Lifestyle Books and Art 02 Nov 2017 What is Odissi actua ...

What is Odissi actually?

Published Nov 2, 2017, 1:16 am IST
Updated Nov 2, 2017, 1:16 am IST
The state of Odisha is known as the land of temples.
Sanjukta Panigrahi
 Sanjukta Panigrahi

Odisha, on the east coast of India, where the sun rises over the temples on the shore, celebrates Oriyan culture in architecture, dance, music, painting and even in the hand-woven ikkat silks used for dance costumes. Odissi, a dance of Odisha, is a dance re-discovered in the twentieth century; one that has moved, like all classical dances of India, from the temple to the stage.  

Odissi dance is particularly known for its lyrical grace, elaborate rhythmic variations and dramatic expression. It is easily identified by silver ornaments worn by the dancer and the pith flower ornaments topped by a prominent/elevated tiara of pith flowers representing the spire of the temple. The sensual ‘S’ curve of the body in Odissi, created by the asymmetrical Tribhangi position, can be seen in sculptures dating back to the dancing girl of Mohenjodaro. The lyrical movement of the torso during dance phrases as well as in final sculpturesque poses is a defining characteristic of the Odissi style of movement.


The Natya Shastra text on dance, drama and music by Bharata Muni is a definitive and detailed text on the pan-India performing arts, written sometime between the 2nd centuries BC and AD. It speaks of the dance of Odhra Magadha, which included Kalinga and Odhra (modern Orissa), excelling in dramatic expression, that is, abhinaya. The relief sculptures of dancers and accompanying orchestra found on the walls of the second century BC Rani Gumpha Sanskrit theatre at Udayagiri, Orissa, predated the Natya Shastra.

Perhaps the most significant shared aspect of Odissi to other classical Indian dance forms is the motivation of the dance from a spiritual consciousness. Odissi is a celebration of the divinity of being.  The metaphysical import of the dance in the past and present is not limited to simple religious ritual, but aimed toward a transformational experience for audience and viewer. The existing circular, open-to-the sky Yogini temple near Bhubaneswar is a reminder of the Yogini Nritya that was foundational to the core Buddhist-Hindu spiritual expression which evolved over centuries.

The state of Odisha is known as the land of temples. Its dance reflects the sculpturesque poses adorning the walls of its myriad temples from 7th century Shivite to later Vaishnavite temples, especially the magnificent Jagannath Mandir in Puri built in the 11th century.

From the 9th century, there was a tradition of young women dedicated to service in the temples offering dance and song to the deity.  These dancers who lived as servants of the deity, supported by temple funds, were called Maharis.  In Jagganath Puri, the Maharis danced and sang only the songs of Krishna from poet Javadeva’s Gita Govinda. Radha’s love for Krishna is generally considered a metaphor for the soul’s love for the union with the divine.  The emphasis is on anticipation and yearning for union expressed in a rainbow of emotional nuance over many beautiful and evocative poems, with the fulfillment of union treated relatively briefly in the text. The passion of Bhakti, or devotion, was articulated with sophistication in the aesthetics of music and dance. A vocalist, percussionist and musician keeping rhythm with small cymbals, or gini, always accompanied the dance, with additional musicians at times. This is the same model for accompaniment of classical Odissi today.

The medieval neo-Vaisnavism of the Chaitanya era created the right environment for dance to become a vehicle of expression to reach the people.  The custom of having Odissi performed by boys dressed as girls enabled the devotional poetry to reach the general public outside temple precincts. Women dancing in public was not acceptable during that era, and sakhi bhava or worshipping Krishna as female devotees was an acceptable religious practice.  Gotipuas are boy dancers who begin training by the age of seven and generally end their dancing career by the time they reach eighteen.

The Gotipuas performed at religious festivals, social gatherings, occasionally in temple courtyards, and had considerable patronage up until the 19th century.  The Oriya texts and the music and training of Gotipuas have provided a strong base for the revival of Odissi in the 20th century.

The 20th century revival of Odissi drew on what remained of centuries of rising and falling fortunes in the development of the dance, both within and outside the temple.

Rediscovery of its artistic heritage was an integral part of a renaissance of national self-discovery that culminated in India’s independence from colonial rule.

The ancient Mahari tradition, with its emphasis on dramatic expression, and the medieval Gotipua tradition of boy dancers performing outside the temple precincts, which emphasized the more physical and even acrobatic aspects of the dance, were the foundation for the development of classical Odissi as a theatrical performance art on the stage as we know it today.