It has not been possible to find out the exact date of Kelucharan's birth. Until recently, we used to celebrate his birthday on the 1st of August, assuming the year of his birth to be 1926. But, four or five years ago his birthday was shifted to the lunar month of Paus (December-January) and judging by his life story it seems to me that he must have been born around the year 1924. The only written document which could have helped me in this matter, his palm leaf horoscope, had been given away to an astrologer when Kelucharan was ill and was never returned. The date which the astrologer wrote down in English, most probably in a hurry, jealously preserved by Kelucharan's wife among the sacred relics of the house, does not help me either; it mentions the year of his birth as 1934, which would leave the chronological sequence of the events in his life totally in total disorder.
On the cther hand, the place of his birth is not only certain but has also remained more or less the same as it must have been 70 years ago! Surrounded by a rich grove of coconut palms, mango and jackfruit trees, the village of Raghurajpur is encircled on three sides by the river Bharghabi and precariously connected with the main road which leads to Puri through a narrow embankment lane which becomes totally inaccessible during the rainy season. The village, hidden by the grove, appears suddenly after a left turn of the road, and consists of a row of six small temples - like a coral string in the middle- flanked on both sides by two lines of houses with high steps and small verandas in front.
The first of these temples, a tiny structure concealed among the roots of a huge banyan tree, is the abode of goddess Bhuasuni, to whom the village women offer their children for protection. Little Kelu was also offered by his mother to the goddess when he was ill with chickenpox at the age of four. She literally left him at her feet telling the goddess that from now on the child was her son and she could do what she wanted with him. A few days later, a 'kalisi' came to their house and touched the boy's eyes chanting some sacred mantra: slowly the little child started to recover. It seems that the mother at this point wanted to perform a 'puja' for getting her son back but the child refused and the 'puja' was never performed.
The name 'Kelu' was given to him when he was about three years old; originally he had been called 'Madhana Mohana', an appellative of lord Krishna. It so happened that a couple of years after his birth, his sister Champa, a year older than him, passed away; and when his younger brother too died a few months after birth, his parents started to worry. They felt that the combination of the child's 'rasi' and his illustrious name was perhaps too potent and was turning out to be dangerous for his siblings; so a new name had to be found which would counteract the influence of his strong constellation. The name 'Kela' - denoting the low- caste man who wanders from village to village with a basket of snakes begging for his livelihood - was suggested by his maternal grandmother Nilamani. In order to soften his impact, the appellative 'Baba' was prefixed to it. Among the much respected names of his brothers and sisters, Ganesh, Ekadasi, Champa, Bhagawan, Nisha and Bansidhar, 'baba Kela' was the little 'outcaste'.
2- Away from home
Had Kelucharan gone beyond the need of having a master? Important changes in life are often determined by small incidents the significance of which can only be understood when seen in retrospect. He had learnt a lot and in return given a lot during those ten years; it is difficult to assess which one was more. From the very beginning he had been indispensable for his 'guru'; the latter would not let himself be washed or fed by anybody other than Kelucharan. At the peak of his illness, when his entire body was covered with cysts and filled with pus, only Kelucharan would take care of him - washing him, massaging him and even helping him to the toilet. He was more than a son to his master; Goswami was often heard repeating this even in front of his own son and wife, and this may have led to slight jealousy on their part.
On that fateful day a certain Jai Makadama, a 'zamindar' friend of Mohansundar Goswami, had come to pay a visit to him and had brought with him a lot of paddy and vegetables as gift. While offering all this to Goswami's wife, he also handed over some gold for safe custody which at a later date he would collect from her. Since Kelucharan was the custodian of all the house keys he was asked to store the vegetables and other things in the store room and to place the gold in the almirah of the first floor bedroom.
That same evening Kelucharan had planned to see a new movie released at the Laxmi Cinema hall ; the picture was 'Kangan' and had Leela Chitnis and Ashok Kumar in the leading roles. He had been to a cinema hall only twice until now, and on both occasions along with his 'guru' to see the picture 'Sita bibaha'. The medium had fascinated him from the very instant he saw the first images projected onto the big screen; he was attracted by the decor, the recitation of the actors, the dramatic twists in the story and above all by the possibility of studying the characters and learning more about the histrionic art. Fascination for this medium was to remain with him even in later years. When in the early eighties he was in a position to buy a television set, one would find him glued to it for hours together.
