all the detailed aspects like laya calculation, choreography and nattuvangam – only dance.”

Another salient aspect of the gurukul system was seva. In return for training, the student was expected to assist in household and other chores, something the young SK Suresh did not mind contributing to: “I would wash his clothes, take him to the doctor, buy his medicines. I would go to the market to buy things, climb up the coconut trees to pluck coconuts, I even did the plumbing and electrical work!” (Right: SK Rajaratnam Pillai)

Having studied directly under his guru for seven years until his death in 1994, SK Suresh believes that this traditional system of learning is ideal for the mastery of an art and feels that this unique experience has been the foundation of his artistic development. “The gurukul system is the best way to master an art because it offers an all-round education,” he says. “At that time, the gurus were all-rounders, they mastered music, dance, nattuvangam and knew all the intricacies of tala, how to compose jatis, the structure to be followed for items, how to compose music, which beats of an adavu should be hard and which soft. When I’m composing, I think back to my time with my guru, remember his rendition of jatis, go through the composition and then compose. The training I had with him provided a strong foundation for me which still guides me today.”

Reviving the gurukul system

Today, of course, the way music and dance is taught and learnt has changed. In India, as elsewhere, music and dance students usually study part-time, commuting a few times a week to meet their teacher and learn in a classroom environment. The study of music and dance has also become institutionalised, with universities and schools offering diplomas and degrees in these disciplines for those who wish to study them full-time. However, there is a renewed interest in the traditional gurukul method of teaching which some schools are trying to replicate. Though there are several residential schools offering training in music and dance ‘in the guru-shishya parampara’, students do not usually live with their teachers, and teacher-student interaction is limited to class hours. Also, a student may have several teachers and not the dedicated attention of one guru, as was usually the case under the traditional gurukul system. Though this concept endures, its form has changed, just as the nature of the traditional teacher-student relationship has evolved.

Pune-based Dhrupad vocalist Uday Bhawalkar, a frequent performer in London’s Indian classical music circuit, studied in a gurukul for many years and teaches his students in his own home, applying the same approach to intensive full-time training as the one he experienced under his gurus. I happened to meet the singer and three of his students in Varanasi during the Dhrupad Mela in 2010. They were having an impromptu class on the terrace of the hotel. Though they were away from the gurukul, this did not take away from class time, and they had even practiced on the long 25-hour train journey from Pune. During the concert that evening, the students accompanied their guru onstage who provided them with many opportunities to showcase their own talent. (Above: Uday Bhawalkar)

Bhawalkar had left the family home at 15 to study and live with Dhrupad maestros Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, spending 12 years with them in Bhopal and Mumbai. “The daily routine was learning and practicing music from 4am to 5pm, apart from the household work of the gurukul,” he says. “I dedicated myself to my gurus, and learning music from them has taught me a way of life. The Ustads gave us a vision, perspective and approach towards the note, raag and music and made us realise its depths. To learn Indian classical music, the guru-shishya parampara is the only option to learn in a proper manner. It does not have restrictions or constraints relating to time or any other issues. The student learns the subtle nuances of the note and the mood and personality of the raag the moment the guru is inspired to do so.”

Nrityagram: a modern-day gurukul


Any casual visitor to Nrityagram on the outskirts of Bangalore cannot help but be charmed and inspired by the unique creative atmosphere of its beautiful rural campus of rustic buildings, sculpture gardens and outdoor performance spaces. It was founder Protima Bedi’s dream to establish a dance gurukul here, and today, 24 years after its conception, her disciples and now renowned dancers Surupa Sen, artistic director, and Bijayini Satpathy, head of the Odissi gurukul, continue her legacy. (Above: the Nrityagram campus)

Known for high standards and rigorous training, students train here for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Scholarships are offered to deserving residential students who wish to pursue dance as a career. Also, over 300 local children have been trained in Odissi for free through the village outreach programme. The residential students participate in the running of the dance community by working in the organic garden, cleaning the gurukul, helping in the kitchen or the office, and assisting the teachers. The running of the school is almost entirely sustained through the proceeds from the performances of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, which has received critical acclaim worldwide and tours regularly.

