Odissi dancer Sonali Mohapatra and flautist Abhiram Nanda make a perfect jugalbandi. The artistes first met during a concert. Abhiram was playing the flute during her Odissi recital. They tied the knot in 2004. Today, their contemporaries call Sonali and Abhiram the powerhouse of energy and talent.
The couple performed at the prestigious Khajuraho Festival of Dances in February. Hearing-impaired dancer Sonali is counted among the very few gifted soloists in Odisha. Abhiram is a well-known disciple of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. Sonali has learnt Odissi from Guru Durga Charan Ranbir.
Sonali’s fluidity in expressions and foot works conceal her handicap on the stage. Little do the connoisseurs realise that the dancer cannot hear the vocals and the music to which she dances. At five, Sonali lost her hearing ability to medical negligence. The young girl, who was keen on learning Odissi as a child did not let this deter her aspiration. Braving the inability to hear music which is essential for expressions and footwork, she excelled as an Odissi dancer under the tutelage of her parents, Jayanti and Nirmal Kumar Mohapatra; her first dance teacher Trupti Mohanty and finally, Guru Ranbir.
“My mother taught me Odissi’s grammar while my father, a former programme executive with the Doordarshan, helped me understand the vocals. During my initial training, my teacher taught me to read the lyrics and understand them prior to the performance. On stage, I used to observe the lip movements of my guru and the accompanying vocalist. This way, I managed to get the taal right,” says the 35-year-old dancer, who recently started using hearing aid.
An empanelled artist of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), she pursued Nrutya Visarad and Nrutya Alankar from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal, Mumbai, after her graduation from Utkal University. Sonali is a recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar for 2011 accorded to her by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi. Besides performing, she runs a dance institution, Nrutya Upasana Pitha, in Bhubaneswar, where she teaches Odissi to around 50 students. The dancer excels in Guru Debaprasad Das gharana of Odissi. She says that Abhiram has been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. A soloist and an accompanying flutist for Odissi recitals, Abhiram has played for the legendary Guru Keluchcran Mohapatra and almost all the senior and budding Odissi dancers. An alumnus of Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Bhubaneswar, where he was trained by flute maestro Pandit Mohini Mohan Patnaik, Abhiram’s interest in the musical instrument was noticed by his father Ashok Kumar Nanda.
He says, “Seeing my fascination for flute, my father allowed me to take admission in Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyala where Pandit Patnaik taught me the nuances of music.” While struggling to create an identity in the classical music scene, Abhiram bagged the National Youth Award for flute in 1995. “Subsequently, at the National Youth Festival in Goa the same year, I got a chance to perform before Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia who liked my rendition. Guruji asked me to meet him in Mumbai and instantly agreed to take me as his disciple,” recalls Abhiram, who also accompanies Pandit Chaurasia in concerts today. He is one of the forerunners of Pandit Chaurasia’s legacy at the Vrindavan Gurukul, Bhubaneswar, and has also got into the business of making flutes.
In 2004, the flautist was accorded the ‘Surmani’ title from Sur-Singar Samsad, Mumbai. Flute, he says, is an integral part of Odissi classical music. Most compositions are based on the ‘Krishna Leela’. Nanda is also taking part in many Indo-Amercian jazz music projects. Sonali and Abhiram say they don’t intrude into each other’s creative boundaries.