Art has always survived for art’s sake. If ancient art forms have been preserved and passed on to GenNext, it is only through those artistes who believed in and lived by art, and not by material considerations. One such artiste is Puri-based Mahari (Devadasi)) and Odissi dancer Rupashree Mohapatra. Through her, the Mahari dance tradition—which paved way for today’s contemporary Odissi, but disappeared with its practitioners—is reviving.
Mahari, the ritualistic dance performance by Devadasis of Lord Jagannath, is thought to be the most pristine dance form dedicated to the Lord. Though the practice has been discontinued in the temples, there is an attempt to revive the dance in its classical form by Rupashree, a disciple of Odissi guru, the late Pankaj Charan Das. “I am attempting to recreate the ritualistic dance form to suit the modern stage while retaining its traditional flavour,” explains Rupashree who has won the coveted Mahari Samman. “The dance form was abolished long ago. In fact, Odissi is an offshoot of Mahari dance. My guru, the seniormost founding father of Odissi dance, was responsible for the revival of the dance form. He was the adopted son of a Mahari dancer and he trained me in it,” says Rupashree who has also been trained under 89-year-old Sashimani Devi, the last living Devadasi of the Jagannath temple.
Mahari dance recitals mostly depict the rituals performed at, and related to, Lord Jagannath’s temple, and the Abhinaya episodes from Jayadev’s Gita Govinda. “I believe, there is no better way to reach the Lord than through Mahari. I have been teaching this dance form for the past several years, but still find something new in every recital,” adds Rupashree.
This dance has a well-defined structure that incorporates Mangalacharana, Abhinaya, Mukhya and Khanda Nritya, among other things. “Everything has to be gauged and looked into from the times and traditions of the Devadasis,” says Rupashree. Her engagement with Mahari began at the age of eight when she was chosen by her guru to play a role in a documentary film on the life of Devadasi Harapriya Devi that was being made by the Doordarshan. “When Doordarshan crew approached my guru, he chose me to essay the role of Harapriya Devi as a child. It was then I came in contact with Harapriya Devi who decided to train me in the dance form. Seeing my interest in Mahari, guru Pankaj Charan Das decided to teach me some finer nuances of the Mahari. One of the rare Abhinaya that he taught me was Bansi Teji Hela Sankha Chakra Haste, He Radhanath. He taught the same Abhinaya to noted danseuse Sanjukta Panigrahi 19 years ago,” she proudly recalls. “The intensive emotionality, coupled with marvellous body movements that flowed naturally through a set of technical footwork patterns of this temple dance, seemed exactly what I was seeking. The deeper I got into this form, the more was the sense of contentment,” she says. After Harapriya Devi passed away, Rupashree started learning the dance from Sashimani Devi.
For Rupashree, the Devadasis will always be her respectable gurus. “I will always remain obliged to Sashimani Devi and Paroshmani Devi and other late Devadasis for training me,” she fondly says. However, she regrets that this dance form does not enjoy the priority that it deserves. “No steps have yet been taken to include Mahari dance in the curriculum of colleges and universities. Besides, rarely did any state government sponsor classical dance festivals that include Mahari,” she laments.
But she remains an optimist.“It is our dedicated effort to preserve, present and propagate this dance in its original form without tampering ,” she assures.