For the last 13 years or so, Kalpana Dance Theatre (KDT) has not just been entertaining local audiences with various Odissi performances, these productions have also been a platform for local students and teachers to engage with and learn from dancers from abroad.
Leena Mohanty, an acclaimed Indian classical dancer who is also the artistic director of Bansi Bilas in Bhubanewswar in Odisha, India, is devoted to training young and upcoming dancers in the field of Odissi and doubles up as the head of the Odissi department of KDT here in Malaysia.
While she’s based in Odisha, Leena is currently in town, working hard day and night on an upcoming production billed Parikrama.
“I love to come back here again and again,” said Leena during an interview last week in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, when she spoke about the joys of working with local classical dancers.
“It is comforting to be here in Malaysia, the dancers put in a lot of effort. They are also more aware of space and other aspects of dance such as stage, lighting and production.”
Parikrama, KDT’s seventh major performance since 2006, will feature 14 dancers (two from India) aged between 15 and 45 years of age. The cast will be led by Leena, Debasis Patnaik from Bangalore and local dancer Nritta Ganeshi Manoharan.
The rest of the troupe include dancers from Vehaara Arts and Angika Fine Arts: Lawrence Sackris, Kunaratnam Velautham, Muneswaran Palsamy, Nandakumar Raviechandran, Thananenthiran Maruthai, Hemarubini Mohan Raj, Roshini Ravindran, Shobita Nagulendran and Ambiga Nagulendran.
“Many of our students don’t have the economical means to go to Odisha and learn from the experts there. So this is a wonderful experience that our students are getting – they are able to perform and learn from veterans on stage. It’s a whole month’s process, where all the items have to be retaught from scratch, technique has to be refined and coordination perfected. It’s a huge process, and these children are able to be part of it,” said KDT founder Shangita Namasivayam, thrilled at the gathering of talents and the approaching culmination of so much hard work.
“It’s not an easy process. It takes many months, lots of trips overseas, talks with the scriptwriter, composer, choreographer, before it all finally comes together,” she shared, admitting also that for 21 days before the show, some of the dancers are on a “one meal a day” diet to lose weight and look good on stage!
“Also, no coffee or tea!” Leena chipped in.
The show will consist of six works, carefully interwoven and introduced by a “narrator”, who is played by Shangita, a Kalakshetra graduate herself.
Shangita offered:“This performance won’t have the usual announcements from the back which nobody really much pays attention to; instead we’ve included a little bit of theatre and dance, so people can visually see the connection between each item.”
Shangita and Leena have long been partnering up and building performances together because they “inspire each other”.
Their professional partnership extends into personal life as well, as they think of each other as family. Leena has been Shangita’s daughter Nritta’s guru from a tender age. Nritta, who has been dancing in the Odissi style since she was four, will team up with her teacher Leena on two items in Parikrama.
“For every item that you perform, you get something new out of it,” revealed Nritta, who is currently on holiday from the University of Newcastle in Australia where she’s pursuing a degree in Civil Engineering.
“The last item, for example, ‘Chamunda’, is a real fierce dance,” explained Nritta.
Chamunda also known as Chamundeshwari is a fearsome form of the Hindu Divine Mother.
“Most of the dances I have done are the graceful, soft, feminine kind. I’ve never done this sort of dance before and so it showed me a whole different dimension to Odissi.”
Nritta will also do a duet with Debasis for the first time in an abhinaya revolving around the Krishna and Radha love story. She is eager for this as in the past she was always “too little” to be paired with him.
Five out of the six items have been newly-choreographed by Leena, although they stay true to the classical traditions, and feature music by Deeraj Kumar Mohapatra. The sixth item is an all-boy performance a piece choreographed by Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, the torch bearer of the Guru Deva Prasad Das School of Odissi, who was both Leena’s and Shangita’s teacher as well.
“Here at Kalpana Dance Theatre, we pride ourselves in keeping the traditional style and techniques of dancing. We believe creativity can come in other ways,” said Shangita.
The response for their previous shows – Arousing The Spirit Within (2006), Anjali (2009), Leela Purushotama: The Supreme Absolute (2011) and Mayamaya: Transcending Illusion (2015) – has always been very promising, which is why both Shangita and Leena keep wanting to do more.
“In 2013, we did Sharanagati: Absolute Surrender and that was one of KDT’s top hits!” reminisced Shangita. “We had two live orchestras, it was a big budget but such a fabulous outcome!”
The ideas for each performance come organically and sometimes are sparked by the events of the time.
In 2017, for example, Leena had just moved back to India from the United States where she lived for almost a decade.
“There were quite a lot of rape cases in India then, and women were being suppressed in many ways,” she explained. Saa Shakti was based on that, on how a woman’s struggle is her power.
The upcoming performance Parikrama, meanwhile, translates literally to “the circle of life”.
Leena explained: “Imagine circling the inner sanctum of a temple, with the deity in the centre. While you’re journeying around, there will be Maya, or illusions – ego, stress, various emotional states of anger, fear, happiness and sadness – but the idea is to never lose that connection with your centre, to never get carried away by the maya, to never forget your goal or Mokhsha (salvation) and to carry on with your journey.”
Parikrama, a 90-minute Odissi performance (with no interval), will be staged at the Shantanand Auditorium, The Temple of Fine Arts in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur on July 6 at 7.30pm. Admission is by invitation only. Call 017-672 5672.