For Satpathy, her guru was not only a teacher but also an inspiration and role model. “She was a multi-tasker and did everything to a high level of excellence. She practiced every day regardless of how hectic the day or how late in the evening it was. To see this as a living example was inspiring and easy to admire and imbibe.” Satpathy and Sen have obviously not only received meticulous training, but have also been inspired by their own guru’s work ethic and strive for excellence, which instilled a total dedication to the continuation of her dream and vision. “Our's has been an exploration and revival of traditional gurukul education keeping intact the core values that govern this system of pursuing art: an intense discipline combined with a shared belief of excellence couched in a community environment,” explains Sen. “We practice dance here as if it was life itself and learning has meant living every moment with acute awareness of the smallest things that impact our lives and therefore our art. Living with a teacher who teaches by example, working for the community, growing our own food, sharing space with people from different backgrounds and most importantly, spending a minimum of 8 to 12 hours in the dance class. To my mind, there is no better way to pursue a dream of being an artist other than this. And I am grateful to have found it.” (Right:Protima Bedi)

The challenges of traditional learning in a modern context

For Sen and Satpathy, there is no doubt that living and studying in a community gurukul setting is the ideal way to gain thorough training in a dance form like Odissi. However, attracting the right kind of student willing to live in a setting removed from the outside world where total dedication to an old tradition is expected, can be a challenge. “Becoming a good dancer is faster when you live and learn as we do at Nrityagram, compared to attending weekly classes, but it is rigorous, physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Satpathy. “To succeed you need patience and humility. Unfortunately patience and humility are becoming non-existent in our youth and without these, this tradition cannot survive.” Sen adds: “Finding dancers who 'believe' in our art like we do and want to pursue it in the traditional gurukul system seem few and far between. Short term 'fixes' seem more the norm and we are constantly trying to find ways to inspire and impact young minds in the modern context to appreciate and help preserve this deeply beautiful art form.”



Though the gurukul system may offer the dedicated intensive training and personalised attention required to excel, it is fraught with other contemporary challenges. “The psychology of this era is that academic education is a basic requirement and art is something additional one may pursue,” points out Bhawalkar. “In this case, there is a division of time and attention. Secondly, most of the gurus today are performers of the art which makes them travel extensively which may lead to less time for the students.” SK Suresh agrees that academic study is given higher value in India today than the study of the arts and that students’ attention is dispersed due to multiple extra-curricular activities, of which music or dance is just another. “The gurukul system is not possible today,” he maintains, “because there is a lot of importance put on academic studies today, and young children today have so many things to do: drawing, swimming, music, violin, etc.” Of course, resources are another obstacle. A teacher may not have sufficient space in his or her home to accommodate students and not have the funds required to provide a dedicated space for a community learning environment. “Finding the funds is an ongoing ordeal,” concurs Sen. “Art requires the support of the government and people to develop and build an aesthetic and nurturing society. Yet this appears to be the least deserving of all in the modern Indian and global scenario.” (Above: Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen. Photo: E. Rousseau.)

In this new era of Skype gurus, the traditional gurukul system seems outdated and a challenge to sustain. However, we have seen examples of how those who are committed to this method of teaching and learning have revived it, adapting it to modern circumstances. Though there are challenges, the outcomes are often fruitful. Sen shares the tangible results she has observed: “Participating in the teaching of an old tradition is a great responsibility and I approach it as such and try to do the best I can. Old methods sometimes have to give way to new to suit a changing psyche. For the most part the transformation that I have noticed in students who come to Nrityagram has been astonishing. Almost like seeing a 'before' and 'after' photograph! And not just in their abilities as dancers but in their overall personalities. And always spectacularly for the better! The passion for the dance is what I try to pass on along with a deep understanding of the language that makes up this art form. In the end, we hope that they will emerge as better dancers and better people.”

An edited version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Pulse magazine.


November 28, 2013

Dhimsa dance in the Araku Valley

One year ago I was travelling in Andhra Pradesh researching a travel article on Visakhapatnam. I decided to take a day trip to the Araku Valley organised by Andhra Pradesh Tourism which involved a long and scenic train ride. I watched transfixed from the train window as rice paddies, rolling green hills and brilliant yellow fields of mustard plant flowers flew past. This region in the Eastern Ghats mountain range very close to the border of Orissa is unique for many reasons. One is that this is the home to many indigenous tribal communities.

Though the Araku Valley is supposed to be “one of the least spoiled and less commercialized tourist destinations in South India” (according to Wikipedia), the AP Tourism department did a good job of commercialising this one-day trip. Of course I couldn’t really expect more from a one-day organised trip, and my very tight schedule did not allow for more. But this was a convenient way to squeeze in a visit to the Araku Valley as well as the Borra Caves (which my editor was keen on featuring) where we stopped on our way back to Visakhapatnam.


