Classical Indian Temple Dance
Odissi dance originated in the temples of Orissa, India more than 2000 years ago. The dance was traditionally practiced and performed as a sacred ritual to ignite transformation in the dancer and audience. Considered both a classical and devotional dance form, Odissi is graceful and sensuous, expressive and sophisticated. The Dance exquisitely portrays the beauty of the sacred feminine, and reflects the ancient spiritual motifs of India’s great tantric temples.
Odissi has undergone major transformations throughout the centuries. In recent times the Dance has made a quantum leap from the temples and courts of India to the stages and theaters of the world. In its’ modern incarnation, Odissi Dance is highly technical, featuring intense footwork, elaborate hand gestures, and captivating upper body movements.
Amid the changes and evolution of Odissi, the Dance has preserved its devotional roots and maintained its spiritual depth. To witness a performance of Odissi Dance is to enter the place where heaven and earth touch, where the sensual and the spiritual are one in the depths of the human heart.
Preparing to Dance
Sloka – Prayer
Before we start dancing we initiate our practice reciting a sloka. Slokas are short
verses from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures. They usually attributed to specific
Gods or Goddesses and serve as an invocation prayer to attain steady and peaceful
state of being. Below are the two most common dance slokas from the Abhinaya
Darpana by Nandikeshvara, one of the main classical dance texts.
Nama – Salutation,
Kriya – Action
Sloka – spiritual poetry
Lord Shiva is praised as the embodiment of the 4 types of abhinaya (Body & hand
movement, ornaments and costume, Song, Mood/emotional expression) in this
Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya (All our body parts are yours)
Vachikam Sarva Bhagmayam (Our words are your world)
Aharyam Chandra Taradi (The Sun and Moon are your ornaments)
Tum Namaa Satvikam Shivam (I salute you Shiva, the embodiment of truth, with my
“We bow to Him the benevolent One
whose limbs are the world,
whose song and poetry are the essence of all language,
whose costume is the moon and the stars…”
Guru Brhama (Birth, You are my teacher)
Guru Vishnu (Life, You are my teacher)
Guru Deva Maheshvara (Death, You are my teacher)
Guru Sakshat Param Bramha (Emptiness, You are certainly my teacher)
Tasmay shri Guruveh Namaha (To such respected teacher I offer my devotion)
Bumi Paranam – Salutation to the earth
Odissi dancer offers Bumi Paranam – A Dance-Prayer sequence to initiate and to
conclude every dance session. Bumi is the earth Goddess. We salute the earth
before practice, asking permission to stump upon her and generate our creation, and
we thank her at the end of our practice, for allowing us to do so.
Odissi dance takes shape as a gradual progression: addressing all the elements of the dance and then layering them together into a complete and intricate whole. We begin every practice session with gentle exercises; joint opening sequences and light stretches, followed by stronger exercises that strengthen the legs, open the hips, flex the spine, and develop stamina and rhythm. We proceed with the distinct dance postures in various dance steps, spins, walks and jumps, climaxing in practice of choreography. A session usually concludes with unwinding and cooling down stretches, as well as refining our mudra practice, developing eye, head, and neck movements, emotional expressions, and other facets and elements of Odissi.
Before we begin moving – The dancer always centers and grounds:
connecting with her breath, with the earth through the sole of her feet, with heaven
through the top of her head, and with space within and around. The dancer is seen
as the creator of the universe, creating her own universe with her dance and letting
creation happen through her while dancing. As we prepare ourselves to dance, it is
important to view ourselves as the center axis between heaven and earth, and let all
manifestation revolve around us. The most profound role of the dancer is her ability to
transform her own reality and touch her audience deeply, offering the opportunity to
transcend ordinary life moments into extra-ordinary spiritual ones.
Odissi Dance History
One of the oldest Indian classical dance styles, Odissi, has its origin in the state of orissa. The first reference to this exquisite dance form is in Bharat Muni’s ‘Natyashastra’. This makes the art form, at that time called ‘Odramagadhi,’ about two thousand years old. It is one of the mysteries of India how an art form which is so ancient can also be vibrant and well-suited to the sensibility of our age. The treatise used most extensively for this style is ‘Abhinaya – Chandrika,’ written by Maheshwar Mahapatra in the fifteenth century. The dance was then called ‘Odra-nritya,’ and acquired its present name in the twentieth century. The graceful figures of the temple dancers, frozen in stone in the sculpted relics found in the Udayagiri hills near Bhubaneshwar dated to the 2nd century B.C.E. This is the earliest sculptural evidence of Indian dance still preserved.
