Odissi dance is a mobile sculpture


Odissi is characterised by simplicity of grace and redolent with sculpturesque poses which are reminiscent of the glorious stone sculptures of Konark and other temples, writes Dr. Kanak Rele.

A 7th century A.D. text Vishnudharmottara Purana says, “Vinatu nrityashastrena chitrasootram sudurvidam”. The sage propounding this text says that without the knowledge of dancing, the other plastic arts cannot be comprehended. This very clearly shows the corelationship of sculpture and dance. It is said that dance is a mobile sculpture and sculpture is a frozen dance. In this context, the classical dance style Odissi from Orissa is a shining example.

Exposition of beauty and grace

Odissi is redolent with sculpturesque poses which are reminiscent of the glorious stone sculptures of Konark and other temples. Odissi is characterised by simplicity of grace. Odissi is believed to have originated in almost 10th century A.D., but received a tremendous fillip in the l2th century when Poet Jayadeva who was a great devotee of Lord Jagannatha at the Puri temple, wrote his immortal love song Geetagovinda. It is said that he wrote it specifically for being interpreted in dance and music and his wife Padmavati who was herself a devadasi danced it in the temples of Orissa. These devadasis in Orissa are called Maharis. There is another wing of this dance which is danced by nubile young boys called gotipua and these are the boys who indulge in more acrobatic dancing. Odissi, if one has to describe its characteristic, believes in the exposition of beauty and grace. As such the dance style is rather uncomplicated but its beauty, its sculpturesque poses and the lovely tribhangi – that is the triple bend in the body-always reminds us of the beauty of Indian art in general.

From the archaeological evidence available it may be surmised that Odissi may be the earliest classical Indian style. There are beautiful dance sculptures in the Rani Gumpha Cave of 2nd century B.C. in Orissa. These reliefs include the first finished example of a dance scene with a full orchestra. In another inscription belonging to the same period from the Hathi Gumpha it is stated that in the 3rd year of his reign the Jaina King Kharavela, who was himself an accomplished dancer and musician, had arranged a performance of tandava and abhinaya for the enjoyment of his people. After this in the 8th century A.D. there is a reference at Bhubaneshwar of the king’s mother building a temple of Shiva and dedicating several dancing girls to it. This indicates that these temple dancing girls – devadasis known as maharis in Orissa were the earliest performers of Odissi dance and for more than a millennium were the repositories of this art.

Geetagovinda- integral part of Odissi repertoire

Later in 1194, King Anangabhimadeva built a number of temples and also constructed the Nata Mandir as an annex to the temple of Lord Jagannatha at Puri. The Nata mandir was specially made for performances of the maharis and the musicians who were in the service of the temple.

It is during this period that poet Jayadeva wrote his immortal love-poem Geetagovinda extolling the divine love of Radha and Krishna and the recital of the Geetagovinda has become an indispensable part of the rituals of the Jagannatha temple. It also forms a major chunk of the repertoire of Odissi today. It is during this period also that the Abhinaya Chandrika, the foremost shastra for Odissi was written by Maheshvara Mahapatra.

As we come down the centuries we find an unbroken chain of the twin traditions of the singing of the Geetagovinda as a daily ritual of the Jagannatha temple and the Maharis dancing at fixed times as part of the temple rituals. By the l5th century A.D., Vaishnavism as a religious sect became the main religion of the people of Orissa and the Bhakti cult received great impetus.

From the 17th century onwards the Maharis came to be employed to dance in the royal court as well. Till today the Mahari system continues in Orissa but the ritualistic aspect of their dance or of the singing of the Geeta govinda is for name sake only.

The acrobatic element in the dance

From the early 17th century a class of boys called gotipua came into being. These were nubile young boys who dressed as dancing girls and danced for the temple as well as general entertainment. This brought in a very vigorous and acrobatic element in the dance.

Technically Odissi is a highly stylised dance combining the precepts of Natyashastra, Abhinayadarpana and Abhinayachandrika.

Both nritta as well as nritya wise, Odissi has a thoroughly systematised and exhaustive technique. The most prominent feature of the technique being the various bends – bhangis – of the body, the tribhanga aspect – or the triple bend in the body of the Indian sculpture and iconography is fully exploited in Odissi.

In nritya and mukhaja abhinaya, it is very orthodox and subdued. We have already seen that Odissi dance is an inseparable part of the religious practices and rituals and, as such, there is hardly any item which is devoid of the bhakti concept. As a result there is hardly anything known as a fixed repertoire. Earlier there was only one long sequence of about 45 minutes, which began with invocation and ended with a fast paced climax of nritta. Since about 30 years this has been broken into smaller segments which constitute today’s repertoire.

The Odissi steps are based on the square, basic position of the feet called chauka and the different movements and bends of the sides. The most predominant feature is the bend in the waist or hip, the kati. These bends are usually tribhanga – the triple bend or atibhanga – maximum bend.

The steps progress from the basic simple stamping of the foot accompanied by the neck, waist and bend. Sometimes the chest hip moves diagonally enhancing the sculpturesque effect. Odissi being closest to sculpture, utilises the principles of image making like the sutra, mana etc. Odissi movements combine in them crispness as well as lilt. The positioning of the arms and hands is also in the square. The movements usually follow the direction and cadence of the sides and the kati, and balance the entire structuring of the dancing body.

The items are:

  • Bhumi Pranam – Ceremonious offering of salutation to the earth. This is also referred as Mangalacharana.
  • Battu Nritya – In honour of Batuka Bhairava or Lord Shiva. It has both nritta as well as nritya.
  • Pallavi – It is a nritta item which lays equal stress or nritta patterns, raga and tala. Pallavi literally means elaboration and here it applies to dance as well as its music.
  • Ashtapadi – From the Geetagovinda, these are an integral part of the Odissi repertoire.
  • Pada – Devotional songs, many a times in the Oriya language.
  • Mokshya (Moksha) – Concluding nritta item corresponding to Tillana of Bharata Natyam and Jeeva of the new repertoire of Mohini Attam.


Dr. Kanak Rele

The writer is Director, Nalanda Dance Research Center and is a recipient of Padmabhushan award, Akademi Ratna (Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi)