Chasing The Swirls Of Odissi: An Interview With Eminent Dancer Pushpa Panda

by Dikhyaa Mohanty

When it comes to different types of dances, our nation is diversified. Dance was employed as a form of mental and emotional expression throughout the prehistoric period when people preferred to communicate using gestures to convey their sentiments. Our country comprises age-old traditional dances in the form of folk, contemporary and classical- and Odissi is one of them.

The Natya Shastra has information on the genesis of the Odissi dance style, and the approximated historical period ranges from 500BCE to 500CE. Odissi was primarily performed by women to convey religious tales or spiritual ideas to Lord Krishna, also known as Jagannath, who was Lord Vishnu’s incarnation. Odissi originated in the east coast region of Orissa in India.

Interview Times spoke with Puspa Panda, a graceful Odissi dancer who displays one of India’s most well-liked classical dance forms and embodies the spirit of Odisha.

Firstly tell us about yourself. About your education, and your family. 

Well, I started dancing at the early age of 5 in Gunjan Dance Academy under the guidance of Guru Meera Das. I was born and brought up in Cuttack with my 3 siblings. My father has a medicine business and my mother is a housewife. I studied in Badambadi New Colony High School, Cuttack. I graduated from City College.

I have also completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Performing Arts (Odissi) from Sri Sri University, Odisha. I am also a ‘B’ graded artist at Doordarshan Kendra and also has been rewarded with a Senior Scholarship from the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India & State of Odisha.

After 19 years of learning and 11 years of stage experience, I established myself as an individual entity. Right now, along with my practice and performances, I am also teaching Odissi to youngsters.

What made you peruse ‘Odissi Dance’ as your career? Who influenced you the most?

In my childhood, I use to dance around the house, and my mother noticed that I have that rhythm and art. And my family was always fond of music and art culture. My sister also used to take music lessons. So both my parents thought that I should be properly guided for dance. That’s how I got admission to Gunjan Dance Academy.

Even in the academy, among all my fellow students, my guru or any other senior students noticed me as a dancer. They will ask my name and tell me that I have that flow that an Odissi dancer should have. This gave me more boost to go to the class regularly and make my base stronger.

But because of my academics, taking time out for dance was difficult, so I couldn’t able to make it to the class. But my guru- Meera miss asked my father if she should pursue her career in this field as I have that potential and determination. After that it was like a continuing routine and looking back was not an option.

After my 10th, I performed on stage which gave me that new confidence in myself. Wearing that costume made me realise that I was born to be a dancer. Even personally this field gave me a new prospect in my life, as every day I learnt something new which gave me a better person.

Which dancer or dancers appeal to you most and what qualities would you like to adopt from them?

If I see something good and interesting, I try to adapt it and learn from it. I don’t particularly follow anyone or anything, I try to be open-minded and acclimatize to anything which I feel is worthy enough. And it is not necessary that you can only learn from the senior dancers or your guru, even from your colleagues, junior or even my students also. As we all know that every person is different, so you can learn something completely new from everyone. Like you can learn someone’s sincerity or dedication towards dance, or any movements.

Even in the era of social media, you can follow so many dancers and learn something new. Like I follow ‘Vijayan Sathpathy’, like at her age the way she is willing to share her knowledge. Because in that age, no other dancer is that open to sharing so much knowledge on social media. But I appreciate her activeness and enthusiasm towards her dance. Even I like Sharmila Biswas Ji who is also active on social media and shares some knowledge.

You have performed both nationally and internationally, which was your memorable trip. 

In 2016, I performed “Yahi Madhava, Yahi Krishava” from Geeta Govinda choreographed by Kelucharan Mohapatra in Bhubaneswar which was the most memorable. We had learned this particular dance item while in the workshop, and this was for the experienced dancer as it was a complete ‘Abhinay’. I find it difficult as we have to express the emotions of Radha who is waiting for Krishna all night. And eventually, when they met Radha figured it out that Krishna was with someone else, she could smell it. So, it was a complete Abhiyana where all you have to express your emotions.

And when I performed this for the first time, Meera miss was so emotional and she said that she was very proud because I performed it with so much grace and emotion. It was a very surprising moment for me.

With each performance what have you learnt or adapted so far?

And every artist learns something from their performance, I guess that is how we grow. Especially for female dancers, as we face a lot of challenges physically. Suppose we are on our periods, facing those painful cramps, but still, we have to perform with that grace and energy. So the more difficulties you face the more you grow.

We all have our difficulties and no one can tell us how to overcome them unless we figure that out. No matter what difficult circumstances come my way, I try to face them and learn something from them. Once or twice I have slipped on stage while performing. And I know how difficult it is when you are aware that so many people are watching and you just tripped out of nowhere. But I got up and performed with that elegance so that ultimately the audience will forget about that incident at the end of the performance.

