The departure of Indian classical dance exponent Guru Dr Minati Mishra to her heavenly abode on January 6, 2020 was an irrecoverable loss to Odissi cultural heritage and more so to Indian culture and heritage in the larger sense.
The literal meaning of Guru is gu (darkness) and ru (light), someone who destroys ignorance (darkness) and leads us towards knowledge (light). Fortunate I was, or it was my mother’s prayers, I am blessed with great Gurus throughout my life. My pen doesn’t move further to write about Dr Mishra, because I always wrote together with her, whether it was an article about her for a magazine or an introductory text for performance. Blessed with the trust she had in me, I try to recollect our times together and with utmost obeisance or bhakti, present you the legend she was and she will be!
Minati Aunty, as I fondly called her, believed strongly in the philosophy of Guru-shishya parampara or tradition. Accordingly, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with her, dancing, writing, cleaning her kitchen, bringing groceries and just doing whatever was required; her house for me was like an ashram, an abode of devotion and learning. She fondly made my favorite dishes (whatever she made would taste so good, she would say it is just haldi, jeera and dhania; but I guess it was just the abundant love and affection she always reserved for me). I travelled more than an hour by public transportation each time to reach her, and then we danced the whole day and she would accept only the Guru Dakshina whatever I could afford to pay her. She has always been my backbone, understanding my life and encouraging me, whether it was during my dance performances, doctoral studies or spending time with my children. The experience that she used to do my makeup when I performed and I was doing her makeup when she performed will always remain as a special memory in my heart. She inculcated in me the spirit and beauty of following the traditional form of dance as learnt from the Guru without any changes. There is always a scope for creativity in the way each person presents what has been taught. Even at her age, she had unbeatable stamina and danced like a feather. Though she opted to lead a quiet life here in Switzerland, I was overwhelmed of her celebrity status when we visited India (Orissa) together.
Born in 1934 in Cuttack, Orissa, Minati aunty was way ahead of her generation. She was the youngest of the three children. With her father’s encouragement, at a very young age, she learnt theme-based dance from Ajit Ghosh and Banabihari Maity and Odissi from Kabichandra Kalicharan Patnayak. In 1949, she became the first disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Being awarded a scholarship from the Government of Orissa, she joined Kalakshetra and learnt Bharatnatyam from Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale and Chokalinga Pillai. She excelled in both Odissi and Bharatnatyam and was performing both until the well-known dance critic Leela Venkataraman asked her to dedicate time to one form of dance and since then, there was no looking back and the field of Odissi got one of its richest stalwarts.
After a brief visit to Switzerland upon invitation in 1959, Minati aunty completed her PhD in Natyashastra from Department of Indology, Phillips University, Germany. She always mentioned that she used to be very stylish in those days and loved wearing high heels and drove fast in convertible cars in Germany. And yes! I have always seen her well-groomed, she never missed her coiffure appointments, her nails were neatly polished and she was aptly dressed according to the occasion with great attention to detail.
When she returned to India after her studies, she accepted the offers to act in 4 Oriya films (Suraj Mukhi, Arundhati, Jiban Sathi and Sadhana), out of which Arundhati is my favorite one (especially the song “Aaji mun shrabani”, sung by Lata Mangeshkar). She luckily met her husband Sri. Nityananda Mishra on the sets. She elegantly balanced her family in Switzerland and an active dance life in India. Later, she served as the principal of Utkal Sangeet Natak Akademy in Orissa for 24 years. More recently, Utkal University of Culture conferred on her its honorary D.Litt. She was a role model to many, balancing her passion, profession and love for her family.
Although dance was always her focus in life with a commitment to Odissi for over six decades, Minati aunty managed to pursue several other interests as well. Early in her life she was a keen athlete and a state-level badminton player. She also worked as an A-Grade Drama artist at All India Radio. Unknown to many, she was a profound Sanskrit scholar. Today, Dr Minati Mishra is a name that needs no introduction in the world of Odissi dance. She has been one of the staunchest perfectionists of the dance style presenting Odissi in the most stylized and intricate manner, with graceful expressions that are beyond descriptions and assimilating fine footwork with poignant feelings. Her role in the revival of the dance form and giving it a classical status has been significant.
There are no shortcuts to success. With her dedication and hard work, Minati aunty was practicing yoga, meditation and dance (both Abhinaya and the footwork) at least 5 hours per day even in her seventies and eighties. The rest of her day would be spent in the study of theoretical aspects of dance. She also loved to watch Hindi and Bengali films in her free time. She mentioned to me that she has danced with Salman Khan and other eminent actors during a couple of occasions. Her greatness was that she respected all the dance styles and told me often that any style of dance looks good when it is practiced sincerely and danced with heart and soul. The height and weight of the dancer don’t matter, what matters is how gracefully, lightly and daintily she/he moves on the stage.
Technically versatile and intellectually enlightened, she has extensively performed across the globe and has penned a number of articles on Odissi dance. She has nurtured over 500 students to her credit. She has received many awards; prominent among them are Central Sangeet Natak Academy award, Bhanja award, and Lifetime Achievement award in International Dance Festival in the USA, Saraswathi award and many more. Government of India has honored her with its prestigious Padmashree award in 2012 for her immense and invaluable contribution to the world of Indian dance.
And for me, my beloved Guru has imparted life lessons through dance and these will be the most precious jewels I hope to carry forward keeping up her teachings and her legacy.
About the Author
Dipti is a passionate dancer, corporate yoga teacher and a complete people person. Coming from the cultural city of Mysore, she has been practicing dance and yoga since childhood. She has practiced Odissi with Dr. Minati Mishra for over 19 years and performed in notable dance festivals in India, Europe, Middle East and the United States. Balancing a career in finance and arts, her hobbies include event management promoting Indian arts, acting, floristry and hot yoga.
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