A Brief History of Odissi Dance

in Overview
Published on: 10 August 2020

Supriya Nayak

Supriya Nayak is an Odissi dancer trained under Kiran Segal, and Ambika Paniker and Aloka Panikar. She has performed widely in India and internationally. She has taught Odissi at Ashoka University and conducted workshops and guest lectures for SPICMACAY, Sahitya Kala Parishad, University of Toronto, Mississauga (UTM), and others.

Odissi is a dance form from the state of Odisha in eastern India. It is recognised as one of the eight classical dance forms of India, and celebrated around the world for its lyricism, sensuality and emphasis on bhakti bhava (attitude of devotion and surrender). Odissi gained visibility in India and internationally from the 1950s onwards when it began to be presented on theatre stages. Since then, Odissi dancers and writers have claimed that it is the oldest of India's classical dance forms, which was earlier performed in the temples of Odisha. These claims are based on a range of architectural and textual evidence, and living ritual traditions. Based on an examination of established and newer scholarship, it may be noted that multiple historical roots, including the artistic and performance traditions of pre-modern Odisha, and the work of artists in post-Independence India, have informed the formation of Odissi as a 'classical' dance form from the mid-twentieth century onwards.

Located on the eastern coast of India, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, Odisha is bound by land on its other sides. The town of Puri lies at the south-eastern edge of the coast, and approximately 60 kilometres north of it lies Bhubaneswar, established as the state capital in 1948­–49. Adjacent to Puri is another coastal town, Konark, famous for its Sun Temple. Odisha’s old capital and second-largest city, Cuttack, lies 25 kilometres north of Bhubaneswar. Geographically, the towns of Puri, Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and Konark in eastern Odisha are at the nucleus of the story of Odissi, although a number of performance and ritual traditions that have informed the movements, music and repertoire of the dance exist outside this coastal core.

Historical Evidence: Textual, Architectural, Ritual and Performance Traditions
Odissi dancers often assert that it is the oldest of the Indian classical dances, drawing from the Natyashastra to underscore their claim. This text, which is held as the theoretical source of all classical Indian performing arts, mentions an Odra-Magadhi style of dance, which many scholars consider a precursor of twentieth-century Odissi. Fortifying these assertions is the archeological evidence excavated from sites in and around Bhubaneswar that irrefutably proves that dance did indeed exist in these regions since very ancient times. The oldest of these sites are the Jain cave-temples of Udayagiri and Khandagiri (near Bhubaneswar) which date back to the second century BC. Scenes of music and dance are carved in the façades of these temples in low relief. The most elaborate is the stone panel in the Ranigumpha cave (Cave of the Queen) in Udayagiri, where depictions of men and women dancing around a tree accompanied by musicians[2] are etched on the walls. An inscription in the Hathigumpha cave (Elephant cave), also in Udayagiri, mentions ‘a performance of tandava and abhinaya’ arranged by King Kharavela for his people.[3]

In existing literature on the history of Odissi, there is a conspicuous gap regarding archeological evidence after the period of Udayagiri and Khandagiri, till we pick up the thread again from the sixth century AD, when the rulers of Odisha began to patronise temple-building on a large scale. In Bhubaneswar, several temples were built between thesixth and thirteenth centuries AD. The twelfth-century Jagannatha temple in Puri built by the Ganga King Anantavarman Chodagangadeva and thethirteenth-century Konark temple built by Narasingha Deva I reflect the multiple religious beliefs that were practised by different rulers and flourished in Odisha in the ancient and early-medieval periods, including Buddhism, Jainism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shakti worship and the Bhakti movement.[4] These diverse and coexisting religious beliefs are reflected in the region’s architectural remains. The larger among these temples often included a bada deula (sanctum sanctorum), jagamohana (audience hall), natamandira (dance hall) and bhogamandapa (dining hall). The outer walls of these structures are decorated with detailed carvings of designs including fruit, flowers, groups of dancers and musicians, and mithuna (amorous couple) figures.[5]

Until the mid-twentieth century, among the different kinds of worship offered inside Odishan temples, especially the Puri Jagannath temple, was the ritual singing and dancing of maharis. The term mahari is used interchangeably with devadasi (a female in the service of god or temple), the former referring specifically to female ritual specialists from Odisha and the latter used more widely in other parts of India.[6] Anurima Banerji holds that Puri is considered the spiritual home of Odissi, ‘as the site of the Jagannath temple [was]where mahari service was formalised’.[7] Banerji’s statement helps us contextualise the centrality of the mahari tradition in historical accounts of Odissi dance.

