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Savour of Success

Jyoti Rout
(Image courtesy: Our Sacred Space)

I am tipped off by Dr. Aruna Bhikshu of University of Hyderabad to catch up with Ms. Jyoti Rout for an interview, something I missed all the time she was in the vicinity. I drive down about 15 kms to ‘Sacred Space’, which justifies its name by allowing art to be as sacred even as it played with the rhythm and melody of the space. Ms. Jyoti had just wrapped up a morning workshop session after a successful Jagalbandhi performance the previous day. Yet we land up in an hour long conversation – one of the most interesting ones that I have had in a long time now! A befitting surprise...

I quiz on her traditional training in Orissa and she talks about humble beginnings. “I was a student of Utkal Sangeeet Mahavidyalay, a rarefied atmosphere for strong learning of Odissi. The teacher-disciple relationship had a melange of discipline, authenticity and love. Though I entered here to learn music, I was mesmerized by dance and chose to learn Odissi, vocal music and Chhau. It was internalization of dance and everything associated with it”.

Odissi Recital at Our Sacred Space, Hyderabad
While Ms. Rout talks very copiously about the merits of an institutionalized learning set up of art, she also draws to changes with every passing generation. While her days of training gave ample time in hand for the student-teacher interaction, she observes this on a decline today owing to lack of time in a fast world. She quotes herself as an example and cautions students to stay focused as she did and not pick up differences existing in such a set up.

What is more interesting is she spills out some interesting reminisces and anecdotes. “I watched rehearsals of my seniors through the keyhole of the college changing room. Post lunch when everyone around headed for a nap, I went to the bathroom which would be dry by then and practice what I had seen of the rehearsal there! This happened for some time until students and teachers grew suspicious of my frequent visits to the changing room. After being forbidden from doing this, I started to watch the rehearsal hanging from the branch of a tree. Soon the teachers and principal realized I could not be bound and allowed me into the room where I sat at one corner, diligently watched and grasped what was being done. It so happened that one of the leading dancers could not be available for the recital and I sprang up to show that I knew not only her role but that of all the participants! Much to his disbelief, the Prinicpal was elated, lifted and lofted me up and placed a 20 rupee note in my hand. That was my first blessing and it became my first performance!”

Jyoti Rout comes across as an extremely vibrant personality, well read and experienced, finding a fine balance between technicalities of the art and implications in performance. Having known that she has an academic background, my obvious next question was on the concerning issue of the bridge between theory and practice, the role of these two genres in complementing or differentiating each other. “Theory does not mean anything unless put to practice, especially in performing arts. Theory becomes our Bhagavadgita while doing choreography”. She affirmed.

Mangala Bhatt in Kathak and Jyoti Rout in Odissi at their Jugalbandi performance
I poke her further asking if in that case, all theory is capable of being put to practice. She contemplates thus “Most theories are written by researchers who may or may not be dancers. When performers are indulged primarily in movement creation, not everything may be applicable. In such cases theories must be used only to an extent to become spring boards for further innovation and modification. Above all dance is a personalized activity. Hence one theory cannot be pronounced as universally acceptable.”

In a country brimming with cultural diversity and multiple classical dance forms forming creative expressions, it is hard to secure an equal performer ratio for all forms. Bharatanatyam dancers are spread wide and are larger in number as compared to Odissi and so are the opportunities. Does this affect a career, in terms of fewer platforms and visibility?

Ms. Rout gives a quick explanation and an interesting perspective. “Cultural conditioning plays a very important role in shaping a dance form and a dancer. Orissa is known to be a low key state, with less literacy as compared to the southern states. Lifestyle of people here is rather indolent. If a dance style is mirroring the culture from where it has originated, then these differences will exist. Odissi is now finding its path to rise up and above age old rigid traditions that have always bound it. I can definitely say Odissi is at its peak now”.

Given this situation, migrating to the United States in early 1990’s saw Jyoti landing in almost a deserted cultural space. It has taken quite an assiduous journey to make a mark for herself. The beginning was nothing close to smooth. Walking about 4 kms everyday to the nearby Jagannath temple in California, she waited for students and landed up having the ‘Prasad’ and returning home. Today her auditorium with a capacity of 1000 presents many of her students to packed houses.

Connecting a traditional art form (practiced as a mode of devotion by Maharis inside temples) to absolute strangers from a different country almost seemed impossible. Jyoti started out from the scratch with cultural orientation. “I became an embodiment of Orissa, I touched their feet to show them how it is done. I called students over for Janmashtami to explain rituals. The spiritual connect with music pre-existed because of their own interest, but the lyrical content would be translated word to word. Evolving on this format, my students today come over with me to Orissa to get a feel of the culture and some stay with me for long duration”. Does it sound like Gurukul in CA!!

Performing arts by way of their virtue, demand sound knowledge of allied art forms like music, literature, religion and mythology. Ms. Jyoti uses this knowledge as core strength in her pursuits of dancing and choreography. She says "It depends on how far you want to travel and reach. One could study arts for a job or practice it to perform and teach or to adapt it to your body and know about it. When you adapt it, you learn to connect to your dance and read micro expressions – Example: Expressions between two notes, their silence that can speak lots or expressions of different characters sounded differently through music and so on. Further, I am my own inspiration. I pick up my rhythm. I may not know how to play but would know what I want minutely every time."

On a busy visit to India handling workshops at various places in Hyderabad viz University of Hyderabad, Lamakaan and Sacred space, she engaged students in topics ranging from the various histrionic expressions (Abhinaya) to pure dance elements incorporating charis and postures of odissi to items of the repertoire! While she is visually happy with all the dancing, teaching and learning in India it is her energy levels that amazes me every time. After such tiring schedules, she is her smiling self signing off only after a reminder that it was past lunch time!