The auditorium was lit in kaleidoscopic hues, with the majestic stage of the Royal Opera House in South Bombay welcoming viewers to a delightful visual treat. The sound of ghungroo with a tap on the wooden stage crept in from time to time, leaving all in anticipation. Actor Juhi Chawla in pink hues took the stage and invited Kshiraja Surendranath, an Odissi dancer and the daughter of veteran ad filmmaker Kailash Surendranath on stage.
The evening was about Odissi dance, one of the eight forms of classical dancing known for its sophisticated footwork, graceful hand gestures or Mudras, and compelling expressions set out in ancient Sanskrit literature. Kshiraja graced the stage for her Manch Pravesh - the first time solo performance on stage, a milestone in the life of any dancer. This marks the beginning of her life as a solo performer on stage. “I wanted to reach a milestone. After this performance, I feel if I have done solo I can do anything. I have been performing all my life and I will be learning all my life about the dance form,” said an elated Kshiraja.
Dressed in a symbolic costume in perfect synchrony and symphony to the beats of live and background music, the 23-year-old took the entry on the stage by greeting the audience with Mangalacharan on Vakratunda Mahakaya mantra to seek Lord Ganesha's blessing.
Ranging between fast and medium rhythm, Kshiraja's nine-piece solo intense performance – Vakratunda, Kamodi, Shritkamala, Nagendra, Aahe nil, Break, Aarbi, Nava Durga, and Moksha – each for eleven minutes - reflected the spiritual connection between a devotee and deity. From a pure dance piece with movements of lyrical grace Kamodi Pallavi, to Shiva Tandava, Bhagvati Stuti, Arabi Pallavi, Shritakamala, and Ahenila Sahila Kshiraja highlighted the beauty of storytelling with rhythm evermore in riveting Ek Pada Chari, Bhramaris, and gracefully accelerating Tribhanga. The highlight of the show was when Kshiraja took over the stage for the concluding performance, Ahenila Sahila, a composition depicting a devotee's plea to the lord for liberation.
“Odissi in general was meant and performed in temples and for gods. It was supremely religious in nature. It has many stories from Indian epics and mythology. These pieces carry history and myths,” said Kshiraja and shared that performing two hours solo demands immense physical and mental strength. “These are very powerful pieces and each story has a different emotion,” Kshirajas said, sharing that she has been dancing from the age of four. She started learning Kathak and shifted gears to Odissi when she was seven. Since then, Kshiraja said, “I have gone through all the phases. Starting from learning at home to a small studio and joining an academy. I went to Orissa and stayed in a temple to learn the dance form.”
Though it started as an extracurricular activity and as much as she wanted to focus on her studies and prioritise sports in her life, dancing was something that pulled her back. “It happened many times. I would take a break and focus on studies or games, but dance would always stay on my mind. These were the markers that I realised this is supposed to be something that I should be doing and no matter how much I prioritise different things I have to go back to dancing,” she said and reflected, “The respect and adulation that I have received from dancing is incredible. I wasn't expecting it all. People came for my parents and stayed for me.”
Among the other guests were National-Award-winning Odissi choreographer and director Farah Khan, TV personality and marriage consultant Sima Taparia, Juhi Chawla, and Neelam Soni.
Most often, the struggles of classical dance becoming mainstream and women classical dancers carving out a space for themselves are overlooked. Kshiraja says it is time we admire the labour that goes into these performances – physical, emotional and financial.
“I used to hide away and never used to tell people that I dance. But now I want to convey the message that everyone should learn classical dance. There's a gap that needs to be bridged. The younger generation doesn't know much. Though it's not a foreign concept to people, there are not many classical dancers. There should be more shows and more audiences for this. Classical dance is not just a dance form but a form of exercise. The entire body is used,” she insisted.
A true loyalist of Shiamak Davar dancing, for that's what she learned first before stepping her feet into Kathak, Kshiraja said the grace in her dancing comes from classical dance. “I draw the energy and grace from classical dance even when I am performing a contemporary dance,” she said. With dancing, comes a sense of responsibility and discipline in her. “I take charge of every kind of situation. Dance needs a lot of focus and discipline. I have learned patience and the fact that it's a long journey and you have to work on being perfect. It doesn't magically come to you,” mused the 23-year-old artiste, who is all set to venture into acting. “Storytelling becomes more powerful if you have two sets of arts,” Kshiraja said in conclusion.
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