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A dancing legacy

Classical Indian dance company prepares for annual showcase

Even from the parking lot outside studio G6 of the Cubberley Community Center, you can hear it. The loud rumble could almost be the noise of hammering or the sound of a basketball game, but the beat is a bit too rhythmic. It sounds more like a roomful of pounding of drums.

Inside, seven young women in brightly colored saris face a mirror, their knees bent, their heels thumping the hardwood floor in unison. These are the dancers of Guru Shradha, an Indian dance company founded in San Carlos in 2008. They're rehearsing for their performance on Oct. 4: a show that is both a tribute to the founder of their art form and a chance to introduce the wider community to the style of classical Indian dance known as Odissi.

Swathed in a sari of brilliant pinks and oranges, her wrist bearing a collection of tinkling bangles and her forehead marked with a red bindi indicating her status as a married woman, Sujata Mohapatra is the kind of person it's hard not to watch. Even seated at the front of the room while the dancers rehearse, she commands attention. Now and then, she rises to demonstrate the movements she wants to see, using her voice to indicate the beat of the music.

"Taka taka taka de, taka de, taka taka," she intones, weaving her graceful arms through the air, her head bobbing on her neck, even her eyes dancing. Beside her, a Guru Shradha student follows along, trying to emulate her style.

The movements are beautiful, but they don't look easy. While the feet must move rapidly, the heels striking the floor with explosive staccato in time to the beat; the upper body remains soft and fluid, all curves and subtle shifts of angle. Sujata smiles serenely as she dances; her student frowns slightly in concentration as she watches.

Along with her husband, Ratikant Mohapatra, Sujata has flown to Palo Alto from Bhubaneswar, the city in eastern India where their dance institution, Srjan, is based. It was her father-in-law and Ratikant's father, the late Kelucharan Mohapatra, who founded Srjan, and whose legacy lives on internationally in more than 5,000 of his direct students and thousands more who have learned from them in turn.

Twice a year, the Mohapatras visit Palo Alto for a residency with the 50 or so students of Guru Shradha. Though the school is only one of hundreds across the world dedicated to preserving and transmitting Odissi, Sujata and Ratikant are particularly impressed by the work of its founder and director, Niharika Mohanty, who also studied under Kelucharan Mohapatra.

"Her work has been phenomenal," Ratikant said of Mohanty. "It's very heartening to see her students when they perform."

This year as every year, the showcase Guru Shradha will present to the public is titled "Kelucharan Keerti Sampradaya." The title combines Kelucharan: the name of the school's guru, with Keerti: accomplishments, and Sampradaya: tradition. This year's production features one of the guru's ballets, "Dashanana," based on the myth of Ravana, the king of Lanka. In this rendition of the story, Ravana seeks to die by the hand of Lord Vishnu to attain salvation.

Lineage and loyalty are central to the art form of Odissi. Even the name of the Peninsula-based company, Guru Shradha, means "teacher devotion," a reference to Kelucharan Mohapatra, who died in 2004. His son remembered him as "a painter, a magician, a percussionist, an actor and folk art scholar as well as a dancer and choreographer."

"He contributed the maximum to the form," he reflected.

Along with a few fellow artists, it was Kelucharan Mohapatra who revitalized and disseminated Odissi starting in the 1950s. In later years, he toured widely, spreading knowledge and appreciation of his art form around the world. Critics of the era likened Mohapatra to the great Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky for his "magnificent sinuous torso and arms" and to Charlie Chaplin for his "inspired gestural acting."

The style of Odissi is named for the Odisha region of India where it originated, probably as early as the second century B.C. While the dance form's precise movements were not preserved from antiquity, ancient temple sculptures of bodies in motion helped Mohapatra to recreate and codify the style. While Odissi bears some similarities to other classical Indian dance styles, including Bharatanatyam, it is less linear, and is distinct in its use of rib-cage and pelvic isolations, where one body part moves independently of the others.

Back in the studio, Sujata stands with Guru Shradha dancer Deepa Mahadevan, who in addition to performing Odissi also teaches and performs Bharatanatyam. Side by side, they demonstrate the differences between the two classical dance styles. Sujata's Odissi movements are sinuous and curving, her fingers remaining slightly splayed like the tassels at the end of a fluttering ribbon. Meanwhile, Mahadevan strikes poses more definitively, letting her arms extend almost to their limits, her fingers pressed together like spears.

It's time to return to rehearsal. Before performing the narrative ballet, "Dashanana," Guru Shradha will present an invocation followed by a dance known as "Pallavi" -- "the dance of pure joy." It's this work they now begin to rehearse. "Pallavi" begins slowly, with subtle movements of the eyes, neck and torso. Slowly but surely, the pace of the accompanying raga or song speeds up, and the dancers move faster and faster to match the music until their feet are pounding the floor in complex and highly technical patterns and their bodies are whirling across the stage to create shifting geometric formations.

The youngest dancer in this group is 12 years old; the oldest is in her 30s. After two months of practicing together, they move in unison, only occasionally falling out of step before jumping back in. Still, they get a stern talking-to at the end of the dance.

"You need to use your time wisely to rehearse," Mohanty chides her dancers. Sujata chimes in as well.

"You should be making everything clear instead of making it ..." she uses her hands to indicate a muddled movement. "Don't do that," she concludes.

Having received their feedback, the dancers return to their positions to try again. They don't look discouraged so much as focused, determined.

As part of their residency, Sujata and Ratikant will join the young dancers on stage, making the Oct. 4 show an unusual opportunity to see some of the most accomplished Odissi dancers in the world perform right here in Palo Alto. Though they've been hailed by The New York Times and are widely recognized as leaders of their art form, the married couple seems more dedicated to passing along their training than to being in the spotlight themselves. At the same time, Ratikant explained, they hope to add their own particular gifts to the artistic legacy of Kelucharan Mohapatra.

"We are sincerely trying to carry forward his legacy," Sujata said.

"But we don't want to just be postmen; we want to add something new to the tradition," Ratikant added. "That way, the art form grows."

What: "Kelucharan Keerti Sampradaya"

Where: Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Sunday, Oct. 4, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Cost: $15-$35

Info: Go to [goo.gl/IcvxR4 goo.gl/IcvxR4 or call 650-394-6022.

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