Agency and Gender: the New Identity of the Female Odissi Dancer in a National and Transnational Perspective

by Shilpa Bertuletti

Duet Dancers

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo


In this period of socio-economic change in the globalized world, the formation of individual cultural identity in India is marked by the contestation between national, global, regional and local socio-political forces, influencing also the world of Indian Classical Dance. Odissi, which is now practised throughout India and in other parts of the world is a classical dance form born in the state of Odisha. The narrative that I want to describe has emerged from my two identities: one, a scholar interested in the relationship between representation, identity and gender, and the other, an Indo-Italian Odissi practitioner interested in the long tradition of this dance and its relationship with the west. It was during my intimate association with the world of classical dance in India that I began to see some of its interesting relationships: using an ethnographic field methods, I saw how Odissi dance is transforming itself due to the changing conditions of patronage, national, regional and local politics and the increasing involvement in dance of middle class and lower middle-class women.


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A Country in Itself: Talking about Identity

by Laurence LeBail

“ Those who declare cultures to be irreducible one to the other,
do they ever wonder that one speech, from the very place from where it was born,
still gets through all obstacles and attains across the world, to be understood ? “[1]

Kurma Mudra

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

If there is any art claiming for its regional identity, Odissi is certainly one of them, as stated by its name alone. In an interview conducted in a temple near Balasore in 2010, Guru Ramani Rajan Jena together with my guru, Smt. Sujata Mohapatra pointed out how deeply Odissi is rooted in the culture of Orissa, even in the most ordinary mannerisms, or ordinary technique of the body [2].  Those mannerisms are taken for natural, but they are not in fact more natural nor instinctive than the mother tongue itself : they are the inherited body language, early learned by simple imitation of the mother’s ways of moving. Both of the gurus agreed on saying that an American woman, or even a Bengali woman, would move her head and chin differently from an Odishan woman when calling her husband. Thus, when Dinanath Pathy writes : “Do foreigners taking up the dance corrupt it ?“[3], he may express a concern of the Odishan audience, sensitive to the special quality of ordinary movement and attitudes that innerves the extraordinary dance technique and exhale for them the very flavor of Odissi – that is the sap of lokadharmi enlivening natyadharmi. Yet there must be a strong element of universality in Odissi – otherwise not so many foreign audience would sit and clap nor would foreign dancers travel such a long way from their remote countries to properly learn the dance. “The toile de fond of dance in India is not only what a historian can describe, because it goes far beyond the history of an individual or of a nation” wrote Sanjukta Panigrahi[4]. [Read more…]

Identity and Odissi Dance: Contributors April 2014

Shilpa Bertuletti is an Italo-Indian dancer, pianist and researcher. She completed her BA and MA in Oriental Studies from University of Bologna with distinction, specializing in Indian Theatre. Now she is attending the Doctoral School of Performing Arts at the same university, with a particular interest in Odissi and gender identity in contemporary India. After a long training in classical ballet, Shilpa has been awarded in 2013 a dance scholarship to study Odissi directly in India («Formare all’Eccellenza» from Comune di Bergamo), as well as a PhD scholarship (“Premio Morelli” from Rotary Club Bergamo) to conduct her fieldwork in Bhubaneswar. She can be reached at

Dali Basu Choudhury is an Odissi Dancer and researcher based in New Delhi. After graduating in Computer Science from the University of Ottawa, Canada, Dali was able to turn her attention to her passion for Odissi dance full time and was awarded a fellowship by the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute to train in India. She completed a research project on the different styles of Odissi with the help of a fellowship awarded by the Ontario Arts Council, Chalmers Foundation. Dali can be reached at

Ranjana Dave is an Odissi dancer and dance writer based in Bombay, India. She is the co-founder and programme director of Dance Dialogues, a platform for the dance community to collaborate, reflect and explore ideas that inform their creative practice in multi-disciplinary ways. She regularly writes on dance for prominent Indian publications, including Time Out Magazine, the NCPA On Stage Magazine, The Hindu and Asian Age. She has worked on the online archive project, where she focused on curating an archive of the performing arts. Ranjana holds a postgraduate degree from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where her focus was performance studies. In 2013, she was a recipient of the Arthink South Asia Fellowship, a programme aimed at nurturing potential leaders in the cultural sector in South Asia. She can be reached at

Sonali Mishra is an Odissi dancer, researcher, and writer currently based in Bhubaneswar. She holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan and an MS in Public Policy and Managament from Carnegie Mellon University. Her primary areas of research interest include: international cultural policy, globalization and culture, and the role of culture in urban and regional economic development. She worked as a researcher in the nonprofit sector in NY before focusing on her dance career several years ago. Sonali has written for attenDance, Narthanam, and ArtsJournal. She can be reached at

