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The origins

Odissi (also spelt as Orissi) is a classical Indian dance form that originated from Orissa, a state on the east coast of India. It is said to be one of the oldest classical dance forms. It has been mentioned in ancient inscriptions and has been depicted in temple sculptures that exist in famous structures like the dance hall of the Sun Temple in Konark. Thus, it can boast a history that is almost 2,000 years old. 

The Natyashastra mentions a regional dance form known as Odhra Magadha, from which present day Odissi may have been derived. The temple dancers of Orissa were female devotees known as maharis who played a similar role to that of the devadasis of south India. In the 15th century, young boys who had dedicated their lives to serving the temple were also inducted into this dance form. They were known as gotipuas. Right up to the beginning of the 20th century, the dance form was passed down orally from generation to generation; from mother to adopted daughter in the case of the maharis and from teacher to the dedicated boys for the gotipuas.

The style

Odissi is a combination of narrative and pure dance forms. It has its roots in devotional ritual and commences with an invocation to the deities, the earth and the gurus and ends with a highly technical display of pure dance. The narrative elements of Odissi are often taken from the Gita Govinda, a manuscript that has the divine erotic love of Radha and Krishna as its theme. The relationship between the human being and God is expressed in the form of a woman yearning for her beloved. 

Odissi manages to marry the spiritual with the sensuous beautifully, depicting erotic sentiments in a reverential manner. The dancers use their head, bust and torso, to express different moods and emotions. The fluid, graceful movements are punctuated by moments of stillness when the dancer poses as if he or she were a sculpture adorning a temple wall. Then the dancer begins to move again giving the audience the impression of a sculpture come to life. 

A typical performance

Odissi is a soft, lyrical dance. Female dancers wear loose silk trousers with pleats draped like a fan in front, while male dancers wear dhotis that cover the lower half of their bodies. Odissi is characterized by two distinctive poses: tribanga, the three body stance, and chowk, the square squat, where the dancer adopts a wide, flexed-knee stance with the feet turned out. 

The performance usually begins with manglacharam, in which the performer pays onbeisance to the god, the guru, and the mother earth. This is followed by batu nritya, the striking of various poses with instruments, and pallavi, the elaboration, in which the dancer displays poses similar to what is depicted in the temple carvings. The performance ends with moksha (liberation), which suggests the dancer is reaching a state of absolute peace. In ashtpati, songs from the Gita Govinda, are used by dancers as expressional pieces. 

The musical accompaniment has strains of both the Hindustani and Carnatic schools, using instruments like the flute, drums and small cymbals. 

The fall and rise of Odissi

From the late 16th century, the recognition of Odissi as an art form suffered a setback for almost 300 years as a result of the turmoil existing on the Indian political front. The maharis were forbidden to dance in the temples and their performances were labelled immoral. The gotipuas too lost their patronage. To escape from the resulting penury, the gotipuas were forced to join jatras (roving theatre groups) where they eked out an existence dancing in the interludes between dramatic acts. Odissi's shift from the temple to the stage can be traced to this practice. 

Odissi was revived as a neo-classical dance form in the post-Independence era by a group of scholars, dancers and teachers who came together as a group called Jayantika. If not for them, this dance form would have been lost to the world forever. 

The four most prominent names amongst them are Pankaj Charan Das, Kelu Charan Mahapatra, Deba Prasad and Mayadhar Raut. The first two along with Kum Kum Mohanty and Sanjukta Panigrihi are hailed as the most famous modern exponents of Odissi. 

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