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.

‘Orissa’, or Odisha, as it is now known, has been a landmass of varying dimensions. In the 20th century, it was part of Bengal Presidency and then the Bihar and Orissa Province, finally attaining statehood in its present form in 1936, with the addition of Ganjam district from the Madras Presidency. Oriya is the most prominent spoken language (and also the official language) in Orissa. Telugu, Bangla and a host of regional dialects are also spoken in different parts of the state.

In its evolution, Odissi accounts for a number of cross-cultural, cross-regional influences. For instance, Maharis of the ‘Telenga Sampradaya’, who came from what is now Andhra Pradesh, danced in the Puri temple. South of Puri, one finds Telugu schools and signboards in Oriya on the same street. Official borders apart, it is hard to say where Orissa ends and Andhra Pradesh begins.

With its long coastline, the region we identify as Orissa was a springboard for trade and cultural transmission with South-East Asia. Bali Jatra, celebrated annually on the occasion of Kartik Purnima, commemorates the start of the long sea voyage undertaken by the sadhabas, the Oriya mariners of yore. Their presence seeps into the narrative of Odissi through the prevalance and performance of stories like the legend of Tapoi, the young sister of seven merchant brothers. Tapoi suffers at the hands of her sister-in-laws when her brothers go out to sea, and prays to the goddess Mangala for their early return and consequentially, her redemption.

Meanwhile, in its short life as a ‘classical’ dance, Odissi has welcomed ‘non-Oriya’ dancers, and has been influentially shaped by the work of exponents living outside Orissa and India. Gurus travelling to regular teaching assignments outside the state cemented this connection. These dancers have expanded our understanding of traditions surrounding Odissi while inflecting their choreographic work with personal artistic sensibilities.

The aesthetic fabric of Odissi, then, is clearly a cross-cultural, even global one – and not the isolated product of a narrow set of regional influences.[i] Cut to 2006 – my first experience of a big dance festival in Orissa. Nandini Ghosal, a Kolkata-based dancer, performed Odissi to a Tagore poem, and was heckled by a section of the audience. An unidentified man hollered, “Odissi can only be performed to Oriya and Sanskrit lyrics.”

This incident was an ugly introduction to a view I would repeatedly encounter in private and public discussions – tying Odissi to recently-devised dimensions of language and region. I have often wondered whether these are widely held views or whether they are of little consequence and exaggeratedly absurd to boot. The dance doesn’t specify its boundaries; these are imposed constructs that we create in the process of comprehending and situating a dance language. These boundaries are highly individual and subjective, born out of very specific engagements with Odissi. Besides rigour, honesty of purpose and a sustained engagement with the form, all other categories of evaluation/ boundaries seem unconvincing. How, then, can we attempt to evaluate the authenticity of an artist’s work?

Offering a parallel understanding, Kathak dancer and choreographer Vikram Iyengar remarks, “Dance and music are travelling forms that absorb influences from different people and places. To tie authenticity to anything that pins you down externally is a mistake. It is problematic and provincial. ”

While concerns of topography and language layer the dance externally, what about the themes and stories that we perform through the dance? What the dance depicts and how that is expressed are different topics, but as an amusing aside, let us journey into purely speculative terrain. The Odissi repertoire is replete with tales of Krishna. Krishna, who roams the lanes of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. Krishna, who is waiting by the banks of the river Yamuna, a river that flows through North India. Not the Mahanadi or Subarnarekha, both rivers much closer home. Besides Odissi’s strong connections to Vaishnavism and Jagannath culture, how does this particular figure of Krishna inform Odissi’s local identity in present times? Another instance – a temporal one – assuming the Kurukshetra war took place in ancient India, it is quite possible that the ecological struggles against mining and deforestation in Orissa, or the AFSPA protests in Manipur, will one day become sufficiently ‘classical’ performance material, perhaps even written in a new ‘classical language’.

In how they pull things out of context, the above examples might seem ludicrous. These are narratives and influences from the past that didn’t always grow out of a region or language that we identify as ‘Oriya’. Yet, over time, there is nothing farcical or questionable about their presence within Odissi. Then, conversely, why do we need to resort to shaky linguistic and topographical reasonings of auchitya (propriety) to define Odissi today? If geography has no bearing on what has already transpired, on what the dance has absorbed, is it beneficial to proffer rigid and reductive understandings of Odissi based on lines drawn in a map?

 

NOTES
[i]           In an unrelated instance, reports from Sangeet Natak Akademi’s 1958 Dance Seminar emphasised confernce discussions on the historical connections between India and South-East Asia, and the need to explore these links in the context of dance.

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