After having told his friend Basudeva, the one who used to do the role of Radha, that if Goswami searched for him, he should be told that he had gone to sleep in the 'chala ghara' along with the other boys, Kelucharan left the house at about 9,15 p.m. to be in time for the last show of the film. Towards midnight, Mohansundar got up from his bed and looked all over for the young student and in the process woke up the whole household. Kelucharan was nowhere to be found. Guruma, Goswami's wife, had a suspicion: was it possible that Kelucharan had run away with the gold? Without consulting her husband, she immediately sent her son to the police station to file a case against Kelucharan. The Superintendent of police of Puri, Kshetramani Mohanty never believed him; he and his two daughters were among the most devoted fans of Kelucharan and it was simply impossible for them to imagine that their 'Krishna' was a thief.
On Gourasundar Dev's return, his father scolded him for having gone to the police station without first verifying the facts; it was at this point that Kelucharan reached the courtyard of the house. He was standing under the big 'chandana' tree when he overheard his guru abusing his (Kelucharan's) mother; he was startled and the keys fell from his hands. As a result Mohansundar's wife knew that Kelucharan was around; Gourasundar came down and saw Kelucharan and also the flow of people passing outside the door. He informed his father that Kelu had gone to see a film. Kelucharan picked up the keys, deposited them at Guruma's feet and went to sit on the doorstep of the house, facing the main road.
The whole household went back to sleep while he sat there untill the next day; a man from his village passed by, he sent word through him to his mother to come and fetch him. A policeman informed him about the allegations that had been made against him at the police station the previous night. Kelucharan listened unperturbed; he had already decided on his next step.
That day, after everybody had had their food, he entered the house to collect some money from his savings; with it he went to a nearby hotel to eat meat (something absolutely forbidden in the purely vegetarian diet of the Goswami's household). When his mother arrived, he was still sitting on the doorstep; he asked her to take him back home. He went in to offer 'pranam' to his 'guru' and his wife; both of them tried to dissuade him from going away but he said that, since he had lost their trust, he could not remain with them anymore. His guru in a fit of anger cursed him: "Are you leaving me in this condition? Go if you have to, but you will also face what I am facing today!".
Outside the house he asked his mother for a rupee. and saw the film Kangan once more. After spending the night in a relative's house, the next day they both set out for home on foot. While they were still on the road the train from Puri overtook them; Kelucharan spotted some of his ashram friends in the train. On reaching the village they told him that after his departure that day Goswami did not allow anybody to help him and had sent all the boys back to their homes. Kelucharan was stunned on hearing that Mohansundar had wound up the Ras Leela group because he had left him.
6- Dancing through his disciples
Kelucharan's first handling of construction material (chunna or lime instead of cement since this was not in use then) goes back to the time when , for few months before starting the work at the panna baraja, he helped his maternal uncle, Arthabandu Maharana, in the construction of a temple. Since then the fascination remained and one can say that, all through Kelucharan's life, the passion for brick and cement 'compositions' runs as an undercurrent to his primary passion for dance. Similar concentration and research aptitude can be seen at work whether he is building an attic, raising a boundary wall, planing the extension of the building or counting the beats of a rhythmic composition. Each type work is a new discovery and the solutions found each time are directly derived from the practical study of each situation. Extremely observant and alert, the beam structure observed in a roof in Bombay would become the source of inspiration for the construction of the ceiling of his house, without having to consult any structural engineer !
His way of relating to the masons is interesting; he literally becomes one of them, sharing their work, mixing the cement, joining the bricks, casting the roof, plastering the walls and also keeping the work going on his own in their absence. During the construction of the dance hall, which was undertaken years later in the early seventies, Kelucharan decided to build a false ceiling, which would be entirely made of bamboo; the task was not easy because the bamboo had to be tightly intertwined and the entire structure had to be self-supporting. The mason refused to do it, complaining that the bamboo provided for the job was of inferior quality. Kelucharan took up the challenge and vowed that he will be able to complete the entire ceiling with the same bamboo in four days. The mason could not believe his eyes when he returned after four days and found the work neatly executed by Kelucharan !