Maharis were ritually married to Lord Jagannath (considered a form of Vishnu), who was regarded as a living entity and whose image was worshipped as such. Young girls were initiated into temple service around the age of eight or nine, generally by one of two routes—they were either dedicated by their families as an expression of devotion or gratitude, or adopted by older maharis as their daughters.[8] The ceremony called sari-bandhan formalised their tie with the temple and marriage with Jagannath, and, thereafter, they were to be supported by the temple for the rest of their lives.[9] The new mahari received instruction from the Rajguru (teacher from the king’s court), and was trained in music and dance in preparation to enter formal temple service where she would perform one of four mahari services—Bhitara Gauni (those who sang in the inner quarters of the temple at the time Jagannath would sleep at night), Bahara Gauni (who sang outside), Nachuni (dancers, who performed outside the sanctum sanctorum) and Pathuaris (who performed at religious festivals and ceremonies).[10] Maharis could be recruited from different castes, but after being initiated into the service of Jagannatha, they were ‘said to have no rank or caste status, except that of women-kind (stri jati).’[11]

In the fifteenth century, King Prataparudradeva decreed that maharis would only perform songs from Gitagovinda, a Sanskrit text about the love between divine Krishna and Radha, written by Jayadeva in the twelfth century AD. Being wives of Jagannath, maharis were forbidden from marrying anyone else, but were expected to be sexually available to the Puri king, who is considered the moving image of Vishnu on earth, and the temple priests. They could also have other non-conjugal sexual relationships. While they were considered eternally auspicious (as wives of a god they could never be widowed), their ‘status as courtesans and the impurity of sex’ led to restrictions on their access to spaces within the temple complex.[12] On days that they were to offer service at the temple, maharis were to have no sexual intercourse as sex was considered polluting.[13] Moral attitudes about the maharis’ lives and relationships in postcolonial Indian society had consequences for the community, and Odissi dance, in the mid-twentieth century.

Another significant tradition in the history of Odissi is that of gotipuas. Gotipua (literally translated as ‘one boy’) were young (usually prepubescent) boys dedicated by their families to temples or akhadas (gymnasiums), where they trained in acrobatics, singing and dancing. Unlike maharis, a gotipua could be dedicated for a fixed time, often to propitiate or thank a deity for protection from illness or other calamities.[14] It is believed that the tradition began in the sixteenth century under the influence of the Vaishnava saint Chaitanya.[15] The young dancers dress as women and dance to songs of love and devotion to Krishna, in keeping with the sakhi-bhav tradition. Gotipuas also perform bandha nritya that demonstrates the suppleness and flexibility of their bodies in tableau-like formations.[16] Gotipua performances were held outside the temple and open to the public. Often, local landlords, rather than the temple, were patrons for gotipua troupes.[17] In the mid-twentieth century, gurus trained in the gotipua tradition came to play a major role in the restructuring of Odissi dance.

Twentieth-Century Revival
The state of Odisha was officially formed on April 1, 1936, as a result of the growing Odia claim for linguistic identity through a separate province within British India. This was in keeping with the larger nationalist movement which was being articulated through regional linguistic and cultural identities in other parts of India too.

When India became independent in 1947, four dance forms were accepted as ‘classical’—Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali and Manipuri. Although they were brought together under the umbrella term of ‘classical’ dance, each has its own stylised and codified physical and gestural vocabulary, and musical style, and they have grown out of very diverse regional traditions of ritual, dance, martial arts and other performance traditions. These dance forms were representative of the newly formed Indian nation, supported and propagated through grants and performance opportunities created by the central and state governments. 

Between 1947 and 2000, the Sangeet Natak Akademi (India’s national academy of music, dance and drama, which was set up in 1953) recognised another four dance forms—Odissi, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam and Sattriya—with ‘classical’ status. For Odissi, this recognition was won by the focused and collaborative efforts of several committed individuals, including scholars who researched the history and artists who developed a technique and repertoire based on existing materials, which was then propagated through performances and teaching. All their efforts came to fruition when Odissi gained acceptance as a classical dance form by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in the late 1950s. It is important to note that even the name Odissi only came into use in the late 1950s, as the dance form took shape.

