On the occasion of Suramani Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi’s 1st death anniversary
By Charudutta Panigrahi*
On 25th August last year, he breathed his last.
The ambassador of “Gita Govinda”, Padmashri Suramani Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi dedicated his life to Indian classical music, singing and composing many masterpieces both in classical and light classical. Known worldwide as a noted vocalist of Jayadeva’s ‘Gita Govind’, Pandit Panigrahi’s efforts to popularise poet Jayadeva’s immortal creation, which has been hailed as the fountainhead of Odissi music, globally is almost folklore.
Pandit Raghunath was the first Odia singer to be honoured by the French government with a Grand Prix award for his ‘Gita Govinda’ composition way back in 1982. But it was only in 2010 that he was recognized with the Padmashri award, considered by many as a belated honour for the great master. Besides his amazing achievements in music, he was known for his simplicity, affable nature and plainspeak. Not one to dabble in politics or lobby for awards, he dedicated his life to the disciplined pursuit of pristine music intertwined with spirituality and complete submission to the Supreme.
Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi enjoyed a highly successful, paying and promising career as a playback singer for Telugu and Tamil films in Chennai where he worked with all the greats of the big south Indian music industry. He decided to give up his “national” career to team up with his wife Sanjukta Panigrahi, who was then dreaming of launching a worldwide campaign to popularise the classical Odissi dance form.
The two legends did not buckle under the pressure of building an international repertoire of Odissi dance and music at a time when there was hardly any media support, infrastructure or endorsements. They continued to pursue their ‘great dream’ together and gave Odissi an international reputation and opened global vistas for Odia art and culture. The culture of Odisha in many ways is synonymous with the “Odissi emissary duo” of Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi and Sanjukta Panigrahi .
Gotipua was popular in the villages and was mostly performed by boys. Maharis, or Devadasis, danced before the idol to the accompaniment of mantras. These forms evolved into dancing to vocal music when Jayadeva composed his famous Geeta Govinda celebrating the life and times of Lord Krishna. The contributions of Pandit Raghunath and Sanjukta Panigrahi to this dance form, accompanied by the music in the Geeta Govinda, gave rise to emotive expression or abhinaya, which is an integral part of present-day Odissi.
The dance form had come out of the confines of temples during the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the seventh century sage, but was made contemporary in the world of art and culture by the Panigrahis, the first Padma awardee couple of Odisha. Sanjukta Panigrahi passed away in 1997. Incidentally, Raghunath breathed his last, a day after his wife’s death anniversary. It was truly a partnership of creative genius and it was impossible to imagine one without the other. The 1970s and ’80s saw them at their peak.
Born at Gunupur in Odisha’s Rayagada (undivided Koraput) district, Panigrahi, under the tutelage of his father and uncle, learnt 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. Trained in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles, Panditji tried out and excelled in a variety of singing genres.
His soulful rendition of Jayadeva’s ashtapadis from the Geeta Govinda remains a class act, and his dance compositions were outstanding for their choreographic achievements. His dexterity with diction and languages and the ease of phonetics in them made him unique. In particular, his rendition of Ramcharitmanas is considered an ageless masterpiece.
He has received many state, national and international recognition including the following:
Title of Sur Mani in 1968 , an award from the government of France in the 1982, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award jointly with Sanjukta Panigrahi in 1976, State Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1993, Padma Shri in 2010, Sangeet Natak Academy Fellowship, Jayadeva Samman in 2008, Lifetime Achievement award of Banichitra Awards in 2008, Degree, Doctor of Literature, Ravenshaw University, Odisha in August 2013, Degree, Doctor of Literature, Utkal University in 2011, Degree, Doctor of Literature, Berhampur University, Odisha in 2010 and many more.
An outstanding singer of the Odissi genre, Panditji, as he was popularly called, was not just a vocalist, but also a versatile composer whose work covered a wide range of forms. Besides making his place in the world of classical music, Raghunath got the honour of being a ‘Suramani’ (the bejeweled voice, a title given to him for his seamless, flowing voice). His Odissi light classical renditions like ‘Na Jaa Radhika’ and an out-and-out modern love song like ‘Nali Nali Ei, Krushnachuda’ or ‘Nupoor Bajaai Kie’ are gems that have enthralled generations of music lovers. For many, his rebellious dialogue with the Lord ‘Sabu Thiru Banchita Kari..’ is a moving tribute to his range and bhava.
Such was his dedication, devotion and submission to music that 1954, he was successful in warding off an impending storm in Koraput where there was a national gathering on the occasion of All India Tribal Conference under the Chairmanship of Pandit Govind Ballav Pant. As people started coming to the national event, there were dark clouds hovering on the sky and strong wind started to blow. This would have meant disaster for the All India Tribal Conference and hence Pandit Pant requested his father to do something to invoke divine blessings so that the impending storm blew over and event passed off peacefully without any dislocation and trouble. On his father’s request, Pandit Panigrahi started reciting the “Om Parashakti Mahashakti Om” and soon the dark clouds disappeared and the conference proceedings did not face any problem. This was belief in the magic of music.
We remember him today, on his first death anniversary, as the architect of Odissis’ renaissance. Pandit Panigrahi, felicitated with Padma Shri, was chosen for promoting, propagating and popularizing Odissi music. It is time that we, the people of Odisha along with the entire Odia diaspora make valid, sincere and genuine efforts to help bestow Padma Vibhushan on the late Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi for his distinguished service of a high order and lasting contributions to the world of music.
*Charudutta Panigrahi is based in Gurgaon. He may be contacted at [email protected]