Odissi is a solo form of Indian dance that combines music, song, and its specific style, which includes mudra (hand gestures) and pantomimic movement to convey complex stories of love, personal sacrifice, and humanity’s relationship with the various gods (Jenkins and Watson 67). This dance form has not had a smooth or unchanging history for the last 2200 years, and much of its development has been either sketchy or unknown (Schechner and Zarrilli 128). After going through pressures, and a reconstruction in the 1940s/1950s, Odissi has undergone a restoration which makes it what it is today (Lopez 155).
The first piece of evidence for dance in India was found in rock-cut caves of Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar, where there is an edict of the Jain emperor Kharavela. He refers to himself as Gandharva-Veda-Buddha, who is an expert in dance, drama and music (Venkataram 62). Apart from these caves, there is also extensive evidence of Indian dance in temples that hold sculptures and carvings that depict figures dancing [for more on India’s early dance history, refer to Venkataram (2002)]. One of the oldest forms of Indian dance, Odissi has archeological evidence that traces its origins back to ancient times. This dance style dates back to the first century BC, with it being first seen in the rock-cut caves of Udayagiri as well (Lopez 155). What is specific to this style of dance though, is that its origins begin in Orissa, an Indian state that lies on the East coast, along the Bay of Bengal.
Manuscripts pertaining to the rituals of Lord Jagannath are the first record of dance in Orissa, where the dance was performed at his world famous temple in Puri. At this temple, the dance was performed extensively as on ongoing ritual by devadasis, or female temple dancers, who performed the dance for the pleasure of the Lord. Dancing as a ritual for Lord Jagannath is mentioned in the Agni Purana, Vishnu Purana, and Srimad Bhagavatam, which suggests that dancing as a daily ritual (seva) for the Lord is been indispensible and very important for centuries (Lopez 156). Lord Jagannath is an Oriyan manifestation of Krsna, whose great wooden murti or image resides at his temple in Puri, where the devadasis (literally, “servants of God”) sang and dance for him (Schechner 1041).
The devadasis that performed these rituals were also known as Maharis (the devadasis were the equivalent of the Maharis in the South), who were maidens of the gods, and in this case, married to Lord Jagannath, who was the presiding deity in the temple. After they were ritually married to the god, they thereafter served as wife and handmaiden to the deity, and danced in ritual worships and ceremonies (Sehgal 863). These women were initiated into the temple community with a piece of cloth (from the Jagannath idol) being tied around their head, which identified them as being married to the Lord, and thereafter they could no longer eat home-cooked food (Venkataram 68). Because these women were wed to the god, they were held in high respect, due to them being characterized by the deity’s divinity. Those that were chosen to be Maharis were only those women that were seen as extraordinarily talented and beautiful. The institution in which these women participated was highly evolved and sanctioned by society, as they were seen as the epitome of female beauty and grace (Sehgal 863-864).
With the passage of time, there were soon intermittent attacks by rulers on these rituals that were performed by the Maharis, which disrupted the temple ritual. By the mid-eighteenth century, under the rule of Maratha, the temple dancer had become associated with concubinage (Venkataram 69). In 1947 in Southern India, devadasis were banned from the temples, because they were perceived to be associated with prostitution. In Puri, the Maharis continued to perform their seva (service) in the temple until the 1960s, because the same stigma was eventually attached to them as well. The practice of performing the ritual then died of its own accord under enormous political, economic, and social changes in India. There was also the added pressure of the maharis to discontinue their seva (Lopez 167-168).
A way that the maharis temporarily surmounted the pressures (for a short time) and helped with the preservation of their ritual dances was to teach odissi to the young gotipuas (Schechner and Zarrilli 128). Gotipuas were employed in the temples, and worked alongside the Maharis. These were young, handsome boys that dressed in costumes to look like girls so they could sing and dance both in temples and in public ceremonies with the Maharis (Sehgal 865). These boys, through the maharis teaching them the various odissi dances, still possessed and preserved the basic vocabulary of movement and rhythm for Odissi in its new Gotipua manifestation (Venkataram 69).
Odissi is said to embody both the Mahari and the Gotipua forms, but contemporary Odissi had its real beginnings in Orissa Theatres in the crucial period of the 1940s, where the first stirrings of a new dance in Orissa was set in motion. Then, in 1957, in a joint effort between gurus and scholars, an oath was made to collectively rebuild the dance (Venkataram 70). Through this restructuring, Odissi has become the dance form that it is today.
