Prem Sahoo, a professional Odissi dancer from Odisha, credits his lion-hearted mother, Manjulata, for defending his passion and standing up for him when he couldn’t.
Holding her less-than-a-day old son in her arms, a teary-eyed Manjulata vowed to raise him with high self-esteem and dignity on a chilly February morning in 1990 in a Cuttack hospital, Odisha. She promised him to be a supportive mother and friend, who would protect him at all costs.
True to her word, the feisty mother has braved the odds and shattered conventional norms to ensure her, Prem Sahoo, pursued his passion for dance. For her, it didn’t matter if he wanted to excel at Odissi, a dance form quintessentially laced with feminine grace.
Way before our heightened awareness of gender fluidity came in, this mother tucked away in a Tier-II city was taking a brave leap of faith. She encouraged Prem, who had discontinued dancing because of societal pressure, to get back to it.
If today, Prem is an accomplished classical dancer, known for his curvaceous, graceful movements and swaying torso, it is because a mother undid century-old patriarchy.
“The only thing that matters for a mother is her child’s happiness so I didn’t do anything extraordinary for my son,” Manjulata, who is filled with humility and grace, tells The Better India.
“As far as dance is concerned, why should anyone’s talent be dominated by gender? If it’s about preserving our pristine glory and customs, then it’s important to note that this sacred dance was brought to the public by Gotipuas (boys dressed in female attire) in the 2nd Century BCE. Gurus like Kelucharan Mohapatra and Deb Prasad Das are the conservators of Odissi so it’s a little ridiculous when the so-called protectors of our culture raise gender-related concerns,” she adds.
While Manjulata tried her best to ensure her son wasn’t reduced to a lone warrior, Prem had his own share of challenges. Hailing from a conservative background didn’t help as everyone’s mentality, including his relatives’, acted as an invisible prison. They made him feel uncomfortable in his own skin to an extent that Prem attempted suicide and it took nearly six years to bring him out of his shell.
In a country that frowns every time someone goes beyond their assigned gender roles, here’s how this mother-son duo set an inspiring example in multiple arenas including right parenting.
‘You Will Grow Up To Be A Chakka’
‘Chakka, mitha, nachanya’ and more were common words casually thrown at Prem in a demeaning way every time he went on stage to perform during his school days. This would be often followed by threats and physical abuse from classmates.
Even the school teachers didn’t spare the boy, “I loved performing at our annual day functions and if I went for practice in between lectures, teachers mockingly said, ‘nachayanya, go dance’. This gave a free pass to students to elicit laughter at a boy in a dance costume,” recalls Prem.
Meanwhile, at home, the same dance moves invited applause. Impressed by his effortless steps, Manjulata enrolled him for Kathak classes when he turned 13. Manjulata presented examples of established male dancers like Pandit Birju Maharaj.
Despite the nervous stares from female students and taunts from people around him, Prem went for the classes and loved it too. Dancing became synonymous to peace until an incident that led him to quit.
“After finishing a semi-classical performance at a social gathering, I was inside my green room when an elderly uncle approached me. He started touching and groping me. I froze for a second before pushing him and running away. I ran till I found an isolated corner and cried incessantly. That was a triggering point and I decided to end my troubles with my life,” says Prem.
A 14-year-old failed to understand how a beautiful dance form could be villainous. He refrained from sharing the bullying and such unpleasant incidents with his parents. He didn’t want them to worry.
So, one day he shut his room, tied a handkerchief around his neck and pulled it hard. However, he couldn’t go through with it because he knew he was the only son to his parents. He took the “next best step”, according to him, and quit dancing.
The next six years were not easy. Prem kept to himself, socialised less and preferred staying in his room and only danced when no one was watching.
“I couldn’t see my baby in misery. I knew I was losing my son and I had to do something about it. I made him believe society didn’t have the power to decide his destiny,” says Manjulata.
“Mom told me people are going to talk irrespective of what I do. Instead of succumbing to their pressure, I should focus on perfecting my dance form and let that speak. Not paying heed to people and focussing on my own thing was the most liberating and life-changing advice,” adds Prem.
‘Your Performance Made Me Cry’
At 21, Prem finally joined Odissi dance classes and even bagged a two-year scholarship at the Sahitya Kala Parishad in Delhi.
Prem was mesmerised by the sublime medley of movements, gestures and expressions that Odissi offered. With sun motif costumes, swaying of torso, languorous music and worshipping Lord Jagannatha, the dance opened doors to a magical world. He says, “The dance is an amalgamation of vigorous and graceful movements. The intrinsic footwork, soulful expressions and spins made me respect the form.”
That said, the dance form also gave him reality checks, “Learning Pallavi, which has an elaborated raga, is very demanding. It took me almost a decade to master the sync between my footwork and my facial expressions. Initially, my taal sense was also into the doldrums. I love lasya and abhinaya, which are on the softer side. It involves storytelling that helps me connect with audiences emotionally.”
His hard work and dedication towards the dance bore fruit. Within no time, he started doing stage shows and presently is honing the craft under Padmashri Madhavi Mudgal at Gandharva Mahvidyalaya.
Even after so many years and tangible success, the nasty comments and taunts have not ended. However, the only difference is Prem consciously focusses on praises and constructive criticisms.
Sharing one of his most memorable performances at Odisha Society United Kingdom Festival in London he says, “After the performance, an old lady walked up to me and said she cried at my soulful dance on a bhajan. She said she experienced a divine feeling and that for me remains to be my biggest achievement. Evoking people’s emotions through dance is the highest honour for any dancer.”
Looking back at his journey, Prem credits his lion-hearted mother who never imposed any unrealistic restrictions and inspired him to do better each day.
“She is the bravest and most kind woman I will ever know,” Prem concludes.
Watch Prem’s soulful dance here:
Follow Prem’s dancing journey here
Edited by Yoshita Rao