Odissi by Operajita

Dha Dhin Dhin na … the small drums beat. Enter Oopali Operajita. A virtuoso of the Indian classical dance styles of Odissi and Bharatnatyam, Operajita performed in CFA’s Kresge Theatre this past Thursday.

The dance form Odissi is well over 2000 years old, with ancient temple sculptures mirroring its smooth curves. Odissi is famous for its aesthetically enticing postures, such as the tribhanga.

Recently, Odissi was revived by the late guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, and the standard dances of Odissi repertoire are mostly choreographed by him. Meera Das, a student of the late guru and winner of many prestigious dancing awards, understands the reason Operajita chose to share Odissi in America. Das wrote in an e-mail that dancers “wish to share with the world the incomparable beauty and richness of Odissi dance.” She also teaches students Odissi in Cuttack, Orissa; and says that every Odissi teacher’s goal is the same: “to take Odissi dance and music to a pinnacle not glimpsed or imagined so far.”

Operajita studied under Mohapatra during her adolescent years in Orissa, the home of Odissi. He was so pleased with her dancing that he chose to cast her beside him in the lead female role of one of his dance dramas. From there, Operajita’s career took off.

Operajita’s dancing career has earned her international acclaim; she’s received awards and recognition from the U.S. and Canada, in addition to her home country of India. In fact, her 1996 performance at Carnegie Mellon’s Rangos Ballroom was voted one of the top 10 classical dance performances by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Despite Operajita’s devotion to Odissi, she has managed to make time to formalize her education and raise a family. Operajita’s business card labels her as a politician and choreographer. After obtaining her M.A. from Delhi University and an MAPW (similar to an MBA in writing, communication planning, and design), Operajita embarked on a career separate from dance. She now works as an advisor to Naveen Jindal, a member of the Indian Parliament.

Operajita began her concert with the traditional Manglacharan, which translates to “invocation.” The Manglacharan sets the stage for the rest of the dance. Typically, a dancer begins by choosing one deity and paying him or her obeisance through dance. Operajita skillfully showed her abhinaya, allowing her to tell a story through her emotions and eye positions.

After her Manglacharan, Operajita moved on to a pure dance item called pallavi, or elaboration. In this type of dance, the performer takes a simple line — in this case “Ta re jhum” — and adds more beats to it until it evolves from slow, body-bending positions to quick, intricate steps. Operajita’s pallavi, performed in the raag (melodic style) of Shankrabaranam, was only half finished before she ended. But even an incomplete version of the dance revealed a varied combination of steps along a beat, typical of Indian classical dance.

It is one thing to master an art form, but to teach it to others is another skill entirely. Operajita’s reputation comes from having that ability. Performing in front of an audience that knew little about Odissi, Operajita decided to preface her last dance with a bit of tutelage; she offered a slideshow explaining the originals of Odissi’s many postures. Meanwhile, Operajita demonstrated certain postures herself, such as the chowk position, which imitates the position of an Odissi perfomance’s presiding deity, Jagannatha.

Operajita finally ended the event with an abhinaya piece, which is her specialty. In it she depicted the legend of Radha and Krishna — Radha sits in wait for her Krishna to come anoint her with sandalwood paste and dress her in gossamer and garlands.

Though Odissi sometimes seems like a neglected art form in America, performers like Operajita are part of the effort to revive it. Her gift to the attendees, a heightened cultural awareness, is perpetuated with a few drumbeats and the distant jingling of ankle bells.