As for its survival in post-colonial India, it hinges on it being deemed a classical dance (which it has). With this “classical” designation, the dance form receives high social and cultural status, which makes it more likely to receive official patronage and the support of state cultural institutions (Coorlawala 270). Since it has received such patronage and support, the dance form has become very popular and acquired a large following in not only all major Indian cities, but around the world (Venataram 78).
Odissi is a combination of Lasya and Tandava styles of classical dance. The dancer quickly changes from one style to the other according to the expressional needs of the number. This dance style is characterized by the stomping of the dancing foot. There is also a bhanga, which involves bending, bowing, or stretching out of the body that reflects the “threebend” shape of Indian sculpture. These bhangas are used to their advantage to show different aspects of the story and the moods, therefore, they are charged with great emotional expression (Sehgal 867-868).
The central posture that Odissi revolves around is the Tribhanga, where the head, torso, and lower half of the body are deflections, with each part bent in opposition to the part above, which creates a three-bend figure. This along with the square half-seated Chauka (which has the feet kept apart and the knees flexed sideways) forms the core stylistic posture. There is also a constant change of levels that is demanded by Odissi, which would look very choppy and odd if shown by ‘unfinished’ performers. A last important feature of this dance form is pirouettes (brahmaris), which are executed both clockwise and counter-clockwise with the dancer maintaining a half-seated position (Venkataram 72).
There is a rigidity that has emerged in the Odissi circle, where original works should stay original, and dancers should not experiment with the dances or change them. This stiffness is probably brought on by fears of losing all the hard work that brought this ancient dance form back to life. Gurus are depending on the future generations to carry this dance forward, so it is not lost again. But because the dance already had to change once due to pressures from the outside, and seeing what has been accomplished with the dance in the last half a century, there is no doubt that Odissi will change with the times (Venkataram 81).
One of the most famous and influential Odissi performers is Sanjukta Panigrahi. She “was born in Orissa into a Brahmin family, and defied the prejudice of her caste as the first girl to pursue Odissi dance as a career.” She began studying at the age of five under her guru, Kelucharan Mahapatra. Sanjukta is considered as one of the rediscoverers of Odissi dance, and was an outstanding exponent of the dance (Varley, 249). She co-founded the International School of Theatre Anthropology in 1979, which holds sessions that showcase many traditional dances from around the world for the entertainment and education of spectators (Varley, 252). Sanjukta passed in June of 1997 after succumbing to cancer. (Varley, 249)
Gargi Banergee is an Indian immigrant who came to Canada with her mother in 1987 after her father had passed from cancer. She learned Orissi from Ratna Roy, who taught in Seattle, at the age of ten. Gargi learned the dance style quickly, and was winning both national and international competitions at fifteen years old. At eighteen, she was a dancer, teacher, and a full-time student at Simon Fraser University. Now, being 32, she is considered as being the one who helped revive Orissi dance and bringing it not only to Vancouver, but also to Canada (Pande, np).
Coorlawala, Uttara (1993) The Classical Traditions of Odissi and Manipuri. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.
Jenkins, Ron and Watson, Ian (2002) Odissi and the ISTA dance: an interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi. New York: Manchester University.
Lopez y Royo, Alessandra (2007) The Reinvention of Odissi Classical Dance as a Temple Ritual. Los Angeles: University of California.
Pande, Suniti (1998) Orissi Dance…ancient tradition revived in Vancouver. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, Vol. 32, Issue 1.
Schechner, Richard (1986) Given to Dance (Film Review). Hoboken: Blackwell (on behalf of the American Anthropological Society).
Schechner, Richard and Zarrilli, Phillip (1988) Collaborating on Odissi: An Interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kelucharan Mahapatra, and Raghunath Panigrahi. The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Sehgal, Sunil (1999) Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons.
Varley, Julia (1998) Sanjukta Panigrahi: Dancer for the Gods. New Theatre Quarterly 55, Volume 14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Venkataram, Leela (2002) Indian classical dance : tradition in transition. New Delhi: Lustre.
Related Research Topics
Gotipuas Lasya Tandava
Puri Lord Jagannath Devadasis
Article written by Sara Crozier (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.