Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Remembering Guru Surendra Nath Jena

By Shrinkhla Sahai
Guru Surendranath Jena

The first edition of the Odissi International Festival opened in Delhi on 22 December 2016. The two-day festival organised by Nrityashilp Dance Foundation, featured a seminar, film screening, photography exhibition, poetry reading and performances focussing on the style of Odissi guru Surendra Nath Jena. Four generations of artists from four continents came together to present his choreographic works. Conceptualised by his daughter and disciple Pratibha Jena Singh, the festival celebrated the creative genius and his oeuvre.

Surendra Nath Jena was a multifaceted artist. His work seamlessly moved across the genres of music, dance, theatre and poetry. He remained relatively less-celebrated than the other Odissi gurus of his era. Though deeply invested in the dance form, he was wary of rigid classicism, drawing inspiration for his movement vocabulary from everyday rural life, temple sculptures and ancient texts. His observations and meditations resulted in his radical departure from the classical as esoteric and beautiful. The hallmark of his unique Odissi vocabulary is the inclusion of everyday poses of village women, the bold and intense expression of the less-used rasas in dance—beebhatsa, raudra and bhayanaka.

Jena’s humble moorings in the village of Utchapur in 1924 and his career as a jatra artist, were followed by his deep passion for the Odissi dance form when it was being reconstructed as a classical art. He went on to become the director of Odisha’s popular dance troupe and started training at one of the first Odissi schools in the region—Kala Vikas Kendra. Later, he came to Delhi and was a guru at the Triveni Kala Sangam till he passed away in 2007.

The festival opened with a seminar titled 'Guru Surendra Nath Jena’s Odissi: a higher performative practice'. Chaired by Urmimala Sarkar, Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, the seminar brought together practitioners of Odissi as well as students and theoreticians, in a vibrant discussion on the politics and poetics of Jena’s Odissi.
Nirmal Chandra Jena

Jena was also a prolific poet. Selections from his book Atman—Odissi Nritya Puran, were read by Nirmal Chandra Jena and Swaati Chattopadhyay. The documentary film Performing Konark, Performing Hirapur, by dance scholar Alessandra Y. Roy was also screened.

The first performance of the festival was by Jena’s son and disciple Nirmal Chandra Jena who established the Odissi Dance Company in Sydney, Australia. Some of Jena’s most memorable, radical and special works were performed by students from all over the world. For instance, Konark Kanti, performed by dancers from Ukraine, is a masterpiece from 1968. Dedicated to Surya, the sun-god, the dance brought to life the spectacular sculptures of the Konark Sun Temple. Chhaya Jhatak, performed by Jena’s grand-daughter Raudri Singh and Nirmal Chandra Jena’s disciple Priya Mistry, revitalised the poses from the twin 'shade' temples of Chhaya Devi located in the Konark complex, and concluded with a sequence of 32 seated postures depicting the sculptural motifs on the wheels of Konark.

Another distinctive dance composition that embodied the exquisite blend of everyday life and ancient knowledge was Shilp Chandrika. Performed by Pratibha Jena Singh’s disciple, Aastha Gandhi, the choreography recreated sixteen nayikas from the temple sculptures. The choreography in the second segment of the composition, based on Abhinaya Chandrika, was challenging with swift changes in the bends and abstract movements. Jena’s choreography for the ashtapadi Lalita lavanga lata from the Geeta Govinda presented a unique interpretation with the focus on the festival of Holi and the play of colours between Krishna and the gopis juxtaposed to Radha’s loneliness and longing. Performed by Jaya Mehta, senior disciple of Pratibha Jena Singh, the composition was built on the distinct choreographic aesthetics of Jena’s style.
Pratibha Jena

The concluding performance was Jena’s most intense, radical and dramatic choreographic work Shakti Roop Yogini, based on the Chandi Purana and the depiction of the 64 yoginis of the Shaktipeeth Temple in Odisha. Performed by Nirmal Chandra Jena and Pratibha Jena Singh, it was the highlight of the festival, aptly embodying his movement principles, choreographic flair and ideology.


The maverick performer and guru, Surendra Nath Jena, laid the foundation for a vibrant legacy of a unique vision for Odissi dance. With the new generation of performers, teachers and thinkers of this style lies the promise of further developing and discovering new directions from this precious inheritance.

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