Redefining Odissi: A “Contemporary” Approach

by Aastha Gandhi

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

As a dancer, one may often ponder, “How could I portray my life in an urban setting through this very traditional dance form? Do I have to give up the mythical stories and the heavy attire? If I do, then would the form still be considered Odissi? But then again, my dancing body would still move to and retain the Odissi technique,” this raises the question if the dance is merely defined by its traditional attire, traditional themes and the repertoire? Broadly, the quest is about tradition being accepted as a “given” text, merely to be followed, in “different ways” or if it can be learnt as a language from which new texts can be written, new vocabularies can be created as a mode of self-expression? Does that mean that it is acceptable to talk about these ‘given texts’ as boundaries? Can one then negotiate with these boundaries? Is the dance then living up to its ultimate goal of liberating the body?

Year 1989: Pavis, in his review of Eugineo Barba’s “Faust”;

“The function of this adaptation is to erode codified theatrical or choreographic forms that are too specifically honed to single cultures and performance traditions, the better to adapt to the audience’s universalizing demands. Thus, the human and dramatic situation becomes immediately comprehensible, without the mediation of the artistic codes of specific theatrical forms.” (Pavis, 1989; 48)

[Sanjukta Panigrahi, a stalwart of Odissi dance, played a vital role in this production. She collaborated with Barba[1] and other artists from around the world for various projects from 1980 to 1996. Sanjukta Panigrahi’s venture at Odin Teatret[2] began in 1980. She played the role of a primary dancer from Asia for more than a decade at the Odin and served as a member of its pedagogical committee. Here, she engaged with multicultural activities at various levels; work demonstrations at ISTA, for theoretical research, working through the Odissi body in the absence of a narrative, working and evolving physical ideograms and elemental compositions through improvisations, engaging with the form at the level of minimal textual support and collaborating with other bodies trained in diverse techniques, not at all acquainted with the Odissi grammar. Her body was placed in such experimental sites, which no other Odissi body had ventured into, till then. 

Sanjukta Panigrahi, with her Guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra in an interview with Schechner (Schechner, Zarilli, 1988; 130- 132);

SCHECHNER: But how does Guruji feel about what you did with Eugenio yesterday, Sanjukta?

  1. PANIGRAHI: It’s all right as an experiment, but if I do this on the stage before an ordinary public, he’ll kill me.

One needs to note that such experiments received the consent of the Gurus, only in the international “experimental” space, which was not regulated by traditional structures or codes, and hence did not pose a threat either to the sanctity of the form, or to the dancing body. The ideologies of the parampara exercised a stronghold on the dancers, and “safeguarded the form against such threats.” Consequently, such works, or even their later performances, did not find much espousal in the domestic sphere of teaching, practicing and performance, which was more regulated and constricted in its functioning.

Year 1979: Dash on the Late Guru Surendranath Jena’s compositions;

Guru Surendra Jena, the art- master who after learning the grammar and the essence of Odissi Dance, has wriggled out from the very popularised codifications and have created master pieces of dance items his ‘Konarka Kanti’, ‘Bhubana- Ishwara’, ‘Bhadyeswar’, ‘Roop- Madhuri’, ‘Rekha- Sundari’, ‘Chhaya- Jhatak’, ‘Archana Puri’, and such others, have set the conventionalists in a puzzle to solve in their own methods as to which item falls into which category”.

Guru Surendranath Jena created a deviant vocabulary of Odissi, although keeping to the basics of the form and abiding by the shastras. Unlike other Odissi styles, whereby the poses become ‘highlights’ of a dance sequence, in Guru Surendranath’s style, the poses themselves are dynamically stretched, deriving a complex movement unit from the manipulation of the initial static pose, by reimagining the ‘missing portions’ of the movements frozen in the sculptures.  In his Odissi, the basic movement vocabulary is provided by twenty-four dance movement units, all originating from the Konark temple.

The technique, typical of Guru Surendranath Jena’s style, using the deflection of the upper part (torso) of the body from the lower part, by giving them both different dynamics (fluid Vs. static), generates a movement structure and imagery, unique and rarely seen, providing an extension within which the body moves between different levels. Also making the basic tribhangi and chauka, the two main stances of Odissi, involve deeper bends than seen in other Odissi styles.

Surendanath Jena’s style was highly criticized and derogated by mainstream practitioners of Odissi dance. In the process, raising the question of whether such interjections with the form, which grew for over a decade have any impact on the trajectory of history of Odissi dance?
Rekha Tandon states, “tradition is not any more taken to be a fixed structure, which one apes without actually understanding and imbibing it. This can be achieved only through claiming “ownership” of the tradition, by making new work within the traditional structures and satisfying its requirements”. (Tandon, 2005; 150).

