In August 1995, I and one of my friends, still fairly new in Delhi, rented a two-room flat in South Delhi. Both of us had just started working. As we moved to the flat, I found a full sheet of newspaper—if I remember correctly, it was Times of India—pasted on the wall of what would be my room. The previous tenants—young bachelors like us—had most likely used it to protect the hanged clothes from the paint of the wall.
What caught our attention was a headline in bold font, of an interview of dancer Indrani Rahman: Oriyas are so parochial. My friend, whose parents hailed from Varanasi but who was born and brought up in Odisha, took a strong offence to this. He would—like many non-Odias who have stayed in Odisha for long do—always defend Odisha and Odia whenever anyone said anything against the state and its people.
“Calm down,” I said, “I fully agree with her observations.” By that time, I had read the entire piece.
“It is just that she has drawn a completely wrong conclusion from those observations,” I told him. Odias are often described as lazy, non-enterprising, and even conservative by some; but rarely are they labeled parochial or xenophobic.
It is important to understand what made Rahman make such a drastic conclusion. She had complained fairly bitterly that her contribution to popularization of Odissi dance and its recognition as a classical dance form had not been recognized enough by the people and government of Odisha.
It was not untrue at all. One can well understand the anguish.
Not only was Indrani Rahman the first well-known classical dancer to demonstrate the beauty of Odissi before a Delhi audience way back in 1958, she actively worked in the background to facilitate the meetings and demonstrations of the form which ultimately led to the recognition of the dance form as classical by Sangeet Natak Akademi.
The only point where she erred is that she assumed the lack of her recognition in Odisha was because of her not being an Odia. In other words, she assumed that those who belonged to the state must have been very well recognized and honored.
Alas! If only it was remotely true!
Rahman was surely one of the top 5-6 individuals whose efforts should be acknowledged and hailed for the recognition of Odissi. But what about honoring the person who played the single most important role in that? Unfortunately, there is hardly anything that the state has done to acknowledge his contribution to Odissi. And that man, unlike Rahman, was a full-blooded Odia.
We Odias never get tired of boasting about the ancientness of our culture, our language, our dance, our music and of course our architecture, often resorting to a direct comparison with those of Bengal, our neighbor.
Many of us like to believe that the better recognition of Bengali language, music and culture—as well as the reputation of Bengalis as a people of refined taste—is entirely due to consistent lobbying and distortion of facts. Our logic rests on the argument that even though Odia music and language are far older than Bengali music and language, if Bengali enjoys far better recognition today, it must be due to propaganda!
This is strange logic. As it is now being widely accepted, Odisha’s music indeed is far older than Bengal’s music. Odia’s recognition as a classical language puts to rest any doubt that anyone might have about Odia being an older language, than not just Bengali but most Indo-Aryan languages in existence today.
But what has that got to do with how it is perceived today?
A language or a culture is not a static thing. The current vibrancy of a language, a music or art is not dependent on how old it is but how the current generation and the past generations have preserved, enriched and patronized it. If Bengali music is far better recognized outside Bengal, it is because of the contribution of creators and patrons of that music over the years, not because of when the tradition started.
Of course, the deep resentment against Bengali in Odisha has its own reason. It comes largely because of the unsuccessful but vigorous attempt by a section of Bengalis serving in Odisha during the British period to push Odia into oblivion, by trying to establish that Odia was not a separate language.
But the image of Bengali as a rich and sophisticated language or Bengalis as a community with refined taste today is not because of such narrow-minded people; rather it is because of the sincerity and hard work done by a few great souls. It is also because of how the society in general contributed towards it and cooperated with these cultural leaders.
The most important of such personalities, of course, is Gurudev Ranbindranath Tagore—an extra ordinary individual who combined creativity and sensitivity with great vision. A genius, Tagore not just created great poetry and music, but built and nurtured an environment which encouraged people to indulge in creative pursuance, in an open environment. He also challenged the conservative tradition and encouraged Begalis to continuously interact with outside traditions in art and culture as well as with creative people outside. This not just helped enrich Bengali culture; it exposed outsiders to it. This experimentation arguably contributed most significantly to the rise in esteem of Bengali art and culture, in the eyes of the outsiders.
Bengalis never fail to acknowledge this great contribution by Tagore. In fact, Robi Thakur, as he is called in Bengal, is part of the collective psyche and culture, as much as Durga Puja and fish curry.
Odisha’s is a case study in contrast. Take Odissi itself. All of us are so proud of it. Yet, few know the contribution of people who shaped it in the early days and established it in the world stage.
Well, the lobbying with Sangeet Natak Akademi was spearheaded by many Odias and non-Odias (like Rahman) in Delhi but most of the core research for this was led by one individual, whose powerful lecture accompanied by a demonstration convinced the learned audience about its classicism.
