Aruna Mohanty: Challenging Gender Stereotypes Through Dance

By Anita Panda Mishra

“Why are male dancers called gurus and the female performers called merely dancers? A guru has no gender. In the performing arts, gender does not exist,” affirms Aruna Mohanty, one of the finest Odissi dancers on the Indian stage. Known for her phenomenal talent and personal charisma, she is a rebel in poetic disguise, whose unconventional dance and choreography is an attempt at shattering stereotypes.

“On the stage, your gender is neutral. We are the sutradhars – narrators of a story. I sometimes play Radha, sometimes Shiva, or even Shikhandi, who was neither male nor female,” says the award-winning vice president of the Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, who was awarded the Padma Shri this year.

Watching Aruna speak is a lesson in grace and humility. She considers dance to be the essence of her soul, and, while giving a speech during the women’s festival Nari Chetna 2015, admitted that she is more eloquent through her hand or eye movements rather than the words she speaks.

Even while being careful to preserve the basic structure and aesthetics of the ancient art form of Odissi, the international dance teacher and mentor uses her intimate knowledge of bhava, bhangi, taala and abhinaya to create innovative performances that provoke and inspire global audiences with their contemporary cultural sensibilities.

“The stage is a temple for us as performers, and as a dancer I celebrate life through my performance,” says Aruna, who was a student of the legendary Guru Gangadhar Pradhan and started training at the age of 10. The “thinking danseuse” says that a nari, or woman, has eight vashisthas or forms.

“She can shed tears through her eyes, smile through her lips and if required, stand up like Goddess Durga or Shakti with her eight limbs. She has the power and confidence to be a multi-tasker,” explains Aruna, opining that a woman is quite capable of excelling in all her roles both inside and outside the home.

aruna mohanty.jpg“Every woman has her own dreams, desires and talents. If she has the power to generate another universe and new life within her, she can also achieve everything else. It is unfair to force her into certain roles and expect her to ‘tolerate’ her limited freedoms,” she adds, her spirit fiery but her tone moderated after years of rigorous training in the arts.

Her unlined face and bright eyes defy her 57 years, and her hands move about in unconscious mudras as she speaks, “I tell my mother-in-law that dancing for me is not a profession but my passion. It is the oxygen for me to live. Every woman must be allowed to pursue that passion.”

As someone who has defied the conventional portrayal of women on the dance stage, Aruna says she choreographs her performances from “a performer’s point of view, not just from a woman’s perspective.”

For instance, in her portrayal of Sita’s agni pariksha (test of fire), her character tells Lord Rama, “It is not my fault that I was kidnapped by Ravana. You as my husband and the father of our two sons should have understood me at least, even if the world views me as a woman of questionable character. This test of my character is a deep humiliation for me! I strongly protest and would rather go back to Mother Earth. I am a woman with the right to live life on my terms and conditions. Not with anyone’s permission.”

It is a potent and powerful message in a misogynistic society that, even now, blames the victim in cases of gender violence and domestic abuse.

A rare gift, indeed: Aruna Mohanty’s dance speaks a thousand words.

First published in the July 2017 issue of eShe magazine