Seeking a Renaissance in San Francisco
“Traditions Engaged is a major, historic festival spanning two of the U.S.’ most prominent cities in premiere venues. Featuring leading Indian classical dancers and musicians and more than sixty artists over six days. Dozens of exciting and insightful daytime performances. 18 major performers in the evening.” — CDDC
Preparing for the Traditions Engaged (TE) festival coming up on October 1-3, I will be introducing the various Indian Classical Dance forms every week, with a brief profile on the art form, a TE artist spotlight, and a schedule of upcoming festival performances. This week’s topic will be Odissi.
Odissi is one of the ancient classical dance forms of India. Originating from the Eastern Indian state of Odisha (or Orissa). It is knows as the oldest remaining dance form of India that can be traced back to the 2nd century BC. The art form is also mentioned in the Natyashastra, an ancient Indian text on dance and drama, in which it is known as ‘Odra-Madadhi.’
Unlike some other Indian dance forms, Odissi first originated in the courts of Kings as a courtesan dance. It was only later brought to Hindu temples and performed during services at the Jagannath temple in Puri. At the temples, Odissi was performed by Maharis, who were dancers who dedicated their lives to serving the Gods. The dance form later moved to Jain temples and Buddhist monasteries as well. Many of the architectural sculptures noted in the Konark and Brahmesvar temples are that of Odissi dancers.
There were three traditions of Odissi around this time: Mahari (temple dancers), Nartaki (courtesan dancers), and Gotipua (male dancers). Odissi was usually danced to Hindu slokas and texts such as the Gita Govindam and utlized aspects of Nritta (pure dance) and Abhinaya (expression). The dance is characterized by a square stance known as chauka and tribhangi, or independent movements of the head, chest, and pelvis.
With the advent of the Mughal rule, Maharis saw a change in their role from temple dancers back to courtesan artists. The British perpetuated this change during their rule, by instituting a law that prohibited temple dancing. Many of the Maharis and Nartakis had to resort to prostitution. The only tradition that survived that period was the Gotipua style.
In the 1940s-50s, artists like Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, and Guru Deba Prasad Das have reserected the art form from its prior demise. Laxmipriya Mohapatra was known as the first artist to perform Odissi on the contemporary stage in 1948. The next generation of artists continue to propagate the art form around the world.