What I Don’t Know about Sanjukta Panigrahi | Part One | 1944-1958

By Donovan Roebert

At the end of his rather forlorn-sounding article about Sanjukta Panigrahi posted at academia.edu, Kedar Mishra concludes:

Truly speaking, Sanjukta’s legacy has not been properly nurtured by her own people. Organizing festivals or distributing awards in her name is simple tokenism. The preservation of her great legacy and documentation of her life and art is an area of darkness. We are unable to publish a simple monograph on her life. Her letters, photographs, audio-visual materials, dresses; notebooks….No one can see all these. Many academic articles and interviews of and on Sanjukta are lying scattered about. No one is trying to compile all these valuable materials. Odissi Research Center, which has forgotten the word “research”, is in no way working for documentation and publication. We have failed to preserve a great artiste’s legacy. Concluding an essay on the three major Ballet artists, celebrated dance critic James Waring wrote, “The best dancers are translucent. You see through them.” The translucent personality of Sanjukta Panigrahi must be seen and shown to the next generation with a proper plan.

After a week spent searching the internet, I have to agree. I am no researcher and don’t usually have much time for trying to be one. What I am offering here are the ‘scattered’ results of the hours I have spent online trying to piece together the early period of Sanjukta’s life and to make some sense of her fascinating soul, a dancer’s soul of unusual intelligence, of an almost naïve yet sturdy disregard for cultural and societal conventions, and of an utter devotedness to her art.

I see little point in rewriting most of the articles and interviews I have found. I am going to copy-paste them here with some small grammatical corrections when needed. My aim is only to collect and collate them in one place so that a serious student with an interest in Sanjukta may find them conveniently at hand.

My method in this essay and those to follow will be to subjoin the various items under a timeline, insofar as they contain biographical facts. Then, other materials taken from interviews and so on will be placed in the last section. And I may add some comments of my own. Yes. Knowing myself, I probably won’t be able to resist doing at least that much.

But let me begin by sharing, Mr Kedar Mishra’s full short article, excluding the conclusion already quoted above :

When I watch Sanjukta Panigrahi dance, it is not merely to observe the displacement of energy in her body or the tensions embodied in her immobility. I am compelled to see and feel how these ‘physical laws’ evoke  a particular emotion in a specific performative context. The anatomy of the actor is of no use until it is contextualized within an expressive framework. What can it possibly mean otherwise? The bios of the actor becomes significant only in relation to his/her ethos; it cannot be separated from “culture, history and style.

(Page-57, “Theatre and the World: Performance and Politics of Culture” by Rustom Bharucha.)

To evaluate the art of Sanjukta Panigrahi (August 24, 1944 – June 24, 1997), the legendary Odissi dancer of Odisha, one must look into these three things as Rustom Bharucha outlined “culture, history and style”. She was the first ambassador who gave a befitting exposure to Odissi culture and style to a global audience. Though the credit of presenting Odissi for the first time in foreign land has duly been credited with  Indrani Rahman, it was Sanjukta who truly showcased the soul of Odissi to the world. Her passion and perfection created an unattainable height for herself and impassable to many of her contemporaries and juniors. She was Sanjukta, one and only. New generation of Odissi lovers who have not seen her performing live, can still discover those illuminating glimpses from Youtube or various other digital archives. The fast and complicated feet movements in “Yugma Dwandwa Pallavi” entered Sanjukta’s body like a divine possession. Her unique stamp on stage was like a poetic signature. In the 1980s Fritjof Capra, the famous author of “The Tao of Physics” had the chance to see Sanjukta performing in Mumbai along with her great Guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. An ecstatic Capra wrote- The performance was magnificent. The dancers evoked a ceaseless stream of emotions through a dazzling display of the most refined movements and gestures. Sanjukta’s poses were fascinating. It seemed to me as if the ancient stone sculptures had suddenly come alive. (Page- 333,”Uncommon Wisdom” by Fritjof Capra). Indeed that was the charm of a great dancer.

