by Elena Catalano
Would it be overtly optimistic to claim that Odissi is entering an unprecedented Golden Age of development throughout the globe? Perhaps not. However, it would be ingenuous to believe that the internationalisation of the form will leave its aesthetics, modes of transmission and performance untouched, ‘traditional’, as some would say, albeit of a fictional and constructed kind of tradition as scholars would answer back, citing Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983).
Odissi is recently experiencing a sort of full house excitement, with more and more people undertaking training and offering performances of professional quality worldwide. In Odisha, young generations pursue training often with the prospect of making dance a vocation, while the production of Odissi festivals has become a staple of the local tourism industry and of Odia economy. USA, Russia, Japan and Malaysia boast consolidated communities of practitioners with their own institutions for training and established opportunities for dancers to perform at a professional and semi-professional level.
In Europe however, the professional practice of Odissi is not yet thriving as it could be. It is particularly surprising to notice the hesitating path of this dance form in the UK, where the South Asian diaspora, normally involved in the promotion of Indian classical dances in this country, is a strong minority, and where dances such as Bharata Natyam and Kathak have since long become popular and received support from the Arts Council of England for developing professional practice. The effort of several Odissi practitioners, committed for decades to either teaching, performing or simply promoting this dance form, has remained isolated and unable to consolidate excellence and public recognition for Odissi. It has become clear to those involved in the practice of Odissi in the UK, that a major obstacle to the establishment of this dance form is the absence of a clear, cohesive, systematic and contextually relevant system of training, able to nurture the future of the dance form, beyond its native land and beyond stylistic differences.
The majority of Odissi dancers and teachers presently based in the UK have received most or all of their training in India under the traditional guru-shishya parampara system. However, this system, which has arguably undergone profound changes even in India, is inadequate in a social context, like the British one, which encourages the learner to take control of the learning process, develop an individual voice and personal vocabulary, and generally employ an inquisitive approach to the acquisition of knowledge. These culturally beliefs clearly clash with those underpinning the traditional training in Indian classical performing arts. In addition to this, the philosophical and religious referents of the dance form can seem alien and irrelevant to individuals located in the contemporary British cultural context.
Faced with these rather challenging conditions, Odissi practitioners teaching in the UK are not only exploring ways of translating the form, but also of successfully transmitting the vocabulary and its aesthetics to younger generations, with the purpose of developing a future of artistic excellence, which styles as Bharata Natyam and Kathak have already gained.
A crucial step has been recognising the importance of creating a syllabus for Odissi, inspired by a new pedagogical approach, relevant to the needs and values of the modern British dance scenario, and yet grounded on the traditional aesthetics and vocabulary distinctive of this form. The syllabus aims to provide a reference for teaching, with a grade system that recognises the importance of progressive and integrated learning, but also provides a tool for verifying skills and knowledge through official examinations.
For the last few years, dancers Katie Ryan and Parvati Rajamani have been involved with the development of an Odissi syllabus in consultation with Guru Smt. Madhavi Mudghal. They recently launched a call for other practitioners involved in teaching to share skills, knowledge and experiences, with the purpose of developing a training system, able to display clarity, thoroughness and cohesiveness, while being relevant to the British context. Supporting this call, Kadam, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of South Asian performing arts in the UK, has facilitated a number of skill sharing workshops aimed at exploring some of the key aspects of Odissi training, which would then inform the development the syllabus. These workshops focused on body awareness, technique, musicality, abhinaya and creativity.
Led by different practitioners involved in teaching Odissi in the UK, the workshops capitalised on the participants’ skills, knowledge and experiences, proposing an innovative approach to Odissi training, beyond stylistic differences and personal credos and proposing a collective effort in the establishment of the form. The aim of the workshops was to develop participants’ teaching skills and techniques through the creation and exploration of exercises tailored to different learners (children and adults) and levels of training.