Sanatani Rombola is a professional Odissi dancer based in Italy. In addition to teaching and performing, she is also an event planner specializing in Indian culture. She has been immersed in ISKON culture since birth, and spent a significant part of her life in Puri, Odisha where she developed a strong love for Odishan art and culture. She is actively involved in her local ISKCON temple, and regularly organizes youth-based initiatives to engage young people to spread the glories of Lord Krishna. She can be reached at

Debiprasad Sahoo is budding photographer based in Bhubaneswar with a passion for Odissi dance. He is also a web application developer and entrepreneur by profession. His photography page can also be found Facebook: can be reached at

Kaustavi Sarkar [Singar-Mani/Nalanda-NrityaNipuna/Odissi-Jyoti] doctoral researcher at Ohio State University, is an Indian classical dance educator; performing and teaching well over the past decade. She is the founder and Artistic Director of the Multicultural Center for Embodied Aesthetics, International Outreach and Social Activism in Columbus. Kaustavi teaches Odissi at OSU and is actively involved in the Diaspora. She has BSc&MA in Economics and has worked in New York, Kolkata and Mumbai as a financial analyst. She can be reached at

Laurence Le Bail Simon is an Odissi dancer and doctoral candidate based in the South of France. She holds a Masters Degree in Comparative Littérature, a Masters Degree in Esthetics, and is achieving a PHD at Paris 8 University in Odissi aesthetics.
Her publications include:
• Rodin et la danse de Çiva, under Katia Légeret guidance, Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 2014.
• Figures rythmiques : le temps et l’espace en Odissi » (rythmic figures : space and time in Odissi) : in revue LERIC n°1 dedicated to the question of space and time through intercultural views, directed by Mohammed Ben Jelloun, El Jadida, september 2013
• Le geste créateur : l’éloquence gestuelle dans le théâtre dansé Odissi » (creative gesture : eloquence of the gesture in Odissi danced theater), In Dialoghi tra teatro e neuroscienze, Université Sapienza, Roma, april 2012
• Des sens au sens : la sensation dans la pratique et dans l’esthétique Odissi », (From sensations to meaning : sense in Odissi practice and esthetics) actes de colloque hold in Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris Nord, march 201 http//
• “La dramatique lyrique du poème dansé odissi : une esthétique de la présence”, (Lyrical dramatic in Odissi ashtapadi : esthetics of presence), Cahiers Poétiques du CICEP, n°14, printemps 2010

The Roles Dancers Play

Adapted from A Life Beyond Words: Dancing Religion: Performativity and Insider-Outsider Duality

 by Kaustavi Sarkar

Hands of a dancer

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

The identities of a dancer, researcher, Bengali, part of the Bengali diaspora, dance teacher and choreographer – are individually enough shape one’s life. In my case however, I have confronted and absorbed each one of them, accepting that each of these roles manifest individually or simultaneously within the context of the hour. Collectively, these various roles operate at different layers shaping my thoughts, my aspirations, my inhibitions, and hence my overall evolution. [Read more…]

When Local Goes Global: Odissi’s Identity Crises

by Sonali Mishra

Saree of the dancer

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Odissi is one of many cultural practices in the world that has expanded beyond its local roots to a national and international framework. Considered a relatively new style in the pantheon of Indian classical dance, Odissi’s continued evolution on a global, rather than local [or semi-local] scale has raised concerns with regards to the loss of its unique cultural identity. Debates regarding authenticity, purity and dilution of the dance form have dominated many a seminar in the Odissi community in Odisha. Odissi’s growing popularity internationally asks that we re-examine tradition and modernity in a changing context, where the parameters that once defined the form are now blurred. The challenge for this generation of dance practitioners is to evolve the form in a modern context whilst maintaining the unique distinguishing elements of Odissi. To do so requires a thorough understanding of the dance form, as well as a willingness to explore new ideas.

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Odissi Questions an Odia Heart…

by Sanatani Rombola

Painting of Lord Jagannath displaying his eye

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

My name is Sanatani Devi Dasi Rombola. Devi Dasi, my middle name, was given to me at birth. I am a strong believer in God, and I give Him a name and a form. I believe in His perfect plan of life: that each of us deserves to grow and complete our unfinished business, to develop true love for Him and to meet other beings with whom we share our karmas with. This is the only way I can explain how I have been living my life all these years. One coincidence after another has led me to what I believe is my true identity: my love for God and for the country that, at least for me, holds the most convincing culture: India. [Read more…]

This Place We Call Home

by Ranjana Dave

A mudra by a dancer

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

What characterises a classical dance, and how does the geography of language shape this identity? Odissi makes for an interesting case in point. Its provenance is established and solidified by linking it to the history of Orissan temple sculpture, and later to practices of performance and worship that flourished within and around Orissan temple spaces. [Read more…]