What is Odissi Dance?


Odissi Dance is one of the 8 Indian classical dance forms, originated in Orissa, on the north-east coast of India. The origins of this style can be traced back as early as 2200 B.C. based on archaeological evidence in caves and temples. Dancers are found depicted in bas-relief in the rock caves of Khandagiri and Udaygiri, which are located near Bhubaneswar, Orissa. It is said to be the oldest surviving dance form of India.

The state of Orissa has a great cultural history. The rulers of this region built magnificent temples, which became the center of art and culture. It was around these temples that Odissi, one of India’s scintillating dance-forms was born, nurtured and nourished.

The classical Odissi dance has two main postures, which are known as Tribhangi and Chauka. Tribhangi is a graceful feminine posture with a three-body-bend pose formed by the deflection of the torso, hip, and head, which is the most distinguishing feature of Odissi dance. Chauka is a squarelike masculine stance representing the Lord Jagannath of Puri. Thus Odissi blends Tandava (masculine) and Lasya (feminine) through fluid hand, eyes and torso movements and rhythmic footwork to present spirituality and devotion.

Odissi music has a rich legacy dating back to the 2nd century B.C. which is as old as Odissi dance, when king Kharvela, the ruler of Orissa (Kalinga) patronized the art such as music and dance. There are historical evidences in the form of sculptures, such as playing musical instruments and singing as well as dancing postures of damsels at the Ranigumpha Cave in Khandagiri and Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar.

Odissi music is a unique blend of North and South Indian classical music but with its own distinct qualities. It is mellifluous, soft and lyrical. There are a number of musical instruments used to accompany the Odissi dance, and one of the most important is the pakhawaj (drum), also known as mardal. Other instruments which are commonly used are the bansuri (bamboo flute), the manjira (metal cymbals), the sitar and the tanpura.

Odissi has two major facets as nritta (pure dance) and abhinaya (expressions). Nritta (pure dance) is a non representational facet in which ornamental patterns are created by using body movements in space and time. Abhinaya is a stylized mime in which symbolic hand gestures or facial expressions are used to interpret the theme.

Odissi dance performance usually starts with the invocatory item called ‘Mangalacharan’, which is a tribute to Earth, Lord Jagannath, other Gods and a note of thanks to the Guru and the audience. This is followed by Batu, Pallavi, Abhinaya and Moksha.

Odissi themes are almost religious in nature and Abhinaya items mostly revolve around Krishna. The divine love tales of Radha and the cowherd God Krishna are favourite themes for interpretation, and a typical recital of Odissi will contain at least one or two ashtapadis (poem of eight couplets) from Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam, which describes in exquisite Sanskrit poetry the complex relationship between Radha and her Lord.

Odissi dance recital concludes with Moksha, an attempt to attain a higher level of realization. In Moksha the dancer tries to merge with the divine force in a state of total ecstasy. The dance brings the dancer closer to God and provides the ultimate bliss.

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