How patronage shaped Odissi
ODISSI was recognized as one of India’s classical dance styles in the early 1960s by India’s central Sangeet Natak Akademi, a government-run institution with the task of preserving, developing, and promoting Indian music, dance, and theatre. Following this recognition, Odissi developed an impressive presence across India and around the world. Currently, practitioners of Odissi can be found in many different parts of the world and the dance has gained visibility and popularity on national and international stages.
Till the 1950s, neither the name Odissi nor the style and repertoire of the dance were established, even in the state of Odisha, its place of origin. So, Odissi’s status as a classical dance has been integral to its development and growth since the mid-20th century. At the same time, the framework of the ‘classical’ also shaped the way the style subsequently developed.
The practice of categorizing dances as classical, often juxtaposed with the category of folk (and creative, contemporary, and other labels), was fairly recent at the time of India’s Independence. Borrowed from the Eurocentric dance world where ballet epitomized the idea of the classical at the time, the term claimed equal status for dance styles from India.
At the same time, an understanding of what would constitute the ‘Indian classical’ also developed. Indian classical dances in the 20th century were framed as sacred forms, and frequently connected with rituals of worship. Known as shastriya nritya in several Indian languages, these dances were based on the shastras (texts), specifically, the Natyashastra (generally dated to pre-4th century AD), and later texts on dramatic arts in Sanskrit and vernacular languages.
Between 1947 and 2000, the number of Indian classical dance styles grew from four to eight. After Independence, these styles came to represent the new postcolonial nation’s rich and longstanding artistic heritage, which could represent India on the modern stage around the world. Within India, they also began to be recognized as standardized and representative expressions of regional cultures. To give an example, school students in India are taught the names of the classical dances as the representative styles of the states to which they belong – Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathak (Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), Kathakali (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Manipuri (Manipur), Mohiniyattam (Kerala), Odissi (Odisha) and Sattriya (Assam). Relatedly, artists practising these dances were supported and promoted by the central and state governments as proponents of the classical styles.
We see then that the category of the classical, the processes of standardization that ensued, and the choices made by artists were significantly shaped by the state, which had by this time become the biggest patron of these dances. In the case of Odissi, artists working on repertoire and technique in the 1950s played a central role in creating the standards by which the style found acceptance within the prevailing understanding of classical dance.
The story of Odissi’s development as a classical dance reveals that the patronage and networks opened up via ‘classical’ recognition made this status necessary to attain for it to flourish. At the same time, the fact that the ‘classical’ was a coveted category also made it difficult to attain. How did the desire to create a classical dance impact the creative work of dancers and choreographers? Which artists could make a claim for patronage by the state, and which were marginalized in the process?
In the mid-20th century, different styles of music, dance and theatre were popular in Odisha. The artists and thinkers who are credited with giving Odissi its current shape were involved in these regional styles of performance including the traditional gotipua dance and raas-lila, which dealt largely with mythological themes, and the modern Odia theatre movement, where the works of contemporary Odia playwrights were staged.
Although working in a regional milieu, these artists were also influenced by the pan-Indian thinking of the time. So, the goal of attaining national recognition for Odissi became synonymous with achieving classical recognition in the field of dance.1 The standards for classicism set by the four existing classical dance styles – Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, and Manipuri – also influenced how Odissi developed during this period and beyond. In particular, Bharatanatyam provided a framework according to which Odissi, which was still striving for this recognition, could model itself.
As Odissi started taking shape during this period, how was its history as a classical style narrated through dance classes, formal performances, lecture-demonstrations, and in writing? As a student of Odissi since the early ’90s, the history of the form I encountered included a combination of architectural and textual evidence and ritual, visual and performing art traditions.
