Pedagogy in Odissi: Multiple Voices, Multiple Perspectives

by Aastha Gandhi

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo


Method of Teaching
Indian classical dance training is highly codified where students are mostly taught through a method of imitation of Guru’s demonstrations. The explanation of technical manoeuvring of the body depends on the teacher’s proficiency in technique; the core process involves imitation with a few guidelines and instructions. If not explained consciously, the techniques of weight- shift, balance, movement and division of body are imbibed through the unquestioned process of imitation. Abhinaya pieces are explained along with anecdotes and stories to make the theme clearer, seldom followed by discussions around the chosen story. Understanding of the body, and the form comes with one’s own practice; riyaaz, emphasized during the training period. “Angasuddhi” (purity of movement) and “saustabha” (purity of body line) become the defining criteria of one’s technical expertise over the form. (Chatterjee, 1996; 74- 75)

It is found that, the methodology hardly enables the students to explore ways of “embodying movement that accesses personal creativity,” rather it limits the learning to repertoire items, by simply imitating the movements, giving them a partial knowledge of the technique and the choreographic process; resulting in an ever growing lacuna between the dance form and the dancing body. [1]

Pathy confirms that the parampara becomes constricted, teaching technique in a form rigidly circumscribed by the individual Guru’s personal style of embodiment. (Pathy, 2007; 129) The second generation dancers tend to follow the same method by hardly adding anything new or original to the tradition; very few digress and evolve their own methodology of teaching dance. They stick to performing a market- tested product and prescribe the same codes to their students, resulting in a “similar sustained suppression of creativity in the body of students they have groomed”. Gurus don’t imbibe any innovation or techniques to enhance independence of vision in the shishyas (ibid. 130) because they never felt the need to do so and the teaching system also did not give a provision to accommodate such creativity. It is assumed that the creativity is enhanced through the taught method, which need not have any specialized techniques to teach choreography, the student ingrains that simultaneously during the training period.

Instead of basing it on one’s own creative structure by personalizing the language of style and making experiments and explorations more acceptable and boundaries of Odissi more flexible, many of the Odissi schools stick to what was made acceptable in the market by the Guru and by strictly following the codes set by him that “the original structure and method of embodiment of the composition should be regarded as the ‘correct’ version, everything else being incorrect” (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra; Tandon, 2005, 131). The process of teaching furthers a restraint in the student in accepting any kind of change, relying totally and absolutely on the Guru and his/ her word, being a part of all that the Guru is producing, and ultimately standing up to the image of an “ideal” student as defined by the Guru.

The Imminent Voices of Odissi [2]
Most of the current generation students of Odissi dance [3] aspire for an integrated learning, where dance should not be seen in isolation; training should be supplemented with either other styles of dance, or other art forms, emphasizing on more practical and interactive ways of learning and imbibing knowledge. The current generation vocalizes the need for more platforms to interact with other dance forms at inter- cultural and multi- cultural level.

Following are multiple voices of dance students, teachers/ institute heads which represent multiple perspectives and reflect the problems in the pedagogy of classical dance:


In a personal conversation with around 5- 7 students at Odissi Research Centre, Bhubaneswar, most preferred to stay silent, only three of them were vocal about their opinions:

A: Do you compose items in Odissi?
Student 1: No, not yet.
A: Why not? In folk dance you have composed dances, why not in classical?
Student 1: Yes I have composed items for folk, but not in classical because I don’t have that much talent.
Student 2: {because we never get the} chance…
Student 1: No it is not about chance… well actually that is also there, I won’t get a chance to do it {to compose my own items}.
A: Why do you think so?
Student 1: Is it necessary to talk about that?
A: Yes, why not…
Student 1: There are a lot of big artists around whereas we all are very junior. We won’t get a chance to do so, therefore I haven’t thought of it.
A: What do you need to do to become a ‘big’ (established) artist?
Student 3: The first and foremost criteria is to be a good human being, to become a renowned artist, you need to be a good- hearted person to grow as an artist.
A: So what do you think about those who get awards, attain name and fame, and make it big, is it enough to be good- hearted?
Student 1: No, you also need to work hard for it and you need to have money.
Student 2: People don’t care for talent these days.
Student 3: To make it big, firstly you need money and then power.