After the obligatory visit to the Araku Tribal Museum, there was a demonstration of Dhimsa, the dance performed by the tribal communities of the Araku Valley. This is a ceremonial dance performed by women during festive occasions like weddings and important festivals. This organised demonstration outside the AP Tourism hotel was not the ideal context or setting to witness Dhimsa, but I appreciated the chance to see this tribal dance tradition which otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to see at all. I had only had glimpses of tribal dance in photographs, films and YouTube videos, and this was the first time I was seeing it ‘live’.

The women were dressed in brightly-coloured saris in tones of scarlet, magenta and fuchsia. Each had a flower elegantly pinned to her hair which was gathered in a bun at the nape of the neck. Almost all the women wore three nose rings, typical of the tribal women living in this region.

One thing which immediately struck me was the detached look the women had as they danced. They all had a very straight-faced and almost stern and even bored expression. This was quite a contrast to the wide sparkly grins of the Bharata Natyam dancers I’m used to seeing. Were they bored of this tourist office routine? Perhaps they were. Or maybe a smile is superfluous when it comes to this ceremonial dance.

The dancers were assembled in a row, one arm interlocked behind their backs, the hand of the other on the shoulder of the woman in front. The woman who led the row of dancers seemed older than the others and held a towel. The dancers moved in quick-paced rhythmical steps, making circular patterns moving clockwise in inward circles before changing direction and moving counter-clockwise, this time in outward circles. At times they formed a tight circle and swayed their bodies in unison inwards, before crouching down and shuffling forwards. Their anklets jingled as they danced.

I recently came across my photos taken during this demonstration of Dhimsa and thought I’d share them on this blog...

You can watch a clip of Dhimsa here:



September 5, 2013

Aditi Mangaldas premieres her latest production 'Within'


Aditi Mangaldas is one of the biggest names in Kathak today and needs no introduction to Indian dance enthusiasts. Known for her virtuosity and innovative choreography which takes a strong foundation in classical dance and blends it with a contemporary sensibility, combined with a refined aesthetic sense for stage and costume design, her productions have received critical acclaim across the world.

With her feet firmly planted in classical Kathak, having studied with none other than Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj – two living legends in the Kathak world, Aditi Mangaldas is not afraid to explore dance choreography with a contemporary eye. The description of her dance company on her website aptly describes her creative vision:

“Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, the Drishtikon Dance Foundation has been established with a vision to look at tradition with a modern mind, to explore the past to create a new, imaginative future… we seek to challenge established norms and develop the courage to dance our own dance, while at the same time being informed about the heritage, cultures, influences and language of other dance styles and forms, viewpoints and ideas.”

Her newest production ‘Within’, featuring seven dancers and four musicians, will be premiered this month at Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi from September 13th to 15th. An introduction to ‘Within’ on her Facebook page describes her latest work as a “a dance production that journeys though the discovery of our inner spaces, the choices we make and their consequences. What lies buried in the deep recesses of our being? Is it humanity? Is it brutality? Are they in ever half embrace? Knocking at our inner doors to open? What makes us choose which door we open? Where, when, how does this ideal core start disintegrating? Which inner door leads us from order to disorder? From humanity to brutality? How do we regain our humanity? Can our inner spark grow into the sky?”

The upcoming premiere of ‘Within’ has managed to generate much attention already, not only in the Indian press, but also on social media sites. The dancer’s Facebook page and Twitter stream are updated daily with interesting facts and quotes on the production. When a PR agency contacted Sacred Space with details of the premiere and the offer of an interview, it became clear why there has been so much publicity. Aditi Mangaldas’ professional approach seems to extend to all aspects of putting together and presenting a new production, including hiring an agency to take care of publicity. The vital role of social media in diffusing information is also being tapped into, as well as the dance blogosphere.

We jumped at the opportunity to publish a short interview with Aditi Mangaldas, and with her name being one of the top search terms on Sacred Space, we’re sure many of our readers will appreciate this glimpse into her latest creative work.



Your work often addresses philosophical questions with the themes of ‘time’ and ‘searching’ being recurrent. What was the inspiration for ‘Within’?