- The body awareness workshop stressed the importance of developing learners’ embodied understanding of the aesthetic principles of Odissi, through a somatic explorative approach to alignment and correct posture. The participants identified different warm up techniques, beyond the traditional strengthening exercises, using elements of contemporary dance training and improvisation techniques to devise effective and playful warm up games.
- The technique workshop aimed at looking at the components of the dance vocabulary. The workshop responded to the acknowledgement that Odissi training is characterised nowadays by an abrupt transition from the basic vocabulary, with all its complexities, to the learning of long, difficult and technically demanding choreographies. While this performance-oriented process has its own justifications and advantages, it was suggested that this method creates a passive and rather crystallised approach to the acquisition of the movement vocabulary. Dancers often learn ready-made pieces of choreographies and are required to reproduce them diligently as taught by the teacher, with little or no room for personal interpretation and indeed movement variations. However, this often ends stiffening the practice, blocking creativity and spontaneity. The technique workshop hence focused on breaking down the rich vocabulary offered by the classical items, in order to explore its components and think of exercises to develop different skills separately before engaging with complex choreographies, for example rescuing the almost forgotten practice of arasas.
- The music workshop showed the importance of clarifying the elements and structure of Odissi music and focused especially on the intriguing aspects of tala. When compared to Bharata Natyam and Kathak practitioners, Odissi dancers generally suffer from poor musical training and knowledge of theory. A reason for this is that Odissi music is striving to establish itself as a tradition on its own, different from both the North and the South Indian system. The ill-fated consequence is that Odissi dancers are often left confused about terminology and raga/tala specifications. This confusion even prevents them to pursue individual training with exponents of the Hindustani or Carnatic traditions. In addition, Odissi dancers are inhibited from using non-Odissi music to develop their own compositions or simply movement sequences for teaching purposes. The music workshop tackled any major doubt in music theory, clarified terminology and provided tools for teaching the musical elements of the dance in a confident and clear way.
- The abhinaya and creativity workshops focused on developing different modalities for teaching expressive dance and generally nurturing students’ creativity. One of the main issues when teaching abhinaya in a non-Indian and often also non-Hindu context is to provide all that set of implicit cultural ideas imbibing the form. The workshop provided tools to think about ways of making Hindu mythology understandable to UK-based learners, but also suggested methods for developing abhinaya skills in a creative and modern way, independently from Hindu narratives. Another issue emerged during the workshop was the lack of creative processes in the traditional training system, and the problem this perpetuates in a country like the UK, where funding and artistic recognition is generally acquired through the development of a creative personal voice. The group hence explored intriguing methods for stimulating the creation of movement vocabulary and the development of composition skills.
The democratic and collective approach, which has fuelled these workshops, has been further ignited by regular open practices. The aim of these practices, organised by Maryam Shakiba and myself, has been to bring practitioners together, inspire new learners, motivate old ones, connect with people who share the same passion and create the conditions for future collaborations and artistic excellence. We hope that these collective initiatives will help raise the profile of Odissi in the UK and we dream that one day soon this dance will not be seen simply as an ethnic form, but as a bold and rich technique endowed with an endless potential for making any artistic statement.
It would be naive, however, to believe that this Golden Age will not produce shifts in the form and its aesthetics. But, as Odissi itself has taught us through its combination of resilience and strength, real beauty and power come when one’s feet are rooted and yet one’s torso is supple.
 Hobsbawm, E. J., & Ranger, T. O. (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Chatterjea, A. Training in Indian Classical Dance: A Case Study in Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 68-91.
 Contexts for the transmission of Indian classical dance in the UK include community, higher education and professional training settings.
 In taking this initiative, the Odissi community in the UK is following the example of Bharata Natyam and Kathak, which have already developed their own syllabi and had them validated by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing.
 Many learn as adults and also during relatively short stays in india, where the guru teaches a piece that can be performed.
 While this inhibition is often justified by nationalist claims, there is arguably a structural connection between movement and music in Odissi. This structural connection allows the full exploration of the stylistic subtleties of the form, which otherwise would be partially lost if performed on non-Odissi music.