Odissi Dance – The Intricacies of the Oldest Classical Dance Form of India


Odissi dance
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Odissi or Orissi is an Indian classical dance that evolved in the Hindu temples of Odisha, India’s eastern coastal state. Initially known as ‘Odra-Nritya,’ it is a dance form that is not only popular in India but is also well-known throughout the world. It is a good illustration of remarkable motions, expressions and gestures of the body. 

Suggested Read – Culture of Odisha – Explore the Varied and Ancient Heritage of Utkala Region

Odissi’s theoretical background traces back to the old Sanskrit Hindu text of the performing arts, the ‘Natya Shastra.’ From the Odisha Hindu temples to diverse sites of architectural significance associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the age-old traditions of the Odissi are expressed, which are ornamented in sculptures of dancing poses. It is a form of illustrated anecdote of legendary and religious history, of pious poems and spiritual thoughts emoted by dancers with great body movements, expressions, impressive gestures and sign languages. The repertoire of performance comprises the invocation of nrita, nritya, natya and moksha. This dance genre contains themes from Vaishnavism and other gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology such as Shiva, Surya and Shakti.

About Odissi dance
Image – Wikimedia

In the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Bhubaneshwar, there exist archaeological proofs of Odissi tracing back from the 2nd century. The tantric images of the dancing yogini, Nataraja and the celestial musicians and dancers of early Shaivit temples along with many examples of Buddhist sculptures offer testament later to the tradition dating from the 2nd century B.C.E. to 10th century C.E. The Dharma or faith of Jagannath were inspirations that were combined in a unique philosophy. Many imposing temples were created with Hinduism gaining a place in Odisha in the 7th century A.D. The splendid Sun Temple at Konarak was established in the 13th century and marks the conclusion in the building work at Odisha with its Natya mandap or hall of dance. Till today, Odissi dancers are inspired by the dancing motions, frozen in stone.

Maharis have been the main repositories of this dance for ages. The maharis, originally temple dancers, were employed on royal courts and the art form declined. A class of youths called gotipuas had been trained in art around this period, they performed in temples and for general pleasure as well. Many of the gurus today belong to the gotipua tradition.

Steps Involved in the Dance

Steps involved in the Odissi Dance
Image – Flickr

The Odissi performance repertoire contains an invocation which is followed by nritta, nritya, natya, and moksha successively. Mangalacharana is an incantation followed by the offer of Pushpanjali flowers and greetings to the mother earth known as Bhumi Pranam. Next in order comes the performance of the pure dance or Nritta devoted to Lord Shiva by Batu, Batuka Bhairava, Battu Nrutya or Sthayee Nrutya. It takes place only with rhythmical music without any reciting or singing. The second element is expressive dance or Abhinaya to convey a story, chant or poetry by means of the hands, the mudras, emotions or bhavas, and movements of the eye and the body. A dance drama based on Hindu mystical texts and epics is part of the next section of natya. The dance routine, called Moksha, concludes with an Odissi performance that is designed to portray a sense of spiritual freedom.

Odissi Dance Costumes

Image – P. L. Tandon/Flickr

The female dancers wear brightly coloured sarees usually made of local silk  such as the Bomkai and the Sambalpuri saree with traditional motifs. The front section of the sari is worn with pleats or with a separate pleated fabric sewed to allow flexibility of the dancer’s movements while exhibiting exquisite footwork. Her head, ear, neck, arms and wrist adorned silver jewellery. Ghunghru, or music anklets constructed from leather slabs with little metallic bells, are wrapped around the ankles, and her waist is adorned with an embellished belt. Their palms and feet are illuminated with red coloured dyes called Alta. The dancers’ eyes are prominently outlined with Kajal to make her eye movements noticeable. She also wears a tikka on her forehead. Her hair is tied in a bun and embellished with a Seenthi. The hairdo can be decorated with a moon-like crest of white flowers or a Mukoot which is a reed crown with peacock feathers symbolising Lord Krishna.

A male dancer usually wears a dhoti nicely folded in the front and clasped between his lower body from the waist, while the upper body stays naked. His waist is decorated by a beautiful belt.

Instruments & Music in Odissi Dance

Instruments & Music in Odissi Dance
Image – Wikimedia

The unique characteristic of this dance form is that it contains Indian ragas from both the south and north that represent the interchange between the two regions of India. The principal ragas of Odissi are the ‘shokabaradi,” ‘Karnata,’ ‘Bhairavee’,’ ‘Dhanashri,’ ‘Panchama’, ‘Shree Gowda’, ‘Nata’, ‘Baradi’ and ‘Kalyana’.  Tabla, pakhawaj, harmonium, cymbal, violin, flute, sitar and the swarmandal are the musical instruments employed.