This account of Odissi’s history gained currency from the late-1950s onwards when references to historical architectural and sculptural evidence became a prominent feature of writings on Odissi. These historical accounts trace the beginning of the form to the 2nd century BC, the date for the Udayagiri and Khandagiri rock caves (near Bhubaneswar).2 The accounts discuss sculptures of dancers and musicians on the cave walls as the earliest evidence of the existence of dance and music in the region, which also lends weight to Odissi’s claim of being the oldest of the Indian classical dance styles.
After this, the focus moves to temples in present-day Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri, constructed between the 7th-13th centuries AD. The outer walls of many of these temples are adorned with sculptures of figures from the natural and celestial worlds that are indeed a rich source of information and inspiration for Odissi’s postures and movements. Along with temple sculptures, palm leaf manuscripts of texts on dramatic arts are also cited as an important historical source of information.
The 20th century history
of Odissi is predicated on the understanding that the
dance which developed after Independence was continuing Odisha’s
tradition of temple dancing, specifically the tradition connected with Puri’s Jagannath temple (12th
century AD). Maharis, girls dedicated to temple
service in Odishan temples (otherwise known as devadasis in different parts of India) are a key feature of
Another tradition that features prominently in these historical accounts is that of the gotipua (in Odia, ‘single boy’). This tradition appeared in Odisha around the 16th century AD. Gotipuas trained in akhadas, which were spread across villages, particularly in Puri and Cuttack districts. Gotipua troupes, led by a guru, were usually supported by elite and wealthy patrons such as village zamindars. The boys would dress in female attire while dancing, influenced by the Vaishnav sakhibhava tradition, and perform in religious and social festivals.4
In India of the 1950s, how did the conditions required for classical recognition by the Sangeet Natak Akademi impact the work of artists? How were regional source materials shaped to create style and repertoire of the emerging Odissi dance? And what happened to the mahari and gotipua practices as Odissi began to be identified as Odisha’s classical dance style?
The conditions that led each of the Indian classical dances to arrive at their 20th century iterations were particular to the time and space in which they developed. Since the idea of a linear and continuous historical progression from ancient times to the 20th century also informed the development of other dances as classical forms, it is useful to consider how scholars of some of these dances have disrupted this narrative to reflect on the history of Odissi.
In the book Unfinished Ges-tures, Davesh Soneji challenges the idea that Bharatanatyam was a de-scendent of ‘devadasi’ dance and shows that the category of ‘devadasi’ collapsed several different identities of women who occupied public spaces, including, but not limited to temples, where dance and other cultural forms were practised. Further, Soneji demonstrates that devadasis did not have a single, unified practice. Rather, there was a range of styles across ‘genre, language, musical style and occasion’, especially within the cosmopolitan environment of the Tanjore court under the rule of King Serfoji II (1798-1832), where artists patronized by the king incorporated influences from North Indian and European styles of music and dance into their repertoire.5
In the courtly milieu, the style of dance that developed was ‘formalized’ and ‘virtuosic’. Around the 20th century, artists earlier patronized by royal courts began moving to Madras, a centre of power of the colonial government. Here, dance was performed in what Soneji calls the ‘salon’ setting in the homes of elite and wealthy patrons, and later, around the mid-20th century, for publicly funded cultural organizations called sabhas. In the court, salon or sabha, the dance developed according to who was watching as artists responded to the tastes of changing audiences and performance spaces. The innovation of presenting the repertoire of ‘alaarippu, jatisvaram, shabdam, varnam, padam, tillaana, and shloka’, is credited to the Tanjore Quartet (1802-1864)6 and was created in the context of a court rather than a temple setting. It is this repertoire that forms the basis for Bharatanatyam performances that we now recognize.
In the 20th century, the identity of the Bharatanatyam dancer changed due to several factors. The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, enacted in 1947 in Madras Presidency, outlawed the dedication of girls to temples. Initiated from within the community of hereditary dancers, the movement to ban dedication stemmed from the exploitation of vulnerable young girls, usually by men in positions of power through caste status, political and economic power. Concurrently, as the performance of the dance transformed into classical Bharatanatyam, it came to be dominated by women from elite, upper caste, and wealthy families, and presented as an ancient, sacred tradition that needed to be saved from the ‘moral corruption’ of the community of hereditary practitioners.
The view that hereditary dancers needed reform continued to gather pace. A 1956 amendment to the act by the Andhra Pradesh state government further marginalized the community, as it ‘criminalized performances by women from hereditary courtesan communities at marriages and other private social events’.7
In contrast to the case of Bharat-anatyam, whose development was shaped in no small measure by its location in a major colonial metropolitan centre, Odissi’s development was tied to its location in a colonial periphery. Odisha (earlier spelt Orissa) was made a separate province of British India in 1936. Prior to this, the territories that would become Odisha were split between different administrative regions. The movement for the creation of Odisha was based on the issue of linguistic identity, which began to come into focus in the mid-19th century as a consequence of certain educational and administrative policies of the colonial government. Advocates for the status of the Odia language were motivated by concerns that Bengali, which had a greater number of native speakers, and was the dominant language of Bengal Presidency, would be favoured for the education of Odia students, thereby leading to a loss of their mother tongue.8
Along with language, issues of economic development, administrative autonomy and the assertion of a distinct Odia cultural identity became prominent through this movement. Although the Odia language was at the centre of the issue of the Odisha region and identity, the territories included in the province were not limited to only Odia-speaking inhabitants. Odisha is home to several Adivasi communities and languages, and the influence of Bengali and Telugu is also present in parts of the state. However, as the movement for Odia statehood evolved, a standardized notion of ‘Odia-ness’ came to overshadow the linguistic, cultural, and religious heterogeneities of the state of Odisha.9
In this regional assertion
of Odia identity, the figure of Jagannath,
the presiding deity of Puri’s Jagannath
temple, became a hegemonic symbol of cultural identity.10 The Puri temple is
prominent as one of the char-dham (pilgrimage sites)
visited by Hindu worshippers and it draws lakhs of
tourists to Odisha every year, especially during the
annual Ratha Yatra
festival. These features lend themselves to the mobilization of its principal deity
as a symbol of ‘Odianess’. However, entry to the
temple is restricted on the basis of religion and caste, even as the idols (Jagannath
with his sister Subhadra and brother Balabhadra) are brought out of the temple during the annual festival, where they can be seen by all, including those who are prohibited from entering the temple.11
These restrictions on entry are at odds with the reification of Jagannath as an icon of inclusiveness.12 Yet, the figure of Jagannath continued to be mobilized in the movement for Odisha, strengthening the image of the state as a Hindu religious space. Later, Jagannath was centred as the deity to whom all Odissi dance was dedicated; a muse for artists practising the form.
The growing acceptance of the idea that Odissi dance descended from temple dancing and the centring of Jagannath in this narrative brought renewed attention to maharis in the history of Odissi. However, what dance-centric narratives of the figure of the mahari fail to consider is the wider role maharis occupied in the religious, cultural, and economic life of Puri until the mid-20th century. Due to their association with divinity as wives of Jagannath (a form of Vishnu), maharis acquired a symbolically divine status and were known as ‘calanti devi’ (walking goddess).
Further, maharis were expected to be sexually available to the king of Puri (considered the earthly embodiment of Vishnu and known by the title ‘calanti Vishnu’) and could also have long-term partnerships with other men, usually from among other categories of temple servants, and occasionally extending beyond this circle. Female children born from these relationships could be dedicated to temple service. Maharis could also adopt girls and then dedicate them to continue the custom.13
These practices placed mahari at odds with the prevailing patriarchal and Brahmanical social norms. Although Odisha did not have a law banning dedication, the repercussions of the 1947 Act were felt here too. Hejmadi and Patnaik assert that the dedication of girls to temple service probably stopped in the 1940s and the number of maharis in Puri declined after this.14 Relatedly, in a talk organized by ‘Re-Cognising Dance’, Frédérique Apffel Marglin, who studied the kinship networks, rituals and beliefs of maharis in Puri in the 1970s, narrated how the status of maharis in Puri changed once the administration of the Jagannath temple was transferred from the Raja of Puri to the Odisha state government in 1955.
