An OST Special Report
Pandit Suromoni Raghunath Panigrahi, the doyen of Odissi music, turned 80 on Saturday. But there were no wild celebrations, no ecstatic speeches hailing his immense contribution to the world of music at large or dignitaries queuing up with the customary bouquet to wish the man who has been ailing for the last several months. Most people didn’t even remember that it was his birthday. For all the crowing over the land that has produced legends in the arts, we are certainly an ungrateful people.
The indifference to Ragunath Panigrahi is all the more galling because he has done more than anybody else to popularise Jayadev’s ‘Gita Govinda’, which has been rightly hailed as the fountainhead of Odissi music, not just inside the state but the world at large. As a child, he learnt from his father the classical way of singing ‘Gita Govinda’, which describes the unique relationship between Lord Krishna and the gopis, as preserved in the traditions of the Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri.
While his singing of ‘Gita Govinda’ alone is enough to secure his place as a pioneer in the performing arts, ‘Suramani’ (a title given to him for his deeply mellifluous voice) went far beyond singing the classical 12th century text and excelled in every single genre that he tried – classical, Odissi, light, playback singing … you name it. Such was his versatility that he could carry off verses from the ‘Gita Govinda’, an Odissi song like ‘Na Jaa Radhika’ and an out and out modern love song like ‘Nali Nali Ei, Krushnachuda’ or. ‘Nupoor Bajaai Kie’ with equal ease and facility. “He was the first – and perhaps the last – singer-composer to use the classical form even in Jananas and modern songs,” says Chitta Mohanty, a die-hard Raghunath Panigrahi fan.
Pandit Raghunath was honoured by the French government for his Gita Govinda composition way back in the 70s but had to wait till 2010 for the Padmashri award, a far lesser and much belated honour for the great master. He accepted it gracefully and with a smile though many of his admirers felt he should have declined it. Unassuming and humble to the core, making a fuss over anything is just not in Panditji’s grain.
The soft-spoken singer, however, is a manof steel when it comes to taking bold decisions in life. One example is his decision to give up a very successful and lucrative career in Chennai as a playback singer for Telugu and Tamil films to team up with his newly married wife Sanjukta Panigrahi who was then dreaming of launching a worldwide campaign to popularise the classical Odissi dance form.
It was a very tough life after that and the great couple had problems tackling bare survival issues for quite a few years. But Pandit Raghunath refused to crack under pressure and continued to pursue the ‘great dream’ together with his better half.
The rest is history.
Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi’s contribution as a singer and composer is enough to guarantee him a place in the pantheon of the great exponents of Odia performing arts. But there is more to him than just his singing. In founding the ‘Sanjukta’s Panigrahi Memorial Trust’, he has done more than anybody else in spotting and encouraging budding Odissi singer and dancers and recognising excellence in the art.
There is a deeply human side to him too. People who used to live near his Ashok Nagar house, fondly recall how the maestro would take every ailing or injured stray dog in the area under his care and nurse it back to health with care and attention.
Panditji is truly a man of many parts and we Odias must be ashamed of ourselves that we have forgotten this great son of the land even when he is alive.