Odissi: Exploring an Evolving Tradition

by Fatima Montero

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Whatever remains unmentioned should be included into practice by experts from an observation of people – NS XXXVI, 83.

To this ending of the treatise Manomohan Ghosh very appropriately comments in his edition: “this shows that the author of the Sastra did not like to see drama eternally tied to his prescriptions.”
We learn and we teach. That is essence of being human: we have the ability to share our knowledge with the next generation, which is how civilizations have been built. This system will collapse if we neglect it, but it will also collapse if we do not add to it. Dances are the expression through the movement of the body. Dance needs music, decoration, emotions and ideas to express, but ultimately dance is movement. We should know what the essence of our art form is, keeping this in mind before modifying it and before criticizing others for modifying it. What exactly does Odissi need to be considered Odissi? What are the indispensable elements in our dance form that distinguishes it from the others? The elements that we cannot take away? What is its real essence? The first and main focus on our list must be attributes of movement.

From a technical point of view, Odissi dance not only has many distinct postures and steps, it has its own unique way of creating transitions between them. Present Odissi dance is just one step in a long path that has traveled from very far in the past and will reach very far in the future. It is important to be protective, but to idealize the past is dangerous and detrimental to the art. Should we follow the Sastras? Should we follow the Jayantika agreements? Should we trust only our Guru? The technique has changed dramatically; the adaptation to large stages has expanded and ‘cleaned’ the dance. The disciplined approach to practice has given dancers much physical strength, and that is obviously positive. But ultimately, dance is an art, it must express emotions rather than merely disposing techniques (and further there is the controversy about whether it should necessary be devotional too). Odissi has always contained softness and fluidity in the movement, which makes it so unique, linking beautifully different positions and gestures. It is very difficult to keep that grace in a high tempo and it is difficult to synchronize these movements in a group; to do so it requires much more practice and understanding of the items. The same thing happens with the geometric patterns of the body postures and steps. Making the postures and movements more linear is much easier to teach and coordinate in a group, but Odissi’s beauty lies in the curves. There is no need to say here how a perfect an art form Odissi is. So if the dance, the expression through the movement is perfect itself, what do we need to change about Odissi?

Odissi expresses the beauty of Sanskrit and Odia poetry. Both literature and movements convey the sentiments of Odia people, so they are perfectly linked. But Odia society (as almost every society in the world) has changed, and Odissi dance has reached so many countries. What happens if Odia people now have feelings and ideas that are not found in Odia literature? What if non-Odia Odissi dancers feel the inclination to express themselves through the medium of Odissi?

We should be more open to compose on lyrics that do not belong to the traditionally used literature. Odissi performers of Indian origin have been traveling abroad for decades, performing and teaching foreign audiences. Would they consider the possibilities of presenting Odissi in a non-Indian or non-Odia language to enrich the audiences’ experience of the dance? Before dismissing the idea, it is important to consider that Indian Classical dances are not mere exhibitions of beauty, they have a much higher purpose. Failing to translate Odia and Sanskrit lyrics or not composing in other languages could be interpreted in two ways: Either there is a common belief that non-Indian/non-Odia audiences are not interested in experiencing the real aesthetic and spiritual essence of Indian arts, or dancers do not feel it necessary for these [foreign] audiences to understand the real meaning of Indian literature. Acquiring more knowledge is always positive, we do not forget our mother language by learning new languages. Achieving the spiritual goal of Indian arts far outweighs that of telling an Indian story in its original language.

The costume, jewelry and hair ornamentation that are used today for performances are beautiful and eye-catching, but highly standaridised (especially in Odisha). Odissi Aharya has had a long evolution and nowadays certain features can easily distinguish the guru or style. Some elements are used only in dance dramas. But if Aharya is Abhinaya, it is a tool to express – how is it possible that costume, jewelry, hair decoration, etc. vary so little? Why is it something to comment or criticize when someone has gone out of these standardized patterns? Isn’t it possible to retain the Odia identity of the Odissi Aharya while simultaneously exercising more flexibility so that artists will have more resources to express?

As a last point, what happens to those artists who prefer to work freely without feeling restricted by the proper “established Odissi features?” Art expresses feelings, and India has a highly developed and sophisticated art tradition (so much has been and is being written about the Rasa experience). But if the technique of this dance style does not allow its practitioners to express their ideas and feelings, then they must take a different road. But in choosing this path, they would have to look outside the label “Odissi,” to find a more appropriate term for their creation. The most commonly used solution for presenting different compositions rooted somehow in the Odissi technique, but not following its established parameters in its entirety, has been to use terms such as modern, fusion or contemporary. We should be very careful when using these terms – “modern dance” and “contemporary dance” are established dance styles which have their own tradition, and origins that are widely known and must be respected as a part of Western culture, just as Westerners must respect Indian culture. Using the term “Odissi” or not should not destroy the creative process. Let us examine the creation first, and then find a name for it.

Composing new music, items or dramas, and not following previously established patterns of Odissi will not make us forget what we already achieved. Institutions and artists must collaborate to simultaneously preserve established work while supporting new artistic creations, even if they could be ‘wrong,’ because we create and learn by making mistakes too. I truly believe that Odia culture is strong enough to be able to stay, grow and accept changes, as a new branch cannot kill a tree, it only makes it bigger.



Ghosh, Manomohan: The Natya Shastra. Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951.


  1. Truly intriguing, I hope this inspires dancers and Gurus to choreograph in ways that interacts with their relevant audiences and reflects present day emotions and needs of the society.

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