Previously, due to their
divine status, it was common for religious tourists to visit and worship maharis as part of their pilgrimage to Puri,
facilitated by pandas (brahmin
priests who also worked as tourist guides for pilgrims). However, as the state
and administration changed hands, officials encouraged pandas to desist from
mentioning maharis to pilgrims and so
awareness about them in the public realm declined.15 Significantly, from the point of view of Odissi, Marglin states in her
book that maharis, who were aware of the growing
interest and activities surrounding ‘Odissi’ dance in the 1950s, applied to the government
for a grant to establish a music and dance school, but the request was turned down.16 As a result of these forms of marginalization, the mahari community was growing smaller around the time of Odissi’s creation as a classical dance.
In the 1950s, one of the
biggest challenges facing advocates of Odissi was
establishing that the dance could hold its own when placed beside better known
forms like Bharatanatyam
and Kathak. Perhaps inevitably, a comparative lens was used by practitioners. Having worked on the stages of Cuttack and Puri, many of Odissi’s early artists had experience in different styles of dance including regional forms and nationally recognized ones such as Uday Shankar’s creative dance style, Bharatanatyam and Kathak. They brought this knowledge to their work and gradually, ‘Odissi’ began to be presented on stages in metropolitan centres like Delhi, Madras and Calcutta.
In 1954, Priyambada Mohanty and Dhirendra Nath Patnaik, two dancers from Odisha, performed at the first Inter-University Youth Festival (1954) held at the Talkatora Gardens in New Delhi. Mohanty, representing Utkal University, was awarded third place for her dance performance. Mohanty states in her book that a shared first prize was given to a Bharatanatyam dancer and a Kathak dancer and no second prize was awarded.17 Since Odissi was not a known style at the time, the certificate she received only mentions the event category of ‘classical dance’, without naming the dance.18
The question of the dance’s name is an important one. Mohanty’s 1954 performance was seen by the art critic Charles Fabri whose interest in the dance and conviction that it was a classical form – ‘a purer and older edition of Bharatanatyam, less codified, less punditic…’19 – would prove very helpful to Odissi’s cause. In a 1960 volume of Marg magazine focused on Odissi, Fabri wrote that he is ‘the first person ever to print the name “Orissi” dance’. He also states that when he first wrote about Odissi as ‘the most perfect classical system of Indian dancing surviving… incredulous people… shook their heads dubiously.’20
In 2018, the dance journal
Nartanam published the translated papers of Jayantika, a collective formed by artists advocating for Odissi’s classical status in the late
1950s. Originally written in Odia, the papers were
preserved in the home
of Dayanidhi Das, a member of Jayantika. The volume includes a biographical note on Dayanidhi, which mentions that the name Odissi was coined by him when he created the syllabus for dance training at Kala Vikash Kendra, the first institute for Odissi training in Cuttack (Odisha’s former capital), in 1952-53.21 These varied accounts of the emergence of the name Odissi point to the fact of its relative newness in the 1950s. The name of the dance was derived from that of the state Odisha and over
time, Odissi dance would become synonymous with Odia art and culture nationally and internationally. But who would be allowed to represent this culture?
As outlined earlier, in the 1950s and ’60s while artists worked individually and collectively on developing the dance, a discourse also developed around its ancient origins. Here is an excerpt from Marg magazine’s issue on Odissi (then spelt as Orissi).