While the floor was being laid, he taught the workers the technique of designing a white lotus at the centre of the cemented surface. He cut a piece of folded paper into the shape of a petal. He then unfolded it and placed at the centre of the floor. After it had been traced on the wet cement, the inside of the petals were scooped out and filled with white cement. In this way he created the beautiful bindu in the middle of the dance floor which was the witness to the blossoming of so many dancers in the years to come
7- Return to the stage
Kelucharan's sensibility as a teacher is a perpetual source of wonder for his students; he has an inborn sense of discrimination which ensures that nothing escapes his attention. A slight inflexion in the voice, expression of the face or an unusual detail in the attire is immediately perceived and retained in his memory. His acquaintance with each of the students is primarily based on their 'physicality'; he 'reads' their personality through their gaits, gestures, talks or reactions. He would come forward to make the shy student comfortable and crush without pity the inflated ego of the proud one. If a person was sad , Kelucharan would cheer him up by cracking jokes and he would not tolerate jealousy among his students for any reason.
His ways of correcting the mistakes of students include hitting with the stick, throwing the stick from a distance, addressing the students with epithets such as 'pig', 'horse', 'elephant', 'sala', or a 'symbolic' order to leave the class (which, if really executed, will make him even more angry). Tears are not tolerated, especially after a rebuke, as also signs of fatigue, casual attitude or excessive eagerness.
He is an indefatigable story teller; in between teaching and demonstrations he would narrate countless anecdotes from his past, tales from mythology or his personal philosophy of life. During these long intervals in which the narrative vein prevails, the students from their standing position would start squatting down until brought back to their feet by a sudden stroke of the stick
If the classes were punctuated by rebukes, comic interludes were also not lacking. He is an extraordinary mimic, his imitations of the gait, gestures and mannerisms of his students is among the best in his repertoire. The most amusing take off is of a man in a crowded bus with an urgent need to clear his bowels.
His sense of humour would emerge in most unexpected ways and circumstances and he would not even spare himself. When in 1988 he came to know that he had been chosen for the Padma Bhushan award he was to conducting classes in Delhi. The students present there congratulated him and celebrated in a big way; the same thing happened in Calcutta and at the Orissi Research Center in Bhubaneswar. In Cuttack since there were no students attending classes in his house during that period, I ordered a flower tableau with Padma Bhushan written on it and fixed it on his door post. I could not be present when he arrived, but as soon as he heard me approaching the next day, he took out the tableau, held it in front of his face, and started dancing !
All his students fondly remember the long hours spent in the classroom during the summer workshops. During this period one would be unaware of the passage of time having left all problems and preoccupations outside the door. No matter how many times Kelucharan had already demonstrated a detail or had gone through the nuances of one expression, he would still be able to hold our attention totally. The same gesture is repeated by him over and over again, the same movement examined in its constituent units, analysed in its minimal details, and is presented each time with fresh nuances. The oppressive heat of the summer season would be followed by the steaming humidity of the pre-monsoon days which in turn would finally give way to the unabated fury of the rainy season. Still nothing inside the room would change: undaunted by the elements Kelucharan would continue to conduct the classes.
The evening arati in front of the door of the small mandir in one corner of the house and the meals served to us sitting in a semicircle on the classroom floor by Laxmipriya, were all part of the daily routine. Students from Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta left behind their sophisticated life-style and very soon get used to the indigenous Oriya food and way of living.
Laxmipriya handles all the domestic chores with ease. While Kelucharan is in charge of the training sessions of the workshops participants, she ably handles all their problems of food and lodging There is no limit to the number of students at the workshops and does not involve formalities such as registration or enrolment; everybody is welcome to join and each participant finds a suitable place in the class depending on his or her standard. Senior students happily attend these classes over and over again along with the newcomers the talented among them are allowed to join the advanced classes. During the late hours one could assist in the creation of new compositions essentially for Sanjukta or some senior students. It is indeed a rewarding experience to watch Kelucharan at his creative best.