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The Rediff Special/Sanjukta Panigrahi

'All through the performance Laloo Yadav and his friends were disturbing me, laughing, talking, eating, doing hulla gulla'

In an interview to Savvy magazine last year, the dancer spoke about her life, her craft and the controversies that suddenly swirled around her in 1995.

Sanjukta Panigrahi I have always been concentrating on my dance and little else. Recently a pandit came to my house, and after looking at my palm, said, "Don't give any statement till 1996, because anything you say will be misinterpreted and create a controversy."

I laughed when I heard that, but yes, it does seem that of late I have been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

First, many papers splashed I had become a devadasi. Some went on to add that this was a desperate attempt to seek cheap publicity. Then it was reported I had broken down on stage and left Patna in a huff because of Laloo Prasad Yadav. Both reports were highly exaggerated and sensationalised.

As you know, the papers reported that five girls in Orissa wanted to be devadasis at the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri. At this point of time, Rajaram Satpathy of the Times of India and some people from Zee TV asked me whether I would like to dance in the temple. My reply was, "I would feel fortunate if I could dance before Lord Jagannath because whatever I am today is because of his blessings. This dance form is given by Him. As it is keep His statue on the dais whenever I dance. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime if I could really dance before Him.

I also told them that in fact, fifteen years ago, I had asked the collector for permission to dance in the temple but I was denied the privilege by the pandas (priests). The collector wrote back saying the priests had said that the temple committee's opinion was that they couldn't allow me as I was an outsider.

Anyway, the press people asked me very specific questions. They asked me, "Would you like to dance at the temple every day?" And I had clarified that because of my profession and my family it would not be possible for me to dance every day but if they gave me a block of seven or eight days I would gladly perform or I could perform during the ritual festivals as we do outside the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi every year, during Hanuman Jayanti or the Guruvayoor temple in Kerala.

The journalists even asked me whether I was considering joining as a devadasi and I clarified, "I cannot become a devadasi because of the present situation in my life. I cannot follow the rules and regulations of conduct that are laid down for devadasis. I can perform and offer my art form at the feet of the Lord only for the sake of culture. If you want to call me a devadasi while I perform in such a manner I don't mind because devadasi is not a bad word. It is a very sacred word."

There are instances in our history where devadasis occupied a very prominent place in society. There are instances when even daughters from royal families have offered themselves as devadasis, like Chandrika Rage, the daughter of Ananghabhimadeva in the thirteenth century. I told them that in India, in Karnataka maybe and some other places, stigma is attached to devadasis and they are looked down upon because of some misdoing or corruption in the temple. We've never had such instances in Orissa.

I think we should also understand how this corruption arose. It was because of lack of social support, consciousness and financial problems that devadasis got dragged into such sort of corruption and controversies. They became concubines of the kings and began to please them. It was then that a social stigma was attached to them and the word devadasi became debased! There is nothing wrong in the name. There was something wrong in the people who could not maintain the sacred and spiritual aspect of this word and the people who could not regulate this practice.

I also told them that in the present day I'm in doubt whether anybody will be able to retain this practice strictly as it was and maintain it. And also if it is to be introduced again the whole temple administration should be changed. The whole temple atmosphere should be changed.

And what do you know! The next day -- 'Sanjukta Panigrahi to become devadasi' was duly reported in major newspapers throughout the country. All my stipulations had of course been left out. People were shocked. Friends rang up to ask me, "Has there been a quarrel? Is there a problem in your life? Why do you want to leave everything and go away?"

The report in The Asian Age was particularly offensive. They wrote a nasty editorial saying I was seeking cheap publicity and carried a story without even interviewing me. I rang up M J Akbar and asked him how somebody could write such things without speaking to me and he said, "I didn't notice it, maybe some sub-editor wrote it or something." I told him that I was surprised that such a thing appeared in his paper because I thought he was responsible as he has been in the field for such a long time. Then he asked me to write a letter in protest and they would publish it. And I must say, he kept his word.

Then the Laloo Prasad Yadav controversy! I have never been involved in such a controversy before. I started in a very routine fashion. I was invited to the Rajgir Dance Festival by the department of tourism, government of Bihar. The programme got off to a late start because of the lengthy speeches at the beginning, and they now wanted to speed things up.

As soon as my musicians came on to the stage, Laloo Yadav pointed at them and said, "Do minute mein suru karo." (Tune your instruments in two minutes.) My musicians were very upset, they found it very insulting that somebody from the audience should order them like this, and that too the chief minister!

But as we were to discover, worse was to follow. All through the performance Yadav and his friends were disturbing me, someone coming someone going, laughing, cracking jokes, talking, perhaps about politics, eating, doing hulla gulla. They were not concentrating on the dance at all. After the third item when I came on to the stage to give a brief commentary on the fourth item, Yadav asked me, very crudely, "Ab aap aur nachiyega ki aap aur kisi ko karne dijiyega? Baad mein naach karo." (Are you doing to dance some more or will you give somebody else a chance? Dance later.)

I was, of course, very humiliated being spoken to like this. I don't even know how to describe this feeling because no one had ever spoken to me like this before, especially in front of a large audience and the press, but since I am too much of a professional to leave a performance without doing my moksha,. my last number, I said, "Aur paanch minute lagenge," (It will take another five minutes).

Yes, I was irritated and I did ask the organisers when I got back to the wings as to what was going on. I told them, I am supposed to perform for one hour so why should anybody disturb me -- that too a chief minister of a state that had invited me! Yes, I did come back while all the other artistes stayed on, but I was scheduled to leave early anyway. The issue just began to grow and grow.

The next day various papers reported the incident in various ways -- that I had broken down on stage, that I had walked off in a huff. Prannoy Roy spoke to me and I spoke to the Ananda Bazar group but then when the Mahila Congress spoke to me saying they wanted to stage a demonstration, I decide that I didn't want to get dragged into a political controversy, so I thought I should stop it. As it is both these controversies had resulted in endless phone calls and distraction and I didn't want t be diverted from my work any longer.

By then Laloo Yadav had given a statement in the Indian Express expressing his regret. He also apologised to the Orissa chief minister. Biju Patnaik also rang me up and told me that Laloo Yadav wanted to be excused, so I let the matter drop and put an end to it.

Did I expect Laloo Prasad to apologise? No, and I didn't want him to. I didn't want him to apologise to me because I don't think he's the kind of person who realises his mistake. If he was that kind of a person, even if he didn't like something he wouldn't have behaved so carelessly in front of the audience.

If a man openly goes and claps after my exit for the nautanki type of dance it means his understanding level is lacking. And he even openly said in a paper, "I can relate only to Bihar culture!" My only question is, 'Why do you invite people from other states if you cannot appreciate them'?

Sanjukta Panigrahi Now, I have started teaching dance. I find that you can analyse dance much better as a teacher. You can see the mistakes much more clearly when someone else is dancing. A dancer's life is very short. So now, I do not know for how long I can be mentally and physically strong enough to dance. I don't want to live long. I will be very happy if some day I die on stage.

I don't know how people will remember me. All my life, I have known only dance but still I wish that people remember me as a good human being, a sincere person. I know that many people misunderstand me. They think that I am not sociable because I do not attend weddings or go to parties or clubs. But I don't enjoy going to these places to discuss saris and jewellery. Yes, there are some social obligations that I have to carry out because of my professional commitments, but otherwise, I try to take care of the needs not only of my immediate family, but also the larger family of musicians and technicians who help me in a performance.

At the end of the day, I do not really have many regrets because there is a positive side to all the negative things I have undergone. Yes, I lost out on my childhood, but I was given a great reward in the success I had in my vision of putting Odissi dance on the national and international map. I have been honoured the way few individuals in my field of dance have been and for that I am deeply grateful. Again, despite the fact that I had to shoulder my responsibility single-handedly, even though I am a married women, has been irksome at times, perhaps if I had married another man, a well-to-do officer or someone like that, I may not have been able to dance at all.

My husband Raghunath, on the other hand, sacrificed his own career for my dance and I must acknowledge that I could not have achieved what I did without his help and support in this field. In retrospect, I feel everything I went through had a purpose. They helped me to become a strong person. I now feel I can handle anything in life. And, I think God was very kind that he allowed me to experience everything, good and bad.

I now have a dream to start a school like Kalakshetra. I want to share every experience that a dancer goes though to evolve and I also want to teach students to be good human beings -- not only good artistes.

If I had to live life again I'd till want to dance. I'd want to fulfill my desires and do all that I have not yet achieved. As of now I'm proud that I have got where I have without any help or influence. I have reached where I have without any help or influence. I have reached where I have on my own merit. With my own work and that's something I want every woman to do. Find your priorities, your passions and work towards attaining them -- like I did. That is where gratification lies.

Kind courtesy: Savvy magazine

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