In a conversation with Diya Sen, previously trained by Sharmila Mukherjee, in Kolkata, she later joined Madhavi Mudgal, in New Delhi and has been learning Odissi under her since 1999:

A: If you could bring in any changes in the teaching style, perhaps to the method in which you were learning Odissi previously, under Sharmila Mukherjee, and then later under Madhavi Mudgal, what would those changes be?
Diya: I don’t know at that time what changes I could have brought because most of the time you start thinking because your teacher teaches you to think. I don’t know how Madhavi di started thinking about dance so technically, may be some people are born with it. But, I wonder how I started thinking about the technique so much, because you are just not trained into thinking about dance in a particular way, and half of us are not taught to think usually. Madhavi di is the only teacher who lets you be, lets you think, lets you question the dance form, allows you to question yourself, question her. As her student, you have the freedom to do so.

A: Does she have answers for your questions?
Diya: Yes. At times she gets annoyed and sometimes she gets irritated. Sometimes when we ask her similar questions or too serious questions and she is probably occupied with other thoughts, she gets a little hassled, “don’t question me that much that I only get baffled.” I think I have this terrible habit of thinking too much but she is to be credited for that, entirely. Why the angle is 45 degrees and not 90 degrees, if you grasp the logic, it is beautiful. I love thinking the way she does, it just makes you understand yourself, your body, and your movement so much that half of the major task is achieved.


Swaati Chattopadhyaya , a senior disciple of Guru Pratibha Jena Singh based in New Delhi, answers through a written questionnaire.

Swaati Chattopadhyaya: An interdisciplinary, integrated approach to dance– learn your style of dance, but also learn about other dance forms/styles, literature, history, visual culture, cinema, theatre. You cannot learn dance in isolation. Also study these in an unbiased, not-so-dry way that does not encourage monolithic, definitive opinion/ theory (analytical response should be fuelled by feelings, emotion, personalised – not intricate theories that sorts everything in neat little piles and brushes the leftovers that don’t fit in, under the carpet). Attending performances in dance or other disciplines should be mandatory – students should be marked for that. Dance video screenings, theatre productions, exhibitions, workshops and lecture- demonstrations should have greater prominence than classroom teaching. You can learn dance and/ or theorise about dance only by being an active participant inside the classroom as well as outside.


Ram Hari Das, serving as Chief Executive Director at the Odissi Research Centre, Bhubaneswar, on Guru- shishya parampara and institutionalized system of dance teaching:

Guru- shishya parampara is very essential…The method of teaching ascribed by an institute fails to train the students in a holistic way, to develop a complete understanding of the Guru’ s language for which a continual interaction between the two is a must, and lack of this definitely affects the future of Guru- shishya parampara. In a university or institute set- up, however, teachers come, conduct their classes and leave. The total pattern of teaching system needs to be changed, perhaps, by designating one Guru for only 4 to 5 students; the Guru- shishya parampara does not work in a routine method with time constraint. There are two issues coterminous to the situation of the teaching system in Odissi. Firstly, it can be helped either by making a standardized system of education in dance, such that the Guru- shishya parampara is not needed at all. Secondly good professional performers are required, which is possible only through training in Guru- shishya parampara. On considering both these factors, and the fact that it is difficult for Guru- shishya parampara to function in an institute, which might be possible in a university set- up, a private tuition to a student generates a feeling of attachment and identification towards the style. In an institutional set- up, the training is such that the shishyas learn few items from one Guru and few more from another, which is fine to learn the basics of the form, but that surely won’t result in making another Sanjukta Panigrahi.



[1]This research forms part of a larger research work (M. Phil Dissertation) 2006- 2008 (School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU, Delhi), by the author.
[2]Here are excerpts of the interviews which were conducted in Bhubaneshwar and Delhi in 2007- 2008, of senior students in Odissi dance,as part of the author’s research work.
[3]The group of students, interviewed, were at the senior most level of training, who have been performing regularly i.e. constitute the repertory group of their teachers and have also been teaching the form, either under their guru, at the same institute or on their own.
[4]Translated from Hindi to English by the author.
[5]Translated from Hindi to English by the author.

Pathy, Dinanath “Rethinking Odissi”, Harman Publishing House, New Delhi, 2007.

Articles from Journals:
Chatterjee, Ananya, “Training in Indian Classical Dance: A Case Study”, Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, (Spring, 1996), University of Hawaii Press, 1996, 68- 91.

Thesis/ Dissertation:
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.

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