Although often considered one of the oldest forms of dance in India, in reality, Odissi as practiced today is a recent creation. The vocabulary was developed in the 30-40s, when the Indian sub-continent was in a process of cultural revival. This process is strictly linked to the raise of Indian Nationalism under the British Empire.
The contact with the West, that imperialism and colonialism caused, had a huge cultural impact on traditional societies. Victorian puritanism saw as immoral most of traditional customs and beliefs and could not accept the long association in South-Asian traditions between sensuality and spirituality. The newly western-educated Indian intelligentsia inherited these western ideas of austere morality. Women dancers in particular became the object of social marginalisation. There was a long tradition of temple dance and court dance in what is nowadays India. Women belonging to these communities (devadasis) had enjoyed social prestige, relative financial independence and a certain power. They often also had open relationships. However, under western influence, their freedom was targeted and the community of dancers was accused of prostitution. The anti-nautch movement (movement against temple dancers) stigmatised this group of women, and dance in general, and effectively marked the end of their tradition.
At the same time, western-educated Indian intelligentsia also inherited ideas of classicism from the West and strived to identify a classical tradition for the newly born Indian nation. The revival of Bharatanatyam first, and of other classical dances in India, must be understood in this framework. Rukmini Devi, who was one of the key figure of the Bharatanatyam revival, was actually inspired by western ballerina Anna Pavlova. Devi learned elements of the dance from traditional dance teachers, but she cleansed it from any sensual reference both in the form and in the content. Bharatanyam began to be practiced by women belonging to the new middle and upper class, while traditional practitioners were marginalised from the revival.
In the 30s, a nationalist discourse also developed in the area now known as Odisha (at that time belonging to the Bengali colonial administration together with Bihar). A group of male dancers and scholars came together with the programmatic purpose of developing a classical dance for the state of Odisha. Some of these dance teachers had a long experience of performing in folk theatre groups or they had trained in local gymnasia (often associated with local landlords). Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra was from a family of patachitra painters and he had, against his father’s will, learned gotipua dancing. Gotipua were boys who performed in community events for entertainment. No devadasi (in fact no woman) was involved in the revival of the form, although one of the guru (Pankacharan Das) had been the adopted son of a devadasi.
These gurus took inspirations from Bharatanatyam, from folk and martial traditions they were familiar with and also carefully studied temple sculptures. They also considered the form a heir of temple dance and gave it a devotional and spiritual value (in the attempt to disassociate the dance from any promiscuous or dubious use of the body). While there is evidence that there was a devadasis tradition in Odisha, in particular in Puri Temple, most possibly their dancing/singing was purely devotional and devoid of the technicalities and stylistic characteristics for which we know Odissi nowadays. Also at the time of the revival, the maharis (devadasis of Odisha) had almost disappeared as a social community, although a few old ones remained.
The technique was developed gradually by the gurus. Equally, the repertoire we consider traditional nowadays, was created in the 1940s-50s and continued to expand. Unlike Bharatanatyam, Odissi has a strong sensual element that is also present in local visual culture (see sculptures and folk painting traditions). Perhaps it is also due to the fact that the gurus were not, unlike BN revivalists, western-educated, and therefore did not feel the need to ‘cleanse’ the form from more explicit sensual elements. In addition Odissi is a celebration of femininity, and perhaps this is due to be a form mainly revived on women’s bodies.
Video on Gotipua Dance:
Odissi is an Indian classical dance originated in the state of Odisha. Like most Indian dance
styles, Odissi is characterised by percussive footwork, stylised facial expressions and codified hand gestures (hasta mudras). This sophisticate dance vocabulary has abstract (nritta) and
dramatic components (nritya, expressive dance, also called abhinaya, and natya, dance drama,), in which movements, gestures and expressions are used to interpret the music and
convey stories, characters and emotions related to Hindu mythology.
Achieving classical status only 60 years ago, Odissi dance is rooted in the tradition of sacred dance rituals performed in the past by temple dancers, locally known as maharis. Its movement vocabulary is also strongly inspired by local ancient temple sculptures. However, Odissi, as performed nowadays, is a relatively modern form, which equally draws on folk performing, martial and visual arts, such as the acrobatic dance of the gotipua, the martial art form chhau, and the patachitra paintings tradition, as well as on western theatre aesthetics. Its refined vocabulary is the result of indigenous values and practices combined with the artistic genius and modern sensibility of a few extraordinary choreographers, in particular of guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, poet of fine gestures and rare insight.
Odissi is particularly known for its distinctive torso movements and refined lyricism. Although described as the most graceful and gentle among all Indian classical dances, Odissi conceals, behind its elusive resilience and playful gaze, an incredible physical strength, inner control and sense of balance. Sculptural and contained in its outer forms, Odissi reveals its fluidity and energy in movement. Although Odissi has conquered a clear aesthetic, mainly defined by the distinctive quality of its movement vocabulary, the enormous potential of its traditional technique is still open to an infinite number of further explorations. This inner potential of the form and its undeniable outer beauty make this dance style alive, modern, transcultural and truly global.
The dance vocabulary of Odissi should be thought as inherently sonic (sound) and kinetic (movement) at the same time. Any movement has a corresponding musical or temporal value. An understanding of the technique implies an understanding of the purity of the lines in the movement (angasuddhi) alongside the purity of the sound (or silence) in the footwork (laya, tempo, and tala, division of the temporal space in a certain number of matras, beats).
In Odissi, as in other Indian classical dances, space has a clear temporal nature and time has a clear spatial nature. Odissi training initially focuses on exploring the possibilities of time, through the footwork, and subsequently the possibilities of space in a geometrical and systematic way through choreography.
The movement vocabulary of Odissi is developed from four main basic stances: samabhanga, abhanga, tribhanga and cauka. Samabhanga and Cauka are symmetrical stances. Here the body weight is equally distributed on both legs. Abhanga and Tribhanga are asymmetrical positions in which the weight of the body is shifted on one leg. A sense of a plumb line running through the body should be kept in any position to ensure correct alignment. There should be a sense of connection between the ground and the sky, to keep any of these positions rooted, steady and at the same time dynamic and alive.
The connection with the ground is very strong and important. When moving, the dancer does not aim to leave the floor, but to come back to it. For this reasons, the vocabulary does not emphasise jumps and elevations, but gravity and rhythmic use of the floor. It is good to think the relationship with the floor as that of a musician with its drum. However, the contact with the floor is limited to the feet. This implies that most of the vocabulary is developed using the body in vertical alignment, although levels are used. These technical characteristics have cultural explanations regarding the relationship of the human body with the ground, which combine a sense of sacredness of the ground, but also an understanding of lower levels as prone to contamination.
In Odissi there is a clear distinction between upper and lower body, which is mainly based on torso isolation. The technique develops from the complex coordination of major and minor limbs. The basic training focuses on developing an understanding of the basic principles on which different body parts are coordinated in units of movement-sound.
The movement vocabulary of Odissi develops from the embodiment of basic geometrical shapes (mainly circle, square, triangle). These embodied geometries are then developed in the space with the body moving along clear lines and often repeating movement symmetrically.