Notable Odissi Dancers

Sonal Mansingh

Notable Odissi Dancers, Sonal Mansingh
Image – Flickr

Sonal Mansingh, a prominent traditional Indian dancer, is the maestro for the form of Odissi. Born in Mumbai in the year 1944, her dance is really astonishing, bringing her much fame as a result. Her creations were always highly commended. In fact, multiple awards were honoured to her efforts in recognition. In 1992, she won the Padma Bhushan, India’s most important civilian award. Not only has she committed herself to the dance industry, but she has also contributed immensely to the grind of millions of people. Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award, was awarded to Sonal Mansingh in 2003, which made her the first Indian dancer to receive it. Sometimes, she’s also labelled a philosopher because of her amazing thoughts and opinions.

Mera Bharat, Devi Durga, Indradhanush, Sabras, Manavatta, Aatmayan and Draupadi, are her best-choreographed works. In her traditional dance shows, she has travelled over the world and entertained people. She thinks the question of society and humanity at large should be discussed by dance. Some of her choreographic pieces have raised women’s and environmental issues. She has always been enthusiastic about social topics at seminars.

Jhelum Paranjape     

Notable Odissi Dancers, Jhelum Paranjape     
Image – Image Source

For Jhelum Paranjape dance has been a way of life since childhood. She participated for a number of years in the dance ballet performed under the guidance of renowned poet Vasant Bapat, directed by Shri Ramesh Purav, staged by Rashtra Seva Del Kalapathak. Several memorable shows took place in the group. Particularly notable productions are Maharashtra Darshan, Bharat Darshan, Shiv Darshan and Azadi Ki Jung. She has been pursuing Odissi dancing since 1977.

From 1980, Jhelum Paranjape began her training under Guru Shankar Behera. She trained with Padma Vibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the doyen of Odissi dance. Since 1983, she has performed actively. Smita Patil was her active partner when she began her studies with Shankar Behera in Odissi. Although Smita Patil eventually changed her attention to movies, she always thought about dancing.

Jhelum’s friend and mentor was Smita Patil. It was via her that Jhelum and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra were introduced. She died in 1986 and by this time Jhelum Paranjape taught a little. Her memories was embedded very much in Jhelum and she wanted to give it a tangible shape. So was formed ‘Smitalay.’

Mayadhar Raut 

Notable-Odissi-Dancers, Mayadhar Raut 
Image – Wikimedia

Growing up with Odissi from early childhood in Guru-Shishya tradition, Mayadhar Raut also had the advantage of learning for many years at Kalakshetra under the supervision of Rukmini Devi Arundale. A legend in Odissi Dance, Guru Mayadhar Raut is known to be a difficult taskmaster, as he gently unravels his thinking over the years, giving his philosophy one time to absorb, grasp and imbue. A deep spiritual and intellectual rationale lies behind every deed; something he has considered and lived on long before composing.

Guruji has played a vital role in giving Odissi its classical status, as the founding member of Jayantika, an association founded in the 1950s. Guru Mayadhar Raut was the first Odissi guru in the Odissi study in 1955 to bring Mudra Vinyoga and Odissi dance items to Sancharibhava. He’s the first one to show Geeta Govinda, portraying Shringara Rasa, on stage too. He is highly regarded for his compositions ‘Pashyati Dishi Dishi’ and ‘Priya Charu Shile’ in 1961.

Guru Mayadhar Raut has received the Padma Shri (2009), the Sangeet Natak Academy Award and the Sahitya Kala Parishad Award, Utkal Pratibha Puraskar and Odissi Sangeet Natak Academy Award among many more.

Gangadhar Pradhan

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Gangadhar Pradhan was a great exponent of Odissi and a marvellous teacher . He was also an actor, choreographer and mardal artist. As a teacher, Pradhan contributed much to Odissi dance. In Konark Puri in 1986, he established the Konark Natya Mandap. He had several notable dancers-disciples  distributed around the country. He staged a number of dancing festivals in the temple city throughout his entire life. He was the first individual to receive the renowned assignment of teaching at Cornell University in the field of art and culture. He won various prizes, including the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

Ileana Citaristi 

Notable Odissi Dancers, Ileana Citaristi 
Image – Wikimedia

Ileana Citaristi is a dancer and dance instructor from Bhubaneswar, India who was born in Italy. She won ‘Best Choreography’ in the 43rd Yugant National Film Awards and in 2006 was given the Padma Sri, being the first dancer of foreign origins, for her contributions to Odissi .

Under Guru Kelucharan, Citaristi trained in Odissi and began her own dance school in 1994. Citaristi also is a Mayurbhanj Chhau representative, which she learnt under the supervision of Guru Hari Nayak and possesses a Chhau Acharya title from Bhubaneswar’s Sangeet Mahavidyalya. In 1996, she founded the Art Vision Academy, which provides a venue to share ideas between different types of art, such as theatre, music, dance and painting. 

In all the main festivals in India, she has performed her solo dance recitals and her original group choreographies, along with travelling in many other countries, such as Italy, Argentina, Poland, France and Germany Spain, Poland, Canada, Peru and Portuguese and many more.

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