This agile and graceful style used to be performed by three categories of dancers: nartaki (the royal court dancers), mahari (the temple dancers) and gotipua (young boys who used to perform a dance rich in acrobatic movements, for the general public). Until the seventeenth century, Odissi was respected and appreciated as a very dignified art form, pursued by many royal figures. However with foreign occupation and change of rule, the perception of dance changed along with the social attitudes, and sensual entertainment started to be associated with the dance of the maharis. For this reason, in the 1940s, the habit of dedicating girls as maharis in the temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri in Orissa ceased. However, the dance was energetically continued by the young gotipuas, endowed with extreme flexibility and a sort of feminine grace. They used to dress up as girls for performances. Gotipuas were either working as paid artists in theater groups, or akhada-pila (Club-Boy), amateurs trained in local clubs, akhada.
The revival of the style started with Gotipua dance being part of the commercial theater performances, but it was a long way to go before the dance regained its social acceptability. In the early fifties, wealthy and educated families started learning the art form and bringing it in front of the public, which gradually brought a proper exposure to the extraordinary value of the dance. More positive publicity came along in 1956 when famous dancer, Indrani Rehman started learning Odissi from Devapasad Das. In 1958, the gurus of Odissi came together in a group called ‘Jayantika’ or Revival. Through their combined efforts, the style was restored to its classical condition, after a gradual refinement of the traditional repertoire and of the practice and presentation techniques. In time, legendary gurus like Kelucharan Mahapatra, Mayadhar Raut and Devaprasad Das become the modern-day fathers of Odissi Dance.
Oriya music is distinctive from both Hindustani and Carnatic music, having been influenced by the Tantric – Buddhist style of chanting and later developed into odra sangit. This music had a characteristic raga system and particular ‘Chandas’, metrical schemes. The orchestra consists of pakhawaj (two heads drum), one or two vocalists, sitar, violin or flute, and small cymbals (manjira).
The captivating style of Odissi dance is based in tandava (vigorous, masculine) and lasya (graceful, feminine) dance, and has two basic postures: ‘Tribhangi’, where the body is held with three bends of the head, torso and knees, and ‘Chouka’, a square- like stance that symbolizes Lord Jagannath. The fluidity of the upper torso is characteristic for Odissi, reminding us of the gentle waves of the sea that forever caress the magnificent Orissa beaches.
As part of the fundamental stepping, we have 10 basic Chouka steps, and 10 basic tribhangi steps. Each step includes the number of footwork corresponding with its number. For example, Chouka number 1 has one footwork, chouka number 2 has two footwork, number 3 ï¿½ three etc. In addition to the basic stepping, we have a number of spins (Bramharis), Transition steps (Charis), unique walks (Gatis) and many variations of them all.
A distinctive aspect of Odissi dance and its expressive characteristic is the use of Mudras (hand gestures) to express emotions and tell stories. Mudras are the poetry of the dance. There are 52 basic mudras and some additional ones, which are commonly used in odissi.
Once a dancer gets a grip of the fundamental steps, emphasis is been given to the more subtle movements of the torso, neck and eyes. As we layer it all together, the expressive quality of the dance comes to life, and the Bhava and Rasa (emotions and sentiments) permeate the dancer’s gestures.
The repertoire has been developed over the years to include 5 sections: ‘Mangala Charana’ (a traditional invocation piece), ‘Batu Nrutya’ or ‘Staii’ (abstract dance with many sculptural poses), ‘Pallavi’ (Pure Dance, lyrical variations of a musical raga),’Abhinaya’ (Theatrical, expressional dance form), and ‘Mokshya’ (Concluding fast-tempo dance with Peace prayer).
The fame of Odissi has reached far and wide through the performances of dazzling exponents like Sonal Mansingh, Madhavi Mudgal, and many others. While the style continues to evolve within the traditional format, group choreography and dance dramas explore mythological themes as well as new presentation formats.
Odissi is truly a celebration of human beauty through incredible grace and breath – taking movements, offered joyously as a prayer for the Divine.