‘Orissi dance, as we find it today, has been through a long process of development. Its roots can be traced to the days of Kharavela, who ruled over Orissa in the 2nd century B.C. With the passage of time the technique of Orissi probably underwent changes, but these are now difficult to discern…. Maharis and Gotipuas, in various ways and at various periods, helped to sustain the art. But then, during the last century, the dance of the Maharis and Gotipuas began to lose its purity, and, as time advanced, they as well as their dance came to be associated with sensuality and vulgarity.’22
It appears that the term Odissi was used to refer to past and present dance traditions from the region, which were then presented as a continuum of connected (and occasionally indiscernible) practices that originated in the region in ancient times and arrived on the modern stage in the 20th century. In 1958, a meeting of dance artists was called at Kala Vikash Kendra. Translated from Odia, here is what the notice for the meeting said:
‘The dance form of Utkala –
known as the land of excellence in art – had once reached its zenith. It is a matter of great
pleasure that the
dance form of Utkala is receiving appreciation in the country and abroad, thanks to the efforts of a few dance artists. But these dance artists have no organisational support to back them. They do have a lot of problems which act as impediments to the development of the art form. It is therefore decided to have a permanent organisation which will remove such roadblocks. All dance artists are hereby requested to participate in a discussion meeting which is being organised on 22 June 1958 at Kala Vikash Kendra, Banka Bazaar, Cuttack.’23
At the meeting, the artists agreed on the name Jayantika, which was envisaged as ‘an all-Orissa association of dance exponents’. One of the most significant contributions of the collective work done by Jayantika was the creation of a five-part repertoire for presenting an evening-length Odissi dance performance. Till the early 1940s, a complete ‘Odissi’ performance lasted around 15-20 minutes.24 It was through the work of Jayantika that the now common format of presenting Mangalacharan, Sthai/Batu, Pallavi, Abhinaya, and Mokshya was created. The collective also set out to define the technique for Odissi training. Since many members also made a living teaching dance privately and at institutions like Kala Vikash Kendra, they had a wealth of information that they shared with each other and developed further.
Although the Jayantika project lasted for only a few years, it is important to acknowledge their contribution in giving a structure to Odissi that helped it to gain acceptance within the coveted category of Indian classical dances.
Among the artists working
on Odissi during the 1950s, Pankaj
Das, Debaprasad Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra, and Mayadhar Raut are referred to as the form’s primary architects. It is widely acknowledged that Pankaj Charan had significant differences with the way Odissi was shaping up during this time. For him, Odissi dance originated from the maharis.25 Pankaj Charan was raised in the home of his aunt, Ratnaprava mahari, and belonged to a family of mardala players who accompanied maharis when they danced in the temple. He also learnt the gotipua style in an akhada and worked in Odia theatre companies.26
The other three artists had experience of gotipua and raas-lila styles and worked in the theatre companies before shifting their focus to the development of Odissi dance. In a 1975 lecture for a seminar on Odissi organized by Sangeet Natak Akademi, Pankaj Charan lamented that the practice of maharis was being sidelined and Odissi was becoming known as a form based on gotipua dance.27
The gotipua tradition is generally accepted as the source of Odissi’s basic postures and movements. According to Hejmadi and Patnaik, gotipua performances were instrumental in the spread of songs devoted to Radha and Krishna by Odia poets like Baladev Rath, Gopalakrushna Patnaik, and Banamali Das. Abhinaya pieces based on these poems are an important aspect of Odissi perfor-mance. Training and performance in the gotipua style has continued in Odisha side-by-side with the develop-ment of classical Odissi since the mid-20th century. Elements of the gotipua style lent themselves well to the requirements of Odissi’s development as a classical dance to be performed in modern theatres.
So, while both gotipua and mahari traditions
were ‘associated with sensuality
and vulgarity’, as Odissi
developed in its classical
avatar, the former reappeared in a positive light through teaching and choreography undertaken by male gurus who were supported by private and state patronage. On the other hand, while maharis were critical for the dance’s historical narrative, their art was being marginalized as Odissi became established. This reveals an important contradiction in Odissi’s historical narrative, and points to the ways in which patronage impacted what artists were able to achieve.
