Finding Meaning in Odissi Through Dislocation: One Perspective of a Diaspora Dancer

by Nabanita Pal

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo


(i) Odissi is Not a Commodity
Odissi in the United States (U.S.) was first nurtured in people’s homes, in basements and garages converted into makeshift dance studios. Before there were performances in professional theaters, group productions, and Mancha Praveshes, there were small classes that started through word of mouth. I can delineate much of my childhood and adolescence by parts of the Odissi repertoire. First grade was Mangalacharan. Second grade was Stayi. Third Grade was Batu, and so on and so forth. Just as I grew up with this art form, it too grew with the tireless efforts of teachers and promoters who built a base of future Odissi dancers, one student at a time.

Yet this growth has also led to a misplaced sense of obligation among dancers and organizers alike—an obligation that is articulated in three broad narratives at gatherings and programs that I have participated in. The first has to do with exporting Odissi: how can Indians settled abroad continue to “spread” and “popularize” the art form? The second is a preoccupation with authenticity: are Indian-American women (and it is always women, never men, who are the focus of this question, in part because Indian-American men are rarely encouraged or expected to take up Indian classical dance) capable of channeling the devotional and erotic texts, images, and architectural sources from which Odissi was reconstructed? Or simply put, are dancers raised outside India missing something, even when they have comparable levels of training? The third goes hand in hand with the first two: how can dancers and organizers promote “universal” messages through Odissi that appeal to “mainstream” (non-Indian, non-initiated) audiences?

I believe we should be asking ourselves different questions. Dancers of the Indian diaspora, especially those who seek intensive training, have a complex relationship to Odissi. It is a relationship defined in many ways by a sense of dislocation. Dancers must commit resources to traveling to India (or within their home countries and other parts of the world), to maintain not only a high level of practice and performance, but to also sustain meaningful relationships with gurus, teachers, and mentors. They must create an environment for themselves back home where their practice can continue to grow and develop, often in insolation from a community of peers, and without an existing infrastructure that is available to more mainstream styles of dance. And perhaps most critically, diaspora dancers must find a way to connect with the dance form on their own terms, and use it as a vehicle of expression.

Despite the challenging – arguably lifelong process – of seeking this kind of self-actualization, dancers in the diaspora who perform and practice Odissi outside of India are constrained by imposed preoccupations with exporting Odissi, achieving authenticity, and mainstreaming content. Perhaps the preoccupations are different in the United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries where Odissi has taken root. Like the United States, these are countries where migrants from India have settled and raised children, whose identities in turn are shaped not only by a “collective nostalgia for India (re)created by their parents” but also by the cultural practices and politics of the multiracial communities that they inhabit.[1] Of course, practitioners of Odissi in the diaspora are not limited to Indians or Indian Hindus. Though identity is expressed in myriad ways, be it through lived experiences of gender, race, sexuality or something else, it is easy to fall into predictable patterns of promoting Odissi as a homogenous form, devoid of any unique contribution from the dancer.

The problem with export is that it assumes there is a singular art form – rather, a commodity – to move around the globe. Commodities lend themselves to one-dimensional expressions of cultural pride. Pride anchored in a concrete yet imagined thing (Odissi, with its ancient and modern history) as well as a practice and place (the worship of Lord Jagannath in Odisha, and more broadly India) is easy to support and promote. I am not suggesting that Odissi can exist independently of its spiritual or geographic roots. However, the late Caribbean cultural theorist Stuart Hall cautioned against understanding cultural identity in static terms: “Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything else which is historical, they undergo constant transformation.”[2] When organizers and Odissi dancers around the world speak of “spreading” Odissi, what exactly do they hope to promote? Although Odissi’s modern reconstruction period is now a staple reference in program notes and websites, very few artists and teachers seem interested in imparting a living dance form to students in the United States. I would venture to say the same is true in other parts of the world, including India.

However, there are a handful of artists[3] engaged in studying the many sources from which Odissi draws inspiration – literary texts and sculptures dating back hundreds of years as well the diverse dance, martials arts, and music traditions that continue to influence the form. Such efforts in my view are less about experimentation as much as they are about deep introspection and a desire to tap into the transformative qualities of Odissi. Is there a single way to explain torso movement? Are there only five ways to manipulate the S curve? Is Radha the ultimate metaphor for longing? How many different ways can we embody that state? The logic of export, the fixation with more performers, more schools, and more programs, all in the service of Odissi the commodity, prevents dancers in the diaspora from asking these questions. This absence of critical engagement – about what Odissi is as a form, and what it can communicate as a medium – stunts the physical and intellectual rigor required of dance. Ultimately, it affects the quality of Odissi we are so eager to promote.


