Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Odissi keeps this octogenarian going

For 85-year-old Ritha Devi, an acclaimed Odissi exponent, dancing is her only God and passion. Ritha Devi had to separate from her family and husband, but that didn't keep her away from her passion.

"In the late forties, when I was first exposed to dance, it was not considered decent for a girl from a good social background,'' said Ritha Devi, at a workshop she was conducting at the University of Pune.

Her father, who worked in the administration of the state of Baroda, opposed her dancing and stopped funding her higher studies. "When my father was posted in Shillong, I was exposed to Manipuri and my guru was Howbom Athomba Singh. I was the first person to perform Manipuri solo,'' reminisced Ritha Devi, who is the great granddaughter of noted Assamese litterateur Lakshminath Bezbaruah and the great grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore.

After her marriage, she continued learning dance -- Bharatnatyam in Chennai and Kathakali in Mumbai. Despite the opposition from her husband and the subsequent separation, Ritha Devi was determined to pursue her passion. But it was after an Odissi performance she saw, she knew that this was the dance form she should pursue and dedicate her life to. "Odissi was not known to people outside Orissa in those days. The grace and the sculpture like postures of the dance form really impressed me,'' said Ritha Devi, who taught dance in New York for over a decade.

She learnt Odissi from Pankaj Charan Das and specially, called him to Mumbai to teach the dance form to her. Pandit Ravi Shankar suggest Ritha Devi's name to various institutes in Europe and she gave many performances in European countries thereafter. She resided in New York for three decades and shifted to India in 2003.

Odissi is a dance form addressed to Lord Jagannath and a traditional Odissa sari stitched like a dhoti and silver jewellery is worn while performing it. "In ancient India, the Mahari Odissi dancers, which literally means great woman, were considered sacred and were respected. But when the Mughals came to India and destroyed the temples, these women were forced into prostitution. That's how later on, dancers were looked down upon,'' said Ritha Devi, who worked towards reviving and dignifying Odissi.

When asked what keeps her going, she said, "I love dance and that love keeps me going. I practise for three hours a day. It is the perfect exercise.'' She performed the Panchkanya-- tragic stories of five women-- Ahilya, Draupadi, Tara, Kunti and Mandodari, for four hours in Mumbai in 1971. "I was the only one to perform the Panchkanya,'' she added.

Ritha Devi feels that classical dance teaches one the right postures. "In Pune, Kathak is more popular because of the influence of Hindustani classical music,'' she reasons. She advises aspiring Odissi dancers to have knowledge of the great Indian epics -- Ramayan and Mahabharat. "You need to know the scripts in order to bring out the emotions in the performance,'' said Ritha Devi, who resides in Kalyaninagar and conducts dance classes at her residence.

"Dance has no age restrictions. Anyone who loves dancing can pursue it,'' she added.

Photo courtesy: DNA

-Published in DNA, Pune on February 14, 2010 on the city features page

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