Odissi is the dance form associated with the state of Odisha, formerly Orissa, on the east coast of India. Kalinga is its ancient name, remembered as the battleground where in 270 BC, King Ashoka converted to Buddhism on seeing the horror of war. Buddhism became the dominant religion in India for the next 700 years.
When Hinduism made a comeback, there was a period of fervent temple-building: Shiva temples in Bhubaneswar and the famous Jagganath temple in Puri. As part of temple ritual, the practice of maharis ‒ females dedicated to serving deities by singing and dancing ‒ became widespread. So odissi dance has its roots in temple ritual.
A second strand of influence is the acrobatic feats performed by pre-pubescent boys known as gotipuas. The dramatic elements of the form come from travelling players, the jatra troupes that performed episodes from Hindu epics.
Odissi dance, in its post-Independence reconstruction, was inspired by the imagery of temple sculptures and the patachitra (leaf paintings), as well as the flora and fauna depicted in regional arts and crafts such as handloom.
As a dance form, odissi does not have the length of lineage of kathak or bharatanatyam. In 1952 at an historic Inter-State Youth Festival odissi pioneer Priyambada’s dance, combining three items of the newly-formed repertoire, was only eight minutes long. Today the same three items would last forty minutes.
In the early days of reconstruction, founding gurus Pankaj Charan Das, Debrapasad Das, Mayadhar Raut and Kelucharan Mahapatra collaborated in the Jayantika group to set the odissi margam, achieving official recognition of odissi as a classical style in 1958. These pioneers went on to develop their own repertoire, creating distinct schools within the form. However, one can state with confidence that 60 to 70 per cent of the odissi items performed by leading odissi exponents Sujata Mohapatra, Madhavi Mudgal and the late Sanjukta Panigrahi have been created by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, one of the key architects of the form.
There are two basic stances: the square chowka with turn-out at the hip and bent knees matched by the right-angle bend at the elbows, displaying the masculine tandavaquality; and the three-bend tribhanga which best symbolises the style, setting up a zigzag line from inclined head to shoulder, deflected hip and bent knee, representing the lasya or the feminine aspect.
Intrinsic to every movement is the use of torso, a hallmark of the odissi form. The variety and subtlety of the bhangis (postures) employ co-ordination of torso, head, neck and eyes, combined with footwork to create the movement vocabulary.
Traditionally the opening item, mangalacharan, is usually an invocation to Ganesha or Saraswati, but can also be dedicated to Jagganath, Shiva and Parvati. This is often followed by the batu nritya or sthai which displays the fundamental positions of the style, then the pallavi in which a raga is explored through melodic and rhythmic variations. Odissi music is unique: many of Kelubabu’s choreographies were set to music by the late Bhubaneshwar Mishra, a Carnatic violinist. The ragas selected for pallavis are both Carnatic: saveri, shankarabarnam and arabhi, and Hindustani kirwani. The rhythm cycles used are variations of ekatali (four matras, counts), aditala (eight matras) and talas of fives and sevens. The musical structures are less developed than other styles, so the variety of tehais used is still limited.
For abhinaya, odissi relies on the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva’s astapadis, eight couplet verses in Sanskrit, describing the erotic love between Radha and Krishna. Kelubabu has choreographed half a dozen into what has become the main body of the odissi sringar-rasa repertoire. However, traditional Oriya songs are also becoming increasingly popular in the dance repertoire.
Among the current generation of artists, new choreographies are being set by Madhavi Mudgal, who has a deep understanding of the musical structures. Her ragamalika pallavi combining a number of jatis that she taught in Manchester at Kadam’s 2006 Summer School is an enchanting composition. Surupa Sen and Bijayani Satpathy of Nrityagram dance many of their own compositions and Ratikant Mohapatra is creating new items particularly for groups.