A Rebel, an Innovator

Sanjukta Panigrahi was born in a Brahmin family and Brahmins in Odisha were not so open for a dancing career. Being a Brahmin and woman, the double hurdles for Sanjukta were easy to cross over with the firm support of her parents Abhiram Mishra and Shakuntala Devi. From her childhood up she was a possessed dancer; passionate and unstoppable. Bishuba Milana Mandap, a grand cultural gathering in Cuttack led by Dr. Harekrushna Mahatab, fondly witnessed little Sanjukta dancing non-stop and overtime. Her mother had to climb on to the stage to stop the girl by force. That was the passion of her life. She shouldered the life-heritage of a renovated dance form and took it to a global platform. Her mentor and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra taught her the essential techniques of dance and her own imagination and creative vision added impeccable perfection. She learnt Bharatanatyam at the famous Kalakshetra under the guidance of the great maestra Rukmini Devi Arundale. Once she narrated her learning experience and said, “I had two gurus, each with contradicting views. While Rukmini Devi Arundale stressed technique, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra insisted on forgetting technique. I was confused. Much later I realized that with dedication and hard work, technique would follow automatically.”

The spontaneity of her talent reformed many an historical moment and she went beyond a fixed format of scriptural rigidity. It was her body-language that could easily speak of divinity. In Ardhanariswara, she intricately displayed the paradoxical and diametrically opposite cosmic visuals. Depicting Iswara and Parvati as the whole of paradoxical union, she unfolded a great philosophical narrative like an abstract painting. Odissi as an art form got its true global identity through Sanjukta’s performances. Her association with Eugenio Barba, the famous Italian theatre personality and a master innovator created a masterly project historically known as “Beyond Floating Islands“. With Barba, Sanjukta got an opportunity to work with Nobel laureate Dario Fo, internationally reputed theatre masters Jacques Lecoq, Jerzy Grotowski and Balinese dancer Djimat. That was the greatest and rarest creative forum in which an Odia got a chance to work.

As a grand master of Indian art, Sanjukta worked with many greats, but it was Raghunath Panigrahi, her lover and husband, who remained her greatest companion in life and art. Raghu babu’s voice added charisma to her dancing.

A Nation’s Tribute

In her lifetime, Sanjukta got due recognition and led a dignified life. She was a Padma Shri in 1975, at the age of 31. She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1976 together with Raghunath Panigrahi. The irony is that Raghunath Panigrahi was awarded Padma Shri in 2010, 35 years after Sanjukta received the same. The world lost a great dancer in 1997. Sanjukta died at the age of 52.

(Kedar Mishra, Making of a Legend : A Tribute to Sanjukta Panigrahi.)

I share Mr Mishra’s baffled agony. Where is the definitive biography of this extraordinary personality, a dancer who could captivate the discerning intellect of a physicist of the stature of Fritjof Capra? Surely he must have been more than only ‘charmed’? Given his lifelong scholarly interest in the convergence of Shaivite philosophy and modern physics, isn’t it possible that Sanjukta evoked for him the essential cosmic ardhanarishwara to which Mr Mishra refers?

About the quotation from Mr Rustom Barucha I am unable to say much, since he writes in a vein that leaves me a little in the dark. You can make almost anything you want of it, though he and Mr Mishra both seem to know what he means. He writes in the present tense. What more does he have to say about Sanjukta, and who is he anyway? I don’t know, but someone might take the trouble to find out.

I share also Mr Mishra’s slight regard for the Odissi Research Centre. Is it just possible that they haven’t yet understood that Sanjukta was their first and most important proto-Odissi and Odissi dancer? If so, Shouldn’t someone alert them to the fact?

Now I’ll move on to my timeline scheme, beginning with a copy-paste of the Wikipedia entry for this period:

She was born in Berhampur, Ganjam District, Odisha state, to a traditional Brahmin family, her parents being Abhiram Mishra and Shakuntala Mishra.

When she was a small child she would start dancing intuitively to any rhythmic sound like that of chopping vegetables or firewood. Her mother was from Baripada and belonged to a family which had long been patronising chhau folk dance . She recognised the talent in her daughter and encouraged her despite some initial resistance from Abhiram Mishra, Sanjukta’s father. The reason for the resistance was the fact that in those days this form of dance was performed generally by temple dancing girls called Maharis. Male dancers are called Gotipuas. These girls were like Devadasis in the temples of South India.

At the initiative of her mother she started to learn dance from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra at age 4. She was assessed to be the best child artist by the Bisuba Milan consecutively for three years during 1950–1953.

In one of her performances as six-year-old girl she refused to leave the stage and continued to perform energetically even after the time was over. Her mother had to shout at and cajole her to stop dancing. At the age of 9 she performed at the annual festival of the Children’s Little Theatre in Calcutta.

She won the first prize in the International Children’s Film Festival in 1952. Encouraged by her success, her parents decided to send her for better dance training, to Kalakshetra at Chennai. There she continued her lessons under the guidance of Rukmini Devi Arundale. For the next six years she stayed there, and eventually graduated with a Nrityapraveen diploma in Bharatnatyam with Kathakali as the second subject. After that, she toured many places in India and abroad as a member of the ‘Kalakshetra Ballet Troupe’.

At the age of 14, she returned to Odisha. The state government awarded her a scholarship to learn Kathak from Guru Hazarilal in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai. However, she left the course and returned to Odisha to concentrate on Odissi.

Thin and sparse, is it not?

If you’d had it for breakfast, you would have been starved by lunchtime. Let’s hope that it wasn’t provided by the Odissi Research Centre or by any dance scholar at all. Let’s hope, too, that someone, somewhere,will work to round it out with more detail.

Here is something rather more informative, written by Jhelum Paranajpe :

Sanjukta was born on 24th Aug 1944 at Behrampur. She started dancing from the age of four. Her mother encouraged her because she loved dance. Abhiram Mishra, her father initially discouraged her. Yet Sanjukta never gave up. She persisted and blossomed in her dancing career. From the age of six she started performing. In her own words: “I loved dance too much and was totally involved in it and I was only six. While returning from school, friends and neighbours would say, ‘Sanju, will you dance for us?’ I would spontaneously put my books on the road and dance without any inhibitions”. 

At the age of nine, she performed at the annual festival of the Children’s Little Theatre in Calcutta, and the very next day she was featured in most of the newspapers, with plenty of praiseworthy coverage – “…the surprise of the evening was little Sanjukta Mishra!” “…the entire show was stolen by a child prodigy from Orissa.” This catapulted Sanjukta into a series of performances. Though small, of 5 to 10 miniute duration, she would sometimes do two performances a day! That was when her parents felt that all this attention and applause might spoil her and distract her from her main objective.

She was taken to Kalakshetra, to Rukmini Devi Arundale. At first Rukmini Devi was reluctant to accept this nine year old as a student. She will cry, also she doesn’t know any Tamil! But her parents insisted. Her mother was very keen. Finally Rukmini Devi said, “I will observe her for three months and then decide.” Those three months were crucial for Sanjukta. In those three months, Sanjukta picked up working knowledge of Tamil and never cried during the day. Being only nine, she felt homesick and wanted to cry, which she did only in the night into her pillow. She did not want to be sent back, she did not want to hurt her mother. Rukmini Devi admired the grit and courage in little Sanjukta. She was accepted. Her talent noticed. She stayed at Kalakshetra for six years. She also did her academics – senior Cambridge during that time. She got her Nrityapraveen diploma in Bharatnatyam with Kathakali as the second subject

While she was at Kalakshetra, a musicologist, Nilamani Panigrahi (her future father-in-law) visited. He seemed to like Sanjukta for his son Raghunath, who was a popular singer in Madras (Chennai). Back in Orissa, the proposal was put forward to the Misras – Sanjukta’s parents. Mother was for it, father against. “Both are artistes, how can they earn a good living?” But her mother was adamant. “She loves dance. Only a musician will understand this passion. Nobody else.” Meanwhile in Madras, Sanjukta had heard Raghunath singing and fallen in love with his voice. She was willing to marry him. Raghu would visit them but Sanju’s father would not relent. After a year, Sanjukta’s father packed her off to Bombay to learn Kathak from Pt. Hazarilal and incidentally to forget Raghunath too. But that was impossible. Raghunath followed Sanjukta to Mumbai! 