The ever-growing lacuna between the dance form and the dancing body can be fulfilled if the method of teaching inculcates in the students the feeling of “owning” the technique, so as to feel comfortable in moulding it in any way and deriving their own language from it. Interacting with other forms and styles, going back to the roots, learning about the source forms, further developing knowledge of their technical know- how are different methods adopted to conceal the gap[3].

There is a growing need amongst dance practitioners worldwide to promote interaction and inter- activity with dancers across the nation and across the globe, to gain an in- depth understanding of one’s own form and formulation of a movement technique vis- a- vis that of the others’, by realizing how techniques are formulated and shaped in different body structures giving the dance form a distinct identity. This however, does not imply imitation of western themes and to be categorized as “contemporary and universal” to become more saleable products in the world dance market, but to be able to understand the method of training, technique and basis behind the modes, to further enhance one’s own understanding of dance. It is the constant search to be able to develop an individual point of reference to the dance form and dance practice, which lends a contemporary approach to the technique.

When one interacts with multicultural people at a common platform, it is difficult for one to remain confined to rigid boundaries dictated by traditional practices. That does not imply to leave one’s tradition behind, but rather to use it to “provide training in creativity not only in the sense of making something new, but also thinking something new when reacting to changing, unusual or unexpected conditions and situations” (Dea, 2006; 14). Consequently, it would also not lead to homogenised products, but would develop different texts, with meaningful engagement at the primary level, as an outcome of changing equations and conversations in different contexts.



Dash Dhiren, This…. Odissi Dance, Kala Vikash Kedra Journal, ed. Randhir Das, Cuttack. 1978- 79.

Dea, Alex, Selling an Imaginary Curriculum to a Flat world, Imagining the Future- Dance Education in the 21st Century (Dance Education Conference), Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong, 2006.

Pavis, Patrice, and Loren Kruger, Dancing with “Faust”: A Semiotician’s Reflections on Barba’s Intercultural Mise-en-Scene, The Drama Review (1988- 89), Vol. 33, No. 3, The MIT Press, (Autumn, 1989), 37-57 .

Schechner, Richard, and Philip Zarrilli, Collaborating on Odissi: An Interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kelucharan Mahapatra, and Raghunath Panigrahi, The Drama Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, (Spring, 1988), MIT Press, 1988, 128-138.

Tandon, Rekha, Classicism on the Threshold of Modernity: Expanding the Physical Parameters of Odissi Dance for Contemporary Audiences, unpublished PhD thesis, Laban, City University, London, 2005.

Watson, Ian, Eastern and Western Influences on Performer Training at Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret, Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, University of Hawaii, (Spring, 1988), 49- 60.

[1] With an objective of understanding his own tradition, by placing it in confrontation with that of the others’, Eugineo placed together, artists with different cultural backgrounds with the purpose of carrying out a transcultural analysis of performance.

[2] “The Odin Teatret, which continues to produce new and exciting works, was originally formed in Oslo, Norway, in 1964. In 1966 the company moved to Holstebro, a small town near the west coast of Denmark, where it has been based ever since. In its 23-year history the company has mounted productions ranging from intimate studio pieces, for audiences as small as sixty or less, to huge street spectacles encapsulating whole villages at a time. The Odin has traveled extensively in Europe, South America, and Asia. It has established a major theatre center in Holstebro, where it publishes books, makes and rents films, and mounts workshops in collaboration with artists such as Jerzy Grotowski, Dario Fo, and Jean- Louis Barrault; and it is the only state-supported pedagogical institute devoted to theatre research in Western Europe.” (Watson, 1988; 49)

[3] Few dancers had already initiated experiments with regional forms such as Chhau and Pala sangeet, owing to the lasya– oriented vocabulary, which now posed as a limitation. Sonal Mansingh, under the guidance of poet and scholar Jiwan Pani, introduced Pala Sangeet and other poems of contemporary poets of Orissa. Chhau technique and Prahlada Nataka, according to her “fulfil Odissi’s crying need for Tandava Anga”(National Herald, Lucknow; 1989) source; Sangeet Natak Akademi. With the onset of the new millennium, the need for inculcating new elements, with the due approval from the Gurus, became aggravated, such that even a central government body responded to it. Central Sangeet Natak Akademi organized a symposium and workshop on “Performing Art traditions of Orissa in reference to Odissi Dance”, 11- 14 May, 2003, Puri, Odisha.


%d bloggers like this: