Sanjukta Panigrahi - a phenomenon
-jhelum paranjape

Sanjukta Panigrahi. A name synonymous with modern day Odissi. A born dancer, a child prodigy – her genius evident at a very tender age. She died on 24th of June 1997. Had she been alive she would have turned sixty this year (2004). 

Sanjukta was born on 24th Aug 1944 at Behrampur. She started dancing from the age of four. Her mother encouraged her because she loved dance. But Abhiram Mishra, her father initially discouraged her. Yet Sanjukta never gave up. She persisted and blossomed in her dancing career. From the age of six she started performing. In her own words : “I loved dance too much and was totally involved in it and I was only six. While returning from school friends and neighbours would say – Sanju, will you dance for us? I would spontaneously put my books on the road and dance without any inhibitions”.
At the age of nine she performed at the annual festival of the Children’s Little Theatre in Calcutta, and the very next day she was featured in most of the newspapers, with plenty of praiseworthy coverage. “……the surprise of the evening was little Sanjukta Mishra….!”,        “… the entire show was stolen by a child prodigy from Orissa….”. This catapulted Sanjukta into a series of performances – though small – 5 to 10 min duration, she would sometimes do two performances a day! That was when her parents felt that all this attention and applause might spoil her and distract her from her main objective – to become a disciplined dancer. She was taken to Kalakshetra, to Rukmini Devi Arundale. At first Rukmini Devi was reluctant to accept this nine year old as a student. She will cry,  also she doesn’t know any Tamil….! But her parents insisted.Her mother was very keen. Finally Rukmini Devi said, I will observe her for three months and then decide. Those three months were crucial for Sanjukta. In those three months Sanjukta picked up working knowledge of Tamil and never cried during the day. Being only nine – she felt homesick and wanted to cry, which she did only in the night in her pillow.She did not want to be sent back, she did not want to hurt her mother. Rukmini Devi admired the grit and courage in little Sanjukta.
She was accepted . Her talent noticed. She stayed at Kalakshetra for six years. She also did her academics – senior Cambridge during that time. She got her Nrityapraveen diploma in Bharatnatyam with Kathakali as the second subject.While she was at Kalakshetra, a musicologist, Nilamani Panigrahi visited  (her future father- in - law). He seemed to like Sanjukta for his son Raghunath, who was a popular singer in Madras. Back in Orissa the proposal was put forward to the  Misra’s – Sanjukta’s parents. Mother was for it, father against. “Both are artistes, how can they earn a good living?” But her mother was adamant. “ She loves dance. Only a musician will understand this passion. Nobody else.” In the meanwhile in Madras, Sanjukta had heard Raghunath singing and had fallen in love with his voice. She was willing to marry him. Raghu would come home but Sanju’s father would not relent. After a year, Sanjukta’s father packed her off to Bombay to learn Kathak from Pt. Hazarilal and incidentally to forget Raghunath too! But that was impossible. Raghunath followed Sanjukta to Mumbai!
In 1960 Sanjukta got married at the age of sixteen. She had her first son when she was seventeen and second when she was nineteen. Circumstances made her lose her childhood and her youth. Even later it was a struggle for establishing oneself. Raghunath had left his lucrative career in Madras for marriage to Sanjukta. They tried their luck in Bombay, did not succeed. Went later back to Madras, but there too success evaded them. The two year absence from the Madras music scene was not good for Raghunath. He had lost his foothold in the South Indian music industry. They came back to Bhubaneswar and Sanjukta took up the post of a dance lecturer in the recently formed Music College. Raghunath started conducting national music orchestras. Marriage in 1960 and the birth of two sons till 1964 – these years were very hard on Sanjukta and Raghunath – economically and otherwise. From 1966 they decided to work as a team and that’s really when Sanjukta’s career got a boost. He started adjusting his commitments in order to be able to sing more and more for her. In her own words : “I do believe that he could have done much better for himself if he didn’t sing for me; as he has such a rich voice and a typical style of singing. I cannot deny that he had to make compromises for me”.
Way back, a journalist in Calcutta had said about this child prodigy: “I had often heard of God gifted talent – little Sanjukta was that. She has cast a spell over us”. It was true. The audience, journalists, connoisseurs had all spotted this god gifted talent way back in 1953…. They all fell in love with this sprightly girl of nine… till her death, her charm did not end,  their love spell did not break. Not only India, but  the world over people adored Sanjukta and her dance. She was very popular in Europe and was an annual feature since 1980 at the invitation of Eugenio Barba, a very eminent director of the Odin theatre of Denmark. She was dance in its purest form, superb sublime spiritual… ultimately showering the bliss of Moksha.
‘Sanjukta Panigrahi’ - that’s how the world knew her. But we called her ‘Sanjunani’ – we meaning most of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s disciples. It was 25 years ago that I started calling her ‘Sanjunani’. In the Odiya language ‘nani’ means older sister.
Our first meeting was at Cuttack, in guruji’s house. She and Raghubhaina (Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi) had come to guruji’s house. ‘This girl is from Mumbai, Shankar’s (my first guru, Shankar Behera) student, watch her dance!’ I danced for a few minutes and guruji started yelling at my mistakes (the perfectionist that he was !) Sanjunani said  ‘Leave her alone, she is new to your style – she will learn’. It was just five years after this first meeting that I was travelling with her in a troupe led by guruji for the festival of India in Russia! In the one month with her in Russia and the 15 days of rehearsals prior to that, I got to see Sanjunani from close quarters, and I got to know her as a person and we grew close. We would meet rarely, only when I was in Orissa or she was in Mumbai. There was contact of course, through the occasional letter or phone call.
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,  in Diwali – she had asked me to take Dr. Anant Joshi’s appointment - 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 wanted to talk to her, desperately . 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….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 was an introvert. She always kept her distance, but once her wavelength clicked with someone, she would talk a lot. She would care for the person. Just before we left for our Russia tour, Smita (the late actress Smita Patil, who was a very close friend of mine since childhood.) had died. I suppose Sanjunani knew my frame of mind. Have you had breakfast… are you tired… is your back hurting.. do you think of Smita a lot … talk to me about her… It was not difficult for her to understand people. Yet she was never part of the group as such. No jokes, no chitchatting, no whiling away time. We had tremendous respect for her, maybe her nature made it more so. Her detractors called her self-centred. But I never felt that, while performing or rehearsing.
She had once said: “ I don’t know how people will remember me. All my life I have known only dance, and people know me as a dancer, but still I wish people will remember me as a good human being, a sincere person.  Many people misunderstand me. They think I am not sociable because I do not go to parties or clubs. But I do not like to discuss saris and jewellery. I may not be sociable to them, but I take care of the needs of my immediate family as also the larger family of musicians and technicians who are with me.
She always felt that she lost out on her childhood and her youth due to her early performances and early marriage. Maybe that is why she was always very encouraging to young dancers in the group. She would not mind rehearsing a particular piece ten times if a junior dancer in the group went wrong. This happened with me. In the ballet ‘Geet Govind’ she was Krishna and I was Radha’s sakhi. I had to box her ears in one sequence. I just couldn’t get myself to do it. Guruji  was going purple with rage, precious time was being wasted. Before guruji could get up and slap me, Sanjunani took my fist  and  boxed  herself, telling guruji ‘don’t worry, it’ll happen, she’ll do it’.

She was very understanding about mistakes made by junior dancers. She had a phenomenal memory and was extremely cautious about her own mistakes. In Russia, after an item, she quickly came to the wings and held guruji’s feet -  please  forgive me for the mistake today. In the darkness of the backstage I witnessed this. I was overwhelmed and drawn to tears.

Raghubhaina – her life partner and stage partner! If he ever made a mistake – she would not leave him. Once in Mumbai, I was in the audience, sitting on the front row. Bhaina went wrong, didn’t realise he’d gone wrong and kept on singing… Nani  kept  adjusting….! After the show I was the witness, they were arguing, he wouldn’t accept… and I had to say he was wrong! He accepted his mistake and Sanjunani was pleased as a punch -  like a little child. Whenever they argued over a point like this they would get into Tamil, so people didn’t realise they were flinging words at each other …..!!

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