A Grand Odissi Celebration
"…never has one heard the Pankaj Charan Das approach to Odissi --which has merged with other streams and gone unrecognised by default --more clearly articulated than Dr. Ratna Roy of Evergreen State College, Olympia, in Washington.
Being reared in a Mahari household gave the guru a female perspective strongly reflected in his dance compositions. Ratna also talked of how he believed in "a polite use of the hip," taboo in the Kelucharan technique. Demonstrations by her and her daughter were to the point. "Dance like a woman who has the spirit of Durga in her," is how she summed up the Guru's perspective.
The Kunti episode presented for the evening performance by Ratna, struck me with the economy of gesture and movement in the composition, brush strokes of vatsalya rasa and shringar in the narrative, with no indulgent elaboration. Theatrical the narrative was, but in an unstilted way…"
--- The Hindu, Review Section, Friday, December 28, 2001, page 2
Of Dance and Dancer
Ratna Roy is not just another dancer concerned merely with honing her skills. She has a conscience alive to feminist causes and endeavours to do her bit. LEELA VENKATARAMAN writes...
RATNA ROY is a dancer with a difference. When an exponent of Odissi looks upon the creeper-like grace of the dance which so becomes the female form, as an ideal vehicle for upholding feminist statements, it points to a dancer who is not afraid to do her own thing, undeterred by popular perceptions of what the dance should be. In New Delhi some time back for a talk she delivered at India International Centre Annexe, under the aegis of the Centre for Classical Dances, Ratna Roy lives in the United States, where she heads the Dance Faculty of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
Ratna's training under Guru Pankaj Charan Das in what proved to be an ideal ground for nurturing a strongly independent character came about through fortuitous circumstances. "Even my father would get angry with my challenging every thing, though my mother, a doctor by profession, was a strong woman and it is from her I inherited my fierce individuality." Fired by a deep desire to learn Odissi, after watching a performance by Minati Misra at the BJP College, where she happened to he a lecturer, Ratna shot off letters to the three reigning gurus of the time, to he accepted as a student. "Only Pankaj Charan Das responded, and once 1 came under his training, I had no desire to change."
"Guru of Gurus" as Pankaj Charan has been called, is special in more ways than one, primarily because he is the only Odissi teacher to view dance from a strongly female perspective. Brought up in a household of women, Pankaj Charan was trained by his aunt Ratnaprahha, a Mahari or temple dancer. The Mahari background in which he was reared, inculcated in him a different set of values, for according to him the Mahari institution itself was a political affirmation of woman as an independent entity. Ratna recollects that the well-known Doongri Mahari, not biologically related but given a special status in the household of Pankaj Charan, would often come to his place. "My Guru always believed in the dictum "Dance will come to you" instead of the "You come to me if you want the dance" attitude of gurus. He was convinced that there was no such thing as a body incapable of learning dance. He wanted no clones, and insisted on every dancer acquiring that quality of bold womanhood, which he believed, all who were trained by him had imbibed. Another great quality in him was to suit the dance to the individual dancer's body. If a dancer had a large hand for instance, he would try to ensure that the hand symbols did not over awe the rest of the dancer's movements. Similarly he would insist that given a short and stubby hand, the alapadma should be held with fingers fully spread out, so as to register on the mind of the viewer. To absorb the essence of the dance and portray it in a manner that was creatively adjusted to the particular dancer's body -- were what he advocated.
The delicate lip twitches were a special part of his abhinaya expression. And even in a 'torso isolation,' he would change the intensity of movement according to the character being portrayed. For a highly seductive, role, he advocated a slight hip deflection and movement, which is taboo in some Odissi schools. Not bound by only theory, he was a broad-minded Guru, whose vocabulary could accommodate certain unique and unorthodox micro-movements when considered effective to a situation in the theme. But he was a hard taskmaster and not an easy man to deal with.
THE EVEN more challenging part of Ratna's career lies in how she made this Indian classical dance relevant to the cultural context of the U.S. She staged her production 'Jhansi Ki Ram' in Odissi in the college and what is more presented it in the main auditorium reserved for Ballet performances. Her argument when questioned by the Press was "Ballet is, after all, a European tradition which the U.S. took to. So it is as ethnic as Odissi by the same argument." The performance in 1991 in the main auditorium was highly praised.
Since then many are the productions visualised through Odissi movement. Doing collaborative teaching with a South African who had been in prison along with Mandela, Ratna had Afro-American dancers doing Odissi to the Zulu song "A Mandala Awethu" and a video version was presented to Mandela. At Durban her efforts at aiding the South African Black cause, earned Ratna a special Zulu salute. The Civil Rights Movement, the Bus Boycott, the Comfort Women in the Philippines pushed into prostitution by the Japanese for the soldiers during the war, for which production the theme song for Women in China was used where the women demand compensation from the Japanese Government for violation of their bodies, Civil Rights in Pakistan and a whole host of similar topics have provided fodder for Ratna's dance work. In 1995, students of Ratna Roy were invited to participate in a Dance Festival in Germany.
Working with students of other disciplines, Ratna has devised interactive sessions between animation experts and Odissi dancers. In 'Big Brother,' a live dancer and an animated figure have a dialogue. The Chilean revolution and the CIA operations and what it did to the women, have also been grist for the choreographer's mill. In all her video filming, the dancer is helped by her husband, David J. Capers who specialises in this area.
Ratna's department now offers a three-year degree course in Odissi in the university. The first year offers a wide scope of preparatory work with no traditional Odissi to start with. In the second year, Mangalacharan and Sthayi are concentrated upon. Learning to work as a team, costuming deck theatre areas are all dealt with. The third year pertains to specialisation. Ratna's area of interest now is Buddhism and its philosophy, and she hopes to work with this in her later Odissi work.
It is interesting to listen to her theory of how the body and music co-ordinate in her Odissi as taught by her guru. "The face reacts to the voice, the torso follows the lyricism of instrumental music and the footwork follows the Mardala percussion." Ratna's main triumph is in using Odissi as the language for her work in an entirely different context of the U.S. "I have learnt no Western style of dance. I know only Odissi and with that I occupy the highest position in the dance faculty." It says something for the versatility of the dance and the dancer.
--- THE HINDU, Metroplus, Monday, April 23, 2001, page11