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ODISSI - An Ancient Artform

Odissi is an ancient, breathtakingly beautiful form of sacred dance, originally developed in the temples in Orissa as a form of worship and meditation. This supremely elegant style of dance is a visual delight. It is a dance of love, beauty, ecstasy and intense passion, lyrical, pure, divine and human all rolled into one. The rhythm, the bhangis (dance postures) and the mudras (hand gestures) used in Odissi have a distinctive quality of their own.


The essence of Odissi lies in its sculpturesque quality; most of its beautiful poses bear close resemblance with the sculptures of the famous temples, which once nourished the art. The journey starts with basic exercises and steps in Tribhangi and Chauka. These steps form the basis of all choreography in Odissi. It demands tremendous physical fitness and regular practice and lays an equal emphasis on sensitive facial expression in abhinaya with pure dancing. 


Themes of Odissi are almost exclusively religious in nature. It is largely based on the timeless Sanskrit epic, Geeta Govinda written by the famous Odia poet, Jayadev and deals with love themes of Radha and Krishna and the philosophy of its most popular deity, Lord Jagannath.

Picture Credit: Google Images


Most forms of Indian classical dance owe allegiance to the Natya Shastra, regarded as the fifth Veda. The Natya Shastra classifies dance into four regional types: Avanti, Dakshinatya, Panchali and Odhra-Magadhi. According to the same text, the Odhra-Magadhi type was prevalent in Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, Vatsa, Odhra, Magadha, Pundra and certain other eastern regions of India. Among these Kalinga and Odhra refer to the present state of Odisha. Thus it can be concluded that a shastric or classical tradition of dance was prevalent in this part of India even 2000 years ago.


The most outstanding archaeological evidence of Odissi is found in the Rani Gumpha from 2nd Century B.C. in Odisha. Scholars have dated these caves earlier than the writing of the Natya Shastra.  "Orissi (Odissi) may well claim to be the earliest classical Indian dance style on the basis of archaeological evidence..." says eminent dance scholar, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, in her book, Indian Classical Dance.

Notable manuscripts, like Abhinaya Chandrika by Mahesvara Mahapatra, which have detailed study of the movements of the feet, hands, postures and the repertoire, describe the technique’s adherence to Natya Shastra. Movements of the legs and feet (charis), pirouettes (bhramaris), jumps (utplutas), etc. follow the basic rules along with distinctive postures (bhangis) of Odissi dance. The art of Natya includes singing and abhinaya with nritta (pure dance). Bhavas (moods) in Rasaabhinaya is categorised in nine rasas (emotions). Also the usage of mudras (hand gestures) for each of these rasas.


Odissi, as we know it today, is the result of a long process of reconstruction from various dance traditions of Odisha, for instance the Maharis, the Gotipuas and the Bhandanritya traditions. We do not only see the adherence and allegiance to Natya Shastra in present day Odissi, but also see the regional flavours, culture, lifestyle, traditions, arts, literature, beauty, poetry, genius, needs and demands.​


The current form of Odissi is the product of the 20th century revival. Dedicated scholars, practitioners and gurus carefully researched manuscripts and studied the sculptures, paintings and poetry of the region. They also met and observed the performances of the few existing performers, in order to revive, restructure and reconstruct Odissi as a unique classical dance style adapted to the requirements of formal stage presentation. Padma Vibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Pankaj Charan Das and Guru Deba Prasad Das were some of the foremost proponents of the revived Odissi. Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi, Smt. Kumkum Mohanty, Dr. Sonal Mansingh, Smt. Madhavi Mudgal and Smt. Pratima Gauri have notably contributed in the promotion of the dance. In present day Odissi gurus & dancers, Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, Smt. Aruna Mohanty, Shri Ramli Ibrahim, Smt. Sujata Mohapatra, Dr. Ileana Citaristi, Smt. Surupa Sen, Smt. Sharmila Biswas and Smt. Bijayini Satapathy are popular and established practitioners.

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