History of Odissi

Odissi is one of the famous classical Indian dance forms from the state of Orissa. Odissi is a highly inspired, passionate, ecstatic and sensuous form of dance with a history of almost two thousand years. Like most of the South Indian classical dances of India, Odissi has its origin in the Devadasi tradition, where it was initially performed in the temples as a religious offering by the 'Maharis' who dedicated their lives in the service to the Divine.

The state of Orissa has a great cultural history. The rulers of the region built many magnificent temples, which became the centers of art and culture. It was around these temples that Odissi Dance was born. It remains a conundrum whether the dance is inspired by the timeless beauty of the temple sculptures, or the sculptures depict the celestial grace of the dancers.

Although initially , Odissi was not considered one of the main classical dances of India, its antiquity has been traced to an early sculpture found in the Ranigumpha caves at Udaygiri, Orissa dating to the 2nd century BCE. Thus, Odissi appears to be the oldest classical dance rooted in rituals and tradition of ancient times. In fact, the *Nãtya Shãstra* refers to *Odra Magadhi* as one of the *vrittis* and the word *Odra* refers to Orissa. However, since the exact date of the origin of the tradition could not be found, the Maharis and the Achariyas adapted the existing format of BharatNãtyam along with the sculptures on the temple walls to the present form of Odissi.

A performance of Odissi gives the impression of a soft lyrical style, highly sensuous. However, behind such grace, the movements are rigorous and challenging to execute with control and precision. The balance of stasis and dynamics is at the core of this style. Most of the *abhinaya* compositions are based on the Radha-Krishna theme. The Astapadis of the *kãvya* 'Gita Govinda' written by the Saint Jayadev are an integral part of its repertoire. The beginning pieces are dedicated to God of Orissa, Lord Jagannatha, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In its present form, Odissi is a well-established and codified classical dance form of India. Odissi is considered a dance of love, joy and intense passion, pure, divine, and human. Over a period of time, three schools of Odissi dance developed: Mahari, Nartaki, and Gotipau. The Mahari system traces its roots to the Devadasi tradition. The dance form of Odissi that developed in royal courts is called the Nartaki tradition. In the Gotipau tradition of Odissi dance, young boys dress up in female attires and enact female roles.

Before the 17th century Odissi dance was held in great esteem due to patronage and support of local rulers and nobles. During this period even the royalty were expected to be accomplished in dance. However, the scenario changed after the 17th century. The dancing girls were thought of as prostitutes and from this misfortune the social position of dancers began to decline. During the colonial period the position of Odissi dance suffered again due to the critical and conservative attitude of the British.

With India gaining independence there began great efforts to revive the classical Indian dances. The government came to realize the role of cultural heritage in creating a national identity. A number of scholars and experts took the initiative of reconstruction and popularization of Odissi dance. Some of the notable people of this movement are Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Mahadev Rout, Guru Raghu Dutta and Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra.

One of the most distinguishing features of Odissi dance is the Tribhangi. The notion of *Tribhangi* divides the body into three parts: head, bust and torso. The postures dealing with these three elements are called *Tribhangi*. This concept has created the very characteristic poses which are more curvaceous than in other classical Indian dances. Mudra is also an important component of Odissi dance. The term Mudra means "stamp", and is a hand position which suggests a wide array of symbolism and emotion. Odissi themes are most often religious in nature, and many revolve around expressing the stories of Lord Krishna.

"Odissi may well claim to be the earliest classical Indian dance style on the basis of archaeological evidence, . . ." (Vatsyayan 34) affirms an eminent dance scholar, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, in her book, Indian Classical Dance.

Inextricably linked with the religious movements of Orissa, Orissi shows traces of Buddhism, Tantrism (Buddhist and Brahmanical), Saivism, and Vaisnavism, not only in the figures depicted but also in the messages conveyed. From its earliest evidence, Odissi was a dance performed by women (Maharis), whether in court or in the temple. Around 1600 A.D., male dancers dressed as females, known as Gotipuas, gained prominence.

The dance remained an oral tradition through the beginning of the twentieth century, in possession of semi-literates who were not aware of the existing Sanskrit texts on dance. Consequently, the movement patterns, body positions, and hand gestures existed in diluted, even debilitated, form without the technical terminology that structures a dance format. The dances were passed down, in the case of Maharis (female temple dancers), from mother to adopted daughter, and, in the case of Gotipuas, from teacher to the dedicated boys. Dance by Maharis was totally stopped in the temple of Lord Jagannatha after independence due to the opprobrium attached to the female dancers. Although devotional singing in the temple continues to this day.

Lack of patronage made it difficult to continue the Gotipua dance tradition in the temples of Orissa, and financial duress drove the young Gotipuas to jatras or roving theatre groups.  They earned their living dancing interludes to dramatic acts. Odissi had begun its move from temple to stage.

Odissi was revived in post-independent India, as a neo-classical form, by a group of scholars and dance practitioners/teachers, who formed the group known as Jayantika. Each one of the four dance teachers, revivalists of an old dance tradition, Pankaj Charan Das, Kelu Charan Mahapatra, Deba Prasad Das, and Mayadhar Raut, was characterized by a love of the dance, a struggle through poverty and adverse conditions in pursuit of their love for the art form, and an exposure to the art of stagecraft.

Although Odissi moved from temple to theatre and lost some of its spiritual quality, except as a dramatic device, without this coming together of four great dancers and the move into a theatre venture, the dance would have been totally lost to posterity as an art form.

Odissi, the classical style of today in India, has developed from the gotipua repertoire, rather than the mahari repertoire and technique, and overcoming all growing pains, it has finally come into its own and taken India's dance stage by storm.