This is different from my other works although it also explores questions of time and space and the search for something. It is a question of looking within and what doors we open from within. Actually a lot of events which happened last year brought brutality in sharp focus and it was something we started on by working on mythological themes in the context of social issues. There are horrendous and brutal things you see in the newspaper every day – mythology and social events have become a subterranean stream that feeds this piece, so ‘Within’ is now more about our core and looking within oneself.

India’s population is really young and we have this great legacy of an amazing classical art. Each artist has to be aware that times are changing. So we have to invite a younger audience into our auditorium and need to engage them and challenge them so that they go back with something that resonates with them and they also feel that this is something they wouldn’t have got by sitting at home accessing the Internet. ‘Within’ is an international collaboration with Italian designers and Japanese costume designers and stage designers. The music composers are from India. So it is a combination of very wide variety of rich experiences.

Is ‘Within’ a work of classical or contemporary Kathak? How do you define contemporary Kathak?

‘Within’ is composed of two parts: the first part is ‘Knotted’, a contemporary dance piece based on Kathak and the second part is ‘Unwrapped’ based on classical Kathak. So it’s both classical and contemporary Kathak.

Contemporary Kathak is like taking a seed of  Kathak and sowing it and watering it with contemporary sensibilities, so what happens is the plant that grows out of it has the roots of Kathak but may not have all its characteristics.



Tell us about your training schedule and what a typical day is like for you.

We have been immersed in the production completely, not just me but also all the dancers and the collaborators who have been working very hard for months. Our daily schedule is generally that we have an hour of yoga in the morning, say from 11am-12pm and then from 12pm until 5:30pm we have rehearsals with a one-hour break in between. I generally go to the gym in the evenings for about an hour, four times a week. The rest of the time I’m having discussions with our lighting designers, mentor, stage designers and all the dancers and constantly trying to improve and oversee all the details of the project.


Where will ‘Within’ be performed next?

Currently there are three performances scheduled at the Kamani Auditorium on September 13th, 14th and 15th but we are hoping to take it to festivals all over India and abroad.

(Images by Dinesh Khanna)

June 15, 2013

The last Mahari

Above: Shashimani in 2011. (Photo by Sandrine Da Costa)

The Maharis were the temple dancers who performed for Lord Jagannath in the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa. Dating back to the 12th century, the Jagannath temple is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus. This temple was also once a great cultural centre where dancers and singers would worship Lord Jagannath through dance and song as part of the daily temple rituals.

Shashimani is the last remaining Mahari belonging to this temple tradition. She is now in her late 80s and lives in a lane close to the great temple. Two years ago, while conducting research for an upcoming film on Odissi, I along with the film’s director, Sandrine Da Costa, had the chance to meet Shashimani and have a short discussion with her.

We climbed up a narrow staircase to a dark room where Shashimani lives, in the house of a temple servitor. When she was told that she had visitors, she excitedly asked her student who was with her to help her apply the bright red dot of sindoor on her forehead. She wrapped the end of her sari over her head as she received us with her hands joined in a respectful namaste. She sat on the floor of her modest room and motioned for us to sit too.

Shashimani told us how she was dedicated to the Jagannath temple by her parents at the age of seven. Through a ceremony called Sari Bandhan she was formally married to the god. “When the marriage knot was tied with Lord Jagannath we became Maharis, she explained. “From that day, we became the wives of Lord Jagannath.” The Maharis would then be considered to be married women and would remain wedded to the god for the rest of their lives.

There were many dancers connected to this temple and each had specific duties (seva) to perform. There were 21 different sevas and the Maharis would take turns going to the temple to perform the rituals. “Each Mahari had different sevas to perform,” Shashimani explained.. I would dance in the morning when Jagannath would be woken up, and at night when he would be put to sleep. The other sevas were performed by the other Maharis. I would come to the temple for seva four to five times a month. After the other Maharis died, I was the only one left.”

Shashimani was a Bheetar-gani Mahari, a Mahari who would dance inside the temple sanctum. “When the main temple door closed after arati, we would sing and dance inside the sanctum for Lord Jagannath until the door opened again.” Sometimes she would also dance for the god during dhupa, the evening meal. “During dhupa we only danced, we wouldn’t sing. He would take a long time to eat and we would get tired,” she lamented. “We wanted him to eat quickly!” When I asked her what would happen after the temple doors closed for the night, she hastily replied: “Don’t ask me what happens at night time! No dancing!”

She also described for us the costumes the Maharis would wear: “We would get all decked up and wear lots of heavy jewellery from the neck to the navel. We would wear bangles and beautiful silk saris and a big garland. We would even have jewellery in our hair and decorating the nose – we would be completely covered with heavy gold jewellery. Who dresses like that today?”

The Maharis would also dance during festive occasions. She told us about the Chandan Yatra, one of the most important festivals honouring Lord Jagannath. “In front of the Lord we would dance and sing. Then he would be taken to Narendra pond. While the Lord played in the water we would sing many bhajans and songs from the Gita Govinda. After playing in the pond, the Lord would have his meal and then have a nap. In the evening he would go to the pond again. Again we would go with him and dance and sing.”

Shashimani stopped dancing in the temple five years ago because she no longer had the stamina to continue. She told us that the Mahari tradition has gradually faded because there are no Maharis left to perform the rituals. “The other Maharis have all passed away and I’m the only one left. How much can I do?” she concluded.

For a temple dancer who used to get decked up in silk saris and heavy gold jewellery, Shashimani now lives a very austere life. Unsurprisingly, she expected a donation for the time she spent with us and after refusing the first generous offer, did not hesitate to state her price. This article I came across on the Internet describes her situation in more detail and calls on the temple authorities to assume responsibility for former ‘temple servants’.

The upcoming film on Odissi will feature video footage of our interview with Shashimani. The film is still work in progress and is expected to be released in 2014. For updates, visit this page.

Odissi dancer and scholar Ileana Citaristi, wrote a fascinating detailed account of the lives of the temple dancers of Jagannath temple back in 1985. She has kindly shared this article with Sacred Space - you can read it at this link.

The text I’m pasting below was written in 1972 by Ragini Devi (taken from her book Dance Dialects of India) and offers a glimpse into the lives of the Maharis:

The Maharis of Jagannath Temple

When the great temple of Lord Jagannath became the matrix of the religious and cultural life of Orissa, the role of the Maharis in the daily rituals and festivals is clearly defined. It is said that in the 12th century King Chodaganga Deva established seven colonies for temple servants (Sebayatas) adjacent to the temple, and the place allotted to the Maharis was known as ‘Anga Alasa Patna’ the ‘place of bodily gestures’.

Maharis are the holy brides of Lord Jagannath. A piece of cloth taken from the idol is tied around the head of the initiate danseuse by the temple priest to symbolize her marriage to the deity of the shrine.

Maharis are vowed to chastity and their sacred duties and daily life are supervised by the Mina Nayak and the Sahi Nayak, temple servants appointed by the king. A valuable manuscript, Niladri Archana Chandrika, written by a Mahari of Jagannath Temple, describes the ritual dances of Maharis, and their daily life and customs.

Maharis are richly attired for temple service. After bathing, fragrant sandalwood paste is applied to the body. A colourful silk sari of traditional pattern is draped around the body and tied at the waist. A tight bodice covers the breasts. The face is decorated with the sacred ‘tilak’ mark between the brows, and delicate patterns of white dots are applied above the brows and on the cheeks. Fingertips, palms and feet are tinted crimson, and they eyes are lined black with collyrium. The hair is parted and knotted in a chignon wreathed with flowers and adorned with a golden curved disk pierced with a peg of ivory and gold. Beautiful gold ornaments decorate the head, neck, arms, ears, nose, waist and ankles.

Covering her head with a veil, the Mahari goes to the temple accompanied by the Mina Nayak. She is escorted to the inner shrine by the Rajguru, who bears a gold-mounted staff as a symbol of the king’s authority. He is always present at the dance rituals, and, after obeisance to the deity, the Mahari bows to him before beginning her dance.

There are two classes of Maharis at the Jagannath Temple. The Bheetar-gani Maharis are those who dance exclusively before the deity in the inner shrine. The Bahar-gani Maharis dance in the hall of dance (Nata Mandir) or in the temple courtyard near the Garuda pillar. Other temple servants who render daily service are the Gaudisanis, temple maids who fan the idol with charmaris, Gita-ganis (singers), and musicians who play veena, drone, drums, flute, and cymbals to accompany the dance.

There are two daily rituals at Jagannath – one at midday and the other at night. At the midday Sakala Bhupa ceremony when consecrated food is offered to Lord Jagannath, a Bahargani Mahari dances in the Nata Mandir and sacred songs are sung.

