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

By Donovan Roebert

It should be clear by now to readers of this series of essays on Sanjukta that I am not attempting to write a brief account of her life. Even if that had been my intention, the materials readily available online would not have afforded me sufficient substance to write even a mini-biography or an amateurish monograph. And this has been the point I have been making all along : that a biography desperately needs to be written by someone more qualified than I, and with access to the necessary institutional resources.


So far as her life in her mature years is concerned, there is very little information to be gleaned from any public forum, even though it was in these years that she took Odissi, its theory, philosophy and practice, to hundreds of stages and lecture halls throughout India and across the globe, and turned it into an internationally celebrated dance form.


From 1979 she began collaborating with Eugenio Barba and other performing artists to establish the International Society of Theatre Anthropology (ISTA). She and Barba shared a deeply intellectual and affectionate working relationship, and it is clear from his tribute to her (at the end of this essay) that he was devastated by her untimely death from cancer in 1997.


In the period from 1985 onwards, in the last twelve years of her life, Sanjukta travelled widely under the auspices of ISTA to demonstrate, discuss, lecture and learn about the global role of dance and theatre in their socio-psychological and socio-cultural contexts. It was in this work especially that her spiritual and intellectual powers were most clearly demonstrated. Yet there is almost nothing online to inform us what exactly this work involved or to provide details of the lectures, demonstrations and experiments with dance that she conducted with ISTA and the Danish Odin Theatre. All of the relevant information, insofar as it exists at all, is lodged in the ISTA archives, which are inaccessible to private researchers. In this regard, I have written to ISTA asking for certain documents and interviews relating to Sanjukta but have not had so much as a preliminary response.


What is well known, apart from her collaboration with Eugenio Barba, is the fact that, in her final years, she intended to found a school for Odissi along the lines of Kalakshetra, where she had studied Bharat Natyam, Kathakali and certain dance texts as a girl. But this vision, one which she cherished as the intended culmination of her career in dance, was cut short by her early death.


Here is a moving and personal account of her last months, given us by Jhelum Paranjape:


She died in June 1997, and was intermittently ill prior to that, but I came to know about her cancer very late, only in March. She was in Mumbai in 1996, during Diwali – she had asked me to make an appointment with Dr. Anant Joshi for her knees – they hurt very badly. But it never occurred to me that cancer would be the culprit. It was her wish that her relationship with dance should continue till her last breath, but this illness wouldn’t allow that. She had realised this and she didn’t want the world to know. 

I desperately wanted to talk to her. Guruji said, “Try, but she will not come to the phone.” I called. I was told she is at the doctor’s. I called again. Babu (her older son) picked up the phone…she refused…Babu told her its Jhelum from Mumbai. She took the phone. I said, “I only want to hear your voice, Sanjunani.” She burst into tears. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t. She cried and cried and cried a lot. She could see death approaching, she could sense the speed at which it was approaching. She didn’t want to accept it, but she was helpless, she knew it. But then, how long can one control one’s emotions? The feeling of having lost everything too soon?

 Sanjunani wanted to discipline Odissi, systematize Odissi – it was her strong wish to do this. But performance was her forte…her life…her soul! She would have done this after she was sixty. She would have done this meticulously – being a daughter of the soil, a Kalinga Kanya. 

In her own words, “I have a dream, to start a school like Kalakshetra. I want to share every experience that a dancer goes through to evolve and I also want to teach students to be good human beings, not only good artistes. If I had to live life again, I would still want to dance.”

 Sanjunani was religious and spiritual, and with tremendous regard for tradition. Once at a performance in Mumbai she had forgotten her ‘alta’. She asked me to get mine. My modernity had made me switch to a red marker pen and I took that to her. She was shocked and pained. But this was not orthodoxy; this was her respect for tradition. She did everything traditionally – the alta, her hair, her make up, her pooja before a performance. Make up – she was firm about one thing. Never wipe your make up immediately after a program. People should see you the way they saw you on stage. That image, that impression should remain. Though I have never followed it personally, for myself, I think I followed it in her death. When I spoke to her over the phone after learning about her illness, I had this strong wish to go meet her in Bhubaneswar. But I didn’t. I remembered this principle of hers. I did not see her sickly form; the image, the impression, the visual of her strong spiritual form dancing with abandon remained with me. Sanjunani has always remained and still remains with me. Often, watching her moksha, I felt she was really one with God. But I think God took her moksha too seriously… 


We have much to thank Jhelum Paranjape for. Her short account of Sanjukta’s life and achievements is the best to be found online. I only wish it were longer and more detailed.


Sharon Lowen offers us some insight into the controversy into which Sanjukta was plunged when she made a public offer to dance in the temples as an act of acknowledgment to the devadasi and mahari origins of Odissi :


Another strong memory was the surprising controversy when Sanju-nani volunteered to offer dance seva in Jagannath Puri Mandir for a month, once or twice a year. Her suggestion was to revive a significant part of the temple tradition that ended because of the British colonial Anti-Nautch Act. She hoped that the aesthetic, spiritual expression of Odissi dance would be welcome into its place of origin and that other dancers would also be allowed to follow suit in order to make this a regular offering in the temple year round.

 Her deep spiritual involvement, which created a temple out of any stage on which she performed, made this desire a logical and natural extension of what the dance is and can be. It surprised me at the time that most of the intellectual elite of the country misunderstood her heartfelt gesture and interpreted it through the negative stereotypes associated with the decline of the devadasi traditions of India. This could hardly have been the case with the expression of Bhakti from 20th century’s modern and educated dancers. It is another matter that the pujaris disallowed her request owing to her marital status.


Regarding this controversy, Sanjukta herself explained her intentions in an interview sometime in the 1990s :


The journalists even asked me whether I was considering joining as a devadasi and I clarified, “I cannot become a devadasi because of the present situation in my life. I cannot follow the rules and regulations of conduct that are laid down for devadasis. I can perform and offer my art form at the feet of the Lord only for the sake of culture. If you want to call me a devadasi while I perform in such a manner I don’t mind because devadasi is not a bad word. It is a very sacred word.”

And what do you know! The next day — ‘Sanjukta Panigrahi to become devadasi’ was duly reported in major newspapers throughout the country. All my stipulations had of course been left out. People were shocked. Friends rang up to ask me, “Has there been a quarrel? Is there a problem in your life? Why do you want to leave everything and go away?”

The report in The Asian Age was particularly offensive. They wrote a nasty editorial saying I was seeking cheap publicity and carried a story without even interviewing me. I rang up M J Akbar and asked him how somebody could write such things without speaking to me and he said, “I didn’t notice it, maybe some sub-editor wrote it or something.” I told him that I was surprised that such a thing appeared in his paper because I thought he was responsible as he has been in the field for such a long time. Then he asked me to write a letter in protest and they would publish it. And I must say, he kept his word.


And here she speaks about her awful encounter with the swaggering chauvinist, Lalu Prasad Yadav :


As soon as my musicians came on to the stage, Laloo Yadav pointed at them and said, “Do minute mein suru karo.” (Tune your instruments in two minutes.) My musicians were very upset, they found it very insulting that somebody from the audience should order them like this, and that too the chief minister!

But as we were to discover, worse was to follow. All through the performance Yadav and his friends were disturbing me, someone coming someone going, laughing, cracking jokes, talking, perhaps about politics, eating, doing hulla gulla. They were not concentrating on the dance at all. After the third item when I came on to the stage to give a brief commentary on the fourth item, Yadav asked me, very crudely, “Ab aap aur nachiyega ki aap aur kisi ko karne dijiyega? Baad mein naach karo.” (Are you doing to dance some more or will you give somebody else a chance? Dance later.)

I was, of course, very humiliated being spoken to like this. I don’t even know how to describe this feeling because no one had ever spoken to me like this before, especially in front of a large audience and the press, but since I am too much of a professional to leave a performance without doing my moksha,. my last number, I said, “Aur paanch minute lagenge,” (It will take another five minutes).

By then Laloo Yadav had given a statement in the Indian Express expressing his regret. He also apologised to the Orissa chief minister. Biju Patnaik also rang me up and told me that Laloo Yadav wanted to be excused, so I let the matter drop and put an end to it.

Did I expect Laloo Prasad to apologise? No, and I didn’t want him to. I didn’t want him to apologise to me because I don’t think he’s the kind of person who realises his mistake. If he was that kind of a person, even if he didn’t like something he wouldn’t have behaved so carelessly in front of the audience.


It speaks for itself. It shows us the clear-mindedness and simple humility that made her such an invaluable and lucid contributor to the ISTA endeavour and such an admired exponent of the dance to which she dedicated the whole of her life, from her childhood up to her very last months.