Developments within Odisha
‘Day by day, the Odiya drama became famous as Odissi dance.’[18]

—Pankaj Charan Das

The rising consciousness around Odia identity reflected in the popularity and success of Odia theatre companies, especially in the period 1930–50s. Theatre companies based in Puri and Cuttack worked with traditional forms like Ras-Lila, and produced the work of contemporary Odia playwrights. Dance performances were presented as the opening act or in between acts in the theatre. Odissi dance as it exists today owes much to this theatre movement. Gurus who are now known as the architects of Odissi dance got their early training working with these theatres. For instance, Kelucharan Mohapatra trained in Mohan Sundar Dev Goswami’s Ras-Lila troupe, both Pankaj Charan Das and Deba Prasad Das worked at the New Theatre, and Mayadhar Raut trained at Orissa Theatre. At different times, all four of them worked at Annapurna Theatre in Cuttack.[19] One of the first performances of Odissi dance on stage was presented by Laxmipriya, choreographed in the mahari style by Pankaj Charan Das, with Kelucharan Mohapatra accompanying as percussionist, for the opening of Ashwini Kumar Ghose’s play Abhisheka in 1946.[20] 

In these theatres, the artists were exposed to dance styles from outside Odisha. For instance, Dayal Sharan taught Uday Shankar’s creative dance to Deba Prasad Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Mayadhar Raut. The theatre companies were also a meeting ground for artists and the intelligentsia leading the movement for the recognition of linguistic and political autonomy and Odia cultural identity. Among the latter was Kalicharan Patnaik, a poet and writer who became a leading voice in the movement for Odissi’s classical status.

In 1952, Babulal Doshi, a businessman, started the Kala Vikash Kendra (KVK), the first centre for research, development and teaching of Odissi dance, in Cuttack. By the late 1950s, artists started presenting programmes demonstrating ‘classical’ Odissi in Odisha and outside. Other institutions were established much later, like the government-run Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in 1964 and Odissi Research Centre (later renamed Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Odissi Research Centre) in 1986, as well as private schools founded by individual gurus. 

Developments outside Odisha
Priyambada Mohanty and Dhirendranath Patnaik’s dance performance in Delhi for the Inter-University Youth Festival in 1954 is generally acknowledged as the first time that people outside Odisha noticed the evolving form of Odissi.[21] Having watched them dance, the art historian and dance critic Charles Fabri remarked that this dance was one of India’s lost classical forms. Fabri asked Indrani Rahman, an established Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam dancer, to learn it, which motivated Rehman to train under Deba Prasad Das. Meanwhile, in 1953, nine-year-old Sanjukta Mishra (later Panigrahi) from Odisha performed at the Children’s Little Theatre in Calcutta, and garnered acclaim from both the audience and press for her performance. She would later go on to become one of the foremost exponents of Odissi and play a major role in its blossoming on national and international stages.  

The institutionalisation of Odissi also helped the dance form gain visibility outside the state. In January 1958, Kelucharan and his student, the young Sanjukta Panigrahi, accompanied Kalicharan Patnaik to the All India Dance Seminar in Madras. In April 1958, Jayanti Ghose and Deba Prasad gave another demonstration at the All India Dance Seminar organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi. On both occasions, the artists performed on behalf of KVK.[22]

Consolidation, ruptures, and a codified dance
As the 1950s drew to a close, a group of scholars, gurus and writers began a series of meetings to codify the grammar and repertoire of Odissi, thereby ensuring a uniformity in its execution, and to take it to wider platforms. This association of individuals, brought together by their love for Odisha’s dance traditions and the desire to elevate their status, was called Jayantika. Led by eminent personalities like gurus Pankaj Charan Das, Deba Prasad Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Mayadhar Raut, Raghunath Dutta, Dayanidhi Das, journalists Gorachand Mishra and Biranchi Routray, writers Dhirendranath Patnaik and Kalicharan Patnaik, Jayantika would also try to cement the recently achieved classical status by validating the existing dance with theory from textual sources. The association’s first meeting took place on June 22, 1958, in Cuttack[23], and it set off a chain of meetings over a period of five to six years with members coming and leaving at different points

Although the group was formed with the hope of creating a consensus, it soon became clear that Jayantika’s work would not be easy. Artistic differences came up within the group, especially with regard to how different members envisioned the repertoire of Odissi. The divisions were over the spirit of the dance which was becoming a symbol of Odia cultural identity, as it moved to national and international stages with new performers and audiences.