That person was Kavichandra Kalicharan Patnaik.
Kavichandra who? I was actually asked by someone of my generation (born in the 70s). And you can well imagine about today’s generation. While many have heard his name, they are not sure what he has done (“kavichandra, must be a poet”).
Kavichandra may or may not be as creative as Tagore. But arguably, he has contributed to more aspects of Odia culture than probably even Tagore has done in Bengal. The idea is not to compare the two individuals but to show the way they have been treated by their respective communities.
I do not mind saying, without the fear of any exaggeration watsoever that no one in modern Odisha has contributed to so many facets of Odia culture—Odissi dance and music, Odia literature, Odia theater, Odia modern music and Odia cinema—as Kavichandra has done. And his involvement with all these areas have been in various roles—a creative composer/creator, a performer, a professional entrepreneur, a researcher and above all as a teacher/trainer.
Without getting into too much of details, here is a brief overview of his contribution.
- He worked with various groups to create the standard postures and rules of modern Odissi dance
- He visited different conferences to establish that Odissi, as a music, is not just classical but is very different from both Hindustani and Carnatic music.
- He named Odissi. David Denen, an American scholar, who has done extensive research on naming of Odissi, has concluded, after referring to half a dozen scholars, that it was Kalibabu who named Odissi. And the name itself was a master stroke. Not only did it secure its Odia connection forever, but it also created a classical aura for it, which would not have been in a generic adjective like Odia.
- It is his powerful lecture, accompanied by demo, that convinced everyone including famous Indologist and dance critic, Dr Charles Fabri that Odissi is a classical dance form. Indrani Rahman worked closely with him and was trained by his disciple Guru Deba Prasad Das.
- He established the modern theater culture in Odisha. His Odisha Theaters was the first professional theater group in Odisha.
- He was the first to experiment with modern themes in theater and music. A playwright and lyricist par excellence, he wrote on traditional themes as well as contemporary social themes and popularized them.
- He was a pioneer in modern recorded music from Odisha. He himself and his protégé Sumati Devi recorded a number of songs for HMV
- His association with early Odia films is a subject by itself. He not just wrote lyrics for many early movies such as Lalita, Rolls-28, Kedar Gouri and Dasyu Ratnakar, he scored music too in one movie, Naari. His association with Odia cinema continued well into the 60s, when he wrote for movies such as Manika Jodi, Ghara Bahuda and Kie Kahara, the second movie for Akshaya Mohanty as a composer. He wrote the story for Rolls-28, script for Jayadeba and co-directed and acted in Nari
- Some of the songs written by him such as Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansaa (sung by both Balakrushna Dash and Shyamamani Devi) are milestones in popularity of Odia palligeeti. Here are some of the recorded songs written by him that are available online.
- He even dabbled with recording in Odisha by establishing a recording company in Cuttack.
- He tried his hand at publishing a full-fledged music journal, probably the only such journal to be published in Odia ever.
- His direct disciples and proteges—Sumati Devi and Angurbala in music, Deba Prasad Das and Indrani Rahman in dance and actors like Samuel Sahu (Babi), Priyanath Mishra (Pira) and Gloria Mohanty who excelled in theater and cinema—too contributed immensely to their respective fields.
In short, whatever could be imagined in all these areas, Kavichandra has done that. While there have been great poets or dramatists, singers or composer, researchers or gurus, there is no one in modern Odisha who has contributed so much to such a diverse set of areas in Odia culture.
Yet, his contribution has gone largely unrecognized. Believe it or not, the following statements are true. I will be more than happy to be proven wrong.
- There is no Odissi institution named after him.
- There is no major award in Odissi music or dance which is presented in his honor.
- There is no major institution or award in his name in the entire gamut of creative fields he was active in, some of which I have discussed above.
- If this write-up is to be believed, then there is conscious effort to erase his name from the history of Odissi music.
I have deliberately not talked of his financial condition etc. In many places across the world, great artists and creative people often die in penury but after their death, they are recognized and honored. That is not the case with Kalibabu.
Compare what Tagore has done for Bengal and Kavichandra has done for Odisha. And then, see what Bengalis have done to Tagore and what Odias have done to Kavichandra. And you will probably never again complain about Odia not getting enough recognition outside.
If we do not honor our own tradition and people, how can we expect others to do that for us?
What Indrani Rahman inferred about Odias may not be correct per se but the reality is not far more encouraging than that.
As for myself, while I never really blamed Rahman for her conclusion, the Odia in me was too sensitive to allow that paper to remain there after my leaving. Though it remained there for all the four years that I stayed there—just to keep reminding me of the bitter truth—I could not resist tearing it off when I moved out.