Whatever mention Odissi has in caves and treatises, the living tradition of the Odissi dance form has been kept up by the Maharis and the Gotipuas. Maharis are the devadasis from Orissa. ‘Mahan’ – ‘Nari’ or ‘Mahri’ are – the great one, chosen one for the seva or service to the Lord. The Maharis would sing and dance for the Deity. That was their seva to the Lord. The Maharis performed dance sequences based on the lyrics of the Geet Govind of poet Jayadev. Before the time of Jayadev, the Maharis performed mainly nritta (pure dance) and abhinaya based on mantras & shlokas.
Various reasons are attributed to the discontinuance of the Mahari tradition of dance and the emergence of the Gotipua tradition. Gotipuas were young boys dressed as girls and made to dance. They were taught the dance by the Maharis. The Maharis themselves never performed outside the precincts of the temple. It was always inside the temple. In fact there were two clans of Maharis – the bhitari gauni Maharis, who would reach the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and bahari gauni Maharis who would be in the temples but outside the sanctum sanctorum. But once the Gotipuas – these young boys were taught the dance, it stepped out of the precincts of the temples. 0ne of the reasons given for the emergence of Gotipuas is, that the Vaishnavites did not approve of dancing by women. During this period, Vaishnav poets composed innumerable lyrics in dedication to Radha and Krishna. Gotipuas danced to these compositions. Hence even to this day one sees that the Odissi repertoire is full of ashtapadis from Jayadeva’s Geet Govind (performed by Maharis) and songs on Radha & Krishna by Oriya poets (performed by Gotipua). There is a discerning difference when an ashtapadi is performed with a smooth transition from one movement to the other as opposed to the slightly jerky movement when an Oriya lyric is performed.
Most of the present day Gurus themselves have been Gotipua dancers, and in their turn passed on the dance form to dancers and teachers all over India and abroad. From the precincts of the village temple to the metropolitan theatre is quite some distance. Odissi has successfully and meaningfully spanned it.
The Maharis and Gotipuas are still gratefully remembered, but today it is the great Gurus coming from the same tradition that guide the destiny of Odissi. They have created a generation of highly talented dancers who have ensured the continuity of the dance form with an awareness and enriched consciousness, not by merely repeating what is handed down to them, but by creating and offering an aesthetic experience that carries the dance to greater heights. It is through the performers and teachers that the art draws its sustenance and continuity. Their number is ever increasing.
It was in the early fifties that the outside world took serious note of Odissi. It was Priyambada Mohanty who represented Orissa in the classical dance category at an Inter University Youth Festival. Dr Charles Fabri hailed Odissi as a great dance form. He helped Indrani Rehman study the dance form and the initial credit for bringing Odissi to the international scene goes to this great dancer.
With Gurus like late Padmavibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, late Guru Pankaj Charan Das, late Guru Deb Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut and dancers like Late Sanjukuta Panigrahi, Kum Kum Mohanty, Sonal Mansingh, Madhavi Mudgal and Late Protima Gauri, the propagation of Odissi is in full swing.
In recent years a number of institutions and individuals in India and abroad are imparting training in this dance form. On the whole sexpulsating, having crossed the national frontiers it has become part of the international scene.
Dance vocabulary and repertoire
The two main postures used in Odissi are the tribhangi and chaukha. Tribhangi (literally: three parts break) is a three-body-bend in essence, and is very feminine in nature. It is it relates to the poses of Lord Krishna. The chaukha of Odissi is comparable with the araimandalam used in Bharatanatyam, except that chaukha is essentially wider than araimandalam. It is the masculine aspect of Odissi and is said to be derived from Lord Jagannath’s idol at the temple in Puri.
A traditional Odissi repertoire consists of:
Mangalacharan: An invocational piece. After paying homage to Lord Jagganath, the reigning deity of Orissa, a sloka (hymn) in praise of some God or Goddess is sung, the meaning of which is brought out through dance. Mangalacharan also includes the ‘bhumi pranam’, begging forgiveness of mother earth for stamping on her, and the ‘trikhandi pranam’, a threefold salutation, above the head to the Gods, in front of the face to all the gurus (teachers) and in front of the chest to the respected audience.
Battu Nrutya: A dance piece offered to the Lord of dance – Lord Shiva in his ‘Batuka Bhairava’ form. This piece brings out the essence of Odissi.
Pallavi: A pure dance item for which there are no meaningful words sung, but a particular raga (musical melody) is elaborated through eye movements, beautiful body postures & intricate footwork.
Abhinaya: Through hand gestures (the language of Indian classical dance), facial expressions and body movements (mime) the meaning of a poetic piece is brought forth & conveyed to the audience. It is telling a story without using the spoken word. Abhinay in Odissi are set to Oriya poetry by famous poets like Banamali, Upendra Bhanja, Kavi surya Baladev Ratha, or to the Ashtapadis from Jayadeva’s Geetgovind.
Dashavataar: A dance piece describing the ten incarnations of the Lord. The verses are taken from the Geetgovind.
Moksha: A pure dance item with only
the mardal-pakhawaj (percussion) accompaniment – the dance of liberation.
One may feel that the repertoire of an Odissi performance is limited. But it is abundant. There are various items of Mangalacharan, Pallavi, and Abhinaya depending on the hymn, raaga or poem chosen.