Japanese Odissi dancer bridges the cultural divide

By Azera Rahman, IANS

New Delhi : Her romance with India began when she came across a picture of the Taj Mahal in her social studies textbook at the age of 13. Twenty-one years later, as Masako Ono of Japan gracefully moves her hand during an Odissi dance movement, you know the romance is still on and in full swing.

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A professional Odissi dancer, Ono has dance ingrained in her — Western classical ballet, flamenco, African, hip hop, contemporary, chhau, kalaripayattu and, of course, Odissi.

"It's in my genes," smiled the 34-year-old. With a thick stroke of eyeliner decorating her eyes and making them look large and "more Indian", Ono revealed that she has been dancing ever since she was four.

"My parents met at a modern dance class. Although they are not professionals, they love to dance and used to take me along to all their classes. That's how it all began," Ono, who runs a dance school in Orissa, told IANS during a visit here.

While Ono did learn a variety of dance forms and attended different dance workshops, it was a video dance performance of Odissi dance maestro Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra at Tokyo that changed her life forever.

"While I learned different dance forms, Odissi touched me like nothing else had or will ever have. After watching the video, I made up my mind to learn Odissi and rushed to the Indian embassy there and asked for its help.

"They directed me to Protima Bedi's dance school Nrityagram in Bangalore. The year was 1996 and there has been no looking back since then," Ono said.

All of 22, Ono packed her bags and came to India. Since she had visited the country earlier with her friends to see the Taj Mahal and had studied Hindi, Urdu and all about Indian culture as part of her India-Pakistan studies in college, she was confident of taking the trip alone.

Till date, the one memory that Ono cherishes the most is the way she was welcomed at Nrityagram by Bedi.

"I was welcomed with a 'what do you want' by Protima Bedi when I reached Nrityagram. When I said that I wanted to learn Odissi she asked me whether I wanted to learn it or wanted to become a professional Odissi dancer. I got the message. And I did become a professional Odissi dancer," said Ono.

After spending six years at Nrityagram, where she learnt the nuances of Odissi under the guidance of Bedi, Ono went to Orissa for seven months to learn more about the dance form from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the man who instilled in her the love for Odissi.

Today, Ono travels across the country and around the world giving dance performances and earning rave reviews. She says she partially incorporates some of the movements and gestures from what she has learned from her teachers and choreographs the rest.

"I also believe in fusion. Although I don't tamper with the basic movements, I play around with the music to fit the theme. For instance, one of my productions was on Japanese poetry, 'Haiku'. So while the dance was Odissi, the music was a slow Japanese piece," Ono said.

While her itinerary is chock-a-block with performances in Delhi, Orissa, America, Malaysia and Japan, she does confess that funds can be a problem at times.

"It always is for an artist. But you have to know how to get your art across to people. You have to know how to communicate. I don't complain but work a little extra," she said.

Ono's latest production, which has five dancers from Orissa, is based around the central theme of the Buddha. She will take it to Japan by the end of July.

But that is not all. Ono plans to get married soon and the man in question is very much an Indian. "In two to three years time I plan to get married to him," she said with a twinkle in her eye.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at [email protected])