Sharmili Mallick

At a time when people's interest in traditional and classical Indian dance forms seem to be diminishing, and western dances like locking and popping, jazz, salsa and hip-hop have been gaining popularity, 70-year-old Sandhya Debnath, an Odissi dancer from Odisha’s Sambalpur has been imparting the intrinsic ‘mudras’ (gestures) of the dance form to young girls back in her home town to keep the art alive amid challenges.

Sandhya pursued a master’s degree in Odissi from Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in 1971 and then there was no looking back for her. She took up her passion as a profession and performed on stages.

Sandhya reportedly met with an accident some years back and since then she has been moving around with the help of a wooden stick. Though she had to quit dance after she got her one leg fractured in the mishap, Sandhya started giving lessons in Odissi to young girls and children which brings her satisfaction. 

And when it comes to her training institute, it is just a dilapidated room with an asbestoses roof and a chair where Sandhya sits and teaches the gestures and poses of Odissi to her students.

On being asked, Sandhya said that she feels contended teaching Odissi but one thing has been hurting her. Sandhya said that despite her efforts to keep the dance form alive among the youngster, neither the district administration nor the State Government has recognised her contributions.

She said she applied for the government pension this year owing to her financial hardships and ailments.

“The students are very cooperative and there are many senior girls in my class who are skilled and talented. As I have been struggling to earn a livelihood while teaching dance, I have applied for a pension this year. I will keep on doing things I love until my last breath irrespective of what I have to go through. I will never leave dancing and teaching,” said Sandhya Debnath.

The students in her class believe that she is an ace Odissi dancer but never got the recognition she deserved.

“My parents urged me initially to learn Odissi dance and when I started training under my guru, I was attracted by her style, body movement, abhinaya (expressions) and mudras (gestures and sign language) which encouraged me to continue learning the dance form,” Sandhya’s student, Pallavi Dubey.

Shobha Debnath, another student of Sandhya and an Odissi dancer by profession said, “My Guru is a ratna bhandar of Odissi. I have been training under her for years and now I have also started giving Odissi classes. I want to continue dancing in order to keep up the legacy and protect it. This will be my ‘dakshina’ towards my Guru.”

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