Dance has been a way of life for her since childhood. For years, she has performed in the dance ballets staged by the Rashtra Seva Dal Kalapathak under the direction of noted poet Vasant Bapat and tutelage of Shri Ramesh Purav. Together, they have presented several memorable shows such as Maharashtra Darshan, Bharat Darshan, Shiv Darshan and Azadi Ki Jung which can be cited as particularly noteworthy productions. I am talking about the truly captivating dance guru Jhelum Paranjape.
Jhelum tai, as she is popularly addressed by all her students and friends, recently put up a mesmerising performance inspired by a Marathi book called Mahadwar by Aruna Dhere, which is the fictionalised life story of Chokha Mela. She completely left everyone spell-bounded her audience and it was simply divine.
Jhelum tai is a name to reckon with. A veteran in the world of dance, she has been dancing since 1977 and has dedicated herself to the pursuit of Indian classical dance, Odissi. She began her training with Guru Shankar Behera, and have — since 1980 until his death in 2004 — been training with the doyen of Odissi dance, Padma Vibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. She has been actively performing since 1983. When she began my training in Odissi with Shankar Behera, Smita Patil was her active partner, though Smita Patil moved her focus to cinema but her heart was always into dance. The award-winning actress was Jhelumji’s dear friend and mentor. It was through Smita Patil that she was introduced to Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. The bond and admiration between Jhelum Paranjape and Smita Patil was so strong that after the latter’s death in 1986, Jhelumji wanted to give her dear friend’s inherent memory a concrete form and that is how her dance institute Smitalay came into being.
Totally captivated by her recent performance on Chokha Mela, I sat down with the down to earth and full of life danseuse Jhelum tai and she spoke her heart out…
Why did you choose the unique topic of Chokha Mela for your performance?
I read fictionalised life story of Chokha Mela in Aruna Dhere’s book and I was extremely touched and impressed, it stirred something inside me. What is this love that Chokha felt for Vitthal (God)? Why did he feel this love? When he was denied to even have a look at his lord, even when he was mercilessly beaten up he cared two hoots and sang the glorious abhangas (songs) for Vitthal? Chokha truly and completely believed in Vitthal, their relationship was not something that I could understand, but maybe it was something that I could interpret and that is what I have tried, and succeeded.
So like Chokha, do you also believe in God and his powers?
I am an atheist, no prayers, no going to temples, no pictures of gods at my home. My family, my parents, grandparents were like that too. They did not believe in God, in religion, in caste, but they believed in humanity, in universal love, in the sincerity and dedication of one’s work. I believe because of my upbringing, my belief in humanity, sincerity and dedicated to what one does that this performance turned out the way it did.
What all did you do to prepare for this performance?
Firstly, I read that book two to three times to figure out what is it that I exactly wanted to do. Then I made a storyline in my mind and, of course, then on paper. Thought of using his abhangas to make the storyline complete. I only knew two of his abhangas which were sung by famous vocalists and were very popular. So, I read up more of his abhangas. Selected a few, then decided how and where would each fit in the storyline, and then finally sat with the music composer. Manoj Desai, who has composed the music, is a very religious and spiritual person. He was very happy to do this project with me. While the music was being done, the choreography was simultaneously going on in my mind. But the actual final choreography happened only after the full music was complete.
Tell us a memorable incidence during the making of Choka Mela.
I remember for one abhanga, which was already set to music and was very popular, was set to eight beats. I wanted this in seven beats. Initially Manoj said it is impossible, it is meant for eight beats only, but then when I sang it for him in seven, using the same tune, he was surprised and convinced, so the music was done.
You have done so many performances. Why is this one close to your heart?
For me, this is like a message to everyone, to all the people in our society, who believe in and follow religious and caste discrimination, that “Guys, there’s nothing like this, there should be nothing like this”, and it is specially those, or mainly those, who believe in god, who pray and worship regularly, who consider themselves “better” than others, are the ones who discriminate. If your god does not discriminate, why do you? It is your god, your lord, who called out to his dear devotee Chokha, opened the temple doors and took him into his arms. It is the same human body, maybe different in size and color, then why discriminate?
What’s next for you?
(Laughs) Nothing is next for me. Something happens when there is that spontaneous urge in me that fires up or someone approaches me for something. So for now it is just Chokha Mela and his love for Vithal for me.
Jhelumji is an artiste who comes on the dance floor with full heart and full preparation so if you hear that she is in your city for a performance, don’t miss watching her burn the floor.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore, is a World Book Record holder, a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with three National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]