Pankaj Charan Das, for one, believed that Odissi dance must acknowledge the mahari heritage in spirit and form.[24] Pankaj Charan belonged to a mahari family, and, through his work in the Odia theatre companies, he brought the mahari style of dance onto the public stage. The 1950s were a time of critical changes for the mahari community as the administration of the Jagannath temple was transferred from the King of Puri, to the state government of Odisha.[25] In addition, the popular narrative of the temple dancer’s moral decline was strong in postcolonial India. The ritual and social networks that maintained devadasi traditions had been outlawed in Madras and other provinces, with repercussions in other parts of the country as well.[26] The maharis were aware of the growing movement around Odia nacha (Odia dance) but were excluded from the ongoing discussions, which were mostly dominated by male gurus and scholars. [27] Their applications for grants to establish a school for training young girls in their tradition were repeatedly denied by the State Academy of Music and Dance.[28] Pankaj Charan parted ways with Jayantika over the way Odissi was being constructed.

Of the twentieth-century revivalists, most of the male gurus had trained as gotipuas in their childhood, as a result, the most recognisable aspects of Odissi’s physical vocabulary, are derived from this tradition. This includes the signature stances—chowk, a symmetrical, square-shaped posture that is believed to reflect the image of Jagannath, and tribhang, an asymmetrical posture that looks like an S-shaped curve resulting from three deflections in the body at the knee, torso and neck—from which Odissi movements are created. The characteristic upper torso movement, which is coordinated with the head and neck movement while maintaining the body’s central axis, is also derived from this tradition. Postures and movements from gotipua dancing were modified for the stylised and codified Odissi vocabulary in conjunction with studying the temple sculptures of Bhubaneswar and Konark. 

Fig. 3. Aloka Panikar demonstrates chowk, c. 1980 (Courtesy: Mohan Khokar)

Fig. 1. Aloka Panikar demonstrates chowk, c. 1980 (Photograph by Mohan Khokar; Courtesy: Aloka Panikar)


Fig. 4. Dancers practice a movement in tribhang during a workshop at Nrityagram in 2014 (Courtesy: Meghna Das)

Fig. 2. Dancers practice a movement in tribhang during a workshop at Nrityagram in 2014 (Courtesy: Meghna Das)

Jayantika’s work was framed in conversation with a broader understanding of the ‘classical’ developing in Indian arts, especially dance, in a pan-Indian context. Odissi followed the example of existing classical dances like Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, by looking to textual sources to theorise the existing practices of dance and to build new knowledge. In Sanskrit the term for classical dance is shastriya nritya (in Odia it is shastriya nrutya), which can be translated as scriptural dance.. By demonstrating a connection with texts like the Natyashastra, Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinaya Chandrika, etc., Jayantika hoped to win greater legitimacy for Odissi’s claim for classical status. To this end, Mayadhar Raut received an Odisha government scholarship to study Bharatanatyam and Kathakali at Kalakshetra (a school started by Rukmini Devi Arundale in Madras in 1936) between 1955­–1959, to inform the work of Jayantika. He brought back practical and theoretical information, such as the application of codified gestures (mudra viniyoga) from the Abhinaya Darpana in dance, which became part of the developing Odissi pedagogy, as well as the choreographic device of using sanchari bhava (transitory sentiments) to build the sthai (dominant mood) of a composition, which helped expand the repertoire for performance. Sanjukta Panigrahi and Minati Misra also trained in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra.

From the 1960s onwards, the five-part repertoire developed by Jayantika—mangalacharan, batu/sthai, pallavi, abhinaya and moksha—gradually became the most widely practised by Odissi dancers. These dance pieces, each between 5–15 minutes long, incorporate aspects of the Odissi’s multiple roots.

  • mangalacharan (auspicious ceremony), includes mancha pravesh (entering the stage), pushpanjali (flower offering), bhumi pranam (paying respect to the earth), vandana (prayer to a deity), sabha pranam (jagaran nritya + trikhandi pranam [paying respect to god, teachers and rasikas]);
  • batu/sthai (enduring/permanent/steady) is in the category of nritta (abstract or pure dance)—it establishes the core physical grammar of the dance drawn from sculptures and gotipua movements, with bhangis, belis and arasas (postures, movements and short dance phrases), supported by ukutas (rhythmic phrases) and a repeated musical refrain;
  • pallavi (expanding/blossoming) is also an abstract dance where the rhythm, melody and dance begin to be elaborated and embellished;
  • in abhinaya (to carry forward/dramatic representation for the stage), Sanskrit and Odia texts are interpreted through dance. These primarily include the Gitagovinda and poetry written by sixteenth­–eighteenth-century Odia Bhakti poets like Upendra Bhanja, Banamali Das, Baladev Rath, etc.; and
  • the concluding dance moksha (liberation) is danced to drumming with an emphasis on rhythmic patterns and speed.

Fig. 3. Ambika Paniker performing Arabhi Pallavi, choreographed by Guru Mayadhar Raut, at Teatro tascabile di Bergamo, Italy, in 1988. Paniker’s ‘ornamental pose’ is inspired by the sculptures of Odisha’s temples (Courtesy: Teatro tascabile di Bergamo)

Fig. 3. Ambika Paniker performing Arabhi Pallavi, choreographed by Guru Mayadhar Raut, at Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo, Italy, in 1988. Paniker’s ‘ornamental pose’ is inspired by the sculptures of Odisha’s temples (Courtesy: Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo)

The path from mangalacharan to moksha is infinitely repeatable but can be different each time it is danced. Dancers can adapt this repertoire to the demands of the performance, for instance, shorter programmes may require the omission of one or more elements while for a longer programme a dancer may present two pallavis or a saabhinaya pallavi (abhinaya combined with pure dance). 

However, not everyone agreed with the direction of Jayantika’s work. In her doctoral dissertation on the Deba Prasad Das tradition of Odissi, Paromita Kar cites Dinanath Pathy to make the case that Deba Prasad resisted the ‘Sanskritisation’ of Odissi by Jayantika. His own interpretation emphasised an essentially Odia style of dance through the use of regional motifs and Odia vocabulary to describe movements otherwise codified in Sanskrit terminology.[29] Amid growing differences, Deba Prasad too parted ways with Jayantika.

In spite of the several setbacks that afflicted the association and the apparent failure to build a consensus, by the time the series of meetings culminated in 1964, Jayantika had managed to cover substantial ground towards the cause of Odissi dance in a relatively short span of time.

Important figures and their contributions
After studying Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, Sanjukta Panigrahi returned to Odisha to work with her guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. As a performer, and in partnership with her musician husband Raghunath Panigrahi, she became a trailblazer in the field of Odissi, winning national awards and international acclaim. She remains among the most highly regarded Odissi dancers despite her untimely death in 1997 at the age of 52.

Minati Mishra also studied at Kalakshetra and went on to dance Odissi on stage and in films. She had a doctorate in Indology and was the principal of Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya from 1964 to 1989.[30] Kumkum Mohanty, also among the first generation of Odissi performers, became the Chief Executive of Odissi Research Centre in the 1980s.

Pankaj Charan Das is now acknowledged as the Adi-Guru (first guru) of Odissi, having taught all the other senior male gurus and dancers like Ritha Devi, Priyambada Mohanty and Ratna Roy. He taught at the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya and was the creator of well-known Odissi choreographies such as Glani Samhar, Panchkanya, Bhasmasura, Madhurastakam, and Gativilas pallavi.

