Dance and travel go hand in hand, a dancer travels all over the world promoting his or her art and is said to be a true cultural ambassador of the country. Today I am talking about Odissi exponent Sharmila Mukerjee who has such kept the India flag flying high since she stepped on the dance floor. Through Indian Centre of Cultural Relations (ICCR) she has performed in every country possible. She recently performed at the sunny Seychelles and mesmerised her audience with her dance on a special occasion where the country was celebrating India. I spoke to the very excited Sharmila when she landed back into India, excerpts from the interview:
When and how did you take your first dancing step?
After completing her schooling in Loreto House, and graduating from the Presidency College, Kolkata, I followed my one and only passion – dance. Initiated into the Uday Shankar style of dance, I, at the young age of 16 played the main role of Chandalika in Tagore’s dance drama by the same name during the poet’s birth anniversary celebrations in Kolkata, and caught the attention of the critics who wrote about my inborn grace and amazing stage presence.
How did your dancing journey continue then?
I later started learning Odissi under the tutelage of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra from 1984 in Kolkata. Rigorous, intensive training in Odissi continued at my Guru’s residence in Cuttack and Bhubaneswar. I feel blessed that Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra himself accompanied me on the mardala for my Rangapravesh in 1988, and thereafter, I started performing Odissi as a solo artist and in some productions directed by Guruji. I also took lessons in Abhinay from Smt. Kalanidhi Narayan and attended workshops conducted by late Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi, which helped me improve and polish my skills as a dancer.
You have worked closely with the hearing impaired, please tell me more about it?
For a long time, I taught dance and movement therapy at The Oral School for Deaf Children, Kolkata and choreographed and directed many productions with these children, the most notable among them, being Ramayan a full length dance drama in which more than 50 hearing impaired children participated. Later I moved to Bangalore and taught dance at the Sheila Kothwala Institute for the Deaf for a few years. In the year 2000, I for privileged to have won a scholarship to the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) where I trained in dance movement and composition. I also did intensive workshops learning dance movement and how to work with hearing impaired children, at the British Council Calcutta, under the guidance of visiting faculty members form Laban Centre, U.K. teaching dance to the deaf is extremely close to my heart.
How did the Seychelles show come about?
My Ensemble, Sanjali (based in Bangalore) was empanelled with ICCR in 2017 as a group. I was already empanelled as a soloist since 1990 and have travelled many times abroad to give performances and workshops. Since the group’s empanelment, I regularly kept updating ICCR regarding our programmes and performances. Recently, when I went to Delhi to visit the ICCR office, I was told that my group had been invited for three programs and a workshop in Seychelles on the occasion where there are celebrating India.
What was the theme of the performance and how did you execute it?
As the event was about celebrating India, we decided to perform one of my choreographies Vande Mataram for all the shows and traditional choreographies of my Guru Late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and myself which would appeal to an international audience. Between each piece, I explained in detail the story and the theme and also about the dance style of Odissi which was much appreciated by the audience.
You have performed all over the world, what was special about performing in Seychelles?
Honestly, each country is different, being widely travelled, I found Seychelles truly a paradise on the earth as it is known as. It is also extremely cultural, there dance and music traditions are very deeply rooted. The audience is absolutely wonderful and attentive and the piece de resistance was the concluding piece, which came as a surprise to the audience, a dance accompanied to a Creole song which I choreographed in Odissi. The song celebrates the Creole Festival and is a rhythmic piece which was much appreciated by the audience in all the shows. The idea behind presenting this piece was to give the message that dance is one, sans barriers, it is all about rhythm, beauty, joy and enjoyment.
Dance, awards, rewards and travel, how does it all feel?
I am humbled to be Grade A artist of Doordarshan and an Established artist of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, I have performed at various prestigious festivals and conferences in India and abroad in countries like Fiji, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, U.S.A, Indonesia, U.A.E, Tunisia and more. I was humbled to receive Singar Mani title from the Sur Singar Samsad and the prestigious Mahari award from Guru Pankaj Charan Das Foundation for my contribution in the field of Odissi dance.
What is next on your plate?
After a hectic Seychelles trip we had a performance in North Karnataka, now we are extensively preparing for our festival and will be presenting our own Festival Pravaha dedicated to my Guru on his death anniversary on April 7, and also busy working on a new production A Dancer’s Prayer based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore, which will be premiered in July this year. That’s not all later this year we wish to revive and present my well known production Hansika based on the Russian ballet, swan Lake which was presented and became very popular before the pandemic.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore from Pacific University USA, an honorary doctorate in performing arts from the National American University, He is a World Book Record holder,
a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honored 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]