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].

We in France are very fond of universality. It began with Catholicism; then in the XVIth century it took the form of humanism, that is the idea of a universal man, a complete, an achieved man, who would have pushed his studies as far as possible in all directions to become able to share and understand with anyone in the world and past. Then our Revolution in 1789 gave a more legal and abstract manner to this concept, that has been quite successful in the case of declaration of human rights, but also led to consider cultural differences as a sort of second hand matter and, like a modern enemy from inside, denying value to our own French traditions, may appear as the main factor of the deep crisis of identity French people is now going under. As an example of the mentality this universal abstraction results in, Dinanath Pathy’s kind of question could not be uttered in France. Nevertheless, as a French Odissi dancer and researcher in aesthetics, I consider that his question should be asked; yet I feel I am not the one who should answer. So I will turn the question the other way round : what does Odissi dance do to identities ? How does a regional mannerism, together with a universal breath and echo, unsettle the cultural and personal identities of performers and audiences, should they be foreign or native? Here I would like to discuss my own experience of crossing cultural identities, as an extreme case.

The concept of universality is a paradox : in a certain way it leads to shelter in abstraction far above all what appears as too concrete specific expressions, while it leads some to feel free from identity habits and prejudices and to become rather quite receptive to what does not belong to one’s own culture. Both attitudes partly stand on optical illusions. Anyway, my own first interest for indian classical dance arose when I realized that it was not only dance, but theater, not only theater, but Gods and demons acting. I had been raised in a secular way; Christianity has very much suffered from French Revolution. But in my childhood, seduced by their stories, I developed a love for Greek and Latin mythologies. Some scholars have pointed out how these mythologies derive from Hinduism. When I took up dance, this divine matter seemed familiar to me: it was like learning a foreign language but talking about the same things. I first experienced dance as a fascinating game of shapes and figures; but while learning and performing divine forms, I became more and more aware of a certain feeling of organizing force that was coming from the practice of the dance itself, though I must confess my skill was very bad.

Then I took a workshop in England led by Sujata Mohapatra. There, I had such a strong experience of vision, vision of truth and beauty, that I felt a path was suddenly opened to my eyes, mind and body. It appeared to me almost as a form of evidence. When the French sculptor Rodin saw Shiva Nataraj, he also recognized certain canons of classical beauty, and without any introduction to Indian culture he was able to perceive through Shiva’s figure “the sense of being [as] a rushing torrent»[5]. Certain canons of beauty do not belong to any culture in particular but meet any sincere quest for divine in forms beyond the constraints of here and now, because our physical worldly experiences are quite similar here or there, and we all come to perceive, more or less confusedly, what are the principles of our material world and what is freedom beyond – not without, which would be a lie, but beyond – mechanical repetition.

Yet, something was completely new for me seeing the beauty of the dance of she who would accept me as a disciple. I had come to experience beauty in poetry, in painting, in music: never in dance, never in flesh. For historical reasons, probably returning to Platon first, real body expression has been left aside in western art, while India has beheld the power of significance of gesture and placed dance and theater on the pinnacle of poetry, as its incarnation. For me, it was like discovering that yes, beauty is alive: art is not confined to the imagination only; it is rather a fully uniting physical and spiritual experience. This was the path that opened up to me. I did not think about attaining the end of it, but I surely felt I had to step in. Then of course began the real difficulties.

To properly learn this dance form is hard work; there is no compromise with the technique. According to Srjan, everything has to be very neat, and very full of a precise meaning. Of course I could feel that dancers from India had the fortune to have been bathed into a culture of forms, language, stories, manners, culture in a one word, that was familiar to them, but appeared almost entirely new for me, far more than when I was learning in France, because my bathing in Indian culture was now suddenly total. This resulted in a crucial question: am I running away from my mother culture? In my strong desire to learn this art form, I became acutely aware of my status as a foreigner. But what did it mean, to be a foreigner, to be French? I then deeply felt that my French literary education was not only an education, but really the life of my cells; I admitted that however far I would go in indian dance, I would never renounce the love for my mother language art that first shaped my body and mind. I experienced what taste the French root had for me.

Knowing I was not lying to myself by running away from anything, I felt encouraged to go on fully and happily to develop my passion for performing and living a big part of my life in Odissi natyadharmi. As a foreign performer, it was very necessary to bathe into Orissan culture, to perceive the flow of sap rising up from the roots in land of Orissa to the leaves and flowers and fruits of art : any artist has to understand and internalize the principle of life of forms and spirit to become able to create. Meanwhile, natyadharmi appeared as a different country in itself : where one may express familiar feelings, but through an extraordinary body landscape and language. Thus, all affective habits become disoriented; self perception is dépaysée, as we could say in French [6]. While in real life one may undergo a certain continuity of feeling, Odissi’s principle of composition demands the dancer to play and imbibe various characters and emotions one after the other, sometimes almost every second. Continuity in time encourages identification : discontinuity teaches freedom. The self trains to detach from emotional and postural identification.

One’s mother culture, one’s education, one’s experience have taught the individual to feel like this and think like that through this particular ordinary body’s language and mannerisms. One can get confined to habit : identity can also be a prison. But natyadharmi calls one out of it : artfully changing the space and time of posture, it reveals the conventional limits of ordinary world and uncovers new scope for feelings and thoughts to flow freely. All the miniscule ties of ordinary cultural body language and mannerisms that bind together all the tiny ties of ordinary feeling and meaning somehow become unbound through poetic incarnation. Because it uses lasya as well as tandava, Odissi may do that better than others. Its rich and refined natyadharmi enlightens performers and audience collectively from the poorness of individual fantasy from cultural prejudices. It opens the field for experience of inner creation through outer space, that is the flow of sattva. To paraphrase Abhinavagupta, what is there in the world does not have to be there on stage but what happens on stage might get life in the world. Mastering the extraordinary technique of the dance uncovers what is beyond all techniques: divine power and freedom in creation. Seeing such freedom, such spontaneity in sattva flowing through such a technical dance, is rasa.

Isn’t Odissi a country in itself, the country of rasa ?
[1] François Cheng, Le Dit de Tian-yi. François Cheng is a Chinese native living in France, a Chinese painting specialist and a novelist writing in French.
[2] The anthropologist Marcel Mauss has theorized what writers had alreadu observed, the cultural manner of body techniques ; Eugenio Barba (whose group Sanjukta Panigrahi joined for while) has formulated the idea of extra-ordinary body technique to talk about theater perfomance.
[3] Dinanath Pathy, Rethinking Odissi.
[4] « The odissi dance », Théâtre d’Orient, Bouffonneries n°9, autumn 1982.
[5] Auguste Rodin, Reflections on Siva Nataraj.
[6] Pays is land : dépayser, is calling you out of the habit of your land.


  1. Karine Leblanc says:

    I think it is an excellent article that brings up my own questions as a non Odiya and non Indian Odissi dancer. Dance being a world itself is the most intelligent conclusion we can think of. The specificities of Odissi do not prevent the universality of the dance from showing. Karine Leblanc

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