Vishnu Tattva Das knew even as a teenager that he wanted to become a dancer. He was not born into a family of dancers or led to a dance school by eager parents. His discovered dancing through his path to spirituality, which intrigued him as a child who was enamored with a framed picture of Krishna playing the flute.
Das says he remembers being chided many times for wearing a tilak on his forehead or having his tulsi mala taken away by the nuns at school. After high school, a couple of neighbors invited him to visit Vrindavan, and when he returned, Das shaved his head, donned a white dhoti, and—much to the chagrin of his parents—left home to live in the Krishna temple.
It was there that Das was invited to observe an odissi class and he decided instantaneously to become a student. His real date with destiny, however, occurred when he watched an odissi performance by the late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, who would later become his guruji. Das was so moved by the graceful and eloquent performance, he was in bliss for days. “Since then I have never desired anything more than dancing with the same kind of devotion,” he says, “it could have been any other dance like bharatnatyam or kuchipudi and I would have still pursued it with passion.” But he adds that he is happy that it was odissi as it chimes with his devotion to Krishna.
After a few years, Vishnu left the temple to join the Odissi Research Center in Bhubaneswar where Mohapatra was a teacher. Das says he does not view his life as a result of diligent planning but more as a natural progression from one stage to another, guided only by his intense desire to a higher energy. And as it was, another progression of events led him to the United States where he established a dance school in Bay Area, the Odissi Vilas. Das says that he considers his years in the Research Center his most productive and hopes to give back to the world through teaching this art form.
Although undoubtedly his dance is a consequence of his devotion to Krishna’s stories, music, and art, Das has been praised nonetheless for his techniques, as evident from the reviews of his performance in the U.S. and India. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Draped in cream and red silk and silver baubles, his chest bare, Das brings to life the Hindu deity Krishna with the rise of an eyebrow, his heavy-lidded eyes radiating sensuality. His arms flow like gentle rivers.” The Hindu calls his performance in the annual odissi festival in Bhubaneswar a “mesmerizing … show stealer,” and compares his style to that of his guruji, Mohapatra.
His range is incredible as he is equally comfortable playing Krishna poking fun at the Gopis or playing Radha pleading with Krishna to return her clothes. “Playing a woman’s part does not take a man away from his manhood,” he says. He adds that he was fortunate that he had a good male role model in his teacher who was very graceful and yet strong. These same qualities are apparent in Das’ striking 6-foot stature on the stage even when he plays Radha coyly glancing at Krishna. He says that he hopes that men who have an interest in learning dance will not be deterred by the stereotypical gender trappings.
Das teaches with an exploratory approach at Odissi Vilas, wherein each movement blossoms and expands as it changes subtly over the years based on one’s experience and herein lays an infinite ocean of creativity for a dancer. However, he still believes that students should first attempt at learning the dance in a traditional and structured manner. For Das, dance has been and will always be part of an emotional and spiritual experience and not just a bunch of perfected abhinayas and mudras, and he hopes to pass on this wonderful lineage by expanding his dance school as a cultural center with a spiritual emphasis.
Odissi Vilas’ program this year is Triveni, a name that indicates the confluence of three rivers and will be presented as the three different styles of the great odissi gurus, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Pankaj Charan Das, and Deba Prasad Das.
Deba Prasad Das started his odissi journey with the Gotipuas or young boys who danced a more gymnastic version of odissi. Pankaj Charan Das was the adopted son of a Mahari, a female temple dancer, and largely influenced by a more feminine version of the dance form. Mohapatra, with his background in the arts and knowledge of odissi percussions or the Mardala, grew to fame for his soft body work and intricate choreographies. He evolved the pallavi, which is heavily inspired by temple sculptures and is usually strung to complex rhythm patterns.
Vishnu Tattva Das and Odissi Vilas will represent Kelucharan Mohapatra’s style. Guest artists from India, Yudishtir Nayak and Rahul Acharya, will represent the styles of Pankaj Charan Das and Deba Prasad Das, respectively.
Saturday, Aug. 8, 7 p.m. Marin Center Showcase Theatre, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. $20 in advance; $25 at door. (415) 499-6800.www.odissivilas.org.