Odissi is recognizable and distinguishable from other styles of dance due to several features. Odissi’s choreography is constructed primarily around two distinct and characteristic stances – chowk (a symmetrical posture shaped like a square), and tribhang (an asymmetrical posture, where the body has three bends or an S-shape). The dancer keeps her knees bent and turned out and maintains the central axis of the body in both chowk and tribhang. Samabhang (standing straight with an equal distribution of the body’s weight) and abhang (standing with the weight slightly deflected to one side to introduce the hint of a curve) are also basic stances of Odissi. While moving through these postures, Odissi dancers employ a distinct and continuous movement in the upper torso, which shifts from side to side, and sometimes forward and back, coordinated with an accentuated tilt of the face.
All of these are distinct markers that make Odissi immediately recognizable to an informed spectator. Codified hand gestures from the Abhinaya Darpana are used to adorn movements and to interpret texts, which are conventionally in either Odia or Sanskrit. In addition to Odissi’s physical and gestural vocabulary, the aharya of dancers, particularly the silver jewellery and tahia (white flower-patterned hair decoration worn by women dancers) add to Odissi’s distinct visual aesthetic. Several Odissi performers place an image of Jagannath on the stage, reinforcing the connection of the performance of dance as a sacred art.
By the early 1960s, the
Jayantika collective’s work led to Odissi performances
being presented in a margam style, like that of the
better established Bharatanatyam. On the surface, the
repertoires of Odissi and Bharatanatyam
contain certain similarities. For instance, both styles are structured around
the broad categories of nritta and nritya. In performances, dancers of both styles
begin by invoking the divine, and establishing the physical grammar of the
dance through nritta items, which are followed by nritya or abhinaya items, and
conclude with a joyous
and fast-paced dance – the Odissi mokshya, or Bharatanatyam tillana. The presentation of nritta pieces – other than the concluding mokshya and tillana– in the first half of a programme serves to establish the dance’s physical grammar and paves the way for the abhinaya pieces.
The introduction of poetry brings an added layer of complexity to the dance from the point of view of performers and audiences alike. Typically, abhinaya pieces demonstrate the dancer’s understanding of literature and music. At the same time, the audience’s knowledge in these domains also matters in the success of a performance as this allows them to appreciate the nuances of particular movements and gestures.
Despite the similarities, the dances have certain characteristic features, that are shaped by the milieu in which they developed and revealed by aspects of their respective repertoires. Bharatanatyam has several abhinaya-centred pieces, including shabdam, varnam, and javali. As mentioned earlier, in Odissi the composition of abhinayas is often based on the Odia poems of Baladev Rath, Banamali Das and Gopalakrushna Patnaik. Choreographies based on these Odia poems either focus entirely on the lyrics, or occasionally, intersperse the sahitya with pallavi sections; in this latter form the dance is called a sabhinaya pallavi. However, out of all the abhinaya compositions, the shringar (erotic) rasa is believed to be exemplified by the Bharatanatyam padam and Odissi ashtapadi and here, I will focus on these genres to illustrate certain specificities of each style.
As an Odissi dancer, when I watch a Bharatanatyam padam, I am struck by the way that dancers can dwell in the emotional tenor of the piece. What allows for this to happen? I attended an online abhinaya workshop taught by Bharatantyam artist Navtej Johar in 2020, based on the Kshetrayya padam ‘manchi dinamu’. According to Navtej ‘Abhinaya (as a solo art) is not acting. It is not about communication. Abhinaya requires an unpacking of the most private part of ourselves publicly. Solo abhinaya allows me to enter the world of imagination. How can I become absorbed in that?’ Indeed, the experience of attending this workshop (and subse-quently watching the complete Kala-kshetra composition of this padam) clarified for me the differences that I have perceived between this form and that of the Odissi abhinayas I have learnt over time.