Here, just a few years before her death, she speaks about her vision for the coming decades that she was not after all to see, and looks back a little too over the life she has lived :


Now, I have started teaching dance. I find that you can analyse dance much better as a teacher. You can see the mistakes much more clearly when someone else is dancing. A dancer’s life is very short. So now, I do not know for how long I can be mentally and physically strong enough to dance. I don’t want to live long. I will be very happy if some day I die on stage.

I don’t know how people will remember me. All my life, I have known only dance but still I wish that people remember me as a good human being, a sincere person. I know that many people misunderstand me. They think that I am not sociable because I do not attend weddings or go to parties or clubs. But I don’t enjoy going to these places to discuss saris and jewellery. Yes, there are some social obligations that I have to carry out because of my professional commitments, but otherwise, I try to take care of the needs not only of my immediate family, but also the larger family of musicians and technicians who help me in a performance.

At the end of the day, I do not really have many regrets because there is a positive side to all the negative things I have undergone. Yes, I lost out on my childhood, but I was given a great reward in the success I had in my vision of putting Odissi dance on the national and international map. I have been honoured the way few individuals in my field of dance have been and for that I am deeply grateful. Again, despite the fact that I had to shoulder my responsibility single-handedly, even though I am a married women, has been irksome at times, perhaps if I had married another man, a well-to-do officer or someone like that, I may not have been able to dance at all.


She departed far too young. That is incontestable. She could not fulfill her last intention to create the Odissi School. But apart from that dream (which was perhaps realized in the end by Protima Gauri Bedi at Nrityagram) there must have been still so much more she could have taught us about the multiple dimensions of the dance.


She died very suddenly at the age of fifty-two – but by that time she had been dancing for forty-nine years.


I would like to close this three-part essay with an extract from the homage paid to Sanjukta by Eugenio Barba, taken from a document which I was fortunate enough to obtain from a scholar-friend. It is not in the public domain. I am extremely grateful to be able to share it here because it speaks of Sanjukta Panigrahi in just the right tone, in just the right words, and with a fitting sense of the tragedy and loss of her sudden passing :


Sanjukta Panigrahi was a great artist, a founder of a tradition, an independent and rebellious woman, and an intellectual … Like Rukmini Devi and Shanta Rao before her, Sanjukta infringed the limits that tradition imposed on girls from honorable families, and, opposing the apparent intangibility of conventional honour, she laid down the ethic of the dance. In her private life she had to fight to win acceptance of her way of creating a family, of being a wife and a mother without abandoning the theatre profession … she opposed intolerance, practising her own religious devotion with a deep sense of spiritual freedom that considered … differences of belief to be ways of drawing water … with buckets of different shapes.

 Although she had been honoured with the most prestigious awards … she lived a very frugal life. Her entire day was devoted to domestic or artistic tasks … It was essential to her to make her dances known. She travelled widely throughout India in order to dance … for a modest fee … before hundreds of spectators in remote villages. Then she would leave on tour to North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, Latin America, as well as to perform in the great theatres of the Indian cities …

 I said that she was an intellectual : she felt a strong sense of responsibility to transmit her own knowledge … She took part in symposiums, gave lectures, wrote articles. I remember Sanjukta’s expression, sometimes amused, sometimes dismayed and hurt, when faced with a wall of incomprehension … rebuking her for presenting in her dances a female image … corresponding to the cliché of ancient stories. They were addressed to a woman who had struggled and changed the existing conditions and had contributed through her actions to the creation of another image of female presence in her society.

 When I think of the hours I have spent observing the art of Sanjukta Panigrahi, of the days spent working together, each of us confronting the other with our own obstinacy yet each safe in the knowledge of the loyalty of the other, then theatre reveals to my eyes the fervent but threatened face of the reincarnation of Eros …

 We often attempt to console ourselves by saying that a person who has died has at least fulfilled his or her mission in life … that they had given all they had to give … that, all things considered, their death was better than a period of forced inactivity and suffering.


 The inevitable still does not cease to be unjust. Sanjukta disappeared at the moment in which her wisdom and knowledge were ready to bear unforeseeable fruits, the fruits of old age, after the flowers of youth and maturity.

 In time the vigour of her performance would have begun to diminish, her dances would have ceased to amaze through their physical prowess. The strength of her spirit was ready to appear in its humble power. The marvels of Sanjukta’s old age have been taken from us. To this I can never resign myself.





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