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Laxmipriya Mohapatra: Trailblazer and inspiration

Laxmipriya Mohapatra was the first dancer to perform the then-unnamed Odissi on stage

Around midnight on March 20, Laxmipriya Mohapatra, better known as the wife of Odissi legend Kelucharan Mohapatra, passed away in Bhubaneswar. She was 93 and had stopped dancing several decades ago. Yet, the news of her death was mourned by lovers of Odissi across the globe. She was cremated with full State honours. Laxmipriya’s identity was not just as the wife of Kelucharan; she made history when she became the first dancer to perform Odissi on stage, and Kelucharan would often acknowledge her inspiring presence in his life and art.

Much before her celebrated husband embarked on his dance journey, Laxmipriya had established herself as a star dancer at the famous Annapurna Theatre in Puri. Driven by poverty, her actress-mother Tulasi Devi had sent her to the theatre when Laxmipriya was just seven. At 17, she moved from Puri to Cuttack, the cultural capital of Odisha. Here, she got an opportunity to share the stage with her future husband when the two acted in a play in which Laxmipriya performed the role of Mohini while Kelucharan was Mahadev.

Historic solo performance

It was followed by her historic solo Odissi presentation, the first of its kind, in 1946, accompanied by Kelucharan on the mardal. Her stunning performance of this new dance form — yet to be named ‘Odissi’ — captivated audiences so much that there would be queues to buy tickets to watch the dancer.

The late and eminent actor-dancer Minati Mishra talked on many occasions about how as a child she had watched Laxmipriya dance and been motivated to learn Odissi. Two other exponents — Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi and Kumkum Mohanty, both from Cuttack, were equally inspired by Laxmipriya, who was instrumental in encouraging girls from educated and established families to train in Odissi.

Also proficient in folk and tribal dances, Laxmipriya performed these at Republic Day parades in New Delhi in the early 1950s. With her strong foundation in theatre, she acted in a number of classic Odia films. She guided and supported Kelucharan during his formative years as a choreographer. “Guruji would keenly observe her moves and expressions and include them in his choreography,” recalls Kumkum Mohanty. “He would insist on his wife’s presence when he worked on a new piece. He valued her inputs immensely,” says Pranati Mohanty, a senior disciple of the couple.

“Kelucharan admired her beauty and talent since he first saw her dancing. He had been by her side, as a dance partner as well as a trusted friend. Laxmipriya was and continues to be his inspiration even after 50 years,” wrote Ileana Citaristi, Kelucharan’s distinguished disciple and biographer, two decades ago in her book, The Making of a Guru.

Though a highly accomplished artiste, Laxmipriya decided to step back from performances to take care of the family and support her husband. She was instrumental in building Srjan, the famed institution that Guru Kelucharan established in Bhubaneswar, which has groomed dancers across the globe.

The Bhubaneshwar-based author writes on classical dance.

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