Odissi dancer Madhulita Mohapatra believes in democratising art. In the land of Bharatnatyam, she has been sowing the seeds of Odissi with great care. In her mission to propagate Odissi in Karnataka, underprivileged children have been her focus area and she teaches them free of cost.
Starting with just five students five years ago, her dance school Nrityantar today has 500 Odissi learners. In recent years, Madhulita has opened four branches of Nrityantar in Bengaluru. Some of her best students come from families of tailors, plumbers and sweepers.
Five years back when Kalahandi-born Madhulita moved from Odisha to Karnataka after her marriage, Odissi was limited to Nrityagram, the famed dance gurukul set up by Odissi exponent, the late Protima Bedi, on the outskirts of Bengaluru in Hasserghatta.
“Having learnt Odissi from great gurus such as Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, Guru Aruna Mohanty and Guru Pabitra Kumar Pradhan, I wanted to share my art form with the people of Bengaluru,” says Madhulita. “Within the Silicon city though, classical dance strictly meant Bharatnatyam. Hence, I decided to focus on children to propagate Odissi as they would never hesitate to learn something new,” says Madhulita, who is counted among the finest Odissi dancers in national and international fora.
In 2009, when she set up her dance school Nrityantar in Kasturi Nagar, Madhulita found eager students from among the girls in the neighbourhood. But it was quite a task to convince their parents who thought Odissi was a waste of time, recalls the dancer.
The initial hiccups were no deterrent for Madhulita, who subsequently went to government primary schools where students showed interest in learning the dance which provided a break from their monotonous school routine.
“Besides, these schools cannot afford to hire dance teachers to train students unlike their rich private counterparts,” she says.
“When I first visited government schools to teach Odissi, students asked me if it was Bharatnatyam because that was the only classical dance form they knew. But once the training started, they picked up the nuances of Odissi quickly,” says Madhulita, who learnt Kannada to be able to teach the students the vocabulary and repertoire of Odissi.
Madhulita trains students from Class III to Class VII and if she finds talented students interested in learning Odissi further, she brings them to Nrityantar for specialised training.
At present, she teaches Odissi to 200 students at six government schools twice a week. The rest of the days, she juggles public performances and dance workshops at Nrityantar.
Madhulita and senior dancers trained by her at Nrityantar have now started working with a handful of private schools in the city with the idea of including classical dance as an integral part of the school curriculum.
Nrityantar’s annual festival Naman, which Madhulita conceptualised in 2010, is yet another endeavour to popularise Odissi.
“It is a humble initiative to bring together and showcase varied styles and schools of Odissi dance. Naman, meaning salutation, is a tribute to all the Odissi Gurus for their invaluable contribution to the growth and popularisation of this elegant art form,” she says.
From a modest beginning, Naman has become a part of Bengaluru’s cultural calendar today. Besides, Nrityantar’s Odissi troupe is the most sought after classical dance ensemble in Karnataka.
“As the name suggests, Nrityantar, was formed with an objective of bringing positive change through dance and the change, with respect to Odissi, is visible now,” she beams.
Her constant efforts in popularising Odissi has also given birth to an audience for the dance form in Bengaluru.
“I am only fulfilling my Gurus’ wishes of spreading the beauty of Odissi everywhere,” says Madhulita, who is also adept at Sambalpuri folk dance.