The Elements of a Style

by Dali Basu Choudhury

Feet, Ghungroo and Saree of a Dancer

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Odissi’s growing popularity can be attributed to the increased accessibility as a result of cross cultural exchanges, technology, and media. The initial schools or styles that had emerged during Odissi’s reconstruction process continue to be passed on through their students. Today there are a number of dance institutes in various parts of the world that bear the legacy of these individual schools. However, upon examining Odissi as it is being practiced today, the features that had once earmarked individual styles are rapidly decreasing to the point where one must reconsider whether a formal distinction between schools is necessary.

The founding fathers of Odissi originally conceived it as one unique dance form. However, despite having collectively created this single form, each Guru had a unique vision of what the dance should look like, which was largely influenced by their background and training in related disciplines. These differences manifested in their modifications of Odissi as reflected in their own independent compositions. For example, Guru Pankaj Charan Das’s style of Odissi was largely influenced by his background in the Mahari tradition, Guru Debaprasad Das’s style contains elements folk, tribal and Gotipua traditions, Guru Mayadhar Raut’s style is very varied in its use of mudras owing to his time spent in Kalakshetra, while Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s highly stylized form reflects his background as a chitrakara and packawaj (mardala) player.

These variances in vision and aesthetic resulted in four unique schools, or what the classical dance world will term ‘gharanas’ of Odissi. The founding Gurus, like many others in Indian classical dance history, reshaped the dance form according to their aesthetic, whilst maintaining the appropriate boundaries expected of a classical dance form. At the time, the distinguishing features were sufficient enough to define an individual style of Odissi. These distinct styles sustained themselves because the Gurus had a clear understanding of the unique elements that defined their aesthetic and were able to communicate it to their disciples, who in turn, were able to imbibe and articulate it in their own dance. The longevity of a style, as in the case of Odissi would largely depend not only on the number of disciples, but also on the ability of these disciples to understand and disseminate this aesthetic to others.

While the various schools of Odissi initially remained quite independent of one another, we have seen less and less of these stylistic differences of late. Several years ago when conducting research in Bhubaneswar on the different styles of Odissi, I found that the major differences were less about the actual movement aesthetic (shape and size of the Chauka stance, the fractional degree differences in the Tribhangi foot positions, and the presence or absence of torso, neck and shoulder movement) and more about theme, composition and music. Some Gurus emphasized the Bhakti aspect of dance, others had definitive ideas regarding Abhinaya, and emphasized lyricism and emotion, others were inclined towards rhythm and pure dance. This variance provided the world of Odissi with a rich repository of unique and exquisite compositions, with each Guru providing a texture and aesthetic distinctly their own.

Over time, some styles have emerged as more dominant. This is partly because of the diminishing number of students in a particular gharana, but also because of the aesthetic appeal of the more popular schools. Today it is not uncommon to see a dancer of today’s generation adopting elements of a more dominant style into their own dance. Thus while the artists may claim to be proponents of a particular style, their dance does not necessarily lend itself to be an accurate representation of the style at all. Compositions created by Gurus of the yesteryears in their own signature styles are presently being tweaked to suit the popular aesthetic of Odissi audiences at large. This presents a challenge for the less popular schools, as they ultimately suffer the consequences of being considered ‘the old style,” or simply ‘wrong,’ because of the lack of awareness and understanding of their particular gharana. However audiences may almost surely agree that there is an old worldly charm to these styles.

The question then is, is the current variation of aesthetics significant enough to warrant an individual style? Following this logic, then most of today’s dance Gurus and composers, who have explored and expanded the vocabulary and grammar of Odissi, would also deem themselves creators of new a ‘style’ and the number could become endless.

For a style to remain distinct, it requires not only unique and concrete variations, it also requires a level of understanding and cohesiveness amongst its practitioners. In my research, I found cases where there were significant differences in the understanding and interpretation of the aesthetic within the school itself. Here it is important to note that in some cases, while the style may have continued to evolve, practitioners may or may not have adopted these particular changes, thus there exists variations within each individual style. Today, many practitioners of a particular style will adapt it according to his/her own aesthetic preferences. Styles, then, are determined more by their repertoire than the actual form and execution of the movement.

The survival of a style is ultimately determined by the understanding of the aesthetic, and appropriate documentation of it. The number of students, and moreover, their understanding of the style and the ability to articulate it to their students and non-dancers alike, is another important element in sustaining a style. Documentation and research are an integral part of the process, as is continued interaction with practitioners within a particular school.

Many dance critics agree that Odissi is currently experiencing its ‘golden era.’ New choreographies are being churned out at lighting speed. As the dance form continues to evolve, so does the audiences’ aesthetic and expectations. For dance practitioners, it is dizzying at times to manage the underlying pressure of maintaining the current trend. As we continue to question and re-question these trends it would be of great value to research and document such changes, past and present. Amidst the exciting new developments that are taking place, it is important to preserve the lesser-known styles as well – Even if not in practice, then in the form of documentation. These are gems that are worth preserving in whatever form that they can be. While style is something that is continuously evolving, it would be of great value to document and discuss the exercises, techniques, steppings, khandis, arasas and compositions uniquely present in all styles. Preserving these various elements would provide a very rich repository of knowledge that could inspire present-day composers and choreographers alike.


Roy, Ratna. Neo-Classical Odissi Dance. New Delhi: Harman Publishing House, 2009

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