(ii) Digging Deeper Into the Diaspora’s Specific Experiences and Strengths

On some level, a reconfiguration of Indian classical dance education in the U.S. is required. Dancers who are serious about studying Odissi are in a unique position to learn from artists of other styles and disciplines in the diaspora—not only dancers, but musicians, writers, and theater artists of South Asian, African, African-American, Caribbean and other traditions who also grapple with a sense of dislocation, of needing to translate their work, and having more than one language to capture their nuanced experiences. I am hesitant to call these “collaborations,” because working with artists of others disciplines requires a thorough mastery of one’s own form. Yet there is room for growth in the diaspora to forge connections with other artists, and at the very least to take classes and workshops outside of Odissi to encounter movement vocabulary and aesthetics in a different context, if only to deepen one’s own understanding of Odissi technique.

Ketu Katrak, Professor of Drama at the University of California, Irvine wrote an article in the Amerasia Journal based on interviews with her Bharatanatyam guru, the late Medha Yodh who was a disciple of Balasaraswati. Ketrak and Yodh both noted that the “heavy religious interpretations of Bharatanatyam items” in the U.S. reduced bhakti or devotion to “literal and narrow connotations” thereby “losing its depth, complexity and breadth of resonance.”[4] Ketrak observed that in many dance compositions, the “more philosophical aspects of bhakti get lost in rather simple and literal-minded renditions of personfications of deities on stage.” These observations continue to resonate today. As dancers, we risk falling into predictable patterns of depicting gods and goddesses or Radha’s love for Krishna in order to appear “authentic.” But the process of understanding and internalizing complex states such as bhakti or the erotic require some thing more than mimicking facial expressions.

Moreover, both in choreographing and in teaching, it is easy to sacrifice nuance for so called universality and broad strokes: Ram is unequivocally good; Radha is either pining or angry; Vande Materam is the go-to musical backdrop for any contemporary depiction of India, the nation state. Yet as dancer and scholar Sitara Thobani observed in her study of UK based Odissi dancers, artists in the diaspora are uniquely positioned to explore “alternative narratives” and to think through their relationship to not only India, but also to non-Indian audiences.[5]

The physical and mental rigor required of sustained Odissi training has the potential to harness what African-American feminist Audre Lorde referred to as the erotic’s “capacity for joy” – “the way [one’s] body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms.”[6] In this respect, diaspora dancers have some thing unique to offer. An authenticity borne of a dancer’s “deepest rhythms” – rather than imposed (self or otherwise) notions of authenticity – must come from her particular lived experiences and surrounding environment.

I invite Odissi dancers around the world to take a close look at the work of other classical dancers of the diaspora who continue to train in India while simultaneously creating work that is technically sound, critically engaging, and reflective of their specific experiences in a hybrid culture.[7] There is much work to be done for Odissi dancers in the diaspora. It is not the work of promoting and spreading Odissi, but rather of cultivation and introspection—to think not only of workshops and visits to India as way of amassing items for our repertoires, but to dig deeper into the form itself and to explore how to use Odissi as a powerful means of self-actualization.


[1] Sunaina Marr Maira, Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City, 15 (2002).

[2]Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Theorizing Diaspora. Ed. Jana Evans Braziel & Anita Mannur. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 236.

[3] One example is the work of Kolkata based choreographer and dancer Sharmila Biswas:

[4] Ketu Katrak, Body Boundarylands: Locating South Asian Ethnicity in Performance and in Daily Life, 18 in Amerasia Journal Volume 27 (2001).

[5] Sitara Thobani, A Universal Hinduism?: Dancing Coloniality in Multicultural London. In E. Gallo (ed.) Migration and Religion in Europe: Comparative Perspectives on South Asian Experiences. London: Ashgate (2013).

[6] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power” 56 Crossing Press 1984.

[7] The work of Bharatanatyam dancers Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy and Kathak dancer Parul Shah are two examples.

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