How Melbourne dancer Sam Goraya is creating more art during lockdown

By Indira Laisram
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Early in March just before the coronavirus lockdown brought Melbourne to a standstill, Sam Goraya and his two Odissi dancer friends from India were busy preparing for their major performance at The Lawler Southbank Theatre. Fortunately for them, their program went unhindered and they were able to wow an intimate audience familiar with their craft.

It was not the first partnership for Melbourne-based Sam and the two Indian dancers—Santosh Ram and Samir Kumar Panigrahi. Over the years they have shared stage with Sam mentoring the two and producing magic on stage.

After their March performance in Melbourne, the trio had their programs scheduled in Sydney, Auckland and Bali. But as the world started grappling with COVID-19, they had to reverse their plans. Sam tried to send both the boys home and bought tickets for March 22 as he was told it was the last flight to leave for India but the flight got cancelled as India had closed its borders by then. It is another story that he has not received any refunds from the airlines. The boys’ visas run out on June 4, and Sam is running from pillar to post to get that sorted should flights continue to remain stalled.

“Prarthana is a self-created mantra by each individual that is usually recited secretly in one’s heart and mind to communicate with the cosmic consciousness for personal or universal gains or favours”

Stranded in Melbourne, Sam says while they were initially depressed with the whole scenario, they soon realised creativity is something that cannot be contained. “We started dancing a lot, about three to four hours in the morning and in the evening,” says Sam, who has a post-graduate doctoral degree in Mathematical Modelling and Oceanography but whose exhilarating adventure with Odissi began at a very young age in India.

Watching them practice for hours, Sam’s partner, Zlatko Varenina, suggested they live-stream their dance to reach out to a wider audience. Soon they found themselves shifting furniture and converting their apartment space to a little studio ready to showcase their art to the world.

They curated a series titled Prarthana, which Sam explains, “is a self-created mantra by each individual that is usually recited secretly in one’s heart and mind to communicate with the cosmic consciousness for personal or universal gains or favours. It is a prayer with pure sound and a focused mind, a form of meditation that is extremely powerful to help achieve desired outcomes. Prarthana is also a prayer for peace in the world.”

Choosing every Friday at Melbourne time 8 pm, their first episode was livestreamed on March 31 via Facebook, the link of which is also on Sam’s website (www.samgoraya.com) for people who do not have access to Facebook. Last Friday, Sam, Santosh and Samir completed their sixth episode.

The Facebook live streams have managed to garner impressive views with positive responses. “So many artists have started doing this after watching what we started. This is exciting because they also never thought it was possible,” says Sam.

The team was also extremely excited to put up a repeat performance of the full Odissi Repertoire in episode six on popular demand. The repertoire was condensed seamlessly in 30 minutes. “No one has done that before and we were told it was a very beautiful, refreshing presentation,” says Sam, who believes that the purpose of dance is not just to entertain but to impart something as well.

Sam grew up in Delhi and took to dancing at the age of five watching his mother. He continued dancing Odissi till the age of 18 by which time his body began changing. Being a Punjabi Sikh, he also wore the turban and grew a beard. It was the point he stopped dancing to focus on cricket and studies instead. And none of his friends knew he had an iota of interest in dancing.

But when the infamous anti-Sikh riots of 1984 hit Delhi, Sam, like many others then, chopped off his hair. It was at that moment that he told his mother, “Now that my hair is gone, I might as well start dancing again”. She sent him to Madhavi Mudgal, a widely-acclaimed dancer and recipient of Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours. Recalling his first meeting with Mudgal, Sam says he was asked to show a few steps at which Mudgal told him to let go whatever he had learnt and follow her style and technique which was along the lines of Kelucharan Mohapatra, a guru credited for the revival of Odissi in the 20th century.

After learning Kelucharan’s style for some years, Sam decided to leave India. “It was not something I could continue with and since I am gay I wanted to leave the country.” Having managed a scholarship to study in Canada and another scholarship for further studies in the United States, he ended up with four Master’s degrees in Applied Mathematics, Pure Mathematics and Computational Mathematics. But he had to go back to India as his mother was not keeping well. To cut a long story short, Sam’s academic skills found him in Australia in 1991.

As a new immigrant scanning for jobs, he saw an advertisement in The Age on the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Dance Academy in Richmond. He contacted the Academy; it would be an association that lasted two decades. He also chose Swinburne University to complete his PhD as it was closer to Richmond.

“Unless you are very advanced and you have been working with your teacher or guru for a long time to understand the nitty gritty of the art form, online learning is not apt for beginners”

At the Academy, Sam revived his dancing and also learnt the other two dance forms—Bharatnatyam and Contemporary—but Odissi remained his first love. In 2012, he left the Academy after 20 years and started performing solo with a purpose: to raise funds for various causes.

In 2015, Sam connected with the Rudrakshya Foundation in Bhubaneswar run by Bichitrananda Swain, another great proponent of Odissi dance. Swain’s foundation focuses mainly on “Purushang”—male form and looks after some Gotipuas, young acrobatic male dancers who become redundant after a certain age.

Santosh and Samir are the lead dancers of Rudrakshya Foundation with years of training behind them. These young dancers are one of the most sought-after among upcoming artistes in Odisha, says Sam, adding, “They provided a lot of creative inputs in the making of Prartharna.”

The lockdown, says Sam, is a blessing in disguise. “God has given us this time to stay indoors, continue riyaaz (practice) and create something new. It is great that we have this opportunity to improve our art and create something new for a wider audience. So many people all over the world are watching us now.”

The upside to the lockdown is that many people have started learning dance online, something Sam is wary about. “Unless you are very advanced and you have been working with your teacher or guru for a long time to understand the nitty gritty of the art form, online learning is not apt for beginners.”

For the future, Sam hopes to continue going back to India to improve his craft, mentor more students, spread knowledge and understanding and, hopefully, bridge cultures too.


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