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Geeta Govinda voice falls silent

Bhubaneswar, Aug. 25: Every morning, thousands across the world wake up to his rendition of Geeta Govinda. Today, the world lost the man behind the voice.

Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi lost his battle with throat cancer at 11.30am this morning. The doyen of Odissi classical music had celebrated his 80th birthday on August 10. Yesterday was his late wife, legendary Odissi exponent Sanjukta Panigrahi’s birthday.

After he complained of breathing problems this morning, Panigrahi was rushed to Capital Hospital. But he passed away on the way there. The immediate cause of the death was cardiac arrest but he was unwell for the last couple of months after being diagnosed with throat cancer.

Born in 1934 at Gunupur in Koraput district, Panigrahi was initially groomed in music under the tutelage of his freedom-fighter father Neelamani Panigrahi. He later learnt from various gurus including Pandit Biswanath Dash and Narasingha Nanda, Muddu Papa Rao and Pandit D.V. Paluskar in Chennai.

While training in Carnatic music in Chennai, he got his first break in playback singing at 19 and lent his voice for Telugu superstar N.T. Ramarao. He also sang for Tamil megastar M.G. Ramachandran. He sang in Kannada films too.

Panigrahi decided to come back to Odisha despite gaining popularity as a playback singer in South Indian cinema after he met the charming teenage dancer Sanjukta Mishra, who was learning Bharatnatyam at the famous Kalakshetra. It was not all roses for the newly-weds who tied the knot in 1959, since both had to struggle in Odisha in their respective fields. But after several performances outside the state, the world recognised their talent and in the 1970s, the Raghunath-Sanjukta duo was a rage.

Thereafter, he went on to become the greatest composer of Odissi music not only for dance performances but also for his Geeta Govinda renditions, which HMV released as an album. He sang in various Odia films but composed music for only one — Ahalya — that won him the state award for best film music. His playback numbers such as Sabuthiru banchita kari from Nabajanma, Na jaa Radhika eka eka from Sindura Bindu, Naacha naacha sajani naacha re from Mukti and Chora chora kahani from Kaa are popular to this day. However, Panigrahi’s followers in the state feel recognition for his contribution came late and an artiste of his stature should have been given received higher civilian awards by the Centre.

“Can we describe his contribution to Indian music in a few words? He struggled like a warrior and promoted Indian music all over the world,” said veteran musician Prafulla Kar.

Panigrahi was honoured by the French government for his Geeta Govinda composition way back in the 70s but had to wait till 2010 for the Padma Shree award. In the 80s and 90s, many American cities also gave him honorary citizenship. Among his other major accolades are the French Grand Prix Award in 1982 for Geeta Govinda, the Suromani award by the Soor Singar Samshad (Kalke Kalakar, Mumbai) in 1968, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1976 and many more.

Members of the music and dance fraternity and his followers say he was an outstanding human being.

“He founded the Sanjukta’s Panigrahi Memorial Trust that has done more than anybody else in spotting and encouraging budding Odissi singers and dancers. People who lived near his Ashok Nagar house, fondly recall how the maestro would take every ailing or injured stray dog in the area under his care and nurse it back to health,” said Shantanu Mohapatra, who had toured across the globe for performances with Panigrahi.

“We feel we have been orphaned,” said dancer Aruna Mohanty.

Well-known singer Sangita Gosain said there would never be another like him. “He was so immersed in accompanying Sanjukta Panigrahi in dance that he never pursued a full-fledged solo career in music. After her death in 1997, he limited his performances and had almost stopped performing in the last few years,” she said.

Eminent artistes such as Ratikant Mohapatra, Laxmikant Palit, Mitali Chinara and Manmath Mishra and politicians including chief minister Naveen Patnaik, leader of Opposition Bhupinder Singh and former chief minister Giridhar Gamang paid their respects to Panigrahi, whose body was taken to Puri for the last rites.

The government accorded a guard of honour during his funeral ceremony.

Panigrahi is survived by his sons Parthasarathi Panigrahi and Sabyasachi Panigrahi.