Way back, a journalist in Calcutta had said about this child prodigy, “I had often heard of God gifted talent – little Sanjukta was that. She has cast a spell over us”. It was true. The audience, journalists, connoisseurs had all spotted this god gifted talent way back in 1953. They all fell in love with this sprightly girl of nine. Till her death, her charm did not end; their love spell did not break. Not only in India, but the world over, people adored Sanjukta and her dance. She was very popular in Europe and was an annual feature since 1980 at the invitation of Eugenio Barba, a very eminent director of the Odin Theatre of Denmark. She was dance in its purest form, superb, sublime, spiritual… ultimately showering the bliss of Moksha

Now here, at least, we have more body and more soul. Here is the little sprite that, rather than being born, just danced her way into the world. We are also introduced to the persevering capacity of her early love for Ragunath Panigrahi, a love that was later to be tested for some years. Jhelum Paranjape has done us a worthy service. We get some idea of the dedicated and disciplined personality of little Sanjukta Mishra, the child who refused not to dance.

Let’s have a look now at what Sharon Lowen had to say :

She recalled that people would express their censure of a Brahmin girl dancing by spitting as they passed her door. In 1951, at the age of seven, little Sanjukta won the first prize at the Calcutta Children’s Little Theatre Festival after convincing the secretary that the hitherto unheard form of Odissi should be included. The encouragement from the press and eminent people of Calcutta (now Kolkata), combined with a desire to have their daughter get an education along with dance, led Sanjukta’s parents to send her to Kalakshetra near Madras (now Chennai) for six years.

This decision had a major impact on the development of modern Odissi and its relation to shastric texts.  Kalakshetra offered girls of high social status the opportunity to learn a refined and codified form of dance in a disciplined environment as shaped by Rukmini Devi Arundale. From 1952, Panigrahi returned to Orissa each summer to study Odissi and share what she had learned of the Abhinaya Darpana and Natya Shastra with Kelubabu and others. This actually introduced the performing artists of the Orissa stage to the movement classifications and viniyogas (usages) of gestures, Sanskrit slokas on dance, angaharas, etc. of the Abhinaya Darpana. The Kala Vikash Kendra (1952) in Cuttack was motivated to send one of its teachers, Guru Mayadhar Raut, to Kalakshetra for training. Guru Kelubabu, accepted today as the major architect of the present Odissi dance, was in the process of studying the sculptures and palm leaf manuscripts to regain the technique he had learned as a child.  

Along with Panigrahi returning to Orissa with her disciplined shastric training in dance, Guru Kelubabu introduced and gradually increased shastra into his teaching of the dance form at the elementary level, systematising the training technique and exercises to be understood and hopefully mastered before going on to complete dances, essentially the traditional starting point. Year by year this developed as Sanskrit names from the Abhinaya Darpana were assigned for mudras, sirabheda, dristabheda, grivabheda, padabheda, charis, karanas, bhangis, etc. Over further decades, unique Odissi dance elements were provided nomenclature.

What we begin now to see dimly is the scholarly element that was introduced into Odissi by a girl only twelve or fourteen years old. And who would ever have guessed, if Lowen hadn’t alerted us to the fact, that the textual and technical knowledge little Miss Mishra acquired at Kalakshetra would convince the teachers at Kala Vikas Kendra to send Guru Mayadhar to Rukmini Devi as well? We are usually told that it was Guru Mayadhar’s own independent decision.

