Classical dance - Odissi

   About Classical dance - Odissi

Odissi dance, one of the oldest forms of classical dance in India, traces its origins to Natya Shastra - the sacred Sanskrit text on performing arts. 
It evolved further on receiving royal patronage. The carvings found at the Udayagiri Monastery denote that Odissi was patronised as early as 2nd Century BCE and the trend continued unabated till about the 16th Century AD. After surviving the tumultuous years from 16th Century AD till Independence, Odissi underwent
a renaissance of sorts which helped it become the global phenomenon it is today.

Odissi or Orissi is one of the pre-eminent classical dance forms of India which originated in the Hindu temples of the eastern coastal state of Odisha in India. 
Its theoretical base trace back to ‘Natya Shastra’, the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts. Age-old tradition of Odissi is manifested from Odisha. Hindu temples and various sites of archaeological significance that are associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the sculptures of which adorn dance postures of this art form. A form of illustrative anecdote of mythical and religious stories, devotional poems and spiritual ideas emoted by dancer with excellent body movements, expressions, impressive gestures and sign languages, its performance repertoire includes invocation, nrita, nritya, natya, and moksha. This dance form includes themes from Vaishnavism and others associated with Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Surya and Shakti.

The classical music and dance form of Odisha was prefixed with 'Odissi' by noted Odia poet Kabichandra Kalicharan Pattanayak, who was the centre of the cultural revival of Odisha post-independence, to retain its distinct identity. It is recognised as one of the eight classical dance forms of India, and celebrated around the 
world for its lyricism, sensuality and emphasis on bhakti bhava (attitude of devotion and surrender). Odissi gained visibility in India and internationally from the 1950s onwards when it began to be presented on theatre stages. Since then, Odissi dancers and writers have claimed that it is the oldest of India's classical dance forms, which was earlier performed in the temples of Odisha. 

Odissi has progressed significantly since its inception half a century ago. What we now refer to as Odissi, bears little relation to Mahari. This was once played in temples and by Akhada Pilla in Mathas. The dance works that make up the current repertory are all from the previous 50 years. Furthermore, one can understand the motives behind its creation. These were that of a secular ambiance in mind, similar to that of a proscenium theatrical play. The 8th century Shankaracharya’s compositions and the 12th century Sanskrit poet Jayadeva’s epic poem 'Gita Govinda' have a great influence on Odissi. They have affected the direction and development of modern-day Odissi to a large extent. 

You can find Odissi in sculptures and panel reliefs from the 10th to 14th centuries. This also includes Puri’s famous Jagannath temple. Other nearby monuments with dancer and musician statues are the Brahmeswara Temple in Bhubaneswar and the Sun Temple in Konark.

Odissi Dance Forms

The following forms of Odissi became the most extensively practised among Odissi dancers from the 1960s onwards-

Sthhai or Batu,
Abhinaya, and

Performance repertoire of Odissi sequentially includes an invocation followed by nritta, nritya, natya, and moksha. The invocation called Mangalacharana is performed followed by offering of flowers called Pushpanjali and salutation to mother earth referred as Bhumi Pranam. Next in line is performance of Batu or Batuka Bhairava or Battu Nrutya or Sthayee Nrutya which is pure dance or nritta dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is performed only on rhythmic music without any recitation or singing. The next part is nritya that encompass expressional dance or Abhinaya to communicate a story, song or poetry through hand gestures or mudras, emotions or bhavas and eye and body movements. The next part natya includes a dance drama based on Hindu mythological texts and epics. An Odissi performance is concluded with the dance movement referred as Moksha that aims to communicate a feeling of emancipation of the soul.

Mangalacharan, an expressive composition expressing supplication to Lord Jagannath, Lord Ganesh, and other deities. Traditionally, it is performed at the start of an Odissi performance. The Mangalacharan includes the following parts in the dance:
Mancha pravesha - In this part, the dancer enters the stage in the rhythm of the tala/bol (beats). He/she carries the flower offerings with both palms joined together.
Pushpanjali - The dancer offers flowers to the deity, as a mark of devotion and surrender to the deity.
Bhumi pranama - Paying respect to the holy mother earth, for letting us step on her and perform the dances. It involves slowly going down sitting on the tows, with both knees to the respective sides and touching the earth and taking the blessings following slowly rising up while making a namaskara simultaneously.
Vandana - Prayer to the deity Sabha pranam- comprising the jagran nritya along with trikhandi pranam. Here, the sabha involves the god, teachers and rasika. In the last part, we pay our pranam to this Sabha.

