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My Tryst with Odissi
Nila Banerjee shares her story.
Odissi was relatively unknown in the 60’s. There was a mystery and aura about it. Very few people had even seen this dance. My father happened to watch a performance by the dancing goddess Sanjukta Pannigrahi. That day he decided that his newborn baby would learn this beautiful dance. Coincidentally Jagannath Puri, where Odissi was performed for centuries as part of the rituals, was the first temple I was taken to for blessings. The family soon left for Delhi and the hunt for an Odissi Guru began. In those days, Gurus were not open to teaching kids so we waited until I turned 8. The next few years my life revolved around school and dance class. I did not perform until I turned 12. It was a very strict program under one of the main Odissi revivalists Guru Mayadhar Raut.
My parents sacrificed hours chaperoning me to my classes. I was fortunate to see Delhi’s top dancers learning. On finishing my dance diploma, I spent a few years learning with another legend, Aloka Panniker. On turning 16, I performed my first solo recital in Hartford, Connecticut to an appreciative audience who were seeing this dance for the first time.
My last performance was before my wedding when I performed for Youth TV. Little did I know that there would soon be no dance in my life! For the next 12 years marriage and motherhood took priority. Dance was a closed chapter, buried in my heart.
On moving to the US my family encouraged me to take up dancing. At age 34, I started re-learning Odissi from scratch. I would have to mold myself to a different dance – gharanna. I was a challenge and an experiment for Guru Mitra Purkayastha. Initially people found it difficult to accept me on stage. At that time dancers were local kids or esteemed professionals from India. I took this as a challenge! Age was not going to be my handicap!
I practiced every day, training single-mindedly, until I perfected my routine. My Guru and I became a team. She envisioned my looks, my postures, gave me songs to emote and I translated them thru dance. Choreographies were stored in my memory. Summers were spent training with professional Indian choreographers as we did big budget productions. It was a boot camp style training that molded my body, taught me to work in groups and above all brought professionalism. I would memorize complex music and choreographies overnight. This endless pressure catapulted me into a professional league where I became synonymous with any show in NJ.
If the audience did not love me this journey would not have been possible. After performing over 150 shows throughout the US, acceptance from the harshest cultural critics of New Jersey would be my ultimate test. For 12 years I dedicated myself to dance and family. There were no other distractions. I drove over 2 hours every weekend to be by my Guru’s side, the first one to reach and the last to leave whether it was a class or a show.
In 2015 I moved to California with my Guru’s blessings to start a new chapter in my life. I opened my dance studio. Every year I still go back to Jersey to see my Guru as I continue to learn. Passion is what defines me! Dance has not only given me an identity but also given me the power to connect, love and energize people. I consider myself a cultural ambassador who transcends cultural barrier and reaches out to the wider community.
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