Deba Prasad Das was the first Odissi guru to tour internationally with his student Indrani Rehman in 1959-60.[31] As a choreographer and teacher, he is known for stepping beyond the Puri-Konark-Cuttack-Bhubaneswar focus of other Odissi gurus and incorporating elements like western Odisha’s Sabdasvara Pata, and Chhau, in Odissi. His approach highlighted the regional Odia flavours of both music and dance. While his student Priyambada Mohanty has called his approach conservative, Ratna Roy believes that his definition of Odissi ‘synthesizes the essence of life and art in Odisha in a holistic manner.’[32] His style is direct and conveys a clarity of movement and feeling. He taught at the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya until his death in 1986. His students include Durga Charan Ranbir, Ramli Ibrahim, Sangeeta Dash, Gayatri Chand, Gajendra Panda, among others.

Gangadhar Pradhan was among the earliest teachers in Odisha to understand the value of private institution-building. He is remembered for his enterprising spirit and hard work, which led him to establish Orissa Dance Academy in Bhubaneswar in 1972 and Konark Natya Mandap in 1985. 

The ground for Odissi was also fertile outside Odisha. Harekrushna Behera was the first teacher to offer Odissi classes in Delhi in the early 1960s. Mayadhar Raut moved to Delhi in 1968 to teach at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. He remained committed to the training methodology and style developed by Jayantika, perhaps a reflection of his training at Kalakshetra. As a choreographer he was informed by sculptural reliefs, and brought qualities associated with the literary and artistic canon to the dancing body. The full-bodied sensuousness of his style was exemplified by dancers like Aloka Panikar, Kiran Segal and Ranjana Gauhar. Surendranath Jena developed a distinct style while teaching Odissi at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam. One of his major conceptual contributions was the incorporation of Shakti influences and quotidian movements in the repertoire he developed.[33]

Fig. 3. Sonali Mishra offers flowers (pushpanjali) to a figure of Jagannath while performing the mangalacharan, ‘bhaje brajekamandanam’, choreographed by Bichitrananda Swain, during a performance in New York City, USA, in 2013 (Photograph by J’adore Andy Photography; Courtesy: Navatman).

Fig. 4. Sonali Mishra offers flowers (pushpanjali) to a figure of Jagannath while performing the mangalacharan, ‘bhaje brajekamandanam’, choreographed by Bichitrananda Swain, during a performance in New York City, USA, in 2013 (Photograph by J’adore Andy Photography; Courtesy: Navatman).

Of all the gurus, Kelucharan Mohapatra is perhaps the most prolific and widely known. He trained a large number of students in Odisha and other parts of India. Ratna Roy calls his style the ‘master narrative . . . , often equated with the entirety of Odissi dance.’ [34] He had teaching bases in different cities—among his many students are Kumkum Lal, Sonal Mansingh and Madhavi Mudgal from Delhi; Sutapa Talukdar, Aloka Kanungo, Poushali Mukherjee and Sharmila Biswas from Kolkata; Debi Basu, Jhelum Paranjape, Anandi Ramachandran and Daksha Mashruwala from Mumbai, and several others. He also taught many generations of students in Odisha. In the 1990s, he established a school, Srjan, in Bhubaneswar. An accomplished percussionist, he collaborated with violinist Bhubaneswar Mishra to create some of the most widely performed and instantly recognisable dances of the Odissi repertoire. He is remembered for his virtuosic skills as a choreographer and musician, and as a performer excelling in abhinaya.

Odissi in the Twenty-First Century
The post-90s period of economic liberalisation witnessed a new shift in networks of funding and presentation for Indian classical dance. While performances and other opportunities offered by the government remained a critical source of sustenance for dancers, government patronage for the arts began to shrink. In the gap this opened up, new private and organisational networks emerged as consequential patrons, and dancers increasingly turned to them. North America emerged as one of the biggest markets for Odissi outside India, with a growing Indian diaspora that has the private financial capital to support dance in a globalising world. Currently, individual dancers in India and overseas are leveraging social media to build an audience and reach out to students living across the world. These shifts raise interesting questions about the ways in which changing structures of patronage have impacted the practice of Odissi in the twenty-first century. For instance, there is a growing preference for ensembles over solo performers, and theme-based productions over traditional repertoire performances.