Batu nritta, or the abstract form of pure dance, is known for its durability, permanence, and steadiness. With bhangis i.e. postures, belis i.e. motion, arasas i.e.  short dance phrases, ukutas i.e. rhythmic phrases, and a repetitive melodic refrain, it provides the basic physical grammar of the dance drawn from sculptures and gotipua movements.
Batu nritta, or the abstract form of pure dance, is known for its durability, permanence, and steadiness
This is a pure gift of dance to Lord Batuka Bhairava, one of Lord Shiva’s numerous incarnations. The sculptural stances of Batu Nrutya are well-known. There are thorough unusual rhythmic patterns in various portions of this dance. It requires being in the position of Chauka throughout, apart from Pallavis which requires the posture of Tribhanga. Endurance is the main key to Battu nritta with the steps to be sharp, clear, and precise.

Pallavi begins with slow, graceful, lyrical eye, neck, body, and foot movement, gradually building to a crescendo. It culminates in a quick speed at the finale. The dance item’s name is always based on the Raga of the accompanying song. Desh Pallavi, for example, is performed with Desh Raag. Basanta Pallavi, which is the most basic Pallavi taught first in the line of Pallavis, is from the Basanta Raaga, and Hansadhwani Pallavi with Hamsadhwani Raga.
Pallavi begins with slow, graceful, lyrical eye, neck, body, and foot movement, gradually building to a crescendo. The word ‘pallav’ means elaboration. Hence, Pallavi is another pure dance piece with lyrical grace moves. It builds around a smooth, lyrical, and beautiful tune (Raga). Beautiful dance passages run parallel to sung music’s rhythmic syllables. Pallavi is also pure dance and suggests elaboration. For instance, it is an exhibition of  both the dance and the music that accompanies it. A fast-paced pure dance routine accompanied by a recital of rhythmic phrases played on the Mardala (the main percussion instrument in Odissi). In other words, Pallavi is a pure dance item in which a raga elaborates itself through eye movements, body postures, and intricate footwork.

Abhinaya is an expressive dance that enacts a song or poem. Therefore, it tells a tale to the audience using mudras, bhavas, eye motions, and body movements.
The artists perform Abhinaya on verses written in Sanskrit or Odia. Abhinayas on Sanskrit Ashtapadi or Sanskrit Stutis like Dasavatara or Ardhanari stotram are the most prevalent.
Abhinaya is the most important component of an Odissi performance, and it usually consists of longer dance pieces with complex theatrical emotions. Sanskrit and Odia literatures are interpreted through dance in abhinaya, which means to carry forward the dramatic portrayal for the stage. For example, Gitagovinda, and the poetries by Odia Bhakti poets like Upendra Bhanja, Banamali Das, Baladev Rath, belonging to the 16th century which are performed as dance-dramas through expressions in abhinayas.
Hence, unlike battu and Pallavi where it is mostly the bol, abhinaya tells you a story involving musical songs and lyrics. The story-telling evolves through various scenes from the epics. For instance, the Mahabharata, Lord Jagannath, Ramayan, and a lot more.

All human efforts, according to Indian philosophy, tend toward ‘Moksha,’ which means salvation (liberation). Moksha is a pure ecstatic dance that liberates the dancer towards this aim. This is a fast-paced rhythmic dance that brings the show to a close. The final piece of a recital is moksha. Moksha is the Sanskrit word for spiritual emancipation. For the dancer, who soars into the region of pure aesthetic joy, the dance signifies a spiritual conclusion.
Firstly, movements and stances combine to form a constantly changing pattern and design in space and time. Secondly, the dance builds to an exciting peak for both the eyes and ears. Lastly, it melts into nothingness with the cosmic sound of the ‘OM,’. Therefore, it depicts Moksha, or soul release.
The Moksha, thereafter ends with enactment of the universal prayers/ peace mantras like sarve bhavantu sukhinaha or sarva mangala mangalye.

