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.


In the mid-fifties a number of dancers and scholars, including but not limited to Kelucharan Mohapatra, Mayadhar Rout, Pankaj Charan Das, Deba Prasad Das and Raghunath Dutta, created the group Jayantika to officially codify Odissi dance. The gurus established the guidelines of the Odissi vocabulary drawing upon the encounter of two traditions: the maharis, the female temple dancers devoted to Lord Jagannath, and the gotipuas, “single boy” dress as women who performed acrobatic figures narrating the love of Krishna and Radha. The philosophy of this last tradition was inspired by the bhakti movement, a current marked by its progressive anti-caste and anti-brahman position, established against the ritual-centred Vedic culture. The centrale tenet of this doctrine was the idea of a personal god, engaged in a divine play represented by the symbol of love between Krishna and his soulmate Radha, as it’s expressed in the Gitagovinda written by Jayadeva in the twelfth century. As Nandini Sikand argues, the Jayantika gurus, many of whom were originally gotipuas and part of jatra groups (street theatre), delineated the form of the solo female dancer after the tradition of the maharis, but those women were excluded from the dialogue during the Sanskritization process, even though their mystique was perpetuated : nowdays the term “Mahari” covers a symbolique space in the Odissi tradition, as indicated by the increasing presence of this dance form, along with gotipua dance, in the private and government festivals.

Proposed in the context of holiness, insisting on the ancient origins of the “Great tradition”, Indian classical dances experienced decades of popularity in the context of a new and highly nationalist India. Joan Erdman noted that this is the adoption of those values which allowed to establish dance as an area of acceptable activity for “decent” Indian women, usually interrupted at the age of marriage, and was approved by the west as an extension of “oriental dance” because it was part of a process of “rediscovery native” The gurus, with the help of middle-class and upper-caste female Odissi dancers, created a new idea of woman that, transcending social norms, assumed the role of national pride, crossing regional and local barriers as cultural representative of Odissi in the world . In that period, the contradiction between the concept of an art form that was created by men, that involved the participation of women at a prominent level, was part of a specific logic: male and female roles were predetermined by a society where men had access to the benefits and decision-making power, and women were mirrors of symbolic signs of social class. Many élite and upper-middle class women had to recognize the authority of the male guru who had to be served from a subservient position according to guru-shishya parampara tradition.

Nowadays, gender and regionalism intersect to define women’s independent action (agency) in the dance community, creating new relations of power and identity among dancers. This transformation is due to the new phase of East-West cultural interaction in India, which is characterized by the opening of this last to the globalized world: the economic reforms of the last two decades presented Odissi dance inside and outside of India, in a process where the central government has played a critical role. The Government of India, which takes the primary responsibility of protecting, preserving and promoting India’s cultural heritage through insitutions as Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, has replaced the royal patronage in the social organization of dance and music, helping to popularize Odissi among middle and lower-class women, going above class and caste demarcations. An interesting paradox lives in these words: the central and regional governments now play key roles in democratizing Odissi among women, even though the public culture of post-Independence India represented Odissi as an hegemonic power of a male patriarchal traditione . An important relationship between one’s identity as an Indian woman and one’s function as a performer emerges in this framework. The image of the female classical dancer continues to be a powerful symbol, one that invokes a sacred tradition through the idea of the mahari, despite the impact of westernizations and cultural globalization. Despite all, using the concept of sadhana, the daily practice, women can experience the everyday relationships with the mythological world they belong to, toward which is directed the idealized identity of a Odissi female dancer. The ritualistic approach of sadhana reflects the training of the body within the rigid aesthetic and social structure of the guru-shishya relationship. This disciplining of the body speaks to issues of social and cultural aware, that affects the agency of the female dancers, building and creating a sense of autonomous identity, as is evident through the stories of common female dancers. Women are now agents of their own history, they can be actresses within the habitus of their everyday life, without dismantling the existing structure.

Critics believe that the easy accessibility to everyone, including women, of classical forms due to democratization has promoted mediocrity rather than artistic excellence. The socio-economic changes driven by global flows are promoting different teaching methods and different audiences, causing changes in the aesthetics and in the politics of cultural production. The new forces of mass media are currently reinventing the nationalist narrative of Odissi in multiple ways. The spread of mass media and modernization have created spaces for openness and cultural syncretism that were not present earlier, but that now create new connections and opportunities for female dancers who are able to mediate their identity with a work of “innovation within tradition”. Innovation in dance means an intellectual quest for making it relevant to the middle class: many choreographers are looking for artistic interaction and new kinds of patronage for their works. The Indian diaspora and the arts and educational institutions in countries outside India, like the UK and USA, became prominent sources of patronage. The negotiation of the new choreographers with the force of modernity is expressed in their interaction with the ideology of “innovation”. They need to compete not on the local level, but on the national and international levels and it’s essential for them to create new works that can survive such a competitive market. In most of European and American countries, Odissi (and other forms of India classical arts) is now important for individuals of Indian origin to be connected to their cultural identity and tradition: the girls from the upper-middle class learn about indian mythology, history, culture and values through classical dance. This “auto-exoticization” of Indian dance has created initially an “ethnicization” of those identities that now are fully integrated into the global world, where India is not only viewed in an ethnographic context, but as cultural producer of a sacred/profane independent art.

[1] Sikand, Nandini, Beyond tradition: The practice of sadhana in Odissi dance, “Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices”, vol. IV, n. 2, 2012, p. 235.
[2] Erdamn, Joan, Arts Patronage in India: Methods, Motives and Markets, South Asia Books, 1992.
[3] Nandini, Sikand, Beyond tradition: The practice of sadhana in Odissi dance, cit. p. 235.
[4] Chakravorty, Pallabi, Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India, Calcutta/London/New York: Seagull Books, 2008, p. 72.

– Chakravorty, Pallabi, Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India, Calcutta/London/New York: Seagull Books, 2008.
– Chatterjea, Ananya, Contestations: Constructing a historical narrative for Odissi, in A. Carter ed., Rethinking Dance History, London: Routledge, 2004.
– Gandhi, Aastha, Who Frames the Dance? Writing and performing the Trinity of Odissi, in Dance dialogues: Conversations across cultures, artforms and practices., 2009.
– O’Shea, Janet, At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
– Sikand, Nandini, Beyond tradition: The practice of sadhana in Odissi dance, “Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices”, vol. IV, n. 2, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: