Eulogy for a Great Master of Odissi Sacred Dance Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena

My beloved Odissi teacher, Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena, has passed away. My sister dancer friend Elizabeth Burnett, who has a school for orphans in Puri, Orissa, wrote of his March 26th passing, “He was preparing for a dance festival at Khira Chora Gopinath Temple. He had been fasting as was his habit on such days and doing puja. He felt a little funny and got up and just had a heart attack and left like a golden bird! ”

I studied with Guruji in Madras as his private student every day for four years. He was an amazing teacher and I could never repay the gift that he gave me.

Guruji’s style was lyrical and subtle. He was a master at leading each dancer into a personal expression of Odissi. He was deeply devotional. Every day he would arrive at my house, and say a prayer before each picture of the deities I had on the wall of the main room where we danced. He would settle himself before the altar I would have meticulously arranged with fresh flowers, incense burning and an oil lamp flickering. I would place his drum before him, touch his feet, and then we would both be transported into the heavenly realm of music and dance.

When my husband first offered to sponsor me in whatever study I chose, I was naturally drawn to Indian dance. There were a number of styles and possibilities but when I saw Guruji’s class at the esteemed Kalakshetra Academy, I was smitten.

I immediately asked him to accept me as a private student. He refused, but did invite me to join his class at Kalakshetra. It was a very intimidating prospect. The class had been going for two years. I knew nothing about Indian dance.

But I was determined, so three times a week I would gather with the 10 other young women, some of them professional dancers, in a little screened-in thatched shack. The floor was polished concrete and we would stamp away. I stayed in the back, scrambling to figure out what they were doing. It was so complicated; rhythmic patterns, body shapes, midriff, hands eyes, and all of this had to be infused with feeling. Classes were held in three different languages….Guruji’s native Oriya, the local Tamil and the universal Sanskrit/Hindi. Guruji spoke little English at the time and there were no translators.

I would chase the other dancers around begging them to show me any little piece of the puzzle I could understand. Then I would practice for hours. After a month of this, Guruji approached me and said he had never seen anyone learn as fast as I did. He said that he would come to my house the next day. Being accepted in this way was the equivalent of being accepted into his family and indeed I was soon to meet his beautiful wife, Yamuna, and his three sons. We became very close.

Guruji had a beautiful voice and was a master pakawaj (drum) player. He was immeasurably sensitive and I learned how to coax exquisite feminine expressions out of my coarse western woman ways. Many of the movements were so subtle he would take my hands and place them on his body so I could feel where the movement originated.

Guruji’s ability to transform himself into any number of dancing deities was like watching a master of shape shifting. All of this was done with the deepest sense of devotion. To dance as the deity was the most precious offering one could make.

The dance of the Maharanis (sacred dancers) in Orissa was essential to the life of the people. The dancer was “married” to the god, Jaganath, and danced as the Mother of the Universe before him. If the dancer did not dance, the god did not eat. If the god did not eat the rain did not fall and the people did not eat.

Guruji had long desired to bring his students to his birth village, Remuna, to dance at the sacred temple of Khira Chora Gopinath. Several months after my private classes began I was invited to join him and four of his senior dancers to make an offering there.

Remuna is deep in the countryside of Orissa. Guruji’s father, a farmer, was in his cucumber field when we arrived. Standing barefoot and bare-chested in his field, he looked like a noble man on his own estate. His mother was short and round and beaming with love. She was so happy to see her son and to welcome his students into her home. The house was made of mud walls and thatched roof. There were all kinds of nooks and crannies, small side rooms. It was an extended family home and there must have been twenty people including numerous children in and out. We visitors were tucked into various rooms and corners, Guruji was very solicitous for his western students.

We had a sumptuous meal, we sat with the family on mats on the floor with Guruji’s mom and his sister-in-law serving us on banana leaf plates. We ate with our hands. Since there was no electricity, we carried candles and kerosene lamps into our rooms and were quickly asleep with the exhaustion of travel and new impressions.

The next day, we went to the Khira Chora temple and were touched by the enthusiastic reception. Guruji was a favored child when he lived at home, starring in local renditions of sacred plays. He ran away to gain instruction in dance and it was deeply rewarding for all of them to have him return as a successful performer and teacher.

The building was old and permeated with mystery and wondrous stories of visiting saints and the appearance of the Khira Chora Gopinath himself. Gopi means cowherd girl and nath is Lord. Therefore we knew this was a Krishna temple as that is one of his most popular titles, Lord of the Cow Herd Girls. Chora means thief and Khira is a prized Indian sweet dish made of rice cooked in condensed milk and sugar with almonds and raisins. The legend is that the area was famous for its Khira, especially at one devotee’s house, who would always put a container of the best Khira in her shrine as an offering to Lord Krishna. Every night, she locked the shrine and every morning when she opened the door, the Khira would be gone. Wanting to catch the thief, she sat up one night watching and sure enough, it was Lord Krishna himself who was stealing her sweet.

When we got back to Guruji’s home for lunch, we were told that the villagers wanted to give us a display of their dance. Everyone was very excited about this. The young men set off on bicycles to pick up essential supplies and Guruji organized for someone to bring some folding chairs. We were puzzled, wondering where this dance would take place. All the rooms of the house were very small. We ate on the veranda and that was not very big.

Around sunset, Guruji directed his family to organize the chairs by the side of the road. The road was just a dirt track. We had been brought there by taxi the day before but had not seen another car pass that way. A few bullock carts, a few bicycles, lots of walkers…..but no automobile traffic. As night settled in, Guruji had torches placed on both sides of the road and ordered us into our chairs. We became aware of a primal drumbeat, that seemed to come from a great distance. As it approached, we also heard men chanting, weaving their voices around this deep-throated sound. Finally we saw them coming around a far bend in the road. Young boys held torches and led the procession, followed by two men with enormous round-faced, flat drums hanging from their necks in front of their bodies. They swayed as they walked and pounded the drums with padded sticks.

Behind the drums walked the village men, each one carrying a long pole. They were bare chested, bare foot, with only a half lungie tied around their waist. The singing got louder as they approached and then they were in front of us. The torch bearers drove the pointed ends of their torches into the ground and the men faced us, first whispering a prayer and doing some simple mudras. Guruji explained that they were going to do a dance that was famous in this part of Orissa. It was actually a martial art. The men were going to fight with the sticks. Then, without further introduction, they began.

Sometimes there were just two men fighting with each other. Then another pair of men would join and they would change partners. The striking of the sticks was rhythmic, but also quite aggressive and Guruji moved our seats back a few times when it looked like things were getting especially hot between a couple of the contenders.

There were young boys on the edge of puberty who were drawn into the circle by the mature men and you could see the way they were being trained. Old men were also invited in to the fight and careful consideration was given to their limited abilities. But when the young men went for each other it was terrifying and things grew to a crescendo with all the men paired off and fighting. In the midst of this cacophony and chaos, coming from the other side of the road, as if from a great distance we heard the sound of a different drum.  The voices of the village women began weaving their way into the dynamic atmosphere. The men, pair by pair, ended their fight and sat down around us as the women entered the arena, following their torch bearers and their drums.

They were in two lines holding each other around the waist. They were dressed in a single piece of cloth, a village sari that went just below the knee and wrapped around their waist and breasts. They did not have any choli or slip under their saris. They were very dark skinned with exquisite facial features and their singing was mesmerizing. The two lines snaked around each other. The movement was simple and after a time the women on the end of the lines took our hands, and pulled us into their weaving, swaying, undulating dance. We entered their trance time, dance time, time disappeared.

Several years later, Guruji started his own dance school in Cuttuck, Orissa, and I joined him there. After years of preparation, he declared that I was ready for the ceremony of Mancha Pravesha. This ceremony represented the marriage of the dancer to the god. In modern times, it had become a formality, a way of a dance teacher presenting his latest dancer of significant accomplishment.

It was currently the style to rent a large hall and invite all the dignitaries of the city. But I was not especially interested in establishing my name as a dancer. I wanted to have my ceremony in the Kheera Chora Gopi Nath temple. Guruji was delighted with the idea.

The area certainly had an atmosphere of Krishna and his play with the Gopis. There was a magic in the air, fairy dust, and looking through the sunbeams bouncing off the leaves,  you could see the Gopis laughing and playing with the Blue Skinned God, Krishna.

The priests of the temple were simple folk and this was a very big deal for them. A foreign woman would receive the shawl, blessed by the God, representing her marriage to Him and her willingness to serve Him with the beauty of her dancing body. They were enthralled.

I merged completely with their delight and wandered about the simple compound, melting with devotion.

The day of the celebration started with a deep mediation in a nearby Shiva shrine. I was in a very peaceful mood when I entered the temple and the simple ceremony of being married to Lord Krishna was enacted by the priest and Guruji. They had draped the precious silk shawl that I bought for this occasion over the shoulders of Lord Krishna and he wore it throughout the morning devotions. Then the priest, chanting beautiful prayers, took it from Krishna and placed it around my shoulders. It was an ecstatic moment and I walked out into the blazing sunshine shimmering with joy.

As I skipped down the steps, I noticed a great deal of kerfuffle in the courtyard. A small army of villagers were draping the elegantly carved stone walls of the temple with pink and blue satin bunting. I was appalled and ran to Guruji. He was delighted. It was his idea and I didn’t dare be critical about whatever he planned. It was a ceremony celebrating him as a teacher as well as me as a student and he had his standards. Then I noticed a huge generator over by the outer wall and several police men hanging around. Guruji explained that the electricity would surely go out during the performance and that he had to have his musicians amplified, they expected this.

The police were there to keep the villagers out of the temple complex when I was dancing. The mayor of the small town was coming and they didn’t want the riff raff making too much noise.

I could not have been more disappointed. Guruji bustled off to oversee the bunting and I drooped my way over to the Natya Mandir.

In ancient times, the dancer danced on this elevated stone platform, directly in front of the inner sanctum. When the doors to the temple were open, you could see Krishna dancing, surrounded by his milkmaids.

The roof of the mandir is held up by elegantly carved stone pillars, so I was protected from the blazing midday sun. Everyone soon left the compound, time for afternoon lunch and nap. I fell into a deep meditation, feeling disappointment boiling in my body, boiling in my blood, hot tears pouring down my cheeks.

Overwhelmed with so much emotional pain, I thought of all the years of preparation, the sacrifices, the dreams, all destroyed by pink and blue bunting. As I suffered, I happened to look up and I saw that the door to the temple was open and Krishna was looking directly at me. There was so much light I was blind to everything but him. My heart was beating wildly, and then I felt something in me let go.

I realized that none of the details mattered. Everything was being done with so much love, so much care, what did it matter. The same intensity of suffering burst into an explosion of bliss. The temple melted into light. I melted into light. There was nothing but joy.

Later in the afternoon, my friend Ananda came to help me dress. The layers of intricately sewn silk, traditionally dyed and woven went on first. Then the silver jewelry, the traditional pieces representing a dancer’s accomplishments. The elaborate crown, carved from balsa reeds, mimicked a halo of jasmine flowers. Next came makeup, with eyes exaggerated and ruby lips. Then hands and feet were adorned with red dye in simple patterns. I picked up my ropes of ghungaroos (54 bells on each ankle) and after pressing them to my eyes to take their blessing. I wrapped them carefully.

I was ready. I could hear the musicians tuning. Guruji sat behind his pakawaj. (double headed drum) His brother Tarani, the main singer, sat next to him. The violinist and the flautist were professionals. As I walked into the temple, I could hear the roar of the generator and I smiled to myself thinking of the afternoon’s meditation. I could also see sitting all around the outside wall of the temple the local folk, chattering loudly. They became very animated when they saw me. The police men brandished their clubs. I smiled.

I assumed the position of entry. Guruji nodded and the drum roll announced the opening dance. I was so filled with joy that I could not stop smiling. The pieces rolled one into the other. I knew them like the back of my hand. I was ecstatic, dancing to honor my teacher, dancing for the honored guests, dancing for the villagers, dancing for Krishna, dancing as a sublime expression of liberation, beauty, harmony, joy.

And then my teacher was garlanding me, the mayor garlanded me, the crowds roared and I could not stop smiling. Unattachment leads to great bliss. What a blessed day.

And so now I am faced with the ultimate unattachment, to accept that my beloved Guruji has left us to join the gods and goddesses he served with such devotion.

Several years ago I led a group of dancers to India. I had not seen or heard from Guruji in many years. Visiting Puri, the most sacred village in Orissa, my friend Elizabeth told me that Guruji had moved back to Orissa. He had been teaching in Delhi and every time I passed through that city, I was unable to meet him. 

Now he was retired to his beloved Remuna and had a small dance studio there. Elizabeth gave me a current phone number and I was able to connect with his oldest son Biswa. Arrangements were made and Guruji, Yamuna, Biswa and his wife met us at one of my most sacred places in India, the Temple of the 64 Yoginis.

We were all ecstatic. We prayed together. And then my students and I offered dance to Guruji and the deities in the temple. Guruji was delighted to see that the movements he had so carefully taught me were reflected in the dances I had created and in the students I had shared them with.

That evening, Guruji accompanied us to one of the temples of Bhubaneswar, where a festival of Odissi dance was being held. I was pleased to see the respect the dignitaries of the art world paid him.

The next day I danced for him and he danced for us at our hotel. When we said goodbye, I touched his feet in reverence, never knowing it would be for the last time.

How fleeting this life. How precious this connection that provided me with the movement vocabulary that I have used to create dances of exquisite beauty and powerful inspiration. Whenever I dance, I think of my Guruji, the gifts he gave us, the preciousness of moving our bodies in a way that celebrates life and devotes our beauty and awakening to the highest ideals.

Sarva Mangalam Guruji. May All Be Auspicious For You

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