Bhubaneswar: Other than Pattachitra, Raghurajpur takes pride for being the birthplace of the doyen of Odissi, Kelucharan Mohapatra, though all that remains of him is a dilapidated hut with a sign board reading out his name loud and clear. Today, 91 years ago Kelu Babu (as he is fondly called) was born in this heritage village of Puri district.
With a distinct style of his own, he could take Odissi to the world stage and continues to live through his students spread across the globe.
On his 92nd birth anniversary, Odisha Sun Times spoke to a few of his students as a tribute to the humblest teacher and human being.
Sharon Lowen: In one of his interviews, Guruji said that he had trained over 500 dancers, 50 among them are performing and named me among the five he would recommend to the world. It was a proud moment for me.
As a teacher, he was kind, generous and loving. He was a mentor, who shaped my attitude towards art. He always saw to it that his students were well taken care of. During a performance in Chennai, he suggested that we stay at one of his students’ place instead of spending money on accommodation. When I was returning to the US in 1978, he made arrangements for recording the music of the five items that I had learnt. He ended up recording 10, to save me the cost of recording them again later. Amid rumours of gurus financially exploiting foreign students, he stood out.
Since I was also adept in Manipuri, he asked me to perform a piece during one of our performances in Cuttack in 1976 to allow people a glimpse of the dance form. Such was his generosity and love for dance!
Daksha Mashruwala: He won hearts with his humility. When I travelled to Odisha for the first time, the 36 hours journey was tiring and the train was also late. We reached Bhubaneswar at night only to find Guruji and Guruma waiting for us at the station. At home, he would go around ensuring that the mosquito nets are properly tucked in.
As a guru he was strict. We would get ready by 7 am and the practice would go on till midnight. We lived through his dedication for the dance form and imbibed it. As a performer, he would cast a spell on his audience and we would sit mesmerized near the stage.
What was most amazing about him was that he enriched the Odissi repertoire with his new compositions, keeping the grammar intact.
He was like the Krishna with his flute, and we gopis were drawn to his devotion for Odissi. None of his students missed his workshop in Mumbai. Through our dedication, we could also win a special place in his heart.
Madhvi Mudgal: I feel lucky for having spent some good times with Guruji in early 70s in Cuttack. He was a genius and I consider him as the main architect of Odissi. He travelled all over the world popularizing the dance form, though it was not easy for him. He was a perfectionist with an eye for detail.
He knew everything from music to stage lighting and arrangement. He could interact with technicians from France and explain them his requirements even without knowing the language. He struck an instant connect with people through his humility and brilliance.
He was to accompany me to France for a programme the year he left for his heavenly abode, 2004. I had designed the entire tour and had requested Guruji for an abhinaya performance. He was a big influence in my life and whatever I am is because of him.
Ratikanta Mohapatra found a very caring father and a strict guru in Kelu Babu. “When I was in Class VI, I was bed-ridden for two weeks. During those days, he was always by my side,” he said. Once while travelling by train to Vizag, Kelu Babu saw a woman hanging from the train and rushed to help her, though he was suffering from heart ailment. “He found joy in helping others. Despite his popularity, he also remained humble and kind. He would interact with everyone without any reservations,” Ratikant said.
He could even win over his contemporary with his humility. For him dance was above everything and it reflected in his teaching and performances, he said. “He connected with people and artistes at a personal level. Pandit Jasraj had observed all the rituals after his demise. He also shared a special bond with Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj with whom he performed several duets,” he said.
Recollecting an incident on the second day of Kelu Babu’s death, when his body was still at his home, he said, “Two people came in a rickshaw. They went inside the room and one among them started crying inconsolably holding onto Guruji’s feet. He then took out a beedi and a matchbox and placed it besides his body. Later, I came to know that he used to ferry Guruji in his rickshaw and also smoked beedi with him during his days in Cuttack,” Ratikant said, describing his father’s personal relationships.
Kelu Babu left an impression with his dance and modesty, he added.
Srjan, which Kelu Babu founded in 1993, is organising an event, ‘Antardrishti’, celebrating his 92nd birth anniversary today in Odisha capital.