Sharmila Mukerjee had the best possible start to her career, but it is Odissi where she chose to invest her energy.
All of 16, Sharmila Mukerjee was an unknown face when she first walked onstage. It was Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary celebrations, and Calcutta had shown up in droves to watch a theatre performance of the legendary poet’s dance-drama, Chandilika. That night, the teenager played the main character and did an extraordinary job at it. Overnight, she became a sensation.
But this was only the beginning. “That’s where my journey started, but something made me want to learn classical dance,” she recalls. Indeed, it was the Uday Shankar style of dance, where Indian classical (Odissi, in her case) and European techniques meet, which attracted her, and a successful career followed.
The dance-form soon became one of her own. She describes Odissi as “very sculptural, lyrical and graceful. The music is beautiful, spiritual, divine…I believed that this was the dance-form that would suit me the best, because of its free-flowing movement and also because it is very technical. It looks easy on the eye, but it isn’t. Visually, it’s a beautiful dance-form.”
And when Mukerjee began to innovate with Odissi, true to the Uday Shankar style, she did so by adapting Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet into Hansika, which has been quite successful. She decided to go for this particular ballet “because the storyline is all about jealousy, passion, and love — and that is common for all dance-forms. But you have to adapt it to the Indian context. For instance, there’s a ballroom scene that I made into a wedding scene, with all the Indian wedding customs.”
She also experimented with the music: She kept The Dance of the Swans scene intact, but it was mixed with typical Odissi Odissi pakhawaj (percussion), sitar, tabla, flute, and the violin.
Mukerjee’s role in popularising the dance-form, in India and abroad, cannot be discounted either. “I’ve been taking themes like Hansika. There’s also another play based on a folktale from Karnataka, and yet another showcasing the negative and the positive sides of Kaikeyi — these are the things I’m doing to try and popularise Odissi.”
Indeed, her performances have spanned across countries, including her dance ensemble’s tour of Tunisia, organised by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and the Indian Embassy in Tunisia.