The first scholarly impetus introduced into the Gotipua dance form (‘rough at the edges’) was provided by a girl who could not care less that some lesser souls residing in Cuttack would spit at her door because she danced for the Annapurna Theatre.

What strong-willed and culturally elevated parents she must have had! But we are told very little about them. I have gleaned from somewhere that her father was an engineer. But who was he, and what did he accomplish in his life and career? And what about Sanjukta’s wonderful mother, who braved the contumely of the community so that her daughter could learn dance? What were the home circumstances of this tight-knit family? How did they cope with the scorn of their neighbours? What drove them both to do everything in their power to develop their little daughter’s genius for the dance?

Here’s a little snippet from Julia Varley of the Danish Odin Theatre group (of which we will hear more in Part Three) :

The great classical Indian dancer and co-founder of the International School of Theatre Anthropology, Sanjukta Panigrahi, died in June 1997. An outstanding exponent – and virtually the rediscoverer – of Odissi dance, Sanjukta Panigrahi was born in Orissa into a Brahmin family, and defied the prejudice of her caste as the first girl to pursue Odissi dance as a career. With the support of her family, she began studying at the age of five under the guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, with whom she worked for many years, and also trained in Bharata Natyam for six years with the master Rukmini Devi.

Sanjukta and her parents ‘defied the prejudice of their caste’. What does this mean in the broader social context and for later freedoms won for women in India? But note also Varley’s casual observation that she was ‘virtually the rediscoverer of Odissi dance’.

Now that is a mouthful, and Varley was not given to exaggeration. I think there is more than meets the eye to this surprisingly confident statement. Even knowing the little I do about Sanjukta and the male-dominated history of the Jayantika movement, I would say that her crucial contributions ought carefully to be traced, indentified and documented by new Odissi researchers. We may well find that her overall influence was far more telling that we have yet been told.

I will end here with some brief observations made by Laxmipriya Mohapatra very late in life in an interview :

Lingaraj Nanda said, ‘If boys are performing dressed as girls, why can’t the girls from Annapurna Theatre perform the dance form?’ Kelu was playing tabla but he already knew dance. The gotipuas taught dance to the girls.

‘The edges of the gotipua are very rough. So when a gotipua was teaching dance to the girls guruji tried to trim those rough edges by correcting the movements of the hands’.

To me this is an almost magical moment of sudden insight into the small beginnings of a revolution, a revolution initiated by Lingaraj Nanda and the Brahmin girl who was willing to make it happen. Why should boys dance as girls when girls can do it just as well themselves? Indeed. Without this pivotal moment of lucid decisiveness, Odissi as we know it might never have been born.

I am struck by the paucity of materials available online for reconstructing the first fourteen years of Sanjukta Panigrahi’s life. There must still be so many things that can examined before it’s too late, so many people whose memories can be ransacked, so many houses and institutions to be visited, so many old photographs, clippings, video clips and writings to be rescued from oblivion. With reference only to this first period, there is still a huge task to be done.

In the second part of this essay I’ll look at the next twenty-seven years of her life, using the same sort of copy-pasted stuff scrounged from the internet with frustrating toil. My feeling is that I’ll encounter the same insufficiency of detail. But I am hoping for the best.

Donovan Roebert is a writer and artist working in Hermanus, South Africa. His published works are: Samdhong Rinpoche: Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World, The Gospel for Buddhists and the Dharma for Christians, Lama Charlie’s Big Bang and Whimper, The Odissi Girl. His play, Jungian Moon, was nominated for the Artes Award for Best drama.

Also read the Part Two & Part Three:

What I Don’t Know about Sanjukta Panigrahi | Part Two | 1958 – 1985

What I Don’t Know about Sanjukta Panigrahi | Part Three | 1985 – 1997


About the Author

Odisha Story Bureau
A team of young journalists headed by Subhransu Panda, founder-editor of Odisha's leading news portal and magazine Odisha Story. Mail: editor@odishastory.com