The nayika in ‘manchi dinamu’ says to her sakhi, ‘it is an auspicious day, go invite the lord…. Oh, fair lady (friend), since… his property only (is it not), this body of mine’.28 Set in raga Anandabhairavi, the refrain is repeated several times by the singer, as the dancer begins to interpret the lines with movements of hastas and drishti. Footwork is minimal, with steps taken only to change stances and directions, so the dancer moves around one spot throughout the piece. In the entire composition only 4-5 lines are interpreted. Each is repeated several times, which allows the dancer to build the expression of an intensely intimate relationship between the nayika and the beloved. Perhaps this mode of performance could have evolved only in the intimate setting of the salon, where the viewer, who was often the patron, was close to the dancer, knew the text, and could follow the nuances of expression and improvisation in the performance of the piece.
Compare this with the ashtapadi ‘sakhi he’ from Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, as performed in Odissi. In the choreography of Guru Mayadhar Raut, which I learnt from Ambika Paniker, the dance opens with an upbeat musical introduction in raag Pahadi. The dancer enters the stage as the nayika, Radha, holding her veil. She alternates this with movements establishing the setting – a forest – where the story will unfold; an arm lifts and falls like a delicate vine or a hand alternately opens and closes to suggest the blossoming of flowers. The feet respond continuously to the taal, and space is covered as both the nayika and her location are established. Movements are punctuated with brief friezes in a variety of tribhang poses.
After this opening, we hearthe refrain ‘oh friend! Make the noble Slayer-of-Kesin make love to me passionately, I am engrossed with desire for love!’ The dance follows the narrative arc established by Jayadeva’s poem beginning with the lines ‘I went to his hut in the secret thicket; secretly at night he remained hiding; I looked fearfully in all directions; he laughed with an abun-dance of passion for the pleasure-of-love’.29 The pace of the dance and music pick up with the lyrics ‘the jewelled anklets rang out on my feet…’ as the piece reaches its climax.
The choreography of Odissi ashtapadis which bypassed the salon setting in which Bharatanatyam padams evolved, was expressly created for performance on a stage. Even if some verses are left out, the piece reaches a climactic moment almost like drama, that even an audience uninitiated into the subtleties of Odissi can follow. The audience for Odissi, and preceding forms like gotipua and theatre, viewed the dance in public spaces, such as outdoor stages or auditoriums.30 In these large-scale settings, Odissi choreographers used the narrative arc established by Jayadeva, and his eloquent descriptions of the natural world and its resonance in the emotions experienced by his protagonists to create tightly woven choreographies. The liberal use of footwork in the choreography allows the dancer to comfortably navigate space as Radha recalls her journey to a tryst with Krishna on a previous occasion. It also demands that the full body continuously respond to the lyrics and music within the complex patterns of tribhang and chowk.
While dancing these asthapadis does require delving into the space of imagination, perhaps the scope for improvisation and ‘unpacking the most private parts of ourselves publicly’, is limited by the scale of the text and choreography. On the other hand, the sahitya of the padam, though filled with feelings of longing and anticipation, is less descriptive in comparison, and leaves greater scope for improvisation by the dancer.
Gitanjali Kolanad, recalling her lessons in abhinaya, clarified this point: ‘Kalanidhi Narayanan told me that that Kshetrayya’s sparse language leaves a lot of space for the dancer to fill in the subtext – her imagination is the only limit, while Jayadeva has already said that she cooed like a kokila bird, so the dancer must work within the limits of that metaphor. In the padam, therefore, one returns again and again to the lines that enhance the mood rather than following a narrative arc or storyline. Only an intimate, receptive audience fully cognizant of the language of abhinaya can keep pace with the dancer’s meandering, spiralling path to the emotional centre.’31 So both the asthapadi and the padam reach for emotional genuineness, but the first follows the path laid out by the poet, and the second twists and turns the words to best reflect the dancer’s own emotions.
Seeing the classical dances as long-standing, homogenized practices undermines the specific circumstances that led to their establishment. One way to understand dance on its own terms is to consider its relationship to existing forms of patronage. Doing so allows us to acknowledge that the category of ‘classical’ as constituted in the mid-20th century played a central role in the way Odissi came to be imagined. The creation of Odissi as a classical form also had other costs, including the marginalization of voices and cultural practices. Examining the question of patronage provides a point of entry to consider wider concerns in the ecosystem of Odissi in present times. Looking upon Odissi’s history as a site of plurality rather than singularity and its archive as a space of constant return and critical inquiry, not only helps us to uncover unexplored or marginalized narratives of its past, but to envision new and more inclusive futures as well.
1. Ileana Citaristi, ‘On the Trail of Jayantika’, Nartanam (Jayantika Special), XVIII(3), July-September 2018, p. 11.
2. P. Mishra, ‘The Evidence of Dance Sculptures from Orissan Temples’, Marg XIII(2), 1960, pp. 8-15.
3. Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi and Ahalya Hejmadi Patnaik list the duties of the maharis in their book Odissi: An Indian Classical Dance Form. Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 31-32.
4. The gotipua tradition is discussed by several authors including Hejmadi and Patnaik.
5. Davesh Soneji, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. University of Chicago Press, 2012, pp. 28-30.
6. Ibid., p. 58
7. Ibid., p. 110.
8. See Pritipushpa Mishra, Language and the Making of Modern India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2020, for a detailed discussion of this issue.
9. Ibid., pp. 12-14.
10. G.N. Dash, ‘Jagannath and Oriya Nationalism’, in Annecharlott
Eschmann, Her-mann Kulke and Gaya Charan Tripathi (eds.), The Cult of Jagannath
and the Regional Tradition
of Orissa, Manohar, Delhi, 2014, pp. 362-63.
12. Kelucharan Mohapatra’s well known Odissi choreography of ‘ahe nila saila’ is based on a poem by Salbeg, who as a Muslim devotee of Jagannath, was forbidden from entering the temple. For more on this, see https://www.epw.in/engage/article/lakshmi-against-untouchability-puranic-texts-and. https://www.thequint.com/news/india/why-lord-jagannath-halts-at-a-mazar-during-the-9-day-rath-yatra-at-puri-odisha-bhakti.
13. A detailed discussion on mahari lives and rituals in the mid-20th century can be found in Frédérique Apffel Marglin, Wives of the God King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985.
14. Hejmadi and Patnaik, p. 41.
15. The talk is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=re7MMShxgs0&t=1380s
16. Frédérique Apffel Marglin, p. 29.
17. Hejmadi and Patnaik, p. 59.
18. Ibid., p. 119.
19. Ibid., p. 63.
20. Charles Fabri, ‘Introduction to Orissi Dance’, Marg XIII(2), 1960, p. 4.
21. Nartanam, Jayantika Special, p. 14
22. Nilmadhab Bose, ‘Orissi Dance Today and its Exponents’, Marg XIII(2), 1960, p. 51.
23. Nartanam, Jayantika Special, p. 17
24. Hejmadi and Patnaik, p. 67.
26. Hejmadi and Patnaik, pp. 94-98.
27. P.C. Das, ‘Classification and Serial Order of Odissi Dance’, translated by Ileana Citaristi. https://narthaaki.com/info/prism/prism1.html
28. This excerpt is from the translation provided by Navtej Johar to the workshop participants. The workshop was presented by the Abhyas Trust.
29. This translation is from Lee Siegel’s, Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva. Oxford University Press India, 1978, pp. 252-253.
30. Alessandra Lopez y Royo, ‘Indian Classical Dance: A Sacred Art?’, Journal of Hindu Studies 3(1), April 2010, pp. 114-123, discusses the relationship between space and choreography with reference to Odissi.
31. Personal conversation with Gitanjali Kolanad.