Strike a pose with Ranjana Gauhar

If you’re a classical dance enthusiast, you’ve likely heard of Odissi artist Ranjana Gauhar. Equal parts dancer, choreographer and teacher, with detours into documentary filmmaking and writing (about music and dance), we met with Ranjana under the blossoming overhangs of Lodhi Gardens on Women’s Day.

Resplendent in goddess-red (in our buttery Aka Chanderi Sari), she is graceful and quietly confident both in front of the camera, as well as for an audience. As we talked she flowed into Odissi stances that echo those found in temples, telling the stories of Indian goddesses through gestures and delicate mudras. On any day you’ll find Ranjana with stage-ready makeup, and we settled in amidst many, many awards and her three dachshunds while she answered our questions.Tell us about yourself.
Ranjana Gauhar is a little girl, who was born into a Punjabi family, and as a child loved music and dance. My father was particularly fond of music, and was a poet, not by profession, but more as a hobby. He also played the harmonium and sang, so music is something I’ve grown up with. Every Sunday we’d sit around as a family, listening to music, singing, and generally enjoying anecdotes and stories he’d narrate.

Ranjana means the one who dispels sorrow and casts happiness. I’ve chosen a job that goes so well with that very definition. Dance is entertainment but it is also something that elevates you, educates you and entertains you.

Tell us about your personal style.
To be dressed as an Indian in ethnic wear is very important. I have never worn jeans or shorts or western clothes, as I can’t accept them for myself. My look is aesthetically Indian, and a bindi and kajal are very important. I love that style.„Ranjana means the one who dispels sorrow and casts happiness. I’ve chosen a job that goes so well with that very definition. Dance is entertainment but it is also something that elevates you, educates you and entertains you.„How did you venture into dance?
My father would play the harmonium, and I’d dance of my own will. No one ever told me to dance, it was just an inclination or desire, whatever you’d like to call it, and was an intrinsic part of me. Fortunately, my father felt that kids must do more than just study.

Music always attracted me, and I’d often go for live music concerts of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Hari Prasad Chaurasiya with my friend’s parents. As a teenager, I started listening to classic music records and people at home would whine at having to listen to classical music 24/7. I didn’t know any better at the time, or even that what I was listening to was classical music, it was just something I enjoyed. There wasn’t such a level of awareness. Dance is something that was borne out of my love for music.

It started with Kathak basics with this one tabla master in Jangpura in Delhi, but I never got that feeling that this form of dance is my calling. All I knew was that this wasn’t what I wanted to study, but neither did I know what I wanted to do. It was then that I saw this one live Odissi performance, where everything came together so beautifully, and I knew in that instant that this form of dance was my calling. I was thinking about it for months after. I was in the 10th grade if I’m not mistaken. I was so sure it’s what I wanted to do. I was invited to perform for a TV production. After performing, and seeing it telecast on Doordarshan, I was mortified. I had an image in my head of that live Odissi performance I saw and wanted to replicate, but what I witnessed in myself fell short. It wasn’t as I envisioned.
The biggest influences in your life?
In dance there is our Odissi guru, who is guruji to all Odissi dancers, Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. He passed away in 2004. There’s my guru, Mayadhar Raut. And Yamini Krishnamoorthy, a dancer with electrifying effect, who is so energetic, so beautiful. It had always been my mission to dance like her.

What sets Odissi apart from other forms of dance?
I experimented in Manipuri for eight months too, and I had learnt Kathak for seven years. I didn’t find a spiritual quality to other forms of dance. For me there was so much depth and antiquity in Odissi. Odissi as a dance from has hardly lived out of the temple, and there is some tradition to it that I don’t find it in other forms of dance. Odiya culture, and their literature has something so special about it. I feel the essence of their culture comes through in their dance - I can say this today, but I didn’t know this then.

All these forms of dance are very varied from each other - music, language, technique - the subjects though, of mythological characters, are common. But the way it is conveyed is very different - language, music - and that changes the entire flavour of the dance.„Dance became my window to the world. If it wasn’t for dance, I wouldn’t have started making documentary films on art and culture, or writing for that matter.„What have been some highlights for you?
Dance became my window to the world. For me dance was a tree, that in me, sprouted out many branches. If it wasn’t for dance, I wouldn’t have started making documentary films, on art and culture, or writing for that matter. Odissi Chandrika is one of my documentary films that speaks about the birth and evolution of Odissi dance. Saundarya Lehri is another, and they’ve all been commissioned by Doordarshan. They give the layman insight into Odissi dance, it’s origin, the people who danced it, and still dance it, covering 2000 years of this art form. My book on Odissi as a dance form -- Odissi: The Dance Divine -- is very close to my heart too.

Tell us about the transition from being a performer and choreographer, to a teacher, documentary filmmaker, and writer.
Anything that was required to take dance further, to continue with it, and spread more knowledge about it, I did. I didn’t need any other motivation. It just flew very effortlessly. A side note, I have never planned anything in my life. I’ve never been a person who strategises.

As a teacher, do you see that same sort of passion amongst your students?
Dance’s nature has changed. People look at it differently now. I was obsessed with my art - eating, breathing and sleeping dance. I don’t see this happening with the present generation. Anything that puts them in the limelight seems to grab their attention. Their motivation isn’t excellence in dance, it’s more with how to get noticed. Of course, there are a few serious ones that I teach, who are very close to my heart. It is my duty to teach them well. But I love them all equally, without professing favourites, because as a teacher that’s a dangerous trend. My advice to them: Know in your hearts how much dance means to you. If you start studying or practicing dance, do it with total sincerity, transparency, honesty and dedication.

Do your students call you guruji?
No, they don’t. They call me ma’am (the younger ones, not the 50 year old students). I don’t want to be called guruji for two reasons: one because I don’t think I am worthy of the title. I believe one needs to possess a lot of knowledge before being dubbed “Guruji”, and I am still far from that. And secondly, it makes me feel old!

The biggest challenges of your profession?
Everyday is a challenge. Challenges are a way of life. Life is so full, so rich, and it’s thriving, so there’s never a dull moment. Everything is a challenge, from students coming in or not, to musicians not giving you enough time (or being difficult) which is a terrible thing about classical dance.

Your next performance?
There’s one to commemorate World Dance Day on 28 April at Kamani Auditorium, with all my students.

For the uninitiated, Ranjana runs a dance academy aka Utsav from her home in Jangpura, and you can get better acquainted with her at