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.

I was born in Italy. Up until recently I had always believed my birthplace was a huge mistake by whoever decides on these minute details of our existence. Soon after I was born, I was brought to the ISKCON temple where my parents lived. They were converted to Vaishnavism before I was born, hence my name. I was sent to a proper religious gurukul at the age of four, where Bhagavat Gita was our main subject. Our day started at 4 am, where we would attend mangal aaratik at the temple, followed by another darshan aaratik at 7 am. Our entire day was filled with various religious studies and activities..

The best part of this unconventional lifestyle was our yearly pilgrimages to India. Since the age of two, my parents made it a point to familiarize me with their chosen life. I felt right at home in India; I grew accustomed to the constant cheek pinching by the Indian Aunties (my three-year old daughter still fights with them), and the puzzled stares – (back in the 80s India, especially Odisha, had far less foreigners roaming the streets, what to say of dhoti and saree-clad foreigners). Because of these yearly trips, the lifestyle in India became increasingly familiar to me.

When we finally moved to India permanently at the age of nine, I had no idea what was going to become of my life. Jagannath Puri being our final destination, I was extremely exited because of two things: One, I could finally pierce my nose and two – learn Indian classical dance. And thus the search began for a dance teacher. The first stop was at the last existing Devadasi of the Jagannath temple. I still remember my encounter with her. At the time, I did not know any other language apart from Italian, but that was not a problem at all. She took me to the rooftop of her house and made me sit in chauka. That was it – nothing else. But I still consider that my very first Odissi class, which remains one of the most precious moments of my life.

As time passed, language, clothes, people, culture, friends, and family life in Odisha became the norm for me. I was adopted into an Oriya family with whom I continued to study Odissi During this time, I had transformed into an “Odhia Jhia” (Odiya girl), which basically became my identity for the next 12 years. Italy slowly and slowly faded away from my memory, including the language. I had become more Odiya than even some of my Odiya friends. Every year I eagerly waited in anticipation for the famous Ratha Yatra so I could take darshan of my beloved Lord Jagannath. I did johni osa, a month-long fast observed by unmarried girls in the month of Karthik, I followed all the pujas and cultural obligations. And like those around me, I had completely forgotten about my white skin, blue eyes and blond hair, which I must say, felt really good. I had always felt at home in India, but knowing the language perfectly and being accepted as one of their own by the people of Puri, was truly the essence of Lord Jagannatha and I was in complete bliss.

Fast forwarding my life at 31: My identity has changed many times now; From the naïve Odiya girl, to a confused Indianized western girl living in the west, to a fanatic Hare Krishna, to a family woman and finally, to a single mother. Throughout this myriad of change, adventures and eccentricities, Odissi has been my constant companion, my one stability, and my only connection to life in Puri. It continues to remind me of the innocence I had once lived in a carefree and loving environment. Most importantly, it is my greatest connection to the Lord. Odissi, besides my family, has been the driving force behind my continued visits to Odisha… it has slowly become my life. I try to dedicate whatever time I can spare to learn and imbibe the nuances of this beautiful art form. But of late, I have been reconsidering whether this is really the right path for me.

Over the years, I have begun to notice a drastic change in the Odissi world during my trips to Odisha, a rapidly increasing commercialism and contamination. And by ‘contamination’ I don’t mean contamination of styles cultures, I am referring to the contamination of hearts. This was the dance form that the great Geeta Govinda was written for, it is the dance performed for Lord Jagannath day and night by His beloved devadasis with so much love and devotion.  But now I am finding it difficult to see this purity reflected in the hearts of dancers, organizers, and institutions. The spirit of Lord Jagannath, the deep spiritual essence of the dance form itself, has been eroding away. But to me, what is most disturbing of all is to witness a sudden division across color lines, a division that comes as quite a shock for someone who spent much of her childhood embraced in the spirit of universality.

I am concerned by what I can only describe as an increasing color divide between Indian (and more specifically, Odia) and non-Indian dancers. The past decade or so we have seen an increase in the number of foreign dancers coming to Odisha to train and perform. A number of these dancers have taken Odissi professionally, opening schools and companies in their respective countries. In Odisha, we have also seen an increase in performances by foreign-born dancers. Sadly however, foreign dancers are treated more as specimens rather than as artists. It has now become somewhat of a trend for festivals to feature foreign-born dancers. In some cases, organizers will specifically request foreigners, simply because it “adds glamour” to the event. And in this context, ‘foreign’ really translates into ‘race.’ Even foreign-born Indian (or Indian looking dancers) are given less priority than a paler skin, light eyed foreigner with a non-Indian sounding name. The inclusion of foreign-born dancers then becomes less about quality or experience. This is an injustice to both local dancers who are denied opportunities because of their names and skin color, and to foreign dancers, who must constantly question whether they have earned their performance opportunities through ability or their race. I am always uncomfortable when I am asked to perform at an event that requests foreign-born dancers. Is it the dance they want to see, or is it simply the pale skin and light eyes?

Interestingly enough, this racial divide is further intensified by those that claim that Odissi can only performed to its capacity by Indian/Oriya artists. While shortcomings of a local dancer may be attributed to a number of reasons, shortcomings of a foreign dancer will be immediately attributed to his/her ‘foreign-ness.” Many times it is assumed that foreign dancers may not understand a particular emotion or expression because he/she is not from the local culture. It is especially disheartening, for someone like me who, despite having spent a significant part of her life deeply absorbed in the culture of Odisha, to suddenly be considered an outsider, simply because of the colour of her skin. Even more alarming, is that this racial division is something that the performance community has created and is continually reinforcing. Ultimately, this divide will create a feeling of disconnect and disparagement between local and foreign-born dancers. It is completely counters the beauty and universality of the spirit and culture of Jagannath.

As Odissi continues to evolve and gain worldwide popularity, it is important to focus on creating and presenting quality artists both in India and abroad. Moreover it is critical that the dance is accessible to all, regardless of nationality. Only by staying true to the spirit of Lord Jagannath can we really understand the essence of this form.

May Lord Jagannath, who is the Lord of the Universe, cleanse all of our hearts of impurities and discrimination.

Jai Jagannath


  1. […] La cuestión de cuánto pesa la nacionalidad en el Odissi es mucho más importante de lo que nunca pensé. Queda perfectamente reflejada en el siguiente artículo de la bailarina Sanatani Rombola, de origen italiano pero criada en Odisha: https://globalrasika.com/2014/04/28/odissi-questions-an-odia-heart/ […]

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