Basic Moves and Mudras of Odissi

Odissi is traditionally a dance-drama genre in the performing arts. The artists and the musicians play out a mythical story from the Ramayan and the Mahabharata, or a devotional poem or a spiritual message. This depiction includes various expressions called Abhinaya, body movements, and mudras. Odissi performance is a fusion of  basic units called Bhangas. It has eight Belis, or body movements. These combine in many varieties, including footwork, torso movement synced with hand and head movements with geometric symmetry and musical resonance. 

In 2011, Guinness World Records recognized an Odissi performance as the ‘World’s Largest Odissi Dance’. This record was set by 555 dancers who put on a stunning show  at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. It was one of the most awe-inspiring performances ever seen. It helped to establish another milestone for this dance style in the greater sphere of Indian culture and tradition.

Furthermore, on March 12, 2016, almost 1000 Odissi dancers performed at the World Cultural Festival, making it the largest assembly of Odissi dancers at a single event. The Oxford Odissi Centre is a new Odissi dance centre at the University of Oxford. Baisali Mohanty is behind this effort who is also an Odissi dancer and choreographer and a post-graduate scholar at the University of Oxford.

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A beautifully classical and traditional dance form from the eastern part of India, Orissa, Odissi dance has a chequered and fascinating history and culture that has evolved with time to the modern day. Graceful and sensual, Odissi dance form mainly focuses on three main regions of body movements, that is, the head, the chest (abdomen) and the pelvic region.

Like all Indian dance forms, an Odissi dance requirement also includes costumes, jewellery and make-up. The whole of Odissi dance requirements combines in them an excellent colour sense and love of traditional weaves and designs that sum up the richness of Oriyan heritage in all its beautiful glory.

Odissi Costume (Beshbhusha)

History of the costume
Maharis, who danced in the temple, typically wore black velvet bodices with the sari wrapped from the waist down. When Odissi began to be presented upon the stage, the sari was first wrapped as a dhoti to form a divided ‘pyjama’, with the decorative design end of the sari, or pallu, spread in front.

Over the years, various styles of tailoring the sari into the costume were developed.The Odissi dance costume is similar to that of traditional Bharatanatyam costume. Unique and resplendent, the dance costume, saree and blouse, is bright and resplendent, made-up of solid colors and hues. The Odissi dance dress saree is a Sambalpuri saree or a patta saree or a silk saree, that a brightly coloured saree supplemented by either a black or red blouse called the kanchula, embellished with diverse stones and gold and silver thread. Then there is the Pallu called the Thallaippu which is a pleat made in the front with a rich look and feel. In Odissi the women dancers wear the patta sari, a brightly coloured silk sari which is nine yards long and a black or red blouse called the kanchula. An apron-like silk cloth, known as the ‘nibibhanda, is tied from the waist like a frill worn around the legs. The waistband, called the jhobha, is a length of cord with tasseled ends. The Patta sari used by dancer in Odissi are particularly coloured with bright shades of orange, purple, red or green. Sambalpuri Saree and Bomkai Saree are also preferred in Odissi dance formats. The beautiful Pallu in this dance is called the Thallaippu. This pleat is made in the front that makes the costume very rich and colourful. The decorative headpiece of the dancer is made from Styrofoam, which is shaped like flowers.

Styles of tailoring
Late Odissi Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra designed a tailored costume. In this design, the decorative end of the sari or pallu is pleated and snapped on to the costume so that it fans out as the dancer sits in the chauka position, This pattern came to be known as the fan style costume.

In this costume design, the blouse is made from the same sari material as the cloth draping the front of the dancer.

A popular variation on the costume design is to have the decorative front pleated in a vertical fashion down the front that is closer to the Mahari temple dancer tradition. Various artists have incorporated several variations on the length or angle of the front fan in the design, but the main distinction is the vertically draped front or the knee-to-knee fanned out cloth also known as the dhoti style or Mahari style costume.

Parts of the costume

A fabric is fastened around the hips from behind which define the hipline, known as the natabari. The blouse (made from the same sari material as is the cloth draping the front of the dancer) Aanchal or the Pallu (also from the same sari material) is pleated as is the cloth draping the front of the dancer, that covers the chest. This is mainly worn by the female dancers. Pallu is plated as Side-fan/dhoti style or Middle-fan style costume.

The woven sari used for a costume can be from any of the many wonderful traditions of the state, in particular those from Sambalpur, Berhampur and Cuttack. While the resplendent Sambhalpur silk ikkats are known for their intricate weaving technique and subtle colour combinations, the Cuttack colours are more contrasting. The Berhampur silks are known for their narrow rudraksha borders and stunning combinations. Another style that found favour with many dancers was the Bomkai sarees with their long and delicately woven pallus, which could easily be converted into the fan in the front. The fabric used for costumes on stage is mostly pure silk, though in some cases dancers do opt for baafta, a mixture of cotton and silk pure cotton as well.

Odissi Jewellery (Alankara)
The Indian classical dance form of Odissi dance is unique among other classical traditions of India in its use of silver ornaments. The artists only wear intricate filigree silver or white jewellery pieces; filigree, meaning thin wire in French, is called Tarchasi in Oriya. Complementing the Odissi dance dress are elaborate filigree silver jewellery pieces, comprising of bangles, ear-rings, necklaces and anklets, arm pieces, etc. Finally, there is the Make-up which is simple, comprising White face paint, Red big bindi, Red dark lipstick, etc. Put together, all of dance requirements make the dancers look pure and natural without looking dramatic. The distinct style of Odissi adds beauty and elegance to the dance. 

Making of Silver/Filigree Ornaments
Over 500 years old, this art form is traditionally done by highly skilled local artisans on the shores of Orissa in Eastern India. Creating each piece is a collaboration between several artisans, each specialising in one of the many steps that turn a piece of raw silver into a handcrafted work of art. First, silver  is melted in a small clay pot that is put into a bucket full of hot coal. The temperature is regulated through a bellow that is hand operated by a crank. The melting  process takes about ten minutes after which the silver is poured into a small, rod-like mould and cooled by submerging the rod in water. The rod is then placed into a machine that will press the rod into a long, thin wire. This tedious and physically demanding process has been done traditionally by hand and takes two men to turn the crank.

This malleable wire can either be hand carved immediately with intricate designs, or smouldered over a small kerosene fire with one artisan directing the flame with a hollow tube held in his mouth while the other moulds the wire into the desired frame. The wires are then strung together, twisted and shaped into a design by the artist’s precise fingers. Soldering is done by placing the piece into a mixture of borax powder and water, sprinkling soldering powder onto it and then placing it once again under the small flame. This insures that the detail of the design will stay intact. Once this is done, the artist will then take the warm piece and shape it into its form as an ornament. Finally, the ornament is filed down and polished by soaking it in a frothy mixture of water and split nuts from a tree called 'soap nut.' The ornament is now ready to be worn by the dancer.


1. The female dance artist wears a single silver Tikka or sinthi along the parting of her hair.

2. A silver tikka is also worn by female artist along with decorative silver chains that extend from forehead to ears. This ornament together is known as Alaka or Mathapatti.

3. Kaan or Kaapa are earrings that cover the entire ear. They are in the shape of a peacock or other geometric designs and sometimes are accompanied by large dangling bell shaped jhumkas attached at the bottom of the piece.

4. Both male and female dancers may wear two to four necklaces:
a. Cheeka – a smaller one worn close to the neck.
b. Haara – a longer necklace with a hanging pendant.

5. Dancers wear a three-tiered silver belt, Bengapatiya, around their waist. It is usually made with secular silver disks strung together in three rows. This is also worn by both male and female artists.

6. The artists may also wear silver armbands or Taaita or Baajuband or Bahichudi.

7. The wide filigreed bangles are known as Chud or Chudi or Kankana.

8. Female artists often wear a large silver filigree pin or a crescent of silver wreath over the central pin on their hair bun.

9. The anklets are called Paunji.

10. The artist may also wear rings or Anguthi on their fingers.

Odissi Hair-styling (Kesh-Sajja)
Abhinaya Chandrika, a dance text by Maheshvara Mahapatra, contains elaborate hair designs to be worn by a female Odissi dancer. Some of these are also seen in the temple sculptures of Orissa, a state in Eastern India. There are three kinds of hairstyles in Odissi dance. They are the ardh-bathaka or semicircular bun; the pushpa-chuda with the hair of the dancer coiled into the shape of a flower and the kati-beni, which is a single plait down the back.

The most commonly worn style is a hair bun at the back of the head adorned with a pushpuchuda (a head gear). Tying the hair at the back of the head, and around a large ring to give fullness to the shape creates this beautiful hairstyle. This is occasionally combined with hair braided down the back, if the dancer chooses to follow the Mahari tradition.

Pushpachuda is made of Shola pith, a plant-based material best known for making the British Colonial pattern pith helmets. Moulding the soft, white, inner stalk of the shola pith, which grows across Odisha and Bengal, is a unique regional craft. Although organic, its texture is quite similar to the plastic Styrofoam or thermocol. The art of carving shola pith has been used to create the extraordinary and distinct flowers in the elaborate hairdo of an Odissi dancer. 

The Pushpachuda (also known as Mukoot) consists of two parts:

Gobha – Flower decorated back-piece called Gobha sits around the dancers hair pulled into a bun at the back of the head. The flowers are designed in the shape of Jasmine, Champa (one of the five flowers of Lord Krishna’s arrows) and Kadamba (the flowers of the tree under which Radha would wait for her beloved Lord Krishna).

Tahiya – The longer piece that emerges from the centre of Gobha is called Tahiya, and this represents the spire of the iconic Jagannath temple in Odisha or the flute of Lord Krishna.

In Odissi the dancer decorate their eyes with kohi and there is a small mark on the chin. 

   Instruments used

Musical instruments used in Odissi

Musical instruments used in Odissi Music are few in number. Some of the basic instruments which have been used in Odissi Music are the Ravan Hashta, the Harmonium, and the Veena or Sitar. Nowadays, a number of instruments are being replaced, like the Violin is being used instead of the Ravan Hashta. The Tanpura (a string instrument) is used by all the three streams of mainstream classical music- Odissi, Hindustani as well as Carnatic music. But one instrument which stands out among all as typical and irreplaceable both in case of Odissi dance and Odissi music is the Mardala. Further details of this typically Odissi instrument are given below.

In Odissi Sangeet Sastras it is mentioned that among all the skin percussions Mardala is the best. Its description is found in Charyagiti and various Sastras and Kavyas of medieval Orissa. In all Orissan temples also one finds the sculpture of Mardala players. Mardalavadini (the woman Mardala player) of Konark is famous. It is played during various Sevas (services) of Lord Jagannath. It is played as an accompaniment both in Mahari dance as well as Gotipua dance. Odissi dance is always accompanied by Odissi music. There are different types of Odissi ragas like Kalyana, Nata, Shree Gowda, Baradi, Panchama, Dhanashri, Karnata, Bhairavee and Shokabaradi.

The musical notes that are accompanied with Odissi dance are the same as the music of Odissa itself. There was a move to classify Odissi as a separate classical system.

Odissi dance is accompanied with a number of musical instruments. One of the most important is the pakhawaj, also known as the madal. This is the same pakhawaj that is used elsewhere in the north except for a few small changes. One difference noticed in the pakhawaj is the right head which is a bit smaller than the usual north Indian pakhawaj. The other instruments used are tabla, or mridangam, bansuri, the manjira, the sitar and the tanpura.

Odissi mardala more or less resembles Pakhavaj but there is also a difference both in terms of construction and technique. The Mardala which is originally used in the Jagannath Temple is simple in construction and there is no mechanism in it to adjust the pitch. Simhari Shyamsundar Kar added 'Gotakas' to this simple Mardala so that it can be tuned as per need. In Pakhavaj, for example on the left side a layer of flour is given while in Mardala there is Kiran. As regards to practice and technique the Vaani or Ukuta, Khandi, Gadi Arassa in Mardala are different from those in Pakhavaj. Especially, the Chanti and movement of fingers are quite different in Mardala.

Till now Mardala is played mostly as an accompaniment of Odissi dance. Solo Mardala playing has not yet been very popular as stage performance. Gurus like Mahadev Rout, Chakradhar Sahoo, Harmohan Khuntia, Banmali Maharana, Dhaneswar Swain and Sachidananda Das are trying to make solo playing, dual playing and Jugalbandi of Mardala popular. The famous Odissi dance Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Odissi music Guru Simhari Shyam Sunder were also famous as Mardala players. Pakhawaj: The most common north Indian representative of the class of barrel shaped drums known as mridang.  It was once common throughout north India, but in the last few generations tabla has usurped its position of importance. Pakhawaj  has a right head which is identical to tabla accept somewhat larger. The left head is similar to the tabla bayan except that there is a temporary application of flour and water instead of the black permanent spot.  It is laced with rawhide and has tuning blocks placed between the straps and shell.
 1       The most well-known northern Indian double skin drum that is used especially for accompanying the old northern Indian Dhrupad style, is the Pakhawaj (similar to the Mridangam in southern India).
 2 The quality of the high-pitched skin is quite similar to that of the tabla.
 3 It is also made of different layers.
 4 Is also tuned like like Tabla with wooden wedges that are placed under the tautening straps.
 5 The fine tuning is done on the woven outer ring which is part of the skin.

Tabla: Tabla is often regarded as the queen of drums and percussion instruments. It is the most popular Indian rhythm instrument. It consists of two drums, the Bayan (big bass drum) and the Dayan. The two of them are almost always played together. Both the two drums as a pair and also the Dayan on its own - as opposed to the Bayan are called Tabla.

Bansuri: Bansuri also known as venu are common Indian flutes.  They are made of bamboo or reed.  There are two varieties, transverse and fipple. The transverse variety is nothing more than a length of bamboo with holes cut into it.  This is the preferred flute for classical music because the embouchure gives added flexibility and control. The flute may be called many things in India: bansi, bansuri, murali, venu and many more.
 1 Has its roots in the word banse that means bamboo.
 2 Originally used as a folk instrument and to accompany dance (sometimes semi-religious).
 3 The Hindu deity Krishna is often pictured as a sheepherder who plays the flute and it is often associated with magical or seductive powers.
 4 Bansuri enjoys a distinguished place in the history of Indian music and mythology.
 5 The Bansuri has only recently in this century been used in classical Indian music where it its accompanied by Tablas (Indian hand drums) and the Tambor which provides a tonal drone.

Tanpura: Tanpura is a drone instrument. It resembles a sitar except it has no frets.  A Tanpura has four strings tuned to the tonic.  The word 'tanpura' (tanpoora) is common in the north, but in south India it is called  'tambura ',  'thamboora ',  'thambura ', or  'tamboora '.  The tanpura is known for its very rich sound.  There are three main styles; the Miraj style, the Tanjore style and the small instrumental version sometimes called tamburi.
 1 Just like the Sitar the Tanpura is one of the long neck lutes.
 2 It is usually stringed with 4 or 5 metal strings (rarely with 6 strings).
 3 They are tuned to the basic note and its fifth and octave.
 4 The special rich sound effect that is produced by the constant playing of the individual strings.

Manjira: Manjira is known by many names in India, it is a very ancient instrument. It is also called jhanj, tala, mondira, (small size) kafi (large size), or a host of other names. It is basically a set of small cymbals.  It is mainly used for dance music and bhajans. They are usually made of brass.
 1 (Small size) kafi.
 2 It is made of two small copper plates tied together with a string. Hitting one against the other at its edge produces its high pitched sound.

Sitar: The Sitar is the most popular melody instrument in classical northern Indian music today and is, together with the Surbahar and the Tanpura, part of the family of long-neck lutes. The large resonance box is made of a dried pumpkin; - neck, cover and a possible second smaller resonance box are mostly made of Tun wood, an Indian variety of teakwood. Metal strings made of steel (bass strings also of brass or bronze) run across two bridges made of bone. The frets are movable by cords that are tied to the neck and are also made of steel.

   Article By: Ekta Sandbhor Patil


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