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Odissi Dance

Odissi dance may well claim to be the earliest classical Indian style on the basis of archaeological evidence and from beautifully illustrated manuscripts and sculptures.

Visiting Orissa for the first time? The question came from a lady sitting next to me on the Indian Airlines flight from Delhi to Orissa. “Yes, I am,” I said. “What is there to see in Orissa?” “There is nothing there that you should miss.” My companion was a budding dancer who was returning after a performance in Delhi. I inquired as to how a layman could distinguish Odissi dance from other classical dance forms in India. The conversation resulted in a simplified version of the Odissi dance form…

Most of the classical dances of India trace their lineage to Bharat Natyam. Odissi dance can be distinguished from others by the display of emotions and sentiments. For persons not familiar with the intricacies of Indian classical dances, Odissi presents a rich display of grace and charm. Most of the dance themes are woven around the stories of Radha and Krishna, the divine couple whose love lores are fairly well known throughout India. The love lyrics of Jaydeva and the Sanskrit songs of Geet Govinda are the two famous dance themes for Odissi compositions. These together provide a rich portrayal of emotions of love, separation, and enticement displayed in the Odissi dance forms.

The concluding item in the performance is usually the mokshya nata depicting the release of the atma (soul) to become one with the Supreme Power. It is essentially a nritya (dance) item and is performed in fast tempo. There is no music but the tempo of the dance keeps the audience spellbound.

A detailed description of Odissi dance was documented in the 15th century by Sri Maheswara. His treatise, Abhinaya Chandrika is one of the main references still in use by the gurus of Odissi dance.

An Odissi dancer can be easily identified by the costumes and ornaments she wears – a nine yard sari woven form indigenous silks (pattasari) usually in bright colours like orange, red, green. A tight fitting richly embroidered blouse (komchila), a cover with frills around the hips (nibibhanda) and a cord with tassels to be tied at the waist (jhoba).

In bygone days the costume was worn by devadasis (temple dancers) of Jagannath Temple. Present day dancers still follow the overall pattern with a few modifications. Practically no one wears the jhoba now. Ornaments too follow the traditional forms as laid in the Abhinaya Chandrika. Commonly used ornaments are alaka for the head, kapa for the ears, taiya for the arms and bengapatia for the waist and around the neck.

But how powerful was the impact of the dance on society? This can be judged from the description of the dance performed by the devadasis at the Jagannath Temple and from dance forms chiseled on stone in the temples of Bhubaneswar, Konark and other places of worship.

The earliest carvings of the dance forms are seen in the Rani Gumpha caves (2nd century B.C.). The other famous temples where they are seen in sculpture or relief are Parasurameswar temple (8th century), Raja Rani temple, Lingaraja and Gauri temples and many others.

In all these temples are chiseled forms of dance poses (bhangis) are based on the three bend concept (tribhanga). The three bends are the crossing of the legs, the curvature of the waist and slight inclination of the head. The curvaceous form is also expected to present amorous looks with grace. The grace, the beauty and the enchantment of an Odissi dance is, as it was thousands of years ago, enshrined in the temple carvings of Orissa.

My travel companion was not only a talented dancer but also a student of fine arts. She pointed out that the Odissi dance forms have not only tickled the imagination of sculptors but also those engaged in other art forms such as painting, metal and stone carving, filigree work in silver etc. This is not surprising as the people of Kalinga were equally fond of art and good living as they were of valour, bravery and adventure.


What Odissi dance is to the world of Indian classical dances, Chau is to the world of folk dances in India. In its most rudimentary form it is described as phari khanda khela or the game of sword and shield. Unlike the genealogy of Odissi dance, Chau has an origin shrouded in the past. But it is a tradition and form that has existed as a way of life and is nurtured and practiced even today. The Chau dance is a favourite of the Santhals, Mundas and the Orauns and hence more commonly seen in Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Saraikala areas. Bhairav is supposed to be the presiding deity of this dance. This may be because the people in this part of India are the followers of Shiva and Shakti.

The themes are drawn from the great epics – the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Krishna and his gopis are also a favourite subject when dancing Chau with an element of romance. With the passage of time many more themes have been incorporated in the Chau dances. But essentially the theme is woven around love, romance, chivalry and victory of good over evil. The audience is an inspiration for the artist to perform better. It comes with the singing of songs, the clapping and the feeling of joie de vivre so infectiously common at the time of feasting when the dances are held.