 What are the difficulties you have faced till now and how did you face or overcome that situations? 

The one thing that I have faced is favouritism or as we say “Nepotism”. Initially, when I was facing these politics knowing that I am a good dancer, affected me mentally. I had to overcome that situation because ultimately, we are performing for ourselves and the audience. So, if I am a good dancer, then automatically audience will love it. I don’t need this pampering or buttering just to reach on top. I believe in my hard work and my sincerity.

And in my entire family, no one was or has any connection with art or dance. So, my father sometimes gets surprised that how come I am so good at what I am. So, I feel like I am blessed and I work hard. I believe in quality and not quality. I don’t want to do hundreds of programs in a year, rather I want to do a single program which will have a level of quality so that the audience won’t forget about it.

Another difficulty is when people don’t give enough credit for their hard work. Taking Odissi as my career is my personal choice and I was born for it. I give my time to myself so that I can learn, grow and improve myself. and this is my full-time job. And some people also do something else along with dancing and I appreciate that. But people give more importance and credit to them, depicting that because they are managing two things, they are more hard-working. That’s not true, people like me, who are full-time dancers are also working hard and we deserve that credit too.

Do you believe in preserving Odissi in its traditional form or do you think that we the changing time, it needs to be a little modernise? 

If I perform ‘Battu’ in every program, eventually the audience will get bored so as we. Our generation is very different as we like to adapt to different things. Now youngsters are trying everything which was very limited in our time. Not only the young dancers but even established dancers are preferring contemporary which is fine but don’t call it ‘Odissi Dance’. You can call it ‘Contemporary Dance’ or ‘Semi-classical Dance’ or ‘Fusion Dance’, but don’t mix up things and name it ‘Pure Odissi Dance’.

Even it is important to be aware of the Odissi dance theoretically also. There is limited material about the history of this dance form so we need to make sure that we are well educated about what we are doing. For example, we are performing on a certain item like say Gopabandhu, so before it is important that we need to know about Gopabandhu, we should read about his history and his contribution. The more we educate ourselves the more we will grow and we can present something different to the audience.

Talking about the future, some children are opting for Odissi dance but I am concerned about the purity of the dance. It is an individual responsibility to carry on this. Like when I teach my students, I make sure that they know the boundaries and learn the difference between ‘Pure Dance’ and other adapted forms of dance.

Talking about the pandemic, how did this scenario change your life personally and professionally? How did you utilize your time during these lockdowns and shutdowns? 

Covid is a nightmare- for everyone. It is like if you have faced it then only you will understand the pain it gives both physically and mentally. When the lockdown started it was shocking for everyone because most people are socially very active but now they have to stay at home. But I thought why not take this as an opportunity and make a routine because due to our busy schedule it is difficult to maintain a routine in our life. Like I gave more time to meditation or non-reading books or watching some good dance-related movies. And these things enhanced my creativity in dance which gave me the idea to make reels or videos.

There are so many dance reality shows, but all we see is jumping, hopping, stunts and less dance. I haven’t seen any of the contestants performing an authentic classical dance. What are your thoughts on that?

The reality show isn’t reality anymore. The definition of dance now has been completely different. Doing stunts while calling it a contemporary dance is so wrong, if you are doing a stunt then say it as a stunt, don’t say that this is dance. And it is shocking to see the judges giving a standing ovation to such a thing is so upsetting.

One of my students, who is an excellent dancer went to the audition in Super Dance held in Bhubaneswar. And the people who were taking the audition appreciated her dance but asked her to do some stunts. But she refused and said that she is a classical dancer, not a stunt performer. But still, the organiser asked her that she should come next year with some experience in stunts. This is the reality of our reality dance shows. From that day I stopped sending my students for this kind of audition because clearly, they need some stunt performer, not a dancer.

Lastly, tell us your thoughts on the current situation of Odissi dance in Odisha. Any suggestions for any changes? 

First dancers who take this profession as their full-time job should be appreciated more than people who do this 50-50 work. Like I said earlier people doing 5-9 jobs and then dancing is commendable but considering them as the most hard-working and dedicated than us is wrong. I fully dedicate my time to dance, and for me, this is my job and profession. And in this field, we are not paid enough, not even close but still, I love doing this. But people who are doing other jobs and earning while dancing is given more preferential credit is wrong.

Secondly, there should be more materials available for Odissi so that the coming generation should have something to learn about. They should always know the authenticity and history of our culture so that they can pass on that. And thirdly our people from Odisha should promote our culture like other states. No doubt all Odias are proud of their culture and values, but in the world of social media, we have that platform to promote it to a wider audience.

Follow Pushpa Panda at-

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Interview By – Dikhya Mohanty 

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