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Amazing Grace: A Tribute to My Guru and Kathak Dancer Pundita Labonee Mohanta

Amazing Grace: A Tribute to My Guru and Kathak Dancer Pundita Labonee Mohanta

  • For a recent survivor of kidnapping and human trafficking like me, she gave me a safe space and helped me navigate feelings of shame, guilt, victimhood, and unworthiness that come from societal victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault.

To commemorate Pundita Labonee Mohanta’s upcoming show “Pancha Bhuta” (The 5 Elements — Water, Wind, Earth, Fire, and Space), I wanted to honor my Guru Bona (sister) out of respect and gratitude for how much she contributes to the emotional prosperity of all those around her. Knowing Labonee is like being in the presence of grace because she embodies a spiritual maturity and poise that can only come from a place devoid of ego. Despite her many accomplishments, she is always the most humble person in the room and while her words are kind and gentle, they are interwoven with a directness and confidence that comes from being in tune with your intuition. 

Her creative genius comes from a purity of heart radiating unhindered by the societal pre-programming of a codependent consciousness riddled with limiting beliefs and small ideas of ourselves inherent to all ego structures. Creativity flows from her effortlessly as she raises the bar high and sets an example for all those around her simply by embodying a way to be that is bathed in humility, compassion, and the ever-givingness of spirit.

Although Labonee graduated from UC Berkeley and worked as an actuary for several years, she chose to give up a life of convenience and dedicate her time and energy to something much larger than herself — the preservation and propagation of Kathak dance, a classical and spiritual Indian art form. Although I learned Kathak dance from the same guruji as Labonee, the late Pundit Chitresh Das, since the age of 5, I took a nearly 20-year hiatus from dance as I pursued my career in medicine. Like so many of us, I became entangled in the optical illusion of my own ego structure. 

Instead of focusing on things that provided the nourishment of fulfillment to my being, I became ensnared in the codependent mindset of the material world that causes us to place value on the size of our bank account and to compare ourselves with others to define our self-worth. Looking back, I regret all the weddings, birthdays, and precious time with loved ones I missed by choosing to work overtime or on holidays for financial gain because money will always come and go, but it’s the memories that can never be recreated.

When I was in medical school, I spent many hours studying sitting alongside Labonee while she would complete one actuarial math equation that sometimes went on for 4 or more pages. To carry out precise, mathematical reasoning and maintain her focus on the logic for pages upon pages requires a certain level of genius — not many of us can comprehend math at such a high level. Despite the salary, societal prestige, and security that Labonee’s career as an actuary gave her, she made the brave and courageous decision to give up her life of convenience to lead the arduous life of an artist as she works to fulfill her unique and divine life purpose as a Kathak dancer and through her school: Lavanya’s Academy of Indian Arts (LAIA). In this way, Labonee serves as an inspiration to people everywhere.

In Vedic scripture, there is a text entitled the Lalita Sahasranama that lists the many names and reincarnations of the avatar Lalita Devi, an ascended master whose unique attributes include embodying supreme consciousness and having mastery over one’s ego. Lalita Devi was celebrated in India in the Dwapar Yuga (approximately 3,000 BC) due to her contributions of art, dance and music to society and the serenity and peace of mind she inspired in others. 

There are many temples devoted to Lalita Devi that still stand today in India. Labonee (Lavanya) is listed in the Lalita Sahasranama and true to her namesake, Labonee serves as a role model and beacon of light to all her students as she creates a sacred space in which we are given the opportunity to tune out the outside world, step out of our egos, and focus our attention to something beautiful and larger than ourselves through the practice of the moving meditation that is Kathak dance.

I feel so grateful and privileged for the opportunity to learn from Labonee not just because of her technical mastery of Kathak and the complex math that forms the foundation of the art form and her brilliant choreography, but also because Labonee’s positive demeanor, her non-judgmental nature, and her genuine love and compassion for others helped me to heal from trauma. 

Being a recent survivor of kidnap and human trafficking, I had to learn to navigate some severe PTSD and feelings of shame, guilt, victimhood, and unworthiness that come from societal pre-programming and victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault. It is often difficult for people with PTSD to reintegrate back into society because the shock to our nervous systems causes us to operate with a super-amped sympathetic nervous response (fight or flight), and many people with PTSD deal with issues of anger management and can be socially disruptive, especially in the immediate post-trauma period, until we learn to reprogram our brain and change our thinking. 

In addition to listening to “The Sophia Code” on audiobooks, Kathak dance with Labonee gave me a safe space in which to reconnect with others, take my mind off the unpleasant memories of the trauma, and heal as I develop my confidence to be seen. For the mental peace that Labonee has brought me in my life, I am eternally grateful and hope to always worship her in thanksgiving.

The children who Labonee teaches are so fortunate to have a big sister who encourages them, holds their attention, and builds their self-confidence while still letting them be children. Even though Labonee is very much in touch with her inner child that comes out as she spends time with her children, she embodies a simple sophistication that comes from her humility, spiritual maturity and poise. 

Labonee sets an example for her adult students with her egoless conduct. She upholds a culture of respect as she always takes the opinions of others into consideration before making a decision that affects the group. By treating her students with respect, and by her very example, we then feel encouraged to treat the people in our lives in the same manner. In this way, she leads in her spiritual leadership with the sovereignty of Ram from Treta Yuga (approximately 6,000 BC) who employed this same behavior when Vibhishan arrived by plane from the enemy camp and many of Ram’s men wanted to punish Vibishan and were distrustful of his motives. Before making a decision about Vibishan’s fate, Ram asked for the opinions of others and never insulted anyone’s opinion or asserted his ego. 

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Like Ram, Labonee takes everyone’s concerns and considerations into account when making changes to choreography or creating something new. This is yet another example of how Labonee, like her namesake Lalita Devi, embodies attributes of supreme consciousness and sovereignty. 

I feel so honored and privileged to have the opportunity to dance in Labonee’s upcoming show, “Pancha Bhutha” and to contribute as a dancer in whatever limited capacity I am able in celebration of such a beautiful and pure-hearted soul. Thank you Labonee for all that you do and for all the peace that you bring to others. As Sai Baba (Maha Avatar Baba G) says: “People believe that the diamond is the most precious gem in the world. They guide you incorrectly!! The most precious gem in the world is PEACE. Nothing can be more precious…for with peace comes stillness, good health, abundance, joy and bliss. If you must earn and possess a gem, My Child, it need not be diamonds…it certainly needs to be Peace.” 

As a spiritual leader, Labonee is the gem that is peace and to have her in your life is to live a life that is more full of love, beauty, and abundance than that lived by the limited confines of our human ego structure and codependent mindset. 

Thank you Labonee, my Guru Sister, for all the countless sacrifices that you have made for your love of Kathak and for all that you do. Thank you for setting an example for us by choosing to fulfill the calling of your unique divine life purpose and in so doing, thank you for your life-changing contributions to the emotional prosperity of all those you touch. Thank you for teaching us by example that it is when we walk with humility that our footprints leave the greatest impact upon this world. Sending you so much love and blessings. May you always prosper. 

Dr. Suparna Saha is the author of “50 Shades of Domestic Violence: A Deeper Look at Social Etiquette and How We All Contribute.”

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