At night, after the Sanja Dhupa or food offering and just before the ritual adornment of the idol, prior to his nightly retirement, a Bheetar-gani Mahari renders dance and song before the deity. A portion of the food offerings is given to the Maharis, and this is the only food they are allowed to eat on the days of their temple service.

According to temple records there were twenty Maharis serving Lord Jagannath in the 15th century, each dancer taking her turn in the daily rituals, and all of them participating in the religious festivals.

There are sixty-two annual festivals in honour of Jagannath and in two of these the Maharis have an important part. In the Chandan Jatra or Spring Festival, the image of Jagannath is taken in procession to a large tank about three miles from the temple and installed in a boat. Two boats are set afloat, one carrying Maharis, and the other Gotipuas in female dress, to entertain Lord Jagannath with songs and dances. In the Jhoolan Jatra the image of Jagannath is placed on a swing, and entertained by Maharis and Gotipuas with songs and dances.

Maharis, as a community of Jagannath, were exclusive teachers of their art. It was a custom for Maharis to adopt daughters and train them for dance service in the temple. Thus the dance retained its artistic purity and sanctity for at least six hundred years.

Maharis continue to dance in the Jagannath Temple, but their beautiful rituals belong to the past. The dance offering is perfunctory, for the sake of custom. Maharis receive a portion of the food offering and no maintenance or quarters are given to them, as before. Many of them have left the profession, and those who serve the temple are living in penury. It is only now that their art has become precious and they are in demand as teachers of dancing. (By Ragini Devi, Dance Dialects of India, 1972)

February 11, 2013

The revival of dance as temple ritual

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to Hyderabad and witness the temple rituals performed in the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple during its Brahmotsav celebrations. The experience was a very special and unique one because this is the only temple where dance is performed as part of worship today. In the following article I tell the story of how dancer Swapnasundari was able to reinstate and perform the ritual dances of Vilasini Natyam in this small temple on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

Many of India’s classical dance traditions originated in the temples, where dance was presented as a sacred ritual offering to the deity. Eventually Indian classical dance moved from these sacred spaces to performance venues, where it is performed today as entertainment to large audiences. Meanwhile, the temple has become a popular scenic backdrop for dance festivals like Khajuraho, Chidambaram and Mukteshwar.

But in a small, scenic temple in Rang Bagh on the outskirts of Hyderabad, in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the ritual and ceremonial dances which were once performed by temple dancers known as saanis or bhogams have been revived and reintroduced as a part of worship during the temple’s annual Brahmotsav celebrations. These dance rituals have been restored by the temple authorities through the active collaboration of renowned dancer Swapnasundari, who after making a name for herself as a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, dedicated herself to learning and reviving the dance of the Telugu-speaking regions, which is known today as Vilasini Natyam.

The opportunity to reintroduce these ritual dances as a part of temple worship seemed destined to happen. While performing at a dance festival in Kottakkal, Kerala, Swapnasundari explained to the audience that a ritual form of the dance Vilasini Natyam had been performed in the temples of South India. Sitting in the auditorium was Mr Sharad B Pitti, the chairman and managing trustee of the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Rang Bagh. After the performance, he told Swapnasundari about his wish to revive the traditional rituals of the temple, including the dance rituals. “We would go to the temple every year for the Brahmotsav celebrations but the festival had shrunk from what it once was and should be,” he explained. “It was important for me that the rituals should be done in the right way and that justice be done to them. Since dance was an integral part, we had to include it to make the festival complete. I invited Swapnasundari to Rang Bagh because we were interested in reviving dance as part of the temple rituals.”

For Swapnasundari, this opportunity must have seemed like a gift from the gods: “I was eagerly waiting to dance the rituals in their original setting and context,” she said, “rather like a professor of chemistry waiting to find the appropriate laboratory where his or her wonderful formula could be applied in practice! But no temple came forward before the Rang Bagh trustees did.” This opportunity to reinstate and perform the ritual dances of Vilasini Natyam in a temple setting seemed serendipitous and almost a natural result of her efforts to research, document and teach this dance which was once in danger of being forgotten.

What followed was a long process of research and investigation to piece together the rituals in order to be able to reproduce them as authentically as possible. Mr Pitti described the process: “We looked through ancient texts and heard there was a man who had a few books on these rituals. We managed to contact him and he let us photocopy them. They were in Sanskrit and Telugu. Swapnasundari worked very closely with the temple priests to identify and recreate these rituals. What we have now is a refined and filtered version which is the result of a long process.” With great effort, Swapnasundari even managed to contact the daughter of a temple dancer who had been consecrated to this temple. It took much pleading and insistence but she eventually agreed to come to the temple and show Swapnasundari the rituals her mother used to perform.

