Dance is a deep ocean and a dancer is a merely a tiny drop in that sea. It is said boodh boodh se ghat bharta hai (each drop adds to the pot) a dancer is surly aware that each drop counts. Rahul Acharya is a Bhubaneshwar based excelling, celebrated Odissi dancer and a renowned scholar who has not only won many awards and rewards but most importantly has won many hearts with his dedication to art and his optimistic outlook toward life to add to that his chiselled and super flexible physique at forty can give the younger generation of dancers a run for their money. I chatted with this supremely talented dancer who discussed everything with me about right from his devotion towards Odissi dance to his life surrendered to the rich Indian art, culture and tradition.
1 How did your dance training start and what motivated you to take up dancing?
I started training at a very young age. I was still a toddler. This was when I was three years old. My sister and my cousins would go to learn from Guruji (my Guru, Sri Durga Charan Ranbir) and since I had no one to spend time with as all of them would be gone for classes, I started accompanying them. That is how my Guru handpicked and moulded me. Coming from a family of Rajgurus, I imbibed the traditional family values and was exposed to the modern world by a bureaucratic father and an engineer mother, dance happened very naturally I guess, as I was blessed to see the temple dancers of Puri (the Maharis) from very close quarters, the way they rendered their service, their surrender, it had tremendous amount of impact on me.
2. Tell me more about your gurus and what you learnt from them?
My Guru, Sri Durga Charan Ranbir is one of the foremost surviving Gurus of Odissi. I was an extremely notorious kid and hyper energetic. The only people who had the capacity to tackle me, were my mother and my Guru. These was the only two people I was petrified of. His patience in dealing with a difficult person like me, is indeed commendable. It’s been over three decades that the Guru Shishya relationship is still intact. Guruji has a major role to play in my personal life. A true Guru in every sense, he has inculcated in me, the concept of Samarpana to dance. That is probably why I have not been able to visualize a mundane life for myself. Dance for me is Sadhana, my process of self realization.
3. How difficult is it for a male Dancer to survive in a world dominated by female dancers?
Classical dancing in India was always considered a taboo. Most of the male dancers did not come with a strong support system. In India, where patriarchy is a social norm and women were expected to be house makers, usually depended on the male members and the male members of the family had to play the role of bread winners (times have changed for good). It was much easier for females to think of an alternative career which was not so well paying. Besides dance in India resurfaced with the Devadasis, with the Anti-Devadasi act, when the temple dancers lost their jobs in temples, they were not given employment anywhere and had to carry out menial jobs to sustain themselves. The Devadasis became Manushya Dasis. How unfortunate! Post Independent India went through a deep cultural turmoil as the colonizers had created much havoc.
We have forgotten that all our Acharyas have been men. They were the ones who taught the dances and trained the performers.
But as is the social taboo (things are slowly changing for good) it is still difficult to survive just as a performer as there aren’t too many stage shows and not too many takers for classical dance and not too many takers for male dancers. Unless one is exceptionally striking and has something more to offer, it is very difficult to survive as a male soloist.
Fortunately for me, I did not face such a discrimination owing to a strong academic background. I have always fared well as an academician and had a different career choice as a scientist. Dance probably had other plans for me as I had not chosen to take dance as a career. Dance engulfed me and sucked me in completely. It possessed my entire being. I have received tremendous amount of support from the dance fraternity. So I didn’t face much of this discrimination rather I was always looked upto and loved by my seniors.
4. Who do you credit your success to and who have been you biggest support in this dance journey?
Guru Ratikant Mohapatra has always been the big brother, being instrumental in shaping up my career and giving it an academic angle. My Sanskrit Guru, Pandit Nityananda Mishra has taken the pains of educating me in the theoretical aspects. My Guru, Sri Durga Charan Ranbir was the one who offered me my career, serving it on a golden platter. I just had to grab it. My pillar of strength was always my mother, Binapani Sahoo, who not only verbally supported my career but provided the finances to keep it going. Besides I was always in my own league and I never competed with anyone. I only grabbed the best and kept working on myself.
5. You are one of the rare male dancers who has a super fit and chiselled body, from where does that inspiration come?
The urge to get better and serve dance. My body is my temple and for every dancer that is the case. The body needs to be taken care of and constantly honed. As the Kathopanishad states, the body is the chariot and the Atma is the passenger. I need to keep my chariot in top shape for smoothening the journey of my Atma.
6. Tell me about your recent unpleasant encounter at the Konark festival, what happened?
It was a very unfortunate incident, where a young dancer sitting beside me was asked to vacate the chair while the programme was going on to accommodate a seat for some family member of some bureaucrat who had not even come. I raised my voice and left place and complained to the top officials of the government. How can we promote tourism in our state when we lack basic ethics of respecting our own people? Like charity, samskara begins at home. How can I claim an Atithi to be Devata if I lack the basic manners towards my own people? Are security people paid a salary to serve the family members of bureaucrats? Should the PM’s wife be treated also as a PM? This was the issue I raised.
7. How has the covid times enriched you?
No rest in the kingdom. There are miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep. Though Covid hasn’t affected me much as classes at the University, where I teach, have been going on irrespective of the lockdown. The only paradigm shift being from the real to the virtual. Working hours haven’t reduced at all and responsibilities have increased for sure.
8. What are your future plans to take Oddisi dance to more people?
To die dancing. I am only a very ordinary dancer and certainly not indispensable. There are millions like me who come and go every day. Odissi hasn’t ceased. great Gurus and dancers have come and gone, yet Odissi lives on. All I can plan is to learn to surrender to Odissi and be grateful that I am one of the chosen few to be able to surrender myself to Odissi.
Rahul Acharya is an artist who is evolved not only in his art of dance but also as a human being, his love for Odissi is absolutely infectious and when he steps on the floor, the audience can very clearly witness the hard work, the devotion and the commitment he has made to Odissi.