This period also saw the rise of dancers whose work has greatly influenced the way Odissi is practised in the twenty-first century. In 1990, Protima Gauri, a student of Kelucharan Mohapatra, established Nrityagram, a village for dance, in Hesaraghatta outside Bangalore. She died in 1998, but the work of Nrityagram grew, and, by proximity, Bangalore emerged as a major centre for Odissi. Conceived as a gurukul, Nrityagram conforms to the globally familiar paradigm of a dance company. Artistic Director and Choreographer Surupa Sen worked in partnership with the Director of Training and Principal Dancer Bijayini Satpathy (formerly a student at Orissa Dance Academy) to create a style of Odissi that builds on and pushes beyond the legacy of Kelucharan Mohapatra. The company has been highly successful internationally. In 2019, Bijayini left the company to pursue a solo career.

Sujata Mohapatra is another notable performer and teacher known internationally. Her dance exemplifies the Odissi body as imagined by Kelucharan. The upper torso in the tribhang has a more articulated deflection and the ribcage moves laterally, with limited head and neck movement to compensate. This style has become the model for many Odissi students, especially outside India, in the twenty-first century.

Some of the touring ensembles of Odissi currently active are Sutra Foundation, Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Odissi Vision and Movement, Nrityagram, Rudrakshya Foundation, Orissa Dance Academy, and Srjan.

In trying to understand Odissi we would do well to recognise that it has multiple roots, and, correspondingly, encompasses multiple perspectives. In establishing Odissi as an internationally recognised Indian classical dance form, its makers remained in conversation with history and the contemporary world, and were also shaped by their times. As such, the history of Odissi offers to contemporary practitioners the means to think about their practice as something that is constantly changing, and to be reflexive about the nature of this change.

n.b. The banner image features Dali Basu Chaudhuri performing mangalacharan, with the prayer ‘kadachit kalinditatavipina . . .’ from the ‘Jagannath Ashtakam’ in Ottawa, Canada, in 2007. The dance is choreographed by Aloka Panikar. The backdrop features an image of the Jagannath temple of Puri. (Courtesy Dali Basu Chaudhari and Photograph by Bhupendra Yadav)

[1]Note on spelling of Odissi: The name of the state as spelt in English was changed from Orissa to Odisha in 2009. The name of the dance was originally spelt as Orissi and later changed to Odissi. The name of the language and word for referring to the people of the state was earlier spelt as Oriya and is now Odia. The reason for these shifts lies in the problem of accurately transliterating from the Odia script into the Roman script. This essay uses the new spellings, unless referring to names, e.g., Orissa Dance Academy and Orissa Theatres.

[2] Misra, ‘Historical Survey,’ 8.

[3] Khokar, ‘Myths, Legends and Historical Facts,’ 16.

[4] von Stietencron, ‘The Advent of Vishnuism in Orissa,’ 4.

[5] Misra, ‘Historical Survey,’ 8.

[6] Banerji, Dancing Odissi, 126.

[7] Banerji, ‘Dance and the distributed body,’ 13.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Marglin, Wives of the God-King, 90.

[10] Banerji, ‘Dance and the distributed body,’ 21.

[11] Marglin, Wives of the God-King, 19.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Ibid., 89–90.

[14] Roy, Neo-Classical Odissi Dance, 87–88.

[15] Marglin, Wives of the God-King, 28.

[16] Roy, Neo-Classical Odissi Dance, 87–90.

[17] Kar, The Debaprasad Das Tradition, 162.

[18] Das, ‘Classification and Serial Order of Odissi Dance (1975).’

[19] Roy, Neo-Classical Odissi Dance, 90–104.

[20] Das, ‘Classification and Serial Order of Odissi Dance (1975).’

[21] For more information on Priyambada Mohanty’s 1954 performance see, Venkataraman, ‘Heroine by Chance.’

[22] Ileana Citaristi, ‘The Rise and Fall of Jayantika.’

[23] Ibid.

[24] Das, ‘Classification and serial order of Odissi dance (1975).’

[25] Marglin, Wives of the God-King, 27.

[26] Ibid., 8.

[27] Both Marglin and Roy discuss this in their writing.

[28] Marglin, Wives of the God-King, 29.

[29] Kar, The Debaprasad Das Tradition, 151.

[30] Singha, ‘Eminent Odissi dancer Minati Mishra passes away.’

[31] Roy, Neo-Classical Odissi Dance, 100.

[32] Ibid., 102.

[33] Banerji, Dancing Odissi, 320.

[34] Roy, Neo-Classical Odissi Dance, 107.


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