Using these references and inputs, Swapnasundari was able to identify the dance rituals which were once performed by the temple dancers of Sri Ranganathaswamy temple. These were first reintroduced in 1996 during the temple’s Brahmotsav celebrations, choreographed and performed by Swapnasundari. Today, she and her disciples take turns performing the ritual dances during the eight days of the annual festival which usually falls in February (see below for the 2013 dates).

The Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Rang Bagh is the only temple where ritual dances are performed as part of worship today. Swapnasundari teaches Vilasini Natyam free of charge so that this tradition can continue. “This is my way of giving back to the temple an aspect of the art which has been taken away from it. I give free classes in the temple-ritual dances of Vilasini Natyam to those who value my sentiment and offer what they learn as service to the temple once a year.”

For the dancers performing these age-old rituals, it is a special experience which goes far beyond a stage performance. “It is a Seva (service) not a performance,” feels Purva Dhanashree. “It’s part of something bigger. On stage it’s all about you. Here you’re just a dot in the pattern. It’s an inner journey.” Anupama Kylash echoes this sentiment: “It’s an internalised experience. I address myself to Him; it’s a dialogue with Him in my thoughts.” Sanjay Kumar Joshi is the only male dancer performing these ritual dances. “For me it’s a divine experience. I perform the dance only for God,” he says. “We want the dance back in the temple, in its context. There are no consecrated temple dancers here, so we perform these sacred ritual dances.”

A description of some of the dance rituals:

The first daily ritual is the Balabhogam when the first food offering of the day is made to the deity. The temple dancer invokes the deity with a hymn called Choornika followed by a Pallavi, an item of Nritta, or pure dance. At 11am and 8:30pm, before the temple idols leave the temple on a palanquin, Baliharanam is performed, followed by the Pallaki seva when they are taken outside the temple, and the Kumbha Arathi and Heccharika on their return.

During Baliharanam, the Ashta Dikpaalakas, the guardian deities of the eight directions, are invoked in a ritual where each deity is asked in turn to provide protection in preparation for the journey outside the temple. After invocations to Brahma and Garuda, the priests, dancers and musicians move in a clockwise direction around the temple, pausing at each of the eight points which are clearly marked by small raised platforms. Starting to the east, Indra is the first guardian-deity to be invoked followed by Agni, Yama, Nirrti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera and Isana. At each of the eight points, the priests chant prayers in sing-song unison, followed by a loud rhythmical introduction of the Tavil and the Nattuvangam before the singer and flutist join in and the dance begins. Swapnasundari has reclaimed all the obsolete Talas related to this ritual and re-incorporated these into the chorography of this ritual.

With the invocations to the Ashta Dikpaalakas complete and their protection of the temple ensured, the palanquin moves out of the temple compound in a procession. The procession stops on the way, so that devotees can offer their prayers and offerings. At each halt, the dancer dances to a verse of a devotional hymn. By the time the procession completes its journey, an entire song or set of songs would have been completed. This ritual is called Pallaki Seva.

Before re-entering the temple, the palanquin stops just outside the main doorway for the Kumbha-harathi. The temple priest lights a lamp which is placed in a pot. Accompanied to the music of a Mallari, the dancer takes the pot and performs Arati before the deity and then walks around the palanquin. This is an act of purification before it re-enters the temple.

This is followed by the singing of a Heccharika. Through mimed movements, the dancer requests the deities to re-enter the temple with caution as ‘undesirable elements’ may have entered the temple in their absence. At the same time she warns these negative elements to leave the temple premises.

These are the three rituals performed daily. During the Abhisekam (sacred bathing) and Kalyanam (wedding ceremony) of Sri Ranganathaswamy and Maha Lakshmi, other dances are also performed.

This article was published in the September 2012 issue of Avantika magazine.

This year, Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple celebrates its Brahmotsavam from February 17 to 24, 2013. The dance rituals take place every morning and evening until February 22nd.

In 2014, the Brahmotsavam will take place from February 7 to 11.

Address: Sri Ranganathswamy temple, Rang Bagh, Nanakaramguda, Hyderabad

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