Dance as Yoga: The Spirit and Technique of Odissi

What is known today as odissi, a form of Indian classical dance, originated among the temple dancers of Odisha. In the 16th century and later under British rule it faced political upheavals and social ostracization. After the independence of India, however, scholars, poets and artists from Odisha reestablished their distinct cultural identity through the revival of the dance.
Dance as Yoga

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February 24, 2024 01:47 EDT

Political defeat at the hands of Muslim invaders, in the 16th century, disrupted life at all major temple centres in the erstwhile Odishan kingdom and drastically affected systems dependent on these institutions. For the temple dancers or maharis, centuries of lavish patronage by the royalty were severely impacted. While they continued to inhabit ancestral properties around the temple and remained attached to it, the dependable mahari livelihood as servant-wives of God was now jeopardised and they were compelled to seek patronage elsewhere. While previously these women had held an esteemed place in society, they now found themselves socially compromised as they were forced to perform their art wherever they were invited. Their new patrons were secular households as well as private temples belonging to rich local landowners who, in the absence of a powerful reigning monarch, steadily began usurping the social practices of the erstwhile Hindu kings.

Inevitably, in due course, temple dancers in Odisha as elsewhere in the country were ostracised as mistresses and their dance was considered socially undesirable. In their defence, it must be said that the low public esteem maharis acquired stemmed from their ritual position in Odia society as wives of God and their dance as a bodily offering to Lord Jagannath. By performing for several sponsors therefore, they could not escape the stigma of being unchaste, irrespective of their sexual relationship with patrons. By 1947 the Madras Prevention of Dedication of Devadasis Act was finally passed by the province of Madras and female temple dancers were officially perceived as little more than common prostitutes.

Simultaneous with these currents, was a growing movement by illustrious personalities in other parts of India that challenged the association of dance per se with prostitution. These included the revered Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, and Rukmini Arundale, a prominent, high-caste Tamil woman, who performed and taught bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu. Performances in India and abroad by the famous dancer/ choreographer Uday Shankar and others also challenged prevailing attitudes towards dance. Physically positioned between the drifts of cultural debate in Bengal to the north, political capital of British India, and Tamil Nadu to the south, Odisha began building on its own surviving performing art traditions. Cultural institutions started springing up in the region in the 1930s in different cosmopolitan centres and the first of these was the Utkal Sangeet Samaj (1933) in Cuttack, the administrative headquarter at that time. These institutions imparted training in music. Dance, burdened with its association to maharis, was socially undesirable and not considered for inclusion in their activities till about a decade later.

The existence of a “classically based” ritual dance in Odisha’s medieval history had remained generally unappreciated till post-Indian Independence in the 1950s. Dhirendra Patnaik records how a group of dance revivalists comprising Odia scholars and poets, joined hands with indigenous performing artists to re-vision and establish such a dance. It is well known that many eminent individuals contributed their efforts to create an Odishan “classical dance,” working along with several new institutions. Many authors have described these and subsequent events, before odissi was recognised as being a classical Indian dance form.

While it was acknowledged that the maharis represented a living link to a tradition where the primary purpose of the dance had been the worship of God as husband, their dance was perceived as having lost its classical qualities. This link was, however, an important selling point for the regional nationalist fervour in Odisha, which saw an opportunity in using dance to carve a separate cultural identity for itself in the fabric of independent India Lord Jagannath provided the focus for this through odissi in Odisha as the image of Nataraj had for bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu. In Odia theatre, dance items began appearing first as a device performed in front of the closed stage curtains whilst scenery was being changed, and then gradually as a more integral part of the play. Changing social attitudes that formed the backdrop to the birth of odissi mirrored what was happening in Tamil Nadu earlier and included girls from “good families” being gradually encouraged to take an interest in dance.

The Kala Vikas Kendra in Cuttack became a popular hub for these activities and in 1953, made a presentation of shastric dance, i.e. based on the shastras or classical texts. Priyambada Mohanty describes how in the following year at the Inter-University Youth Festival arranged by Delhi University, she made a presentation of this dance lasting “five to ten” minutes. The warm appreciation in the national capital is documented history, as is the fact that one of the jury members, Dr. Charles Fabri, christened the dance “odissi.”

The 1957 “Jayantika” group that came together to standardise body usage in odissi and structure the form included, among others, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Deb Prasad Das, and Guru Mayadhar Rauth. Odissi’s initial creation and later flowering was an inspired piece of teamwork, fraught with much argument and many disagreements, but held together by the passionate common goal of establishing a unique classical dance form for Odisha. What was the most intriguing aspect of odissi’s story was that the world came to be convinced it was an ancient and sacrosanct tradition only a few decades after its inception and birth.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Dance as Yoga: The Spirit and Technique of Odissi, Rekha Tandon, Niyogi Books, 2017.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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